The righteous is more excellent than his neighbor: but the way of the wicked seduces them.
Never were the qualities of a parent more really derived unto their children than the image and similitude of the Divine excellences are stamped upon heaven-born souls: some beams of that eternal light are darted in upon them, and make them shine with an eminent splendour; and they are always aspiring to a nearer conformity with Him, still breathing after a further communication of His Holy Spirit, and daily finding the power thereof correcting the ruder deformities of their natures, and superinducing the beautiful delineations of God's image upon them, that any one who observes them may perceive their relation to God, by the excellency of their deportment in the world.
I. Having regarded the righteous man's excellency, in regard of his birth and extraction, we proceed to CONSIDER HIS QUALITIES AND ENDOWMENTS, and shall begin with those of his understanding, his knowledge, and wisdom.
1. His knowledge is conversant about the noblest objects; he contemplates that infinite Being whose perfections can never enough be admired, but still afford new matter to delight him, to ravish his affections, to raise his wonder. And, if we have a mind to the studies of nature and human science, he is best disposed for it, having his faculties cleared, and his understanding heightened by Divine contemplations. But his knowledge doth not rest in speculations, but directeth his practice, and determineth his choice. And he is the most prudent as well as the most knowing person. He knows how to secure his greatest interest, to provide for the longest life, to prefer solid treasures to gilded trifles, the soul to the body, eternity to a moment.
2. We proceed to another of his endowments, the greatness of his mind and his contempt of the world. To be taken up with trifles, and concerned in little things, is an evidence of a weak and naughty mind. And so are all wicked and irreligious persons. But the pious person hath his thoughts far above these painted vanities; his felicity is not patched up of so mean shreds; it is simple, and comprised in one chief good: his soul advanceth itself by rational passions towards the Author of its being, the fountain of goodness and pleasure: he hath none in heaven but Him; and there is none upon earth whom he desires besides Him. The knowledge of nature hath been reputed means to enlarge the soul and breed in it a contempt of earthly enjoyments. He that hath accustomed himself to consider the vastness of the universe, and the final proportion which the point we live in bears to the rest of the world, may perhaps come to think less of the possessions of some acres, or of that fame which can at most spread itself through a small corner of this earth. Whatever be in this, sure I am that the knowledge of God, and the frequent thoughts of heaven, must needs prove far more effectual to elevate and aggrandise the mind.
3. And this, by the affinity, will lead us to another endowment, wherein the excellency of the righteous man doth appear; and that is, that heroic magnanimity and courage wherewith he is inspired, and which makes him confidently achieve the most difficult actions, and resolutely undergo the hardest sufferings that he is called to. Let heathen Rome boast of a Regulus, a Decius, or some two or three more, stimulated by a desire of glory, and perhaps animated by some secret hopes of future reward, who have devoted their life to the service of their country. But alas! what is this to an infinite number, not only of men, but even of women and children, who have died for the profession of their faith, neither seeking nor expecting any praise from men? And tell me who among the heathen did willingly endure the loss of reputation? Nay, that was their idol, and they could not part with it.
4. From courage and magnanimity, we pass to that which is the genuine issue and ordinary consequent of it, the liberty and freedom of the righteous person. Liberty is a privilege so highly rated by all men that many run the greatest hazards for the very name of it. but there are few that enjoy it. I shall not speak of those fetters of ceremony, and chains of state, wherewith great men are tied; which make their actions constrained, and their converse uneasy: this is more to be pitied than blamed. But wicked and irreligious persons are under a far more shameful bondage: they are slaves to their own lusts, and suffer the violence and tyranny of their irregular appetites. But the holy and religious person hath broken these fetters, cast off the yoke of sin, and become the freeman of the Lord. It is religion that restores freedom to the soul, which philosophy did pretend to; it is that which doth sway and moderate all those blind passions and impetuous affections which else would hinder a man from the possession and enjoyment of himself, and makes him master of his own thoughts, motions, and desires, that he may do with freedom what he judgeth most honest and convenient.
5. Another particular wherein the nobleness and excellency of religion doth appear is in a charitable and benign temper. The righteous is gracious, and full of compassion; he showeth favour and lendeth; and makes it his work to serve mankind as much as he is able. His charity doth not express itself in one particular instance, as that of giving alms; but is vented as many ways as the variety of occasions do call for, and his power can reach to. He assisteth the poor with his money, the ignorant with his counsel, the afflicted with his comfort, the sick with the best of his skill, all with his blessings and prayers.
6. We shall name but one instance more wherein the righteous man excelleth his neighbour; and that is, his venerable temperance and purity. He hath risen above the vaporous sphere of sensual pleasure which darkeneth and debaseth the mind, which sullies its lustre, and abates its native vigour; while profane persons, wallowing in;impure lusts, do sink themselves below the condition of men.
II. Before we proceed further, IT WILL BE NECESSARY TO TAKE OFF SOME PREJUDICES AND OBJECTIONS THAT ARISE AGAINST THE NOBLENESS AND EXCELLENCY OF RELIGION.
1. And the first is, that it enjoineth lowliness and humility; which men ordinarily look upon as an abject and base disposition. But if we ponder the matter we shall find that arrogancy and pride are the issues of base and silly minds, a giddiness incident to those who are raised suddenly to unaccustomed height: nor is there any vice doth more palpably defeat its own design, depriving a man of that honour and reputation which it makes him aim at. On the other hand, we shall find humility no silly and sneaking quality; but the greatest height and sublimity of the mind, and the only way to true honour.
2. Another objection against the excellency of a religious temper is, that the love of enemies, and pardon of injuries, which it includeth, is utterly inconsistent with the principles of honour. But if we have any value for the judgment of the wisest man and a great king, he will tell us that it is the honour of a man to cease from strife; and he that is slow to wrath is of great understanding. So that what is here brought as an objection against religion might with reason enough have been brought as an instance of its nobleness. Having thus illustrated and confirmed what is asserted in the text, that the righteous is more excellent than his neighbour, let us improve it in a check to that profane and atheistical spirit of drollery and scoffing at religion which hath got abroad in the world. Alas! do men consider what it is which they make the butt of their scoffs and reproaches? Have they nothing else to exercise their wit and vent their jests upon but that which is the most noble and excellent thing in the world? But let them do what they will; they but kick against the pricks. Religion hath so much native lustre and beauty, that, notwithstanding all the dirt they study to cast upon it, all the melancholy and deformed shapes they dress it in, it will attract the eyes and admiration of all sober and ingenuous persons; and while these men study to make it ridiculous, they shall but make themselves so. There are others who have not yet arrived to this height of profaneness, to laugh at all religion, but do vent their malice at those who are more conscientious and severe than themselves, under presumption that they are hypocrites and dissemblers. But besides that in this they may be guilty of a great deal of uncharitableness, it is to be suspected that they bear some secret dislike to piety itself, and hate hypocrisy more for its resemblance of that than for its own viciousness: otherwise whence comes it that they do not express the same animosity against other vices?
(H. Scougal, M.A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: The righteous is more excellent than his neighbour: but the way of the wicked seduceth them.