This third sermon begins with a short exhortation and instruction on praise.
The words, as we heard heretofore, contain a most sweet and excellent form of returning unto God, for miserable, lost, and forlorn sinners; wherein so far God discovers his willingness to have his people return unto him, that he dictates unto them a form of prayer, ‘Take with you words, and turn to the Lord; say unto him, Take away iniquity.’
‘And do good to us,’ or do graciously to us; for there is no good to us till sin be removed. Though God be goodness itself, there is no provoking or meriting cause of mercy in us. But he finds cause from his own gracious nature and bowels of mercy to pity his poor people and servants. It is his nature to shew mercy, as the fire to burn, a spring to run, the sun to shine. Therefore, it is easily done. As the prophet speaks, ‘Who is a God like unto thee?’ Micah 7:18.
for miserable, lost, and forlorn sinners: This repetition is not the bare repetition of synonyms. While repetition of a synonym can, in certain circumstances be useful, it most often simply a lack of thought trying to present itself as rhetorical power. Here, the words are not strictly repetitions: Miserable is here an objective statement on the badness of their circumstance: they are objects of pity. Lost is another objective statement but emphasis the reason why they are miserable. Forlorn speaks to the emotional state of these lost sinners.
Wherein so far God discovers his willingness to have his people return unto him, that he dictates unto them a form of prayer: This is an inference which Sibbes obtains from the text, although it is not anywhere directly stated. It is based upon a broader understanding which Sibbes has of God as one of infinite mercy and grace toward his children.
Wherein we see how detestation of sin must be as general as the desire of pardon, and that none heartily pray to God to ‘take away all iniquity’ who have not grace truly to hate all iniquity. This inference is based upon the “all”. We are called upon to pray, not take away this particular sin, but let me keep the other. Rather, we must pray to be freed from all sin.
Where we come to speak of the re-stipulation, ‘So will we render the calves of our lips.’ Where God’s favour shines, there will be a reflection. Love is not idle, but a working thing. It must render or die. And what doth it render? Divers sacrifices of the New Testament, which I spake of; that of a broken heart; of Christ offered to the Father, to stand betwixt God’s wrath and us; ourselves as a living sacrifice; alms-deeds and praise, which must be with the whole inward powers of the soul.
re-stipulation Restating the agreement.
Where God’s favour shines, there will be a reflection: This is a fundamental principle of sanctification: Human beings function as mirrors to the glory of God. As that glory shines upon us, we become conformed to that glory. 2 Cor. 3:18. Therefore, if one is indeed beholding the glory of God in Christ by faith, it should be demonstrable in a transformation of the one gazing. This would be the place of good works. Good works do not merit the love and grace of God. But the love and grace of God produce good works in the human being.
The seed in the ground can do nothing to compel the sun to shine or rain to fall. The plant does not grow to beckon the sun. Rather, the sun and rain produce growth in the seed.
Love is not idle, but a working thing. It must render or die. Sibbes is not saying that love is not an affection. He does not say that we do not have a subjective sense of being one who loves. What he is saying is that this affection produces action: What does love do? It gives. For God so loved the world He gave. Likewise, if we love God we will give.
And what doth it render? Divers sacrifices of the New Testament, which I spake of; In the previous sermon, Sibbes wrote of what we give by means of sacrifice.
‘Praise is not comely in the mouth of a fool,’ saith the wise man, nor of a wicked man. Saith God to such, ‘What hast thou to do to take my words in thy mouth, since thou hatest to be reformed, and hast cast my words behind thee?’ Ps. 50:16, 17. There are a company who are ordinary swearers and filthy speakers. For them to praise God, James tells them that these contrary streams cannot flow out of a good heart, James 3:10, 11. Oh, no; God requires not the praise of such fools.
Oh, no; God requires not the praise of such fools. Sibbes develops this argument from two divergent passages. First, a rebuke of God in Psalm 50. Second, an observation of James. These sort of connections can only be made by enormous familiarity and meditation of upon the Bible.
