« Prev Sermon XIV. Ecclesiastes vii. 10. Next »



Say not thou. What Is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.

IN the days of Solomon, when Jerusalem was the glory of the whole earth; when it flourished as the metropolis, not only of religion, but of the riches of the world; when gold was made as common as silver, and silver as the stones of the street, (so that its in habitants might even tread and trample upon that which so much commanded the hearts of others;) when their exchequer was full, and their fleets at Ophir; when religion was established, and the changing, ambulatory tabernacle fixed into a standing temple, and all crowned with a peace under Solomon after the afflictions and wars of David; when they flowed with plenty, and were governed with wisdom; yet, after all, the text here gives us a clear intimation, that plenty passed into surfeit, fulness into loathing, loathing into discontent, and that (as it always happens) into complaints of the times, viz. that former days were better than these.

When yet, upon a small reflection backward, we have the calendar of the former times red with the bloody house of Saul, with the slaughter of the priests, and with the rebellions of Sheba and Absalom; nothing but tumults, changes, and vicissitudes; 234 and yet, in the verdict of folly and faction, present enjoyments did so far endear former calamities, as to give them the preeminence in the comparison.

But we see there may be folly even in Israel; and, if they were all of this mind, Solomon may justly seem to have monopolized all the wisdom to himself. We have him here chastising the sottishness of this inquiry: indeed the fittest person to encounter this exception, as being a king, and so able to control; being a preacher, and so able to confute it; furnished with power for the one, and with wisdom for the other.

This is therefore the design of the words, either to satisfy or silence this malecontented inquiry: and supposing it to carry in it its own confutation, he confutes it, not by argument, but reproof; not as a doubtful problem, but as a foolish question: and certainly the case must needs be carried, where the fool makes the question, and the wisest of men gives the answer.

The matter in controversy is the preeminence of the former times above the present; when we must observe, that though the words run in the form of a question, yet they include a positive assertion, and a downright censure.

The inquiry being determined before it was proposed, now the charge of folly here laid upon it may relate to the supposition upon which it is founded in a threefold respect, viz.

I. Of a peremptory negation, as a thing absolutely to be denied, that former times are better than the following.

II. As of a case very disputable, whether they are so or no.


III. As admitting the supposition for true, that really they are better, and so bear away the preeminence.

Yet in every one of these three most different respects, this inquiry ought to be exploded as absurd, impertinent, and irrational.

1. And first of all, that it is ridiculous to ask why former times are better than the present, if really they are not better, and so the very supposition it self proves false; this is too apparently manifest to be matter of dispute, and that it is false we shall endeavour to prove and evince in the ensuing discourse: but before I enter upon the proof of it, this one observation must be premised.

That time is said to be good or bad, not from any such quality inherent in itself, but by external denomination from the nature of those things that are and do subsist in such a space of time. Time is the great vehicle of nature, not only for its swift passage and career, but because it carries in it the system of the world, from one stage and period of duration to another.

Now the world may be considered either in its natural or moral perfections. Some hold, that for the former, there is a continual diminution and an in sensible decay in nature, things growing less and less, the very powers and faculties of them being weakened and shrunk; and the vital spirit, or humidum radicale, that God and nature first infused into the great body of the universe, being much exhausted, so that now, in every following age, the lamps of heaven burn dimmer and dimmer, till at length they dwindle into nothing, and so go out of themselves.

But that this cannot be so, is clear from these 236 reasons. 1st, Because the ancientest histories generally describe things in the same posture heretofore that we find them now. 2d, That admitting the least and most undiscernible degree of diminution, even to but one remove from none at all, the world, in the space of six thousand years, which date it al most now bears, by the continuance but of that small proportion of change, would have sunk even to no thing, or the smallness of an atom. 3d, This will make the final annihilation of the world a mere effect of nature, and not of God’s supernatural power; and so the consequent of it is irreligious.

Wherefore it being sure that the whole fabric of the world stands in the same vigour and perfection of nature which it had at first, we come next to that in which we are now most concerned, to see whether or no it be impaired and sunk in its moral perfections, and what is the consequent of that in political.

