AMONG all the causes of the stupid unconcernedness of sinners about religion, and the feeble endeavours of saints to improve in it, there is none more common or more effectual, than their not forming a due estimate of the things of time, in comparison of those of eternity. Our present affairs engross all our thoughts, and exhaust all our activity, though they are but transitory trifles; while the awful realities of the future world are hid from our eyes by the veil of flesh and the clouds of ignorance. Did these break in upon our minds in all their almighty evidence and tremendous importance, they would annihilate the most majestic vanities of the present state, obscure the glare of earthly glory, render all its pleasures insipid, and give us a noble sensibility under all its sorrows. A realizing view of these would shock the libertine in his thoughtless career, tear off the hypocrite’s mask, and inflame the devotion of the languishing saints. The concern of mankind would then be how they might make a safe exit out of this world, and not how they may live happy in it. Present pleasure and pain would be swallowed up in the prospect of everlasting happiness or misery hereafter. Eternity, awful eternity, would then be our serious contemplation. The pleasures of sin would strike us with horror, if they issue in eternal pain, and our present afflictions, however tedious and severe, would appear but light and momentary, if they work out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
These were the views the apostle had of things, and these their effects upon him. He informs us in this chapter of his unwearied zeal to propagate the gospel amidst all the hardships and dangers that attend the painful discharge of his ministry. Though he bore about in his body the dying of the Lord Jesus, though he was always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, yet he fainted not; and this was the prospect that animated him, that his “light affliction, which was but for a moment, would work out for him a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” When we view his sufferings absolutely, without any reference to eternity, they were very heavy and of many years’ continuance; and when he represents them in this view, how moving is the relation! see 2 Cor. xi. 23-29. But when he views them in the light of eternity, and compared with their glorious issues, they sink into nothing; then scourging, stoning, imprisonment, and all the various deaths to which he was daily exposed, are but light, trifling afflictions, hardly worth naming; then a series of uninterrupted sufferings for many years are but afflictions that endure for a moment. And when he views a glorious futurity, human language cannot express the ideas he has of the happiness reserved for him; it is “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;” a noble sentiment! and expressed in the sublimest manner the language of mortals can admit of.
It is glory, in opposition to affliction; a weight of glory, in opposition to light affliction; a massy, oppressive blessedness, which it requires all the powers of the soul, in their full exertion, to support: and in opposition to affliction for a moment, it is eternal glory: to finish all, it is a far more exceeding glory. What greater idea can be grasped by the human mind, or expressed in the feeble language of mortality! Nothing but feeling that weight of glory could enlarge his conception: and nothing but the dialect of heaven could better express it. No wonder that, with this view of things, “he should reckon that the sufferings of the present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed.” Rom. viii. 18.
The apostle observes, that he formed this estimate of things, while he looked not at the “things which are seen, but at those which are not seen.” By the things that are seen, are meant the present life, and all the things of time; all the pleasures and pains, all the labours, pursuits, and amusements of the present state. By the things that are not seen, are intended all the invisible realities of the eternal world; all the beings, the enjoyments and sufferings that lie beyond the reach of human sight; as the great Father of spirits, the joys of paradise, and the punishment of hell. We look on these invisible things, and not on those that are seen. This seems like a contradiction; but is it easily solved by understanding this act, described by looking, to be the act not of the bodily eye, but of faith and enlightened reason. Faith is defined by this apostle to be “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Heb. xi. 1. And it is the apostle’s chief design in that chapter, to give instances of the surprising efficacy of such a realizing belief of eternal, invisible things; see particularly ver. 10, 13, 14, 16, 25, 26, 27. Hence to look not at visible, but at invisible things, signifies that the apostle made the latter the chief objects of his contemplations, that he was governed in the whole of his conduct by the impression of eternal things, and not by the present; that he formed his maxims and schemes from a comprehensive survey of futurities, and not from a partial view of things present; and, in short, that he had acted as an expectant of eternity, and not as an everlasting inhabitant of this wretched world. This he elsewhere expresses in equivalent terms, “We walk by faith, and not by sight.” 2 Cor. v. 7.