The point is that God does not need the sound of human beings praising. Rather, true praise must be something other than bare words. Prayer is not magical invocation.
I gave you also some directions how to praise God, and to stir up yourselves to this most excellent duty, which I will not insist on now, but add a little unto that I then delivered, which is, that we must watch all advantages of praising God from our dispositions. ‘Is any merry? Let him sing,’ saith James, 5:13. Oh! It is a great point of wisdom to take advantages with the stream of our temper to praise God. When he doth encourage us by his favours and blessings, and enlarge our spirits, then we are in a right temper to bless him. Let us not lose the occasion. This is one branch of redeeming of time, to observe what state and temper of soul we are in, and to take advantage from thence.
Is any man in heaviness? He is fit to mourn for sin. Let him take the opportunity of that temper. Is any disposed to cheerfulness? Let him sacrifice that marrow, oil, and sweetness of spirit to God. We see the poor birds in the spring-time, when those little spirits they have are cherished with the sunbeams, how they express it in singing. So when God warms us with his favours, let him have the praise of all.
This is one branch of redeeming of time, to observe what state and temper of soul we are in, and to take advantage from thence. This is the key thought of the paragraph. Rather, than provide instruction on how exactly to praise, Sibbes makes the practical observation of when we can praise. His proposition is that in every emotional state we find ourselves, there is a manner in which we can praise God.
Therefore, when we have received a good thing, be thankful and cheerful. But even if we are in a difficulty place, our mourning can be the proper response. “It is a great point of wisdom to take advantages with the stream of our temper to praise God.” This point of wisdom is routinely lost in our worship. We have such a truncated understanding of human beings and worship that often a forced exuberance is the only permissible mode.
And here I cannot but take up a lamentation of the horrible ingratitude of men, who are so far from taking advantage by God’s blessings to praise him, that they fight like rebels against him with his own favours. Those tongues which he hath given them for his glory, they abuse to pierce him with blasphemy; and those other benefits of his, lent them to honour him with, they turn to his dishonour; like children who importunately ask for divers things, which, when they have, they throw them to the dog. So favours they will have, which, when they have obtained, they give them to the devil; unto whom they sacrifice their strength and cheerfulness, and cannot be merry, unless they be mad and sinful. Are these things to be tolerated in these days of light? How few shall we find, who, in a temper of mirth, turn it the right way?
This paragraph is a warning. There are some people who cannot rightly conceive of how to be happy for the good things which God has given and done without turning that happiness into sinful revelry. They “cannot be merry, unless they be mad and sinful.”
This is “the horrible ingratitude of men.” They take God’s blessing and then sin against God.
Is Sibbes speaking of believers? He does not specify, but I imagine yes and no. This would be appropriate in an age when church attendance was (nearly) universal on Sunday. Thus, the congregation would always be mixed. Unbelievers receive good things from God: the sun and rain are given to all. (Matt. 5:45) Thus, the common grace of God benefits all, but is not rightly praised by all. (Rom. 1:21)
Believers too can misuse good gifts and can take ease as an excuse to sin.
Now Sibbes provides a series of 5 encouragements to praise:
1. But to add some encouragements to incite us to praise God unto the former, I beseech you let this be one, that we honour God by it. It is a well-pleasing sacrifice to him. If we would study to please him, we cannot do it better than by praising him.
Note: We willing give praise to all sorts of things which are far less valuable and far less worthy of praise. But at the very least God is worthy of our praise. (Ps. 104) If we desire to please God, we must start with praising God.
As a practical matter, if more our thoughts were turned toward the praise of God,it would result in a transformation of how we live. I have never met someone who was overly zealous in a desire to praise God.