We have here an aphorism of Horace much inculcated. Terra mulos homines nunc educat atque pusillos. But poetry never yet went for argument: and perhaps he might speak this, being conscious of his own manners, and reflecting upon his own stature. But that in the descent of succeeding generations, the following are not still the worse, I thus evince.

1. By reason: because there were the same objects to work upon men, and the same dispositions and inclinations in men to be wrought upon, before, that there are now. All the affairs of the world are the births and issue of men’s actions; and all actions come from the meeting and collision of faculties with suitable objects. There were then the same incentives of desire on the one side, the same attractiveness in riches, the same relish in sovereignty, the same 237temptation in beauty, the same delicacy in meats, and taste in wines; and, on the other side, there were the same appetites of covetousness and ambition, the same fuel of lust and intemperance.

And these are the wheels upon which the whole visible scene of affairs, ethic and politic, turns and depends. The business of the world is imitation, and that which we call novelty is nothing but repetition. The figure and motion of the world is circular, and experience no less than mathematics will evince, that, as it turns round, the same part must be often in the same place: one age indeed goes before another, but precedency is not always preeminence; and it is not unusual for a worse to go before a better, and for the servant to ride before and lead the way to his master.

2. But 2dly, the same may be proved by history and the records of antiquity; and he who would give it the utmost proof that it is capable of from this topic, must speak volumes and preach libraries, bring a century within a line, and an age into every period. But what need we go any further than the noblest and yet the nearest piece of antiquity, the book of Moses.

Is the wickedness of the old world forgot, that we do so aggravate the tempest of this? Was it destroyed with waters of oblivion? and has the deluge clean overwhelmed and sunk itself? In those days there were giants in sin, as well as sinners of the first magnitude, and of the largest size and proportion.

And to take the world in a lower epocha, what after-age could exceed the lust of the Sodomites, the idolatry and tyranny of the Egyptians, the fickle levity of the Grecians? and that monstrous mixture of all baseness in the Roman Neros, Caligulas, and Domitians, 238 emperors of the world, and slaves to their vice?

And for the very state of Israel, in which this envious inquiry was first commenced, was that worse in Canaan, under the shadow and protection of a native royalty, than under the old servitude and tyranny of Egypt? Was their present condition so bad, that while Solomon was courting Pharaoh’s daughter, they should again court his yoke? woo their old slavery, and solicit a match with their former bondage? Was it so delightful a condition to feed Pharaoh’s cattle, and to want straw themselves? instead of one prince, to have many taskmasters? and to pay excise with their backs to maintain the tyrant’s janizaries, and to feed their tormentors? But it seems, being in a land flowing with honey, they were cloyed with that, and so, loathing the honey, they grew in love with the sting.

But to bring the subject to our own doors; if we would be convinced that former ages are not always better than the following, I suppose we need not much rack our memories for a proof from experience.

I conceive the state of the Christian church also may come within the compass of our present discourse. Take it in its infancy, and with the properties of infancy; it was weak and naked, vexed with poverty, torn with persecution, and infested with heresy. It began the breach with Simon Magus, continued it with Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Aerius, some rending her doctrine, some her discipline; and what are the heresies that now trouble it, but new editions of the old with further gloss and enlargement? What is Socinus, but Photinus and Pelagius blended and joined together in a third composition? 239What are our separatists and purity-pretending schismatics, but the tame brood and successors of the Donatists? only with this difference, that they had their headquarters in meridie, in the southern parts of the world, whereas ours seem to be derived to us from the north. These, I thought, had put it out of dispute, that no succeeding age of the church could have been worse: and, I think, the assertion might have stood firm, had not some late instances of our own age made it disputable.

But as for those who clamour of the corruptions of our present church, and are so earnest to reduce us to the primitive model; if they mean the primitive truth, and not rather the primitive nakedness of it only, we know this, for doctrine and discipline, it is the very transcript of antiquity. But if their design be to make us like the primitive Christians, by driving us into caves, and holes, and rocks; to tear down temples, and to make the sanctuary itself fly for refuge; to bring beasts into churches, and to send churchmen into dens; at the same time to make men beggars, and to take away hospitals; it is but reason to desire, that they would first begin and exemplify this reformation in themselves; and, like the old Christians, with want and poverty, wander about in sheepskins and goatskins: though, if they should, that is not presently a sheep that wears the skin, nor would the sheep’s clothing change the nature of the wolf.