Further, he assigns a reason why he had a greater regard to invisible things than visible in the regulating of his conduct; “for the things which are seen, are temporal, but the things which are not seen,” says he, “are eternal.” An important reason indeed! Eternity annexed to a trifle would advance it into infinite importance, but when it is the attribute of the most perfect happiness, or of the most exquisite misery, then it transcends all comparison: then all temporal happiness and misery, however great and long-continued, shrink into nothing, are drowned and lost, like the small drop of a bucket in the boundless ocean.
My present design, and the contents of the text, prescribe to me the following method:
I. I shall give you a comparative view of visible and invisible things, that you may see the trifling nature of the one, and the importance of the other. This I choose to do under one head, because by placing these two classes of things in an immediate opposition, we may the more easily compare them, and see their infinite disparity. And,
II. I shall show you the great and happy influence a suitable impression of the superior importance of invisible to visible things would have upon us.
I. I shall give you a comparative view of visible and invisible things; and we may compare visible and invisible things, as to their intrinsic value, and as to their duration.
1. As to their intrinsic value, and in this respect the disparity is inconceivable.
This I shall illustrate in the two comprehensive instances of pleasure and pain. To shun the one, and obtain the other, is the natural effort of the human mind. This is its aim in all its endeavours and pursuits. The innate desire of happiness and aversion to misery are the two great springs of all human activity: and, were these springs relaxed or broken, all business would cease, all activity would stagnate, and universal torpor would seize the world. And these principles are co-existent with the soul itself and will continue in full vigour in a future state. Nay, as the soul will then be matured, and all its powers arrived to their complete perfection, this eagerness after happiness, and aversion to misery, will be also more quick and vigorous. The soul in its present state of infancy, like a young child, or a man enfeebled and stupified by sickness, is incapable of very deep sensations of pleasure and pain; and hence an excess of joy, as well as sorrow, has sometimes dissolved its feeble union with the body. On this account we are incapable of such degrees of happiness or misery from the things of this world as beings of more lively sensations might receive from them; and much more are we incapable of the happiness or misery of the future world, until we have put on immortality. We cannot see God and live. Should the glory of heaven blaze upon us in all its insuperable splendour, it would overwhelm our feeble nature; we could not support such a weight of glory. And one twinge of the agonies of hell would dislodge the soul from its earthly mansion: one pang would convulse and stupify it, were not its powers strengthened by the separation from the body. But in the future world all the powers of the soul will be mature and strong, and the body will be clothed with immortality; the union between them after the resurrection will be inseparable, and able to support the most oppressive weight of glory, or the most intolerable load of torment. Hence it follows that pleasure and pain include all that we can desire or fear in the present or future world; and therefore a comparative view of present and future pleasure and pain is sufficient to enable us to form a due estimate of visible and invisible things. By present pleasure I mean all the happiness we can receive from present things, as from riches, honours, sensual gratifications, learning, and intellectual improvements, and all the amusements and exercises of this life. And by future pleasure, or the pleasure which results from invisible things, I mean all the fruitions and enjoyments in which heavenly happiness consists. By present pain, I intend all the uneasiness which we can receive from the things of the present life; as poverty, losses, disappointments, bereavements, sickness, and bodily pains. And by future pain, I mean all the punishments of hell; as banishment from God, and a privation of all created blessings, the agonizing reflections of a guilty conscience, the horrid company and exprobations of infernal ghosts, and the torture of infernal flames.
Now let us put these in the balance, and the one will sink into nothing, and the other rise into infinite importance.
Temporal things are of a contracted nature, and not adequate to the capacities of the human soul; but eternal things are great, and capable of communicating all the happiness and misery which it can receive. The soul in its present state is not capable of such degrees of happiness and misery as it will be in the future, when it dwells among invisible realities. All that pleasure and pain which we receive from things that are seen, are intermingled with some ingredients of a contrary nature; but those proceeding from things that are not seen, are pure and unmingled.
