Manton preached 176 sermons on the 119th Psalm. In the introduction to the published volume, Vincent Aslop comments on these sermons:
The matter of these sermons is spiritual, and speaks the author one intimately acquainted with the secrets of wisdom. He writes like one that knew the Psalmist’s heart, and felt in his own the sanctifying power of what he wrote. Their design is practice; beginning with the understanding, dealing with the affections, but still driving on the advancement of practical holiness. They come home and close to the conscience; first presenting us a glass, wherein we may view the spots of our souls, and then directing us to that fountain wherein we may wash them away. They are of an evangelical complexion, abasing proud corrupt nature, and advancing free and efficacious grace in the conversion of sinners. The exhortations are powerful, admirably suited to treat with reasonable creatures, yet still supposing them to be the vehicle of the Holy Spirit, through which he communicates life and power to obey them.
The movement between text and the human heart demonstrates a powerful mode of preaching which in our day we tend to separate between the functions of preaching and counseling. Manton, as did many of his contemporaries, used the exposited text as a means to exposit the human heart and reveal the corruption and point to hope. These sermons take seriously the observation of Hebrews 4:
12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
The first sermon is upon the text: “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.”
Psalm 119:1 begins with the word “blessed”, thus, Manton considers the nature of blessedness, of happiness.
He observes at the outset:
Good, good, is the cry of the world. It is intended in the very nature of desire; for everything that is desired is desired as good, sub ratione boni. As God implanted in us affections of aversation to avoid what is evil, so affections of choice and pursuit to follow after what is good. Well, then, out of a principle of self-love, all would be happy; they would have good, and they would have it for ever. Inanimate creatures are, by the guidance and direction of Providence, carried to the place of their perfection. The brute beasts seek the preservation and perfection of that life which they have; so do all men hunt about for contentment and satisfaction. To ask whether men would be happy or not, is to ask whether they love themselves, yea or nay; but whether holy, is another thing.
The Puritans were deeply concerned about happiness — contrary to their later detractors. Manton here considers the pursuit of happiness at some length.
He first notes the errors people make as they pursue happiness. Some will mistake the object which can provide happiness, “They desire good in common, not that which is indeed the true good; they seek happiness in riches, honours, pleasures; and so they fly from that which they seek, whilst they seek it.”
Second, others will mistake the means to obtain happiness. It is at this point that the apparent Puritan distain of happiness comes in. The Puritan by no means refused happiness, he merely saw it as obtaining by crossing this world — not as something permanently present within this world:
Men would be happy with that kind of happiness which is true happiness, but not in the way which God propoundeth, being prepossessed with carnal fancies. It is counted a foolish thing to wait upon God in the midst of straits, conflicts, and temptations
Thus, mistaken in the means to obtain true happiness, they become carvers:
Since they cannot have God’s happiness, they resolve to be their own carvers, and to make themselves as happy as they can in the enjoyment of present things.
They seek “to extract happiness from the creatures”. Yet, such efforts will fail us. First, every creature is wavering, vain, imperfect, “Nothing can give us solid peace, but what doth make us eternally happy. These flowers wither in our hands while we smell at them. Nothing but the favour of God is from everlasting to everlasting.”
The things of this world will defile when they are desired as means of happiness. Moreover, having placed our happiness in some creature, we are desperate to keep that thing — because being lost we lose that happiness.
“Blessedness is a riddle which can only be found out by faith”.
Since these things are apparent and even admitted by Christians, why then do Christians fail to live most consistently with such knowledge?
Many times we are doctrinally right in point of blessedness, but not practically; we content ourselves with the mere notion, but are not brought under the power of these truths; that is the work of the Spirit.