I conclude therefore, that all these pompous declamations against the evil of the present times, set off by odious comparisons with the former, are the voice of error and envy, of the worst of judges, malice and mistake: though I cannot wonder if those assert 240 affairs to be out of order, whose interest and desire it is to be once more a reforming.

And thus much for the first consideration of the suppositions: as a thing false, and to be denied. I shall now,

II. In the second place, remit a little of this, and take it in a lower respect; as a case disputable, whether the preceding or succeeding generations are to be preferred: and here I shall dispute the matter on both sides.

1. And first for antiquity, and the former ages, we may plead thus. Certainly every thing is purest in the fountain, and most untainted in the original. The dregs are still the most likely to settle in the bottom, and to sink into the last ages. The world cannot but be the worse for wearing; and it must needs have contracted much dross, when at the last it cannot be purged but by an universal fire.

Things are most fresh and fragrant in their beginning. The first-born is the most honourable, and it is primogeniture that entitles to the inheritance: it is not present possessions, but an early pedigree, that gives nobility.

The older the world grows, the more decrepit it must be: for age bows the body, and so causes an obliquity: every course of time leaves its mark be hind it; and every century adds a wrinkle to the face of nature.

As for knowledge, the former age still teaches the latter; and which is likely to be most knowing, he that teaches, or he that is taught? The best and most compendious way of attaining wisdom is the reading of histories; but history speaks not of the present time, but of the former.


Besides, it was only the beginning of time that saw men innocent. Sin, like other things, receives growth by time, and improves by continuance: and every succeeding age has the bad example of one age more than the former. The same candle that refreshes when it is first light, smells and offends when it is going out.

In the alphabet of nature, it is only the first letter that is flourished. In short, there is as much difference between the present and former times, as there is between a copy and an original; that indeed may be fair, but this only is authentic. And be a copy never so exact, yet still it shines with a borrowed perfection, and has but the low praise of an imitation: and this may be said in behalf of the former times.

2. But secondly, for the preeminence of the succeeding ages above the former, it may be disputed thus.

If the honour be due to antiquity, then certainly the present age must claim it; for the world is now oldest, and therefore upon the very right of seniority may challenge the precedency: for certainly the longer the world lasts, the older it grows. And if wisdom ought to be respected, we know that it is the offspring of experience, and experience the child of age and continuance.

In every thing and action, it is not the beginning, but the end that is regarded: it is still the issue that crowns the work, and the amen that seals the petition: the plaudite is given to the last act: and Christ reserved the best wine to conclude the feast: nay, a fair beginning would be but the aggravation of a bad end.


And if we plead original, we know that sin is strongest in its original; and we are taught whence to date that. The lightest things float at the top of time; but if there be such a thing as a golden age, its mass and weight must needs sink it to the bottom and concluding ages of the world.

By having the histories of former ages, we have all their advantages by way of overplus, besides the proper advantages of our own; and so standing upon their shoulders, or rather upon their heads, cannot but have the further prospect.

Though the flourish begins the line, yet it is the period that makes the sense. As for the infirmities of age, we confess that men grow decrepit by time, but mankind does not. Policy, arts, and manufactures improve; and nature itself, as well as others, cannot be an artist, till it has served its time.

And, in religious matters, for the church, we know that it is Christ’s body, and therefore its most natural, commending property is growth: but growth is the effect of duration, and if it had had its greatest perfection at the first, growth would have been impossible.

Besides, we confess that prophecy was a thing appropriate to the first days of the church: but then it is not prophecy spoken, but fulfilled; not the promise made, but performed, which conveys the blessing; and though the giving of prophecies were the glory of the first times, yet their completion is the privilege of the latter.

But do we not see all this while, that by thus ascribing the preeminence to former ages, we tacitly reflect a reproach upon the great Maker and Governor of the universe? For can Omnipotence be at a 243stand? Is God exhausted? And is nature the only thing which makes no progress? God has made all things in motion, and the design of motion is a further perfection.

