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SUPERIOR EXCELLENCY OF THE
PROV. XII. 26. The righteous is more excellent than his neighbour.
He who considereth the excellency and advantage of piety and religion, how conformable it is to the best principle of our nature, and how profitable to our interests, may just wonder and be surprised at the bad entertainment it receives in the world; and easily conclude, that this must needs flow from some gross mjs. takes about it, and prejudices against it; since it is so natural to us to love that which is good, and delight in that which is amiable, when things are not misrepresented.
Certainly all who are enemies to holiness, have taken up false measures and disadvantageous notions of it. The sensual person hateth it as harsh and unpleasant, doing violence to his carnal appetites; and looks on religion as a contrivance to deprive and rob him of the pleasures of this world, by proposing those of another. The politic wit slights it as foolish and imprudent; and though he acknowledges it a necessary instrument of government, a good device to overawe a multitude, yet he counts a great weakness to be farther concerned in it than may be consistent with; and sub
servient to secular designs. Again, the gallants of our age despise it as a base ignoble temper, unworthy of a high birth and genteel education, incident to meaner souls, proceeding from cowardly and superstitious fear, depressing the mind, and rendering it incapable of high and aspiring thoughts. Hence they make it their business to pour contempt upon piety, and advance the reputation of those vicious courses which themselves have embraced; and because there are yet some left, who, by practising and recommending virtue, do oppose and condemn their lewd practices, they study to avenge themselves on them by the persecution of their tongues, and all the scoffs and reproaches they can invent and utter: which hath proved a mean most unhappily successful to deter many weak minds from goodness, making them choose to be wicked that they may not be laughed at.
It is to discover the grossness of this mistake, and expose the absurdities and unreasonableness of these principles and practices; to vindicate the excellency of piety, and to recommend it to all truly generous souls, that we have made choice of this text, which tells us in short and plain terms, that the righteous is more excellent than his neighbour.
None can be so little acquainted with the scripture dialect, as not to know, that though righteousness in its truest acceptation importeth only the observation of those duties we owe our neighbour, yet it is usually taken more largely for piety and virtue in general. And good reason too, since there is no part of our duty but we owe it as a debt unto God; no exercise of religion but it is an act of justice: whence the clear importance of the text is, that whatever excellency other persons may pretend to, the pious and religious men are the truly noble and generous persons in the world; as the Psalmist expresseth it, The saints are excellent ones in the earth.
Now, we shall not trouble you with any further explication of the words, which are so clear, or with any division of a proposition so simple: but shall illustrate
and confirm the assertion, by producing such undoubted evidences of nobleness and excellency, as are proper to godliness, and to those who practise it: where we may have occasion to hint at such characters of a pious man, as, besides the general design, may perhaps serve to put us in mind of some parts of our duty which we are not so careful to observe; and which therefore may be useful even to those who have already embraced the practice of religion.
Being to speak of the nobleness and excellency of religion, may be expected we should say something of its origin and extract; that being the whole of nobility which some understand, and others pretend to. We might take occasion to discover the folly of glorying in the antiquity of an illustrious house, or the famed virtue of worthy ancestors, who, perhaps, were they alive, would disown their degenerate progeny. But I shall not insist upon this; it is a vanity which hath been chastised sufficiently even by Heathen pens. Nay, we shall so far comply with the common sentiments of the world, as to acknowledge, that high birth and liberal education may contribute much to elevate the minds of men, and accustom them to great thoughts. But sure, whatever advantages any may pretend to by their birth, there are none to be preferred to the children of God, the blood-royal of heaven, the brethren of Christ; of whom we may say, that as he is, so are they, each one resembling the son of a king.
If we trace the lines of earthly extraction, we shall find them all meet in one point; all terminate in dust and earth. But in the heraldry of heaven we shall find a twofold pedigree. Sin is the offspring of hell, and wicked men are of their father the devil whose work they perform. On the other hand, holiness is the secd of God, and the saints have obtained to be called the sons of the Most High. And think not these are empty titles, and big words, to amuse the world; no, they are equally just and important. Pious men are really partakers of the divine nature, and shall obtain an interest in the inheritance which is entailed on that relation. Never were the
qualities of a parent more really derived unto their children, than the image and similitude of the divine excellencies are stamped upon these 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 thein, that any who observe them may perceive their relation to God, by the excellency of their deportment in the world; as will clearly appear in the sequel of our discourse.
Having spoken of the righteous or godly 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. The wise man tells us, that a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. And
if any man in the world is to be accounted of for knowledge, it is the pious man. 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 astonish and delight him; to ravish his affections, to raise his wonder. He studies the law of God, which maketh him wiser than all his teachers. As the reverend Dr. Tillotson hath it, " It is deservedly accounted an excellent piece of knowledge, to understand the laws of the land, the customs of the country we live in; how much more to know the statutes of heaven, the eternal laws of righteousness, the will of the universal monarch, and the custoins of that country where we hope to live for ever.” 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 pradent as well as the most knowing per