1. Visible things are not equal to the capacities of the human soul. This little spark of being, the soul, which lies obscured in this prison of flesh, gives frequent discoveries of surprising powers; its desires in particular, have a kind of infinity. But all temporary objects are mean and contracted; they cannot afford it a happiness equal to its capacity, nor render it as miserable as its capacity of suffering will bear. Hence, in the greatest affluence of temporal enjoyments, in the midst of honours, pleasures, riches, friends, &c., it still feels a painful void within, and finds an unknown something wanting to complete its happiness. Kings have been unhappy upon their thrones, and all their grandeur has been but majestic misery. So Solomon found it, who had opportunity and curiosity to make the experiment; and this is his verdict upon all earthly enjoyments, after the most impartial trial: “Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” On the other hand, the soul may possess some degree of happiness, under all the miseries it is capable of suffering from external and temporal things. Guilt indeed denies it this support; but if there be no intestine broils, no anguish resulting from its own reflections, not all the visible things can render it perfectly miserable; its capacity of suffering is not put to its utmost stretch. This has been attested by the experience of multitudes who have suffered for righteousness’ sake. But oh, when we take a survey of invisible things, we find them all great and majestic, not only equal but infinitely superior to the most enlarged powers of the human and even of the angelic nature. In the eternal world the great Invisible dwells, and there he acts with his own immediate hand. It is he that immediately communicates happiness through the heavenly regions; and it is his immediate breath that, like a stream of brimstone, kindles the flames of hell; whereas, in the present world, he rarely communicates happiness, and inflicts punishment, but by the instrumentality of creatures; and it is impossible the extremes of either should be communicated through this channel. This the infinite God alone can do, and, though in the future world he will use his creatures to heighten the happiness or misery of each other, yet he will have a more immediate agency in them himself. He will communicate happiness immediately from himself, the infinite fountain of it, into the vessels of mercy; and he will immediately show his wrath, and make his power known upon the vessels of wrath. I may add, that those creatures, angels and devils, which will be the instruments of happiness or misery to the human soul in the invisible world, are incomparably more powerful than any in this, and consequently capable of contributing more to our pleasure or pain. And let me also observe, that all the objects about which our faculties will be employed then, will be great and majestic; whereas, at present, we grovel among little sordid things. The objects of our contemplation will then be either the unveiled glories of the divine nature, and the naked wonders of creation, providence, and redemption; or the terrors of divine justice, the dreadful nature and aggravations of our sin, the horrors of everlasting punishment, &c. And since this is the case, how little should we regard the things that are seen, in comparison of them that are not seen? But though visible things were adequate to our present capacities, yet they are not to be compared with the things that are not seen; because,
2. The soul is at present in a state of infancy, and incapable of such degrees of pleasure or pain as it can bear in the future world. The enjoyments of this life are like the playthings of children; and none but childish souls would trifle with them, or fret and vex themselves or one another about them; but the invisible realities before us are manly and great, and such as an adult soul ought to concern itself with. The soul in another world can no more be happy or miserable from such toys, than men can be happy or wretched in the possession or loss of the baubles of children; it will then demand great things to give it pleasure or pain. The apostle illustrates this matter in this manner: 1 Cor. xiii. 9, 10, 11. How foolish is it then to be chiefly governed by these puerilities, while we neglect the manly concern of eternity, that can make our souls perfectly happy or miserable, when their powers are come to perfection!
3. And lastly, All the happiness and misery of the present state, resulting from things that are seen, are intermingled with contrary ingredients. We are never so happy in this world as to have no uneasiness; in the greatest affluence we languish for want of some absent good, or grieve under some incumbent evil. On the other hand, we are never so miserable as to have no ingredient of happiness. When we labour under a thousand calamities, we may still see ourselves surrounded with, perhaps, an equal number of blessings. And where is there a wretch so miserable as to endure simple, unmingled misery, without one comfortable ingredient? But in the invisible world there is an eternal separation made between good and evil, pleasure and pain; and they shall never mingle more. In heaven, the rivers of pleasure flow untroubled with a drop of sorrow; in hell, there is not a drop of water to mitigate the fury of the flame. And who then would not prefer the things that are not seen to those that are seen? Especially if we consider,
4. The infinite disparity between them as to duration. This is the difference particularly intended in the text; the things that are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen are eternal.
The transitoriness of visible things implies, both that the things themselves are. perishable, and they may soon leave us; and that our residence among them is temporary, and we must soon leave them.
And the eternity of invisible things implies quite the contrary, that the things themselves are of endless duration; and that we shall always exist to receive happiness or misery from them.
Before we illustrate these instances of disparity, let us take a view of time and eternity in themselves, and as compared to one another.
Time is the duration of creatures in the present state. It commenced at the creation, and near six thousand years of it are since elapsed; and how much of it yet remains we know not. But this we know, that the duration of the world itself is as nothing in comparison of eternity. But what is our duration compared with the duration even of this world? It is but a span, a hair’s-breadth; sixty, seventy, or eighty years, is generally the highest standard of human life, and it is by far the smallest number of mankind that arrives to these periods. The most of them die like a flower blasted in the morning, or at noon; and we have more reason to expect it will be our fate than to hope the contrary. Now the span of time we enjoy in life is all our time; we have no more property in the rest of it than in the years before the flood. All beside is eternity. “Eternity!” We are alarmed at the sound! Lost in the prospect! Eternity with respect to God, is a duration without beginning as well as without end. Eternity, as it is the attribute of human nature, is a duration that had a beginning but shall never have an end. This is inalienably entailed upon us poor, dying worms: and let us survey our inheritance. Eternity! it is a duration that excludes all number and computation; days, and months, and years, yea, and ages, are lost in it, like drops in the ocean. Millions of millions of years, as many years as there are sands on the seashore, or particles of dust in the globe of the earth, and these multiplied to the highest reach of number, all these are nothing to eternity. They do not bear the least imaginable proportion to it; for these will come to an end, as certain as day; but eternity will never, never come to an end. It is a line without end; it is an ocean without a shore. Alas! what shall I say of it! It is an infinite, unknown something, that neither human thought can grasp, nor human language describe.
Now place time in comparison with eternity, and what is it? It shrinks into nothing, and less than nothing. What then is that little span of time in which we have any property? Alas! it is too diminutive a point to be conceived. Indeed, properly speaking, we can call no part of time our own but the present moment, this fleeting now: future time is uncertain, and we may never enjoy it; the breath we now respire may be our last; and as to our past time, it is gone, and will never be ours again. Our past days are dead and buried, though perhaps guilt, their ghost, may haunt us still. And what is a moment to eternity? The disparity is too great to admit of comparison.
Let me now resume the former particulars, implied in the transitoriness of visible and the eternity of invisible timings.
Visible things are perishable and may soon leave us. When we think they are ours, they often fly from our embrace. Riches may vanish into smoke and ashes by an accidental fire. We may be thrown down from the pinnacle of honour, and sink the lower into disgrace. Sensual pleasures often end in satiety and disgust, or in sickness and death. Our friends are torn from our bleeding hearts by the inexorable hand of death. Our liberty and property may be wrested from us by the hand of tyranny, oppression, or fraud. In a word, what do we enjoy but we may lose? On the other hand, our miseries here are temporary; the heart receives many a wound, but it heals again. Poverty may end in riches; a clouded character may clear up, and from disgrace we may rise to honour; we may recover from sickness; and if we lose one comfort, we may obtain another. But in eternity every thing is everlasting and unchangeable. Happiness and misery are both of them without end; and the subjects of both well know that this is the case. It is this perpetuity that finishes the happiness of the inhabitants of heaven; the least suspicion of an end would intermingle itself with all their enjoyments, and embitter them: and the greater the happiness, the greater the anxiety at the expectation of losing it. But oh, how transporting for the saints on high to look forward through the succession of eternal ages, with an assurance that they shall be happy through them all, and that they shall feel no change but from glory to glory! On the other hand, this is the bitterest ingredient in the cup of divine displeasure in the future state, that the misery is eternal. Oh, with what horror does that despairing cry, For ever, for ever, for ever! echo through the vaults of hell? Eternity is such an important attribute, that it gives infinite weight to things that would be insignificant, were they temporary. A small degree of happiness, if it be eternal, exceeds the greatest degree that is transitory; and a small degree of misery that is everlasting, is of greater importance than the greatest degree that soon comes to an end. Would you rather endure the most painful tortures that nature can bear for a moment, than an eternal toothache or headache? Again, should we consider all the ingredients and causes of future happiness and misery, we should find them all everlasting. The blessed God is an inexhaustible, perennial fountain of bliss; his image can never be erased from the hearts of glorified spirits; the great contemplation will always be obvious to them; and they will always exist as the partakers and promoters of mutual bliss. On the other hand, in hell the worm of conscience dieth not, and the fire is not quenched; divine justice is immortal; malignant spirits will always exist as mutual tormentors, and their wicked habits will never be extirpated.
And now, need I offer any thing farther to convince you of the superior importance of invisible and eternal to visible and temporary things? Can a rational creature be at a loss to choose in so plain a case? Can you need any arguments to convince you that an eternity of the most perfect happiness is rather to be chosen than a few years of sordid, unsatisfying delight? Or that the former should not be forfeited for the sake of the latter? Have you any remaining scruples, whether the little anxieties and mortifications of a pious life are more intolerable than everlasting punishment? Oh! it is a plain case: what then mean an infatuated world, who lay out all their concern on temporal things, and neglect the important affairs of eternity? Let us illustrate this matter by supposition. Suppose a bird were to pick up and carry away a grain of sand or dust from the globe of this earth once in a thousand years, till it should be at length wholly carried away; the duration which this would take up appears a kind of eternity to us. Now suppose it were put to our choice, either to be happy during this time, and miserable ever after, or to be miserable during this time, and happy ever after, which would you choose? Why, though this duration seems endless, yet he would be a fool that would not make the latter choice; for, oh, oh! behind this vast duration, there lies an eternity, which exceeds it infinitely more than this duration exceeds a moment. But we have no such seemingly puzzling choice as this; the matter with us stands thus — Will you choose the little sordid pleasures of sin that may perhaps not last an hour, at most, not many years, rather than everlasting pleasure of the sublimest kind? Will you rather endure intolerable torment for ever, than painfully endeavour to be holy? What does your conduct, my brethren, answer to these questions? If your tongues reply, they will perhaps for your credit give a right answer; but what say your prevailing disposition and common practice? are you not more thoughtful for time than eternity? more concerned about visible vanities than invisible realities? If so, you make a fool’s choice indeed.
But let it be further considered, that the transitoriness of visible things may imply that we must ere long be removed from them. Though they were immortal it would be nothing to us, since we are not so in our present state. Within a few years at most, we shall be beyond the reach of all happiness and misery from temporal things.
But when we pass out of this transitory state, we enter upon an everlasting state. Our souls will always exist, exist in a state of unchangeable, boundless happiness or misery. It is but a little while since we came into being out of a state of eternal non-existence; but we shall never relapse into that state again. These little sparks of being shall never be extinguished! they will survive the ruins of the world, and kindle into immortality. When millions of millions of ages are past, we shall still be in existence:
and oh! in what unknown region? In that of endless bliss or of interminable misery? Be this the most anxious inquiry of our lives.
Seeing then we must soon leave this world, and all its joys and sorrows, and seeing we must enter on an unchangeable, everlasting state of happiness or misery, be it our chief concern to end our present pilgrimage well. It matters but little whether we lie easy or not during this night of existence, if so be we awake in eternal day. It is but a trifle, hardly worth a thought, whether we be happy or miserable here, if we be happy for ever hereafter. What then mean the bustle and noise of mankind about the things of time? Oh, sirs, eternity! awful, all important eternity! is the only thing that deserves a thought. I come,
II. To show the great and happy influence a suitable impression of the superior importance of invisible to visible things would have upon us. This I might exemplify in a variety of instances with respect to saints and sinners.
When we are tempted to any unlawful pleasures, how would we shrink away with horror from the pursuit, had we a due sense of the misery incurred, and the happiness forfeited by it!
When we find our hearts excessively eager after things below, had we a suitable view of eternal things, all these things would shrink into trifles hardly worth a thought, much less our principal concern.
When the sinner, for the sake of a little present ease, and to avoid a little present uneasiness stifles his conscience, refuses to examine his condition, casts the thoughts of eternity out of his mind, and thinks it too hard to attend painfully on all the means of grace, has he then a due estimate of eternal things? Alas! no; he only looks at the things that are seen. Were the mouth of hell open before him, that he might behold its torments, and had he a sight of the joys of paradise, they would harden him into a generous insensibility of all the sorrows and anxieties of this life, and his inquiry would not be, whether these things required of him are easy; but, whether they are necessary to obtain eternal happiness, and avoid everlasting misery.
When we suffer any reproach or contempt on a religious account, how would a due estimate of eternal things fortify us with undaunted courage and make us willing to climb to heaven through disgrace, rather than sink to hell with general applause!
How would a realizing view of eternal things animate us in our devotions? Were this thought impressed on our hearts when in the secret or social duties of religion, “I am now acting for eternity,” do you think we should pray, read, or hear with so much indifferency and langour? Oh no; it would rouse us out of our dead frames, and call forth all the vigour of our souls. With what unwearied importunity should we cry to God! with what eagerness hear the word of salvation!
How powerful an influence would a view of futurity have to alarm the secure sinner that has thought little of eternity all his life, though it be the only thing worth thinking of!
How would it hasten the determination of the lingering, wavering sinner, and shock him at the thought of living one day unprepared on the very brink of eternity!
In a word, a suitable impression of this would quite alter the aspect of things in the world, and would turn the concern and activity of the world into another channel. Eternity then would be the principal concern. Our inquiries would not be, Who will show us any temporal good? What shall we eat, or what shall we drink? But, What shall we do to be saved? How shall we escape the wrath to come? Let us then endeavour to impress our hearts with invisible things, and for that purpose consider, that:
We shall, ere long, be ingulfed in this awful eternity, whether we think of it or not. A few days or years will launch us there; and oh, the surprising scenes that will then open to us!
Without deep impressions of eternity on our hearts, and frequent thoughtfulness about it, we cannot be prepared for it.
And if we are not prepared for it, oh, how inconceiveably miserable our case! But if prepared, how inconceiveably happy!
Look not then at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Samuel Davies’ pastorate in one church in Hanover lasted only 12 years until his early death, probably of tuberculosis. He was the first American-born hymn-writer, and he was also a poet, but ‘Great God of wonders’ is the only one of his hymns to be sung today. He had five children, but during his life, except for one child, they showed little interest in the gospel. He was tall, and eloquent, rarely given to gestures and many modeled his preaching on Davies. He heard Whitefield and Edwards (with whom he corresponded) and David Brainerd’s brother, who also was a missionary to the Indians. His sermons were published during his lifetime and some came back across the Atlantic and were translated into Welsh. After his death more were published. It is clear that he has taken one or two directly from Jonathan Edwards. They have all been recently reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria from which this sermon was taken. Thomas Charles was not over-impressed by them saying, “Very few sermons of his are original as to matter. The dress is his own, and that not a very happy one often. He lacks simplicity” (“Essays and Letters”, p.385). Dr Lloyd-Jones was unqualified in his praise stating that he was “the greatest preacher ever produced in America.”
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