In sum, it was the fulness of time which brought Christ into the world; Christianity was a reserve for the last: and it was the beginning of time which was infamous for man’s fall and ruin: so in scripture they are called the last days, and the ends of the world, which are ennobled with his redemption.

But lastly, if the following ages were not the best, whence is it, that the older men grow, the more still they desire to live?—Now such things as these may be disputed in favour of the latter times beyond the former.

Having here brought the matter to this poise, to this equilibrium, that reflexive inquiry in the text concerning the worth of former times above the present, is eminently unreasonable in these two respects.

1. In respect of the nature of the thing itself; which we have seen is equally propendent to both parts, and not discernible which way the balance inclines: and nothing can be more irrational, than to be dogmatical in things doubtful; and to deter mine, where wise men only dispute.

2. In respect of the incompetence of any man living to be judge in this controversy; and he that is unfit to judge, I am sure is unable to decide. Now that incompetence arises from this: that no man can judge rightly of two things, but by comparing them together; and compare them he cannot, unless he exactly knew them both. But how can he know 244 former ages, unless, according to the opinion of Plato or Pythagoras, he might exist and be alive so many centuries before he was born?

But you will reply, that he may know them by the histories of those that writ of their own times.

To this I answer, that history may be justly suspected partial; and that historians report the virtues of their own age, selected and abstracted from the vices and defects; and if sometimes they mention the vices also, (as they do,) yet they only report the smaller, that they may with less suspicion conceal the greater. Now it is an unequal comparison to compare the select virtues of one age, with both the virtues and the vices of another.

History, stripped of partiality, would be a poor, thin, meager thing, and the volume would shrink into the index. I conclude therefore, that he who would decide this controversy, whether the former or latter times ought to have the preeminence, by the historians of those times, he properly does this; he first calls a man into question, and then makes him judge in his own cause, and at the best sees only by another’s eyes.

Come we now to the third and last ground.

3. That admitting this supposition as true, that the former ages are really the best, and to be preferred; yet still this querulous reflection upon the evil of the present times stands obnoxious to the same charge of folly; and if it be condemned also upon this supposition, I see not where it can take sanctuary: now that it ought to be so, I demonstrate by these reasons.

1. Because such complaints have no efficacy to alter or remove the cause of them. Thoughts and 245words alter not the state of things. The rage and expostulations of discontent are like thunder with out a thunderbolt, they vanish and expire into noise and nothing; and, like a woman, are only loud and weak.

States are not altered, nor governments changed, because such an one is discontented, and tells us so in a sermon, or writes it in a book, and so prints himself a fool. Sad, undoubtedly, were our case, should God be angry with a nation as often as a preacher is pleased to be passionate, and to call his distemper the word of God.

A quill is but a weak thing to contest with a sceptre, and a satirical remonstrance to stand before a sword of justice. The laws will not be worded out of their course. The wheel will go on, though the fly sits and flutters and buzzes upon it.

It would be well if such persons would take Luther’s advice to Melancthon, and be persuaded to leave off to govern the world, and not to frame new politic ideas; not to raise models of state, and holy commonwealths, in their little discontented closets; nor to arraign a council before a conventicle; and being stripped of their arms, to fly to revelation; and when they cannot effect, at least prophesy a change.

Though there be a lion, a bull, a venomous ser pent, and a fiery scorpion in the zodiac; yet still the sun holds on his way, goes through them all, brings the year about, finishes his course, shines, and is glorious in spite of such opposition. The maunderings of discontent are like the voice and behaviour of a swine, who, when he feels it rain, 246 runs grumbling about, and by that indeed discovers his nature, but does not avoid the storm.

2. Such complaints of the evil of the times are irrational, because they only quicken the smart, and add to the pressure. Such querulous invectives against a standing government, are like a stone flung at a marble pillar, which not only makes no impression upon that, but rebounds, and hits the flinger in the face. Discontent burns only that breast in which it boils; and when it is not contented to be hot with in, but must boil over in unruly, unwarrantable expressions, to avoid the heat, it wisely takes refuge in the fire: hence, when the sea swells and rages, we say not improperly, that the sea itself is troubled.

Submission is that which either removes or lightens the burden. Giving way either avoids or eludes the blow; and where an enemy or an affliction is too strong, patience is the best defiance.