2. And it is a gainful trading with God. For in bestowing his seed, where he finds there is improvement in a good soil, with such a sanctified disposition as to bless him upon all occasions, that there comes not a good thought, a good motion in the mind, but we bless God who hath injected such a good thought in our heart; there, I say, God delights to shower down more and more blessings, making us fruitful in every good work to the praise of his name. Sometimes we shall have holy and gracious persons make a law that no good or holy motion shall come into their hearts, which they will not be thankful for. Oh! when God seeth a heart so excellently disposed, how doth it enrich the soul! It is a gainful trade. As we delight to bestow our seed in soils of great increase, which yield sixty and an hundredfold, if possible, so God delights in a disposition inclined to bless him upon all occasions, on whom he multiplies his favours.
Note: By “gainful trading” Sibbes is playing upon the metaphor of someone who sells and buys. He then mixes this metaphor with farming: God plants a seed of something worthy of praise. The sanctified ground responds by raising up praise: this encourages more blessing (hence, the trade).
Notice how careful Sibbes describes this: as we have a good thought, a good motion of the soul, the respond should be thank and praise God for it. It is a continuous application of the soul to the circumstance. This is a sort of Christian mindfulness.
3. And then, in itself, it is a most noble act of religion, it being a more base thing to be always begging of God; but it argueth a more noble, raised, and elevated spirit, to be disposed to praise God. And it is an argument of less self-love and respect, being therefore more gainful to us. Yea, it is a more noble and royal disposition, fit for spiritual kings and priests thus to sacrifice.
Note: This comes as a sort of encouragement rebuke. If all of our prayer is asking, it shows that we are self-consumed. We want what we want. But a more “royal disposition” (from 1 Peter 2) is to give sacrifice in the form of praise. This is not a rebuke to pray for our needs. But is a rebuke if we simply conceive of God as someone who is supposed to give me something when I want it.
4. Again, indeed, we have more cause to praise God than to pray; having many things to praise him for, which we never prayed for. Who ever prayed for his election, care of parents in our infancy, their affection to us, care to breed and train us to years of discretion, besides those many favours daily heaped upon us, above all that we are able to think or speak? Therefore, praise being a more large sacrifice than prayer, we ought to be abundant in it.
For those that begin not heaven upon earth, of which this praise is a main function, they shall never come to heaven, after they are taken from the earth; for there is no heavenly action, but it is begun upon earth, especially this main one, of joining with angels, seraphim, and cherubim, in lauding God. Shall they praise him on our behalf, and shall not we for our own? We see the choir of angels, when Christ was born, sang, ‘Glory be to God on high, on earth peace, and goodwill towards men,’ Luke 2:14. What was this for? Because Christ the Saviour of the world was born; whereby they shew that we have more benefit, by it than they. Therefore, if we would ever join with them in heaven, let us join with them upon earth. For this is one of the great privileges mentioned by the author to the Hebrews, unto which we be come to, ‘communion with the spirits of just men made perfect, and to the company of innumerable angels,’ Heb. 12:22, 23. We cannot better shew that we are come to that blessed estate and society spoken of, than by praising God.
Notes: He makes two arguments here.
First, “we have more cause to praise God than to pray; having many things to praise him for, which we never prayed for.” We might be tempted to be thankful for those things which asked for and received. But what we fail to realize is that God has been constantly providing us with good things –even without asking. We have endless reasons to be thankful. Therefore, we have more cause to praise than petition.
Second, the heavenly beings are busy praising God for the good things God has done for us. Christ was not given to redeem angels, and yet angels praise God Christ. If we are ever to be part of that heavenly choir, it will be that we have joined it on earth.
5. And lastly, if we be much in praising God, we shall be much in joy, which easeth misery. For a man can never be miserable that can be joyful; and a man is always joyful when he is thankful. When one is joyful and cheerful, what misery can lie upon him? Therefore, it is a wondrous help in misery to stir up the heart to this spiritual sacrifice of thanksgiving by all arguments, means, and occasions.
Note: This is an observation about human psychology: Thankfulness makes one happy. We cannot be thankful and discontent. And we cannot but be happy if we are thankful. Thus, praising God in thankfulness is a means to transform and stir up our hearts to joy.