And herein does the admirable wisdom of God appear, in modelling the great economy of the world, so uniting public and private advantages, that those affections and dispositions of mind, that are most conducible to the safety of government and society, are also most advantageous to every man in his own personal capacity: for does not an humble, compliant subjection at the same time strengthen the hands of the magistrate, and bless the person that has it with the privileges of quiet and content? He who has content, has that for which others would be great; he both secures and enjoys himself: but, on the contrary, he that frets, and fumes, and is angry, he raises tumults abroad, and feels the same within: as he that cries, and roars, and makes a noise, first 247hinders his own sleep, before he breaks the rest of others: and it is not unusual to see a fire sometimes stifled and extinguished in its own smoke.

In short, discontent is as laborious as useless: and he who will rebel must reckon upon the cost and conduct of an army; and endure the trouble of watching, as well as use the dissimulation of praying.

3. Thirdly and lastly, these censorious complaints of the evil of the times are irrational, because the just cause of them is resolvable into ourselves. It is not the times that debauch men, but men that derive and rabb a contagion upon the time: and it is still the liquor that first taints and infects the vessel.

Time is harmless; it passes on, and meddles with none: the sun rises, the year proceeds, and the sea sons return, according to the decrees of nature, and the inviolate constancy of a perpetual course. And is it not irrational for a man to cast the errors of his choice upon the necessity of fate? or to complain that men speak low, because his hearing is decayed? and to utter satires and declamations against those times which his own vice has made bad? and, like Amnon, defile his sister, and then loathe her for the wrong he did her?

Thus we use to say, it is the room that smokes, when indeed it is the fire which is in the room: and it is still the fault of the common banter or way of speaking, to disjoin the accusation and the crime, and to charge a land with the vices of its inhabitants.

But I should think, that it might not be so difficult a thing to find out a way both to remedy the 248 complaint, and to remove the cause of it. For let but the prodigal confine himself, and measure his expenses by his own abilities, and not by another’s books; let him trust himself more, and others less; let ministers cease to call faction religion, to lift up their voice too much like a trumpet, and in petitions for peace declare for war; and let not others think themselves wronged, if they be not revenged: let no man be forced to buy what he has already earned; to pay for his wages, and to lay down new sums for the price of his blood, and the just merit of his service: and then, certainly, there will be no cause to prefer former ages before the present. But if men will extravagantly plunge themselves in debt, and then rail and cry out of bad times, because they are arrested; if the gallant will put all upon his back, and then exclaim against the government be cause he has nothing for his belly; if men will think themselves bound to preach the nation all on fire, and being stopped in their attempt, cry out of persecution; if the public peace must be sacrificed to private revenge, certainly the complaint is impudent and brutish, and deserves to be sent to the law for an answer, and to the gaol for satisfaction.

But it is a sure, though no new observation, that the most obnoxious are still the most querulous: that discontent, and the cause of it, are generally from the same person: and that, when once the remorses of guilt and villainy improve into discontent, it is not less difficult to make such persons contented, than to make them innocent.

Rigour and contempt are the best correctors of this distemper. And he who thinks that such persons may be pacified, may as well attempt to satisfy 249the bottomless pit, the cravings of hell, or the appetites of the grave, which may sooner be filled (as impossible as that is) than be satisfied.

For where interests are contradictory, (as in all societies or companies of men some must needs be,) there an universal satisfaction is just in the same measure possible, in which contradictions are reconcileable. And doubtless there have been those, who have heartily cursed that rain or sunshine, for which others have as heartily prayed.

Even our blessed Saviour himself, we read, in Heb. xii. 3, endured the contradiction of sinners: and (be it spoke with reverence) it would put Providence itself to a kind of nonplus, to attemper any dispensation of it to an universal acceptance; any more than that glorious fountain of light, the sun, can shine upon all the corners of the earth at once. Wherefore, since the distemper we speak of is incorrigible, and the remedy deplorable; let not bare power attempt to outdo Omnipotence, nor the gods of the earth, as they are called, think to do that which the God of heaven has never yet thought fit to effect.

To whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.

« Prev Sermon XIV. Ecclesiastes vii. 10. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection