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break up the fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you. But I am concerned at present to explain only the beginning of the verse, which I have pitched on for the subject of my discourse at this time.
Sow to yourselves in righteousness. The sowing of seed is a metaphor used in Scripture to signify the doing of those moral exercises and works, by which (according as the quality of them is, as they are good or bad) men are to expect from God either reward or punishment. To sow in righteousness therefore is nothing else but to live righteously, to do righteous actions, that is, works of piety towards God, and of justice and charity towards our neighbour. For righteousness here is not only just and righteous dealing towards men, but it is virtus universalis," an universal virtue," containing in it all other virtues. In this comprehensive sense it is often taken in Scripture; as for example, Psalm xi. 7. The righteous Lord loveth righteousness. Proverbs xi. 5, 6. The righteousness of the perfect shall direct his way, but the wicked shall fall by his own wickedness. The righteousness of the upright shall deliver them; but transgressors shall be taken in their own naughtiness. Dan. xii. 3. They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. Matt. v. 20. Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. And that in this large sense it is to be understood here, is evident, because the exhortation, Sow in, or unto,
righteousness, requires an universal · reformation, conversion, and turning to God. It is a calling of the Israelites to a general repentance, not only of their unjust dealings, but of all those other sins with which God had before charged them. And besides, to the command, Sow in righteousness, is presently added in the verse out of which my text is taken, break up the fallow ground; where by the fallow ground is meant the unregenerate heart, the heart that is void of virtue, and overrun with vice; as it is expressly expounded, Jer. iv. 3, 4. For thus saith the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, &c. Now to break or plough up the fallow ground of our hearts, is by the exercises of mortification to subdue and root up our vicious inclinations, that so our hearts may be made fit soil, and prepared to receive the seeds of virtue. The sowing therefore in righteousness here commanded, is of a wider extent than to be confined only to works of justice, strictly so called, and signifies the practice of all virtues, for which our hearts, being cultivated by the forementioned exercises, are fitted and disposed.
Reap in mercy. Where Grotius and others note, that in the Scripture language Seminare est bene agere; metere referre mercedem; "To sow is to "do well; to reap is to receive the reward of so "doing."
The words, though they are delivered imperatively, yet are a plain promise; as if it had been said, Sow in righteousness, and then you shall reap in mercy. For it is usual in Scripture for the
divine promises to be delivered in the imperative mood, to signify, that if that be done which God commands, his promise is sure and certain, and presently performed: there remains no more to do, but, as it were, to put forth the hand and gather the fruit, and receive the effect of the promise: to this purpose see Isaiah lv. 2. Wherefore do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that. which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.
To reap in mercy is to receive the reward of
righteousness from the free and abundant goodness and mercy of God. Indeed some think, the mercy here spoken of may be understood of human mercy, or the exercise of mercy by men to men; and so that to reap in mercy is to receive our reward according to the mercy we have shewn to others. This interpretation (it is confessed) contains a sound truth, and is safe enough; but I choose rather to go with the stream of the most learned interpreters, who expound the mercy here mentioned, of the divine mercy, the mercy of God, the fountain from whence the reward of all our righteousness flows. And certainly the virtue of human mercy is comprehended under that universal righteousness mentioned in the former clause, Sow to yourselves in righteousness, and is part of the duty of man there enjoined; but the mercy here mentioned belongs to the promise of reward, or the reaping of the fruit of that righteousness from God, and so is most fitly understood of the divine mercy.
And this may suffice for the explanation of my text, the sense whereof now appears to be this: Do
and practise the works of righteousness, of piety to God, and of justice and charity towards men, and you shall certainly receive the reward of that righteousness from the mercy of God, an abundant reward, suitable to the infinite goodness and mercy of God that bestows it. I now proceed to raise, my observations from the text, which are these two:
Observ. 1. We must not expect to reap in mercy, unless we sow in righteousness; that is, we must not hope for the gracious reward which God hath promised, without the practice of those works of righteousness which God hath commanded.
Observ. 2. When we have sown in righteousness, that is, done righteous works, we must not plead any merit of our own in having so done, but must look for the reward of our righteousness only from the free grace and mercy of God.
Of these in their order: and first, of the first. We must not expect to reap in mercy, unless we sow in righteousness, &c.
For the order in my text is to be observed; first, sow in righteousness, and then (not before, or otherwise) reap in mercy. It would be as absurd for a man to expect that God's mercy should save him without works of righteousness, as for the husbandman to look for a harvest without ever ploughing and sowing his ground. He were a madman in his husbandry that should do this, and he is no less infatuated in his religion that doth the other. The same thing under the same metaphor St. Paul teacheth us, Gal. vi. 7, 8. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to
the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. Which great truth the Scripture delivers in proper terms, when it tells us (as it often doth) that God will render to, or reward, every man according to his works. Without holiness no man shall see the Lord, saith the divine author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, chap. xii. 14. Without a holy life here, no man ought to expect or hope for a happy life hereafter.
God indeed is infinitely good and merciful, and it is out of that infinite goodness and mercy that he bestows the gift of eternal life upon any man; but God is also infinitely wise, and righteous, and holy; and therefore he will not (I think I may say he cannot) confer the rich donative upon any unholy or unrighteous person. St. Paul seems to count it strange that any Christian, any man that hath been taught the truth as it is in Jesus, should either not know, or not believe, or not consider this. For thus he bespeaks his Corinthians, 1 Cor. vi. 9, 10. Know ye not, that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God: as if he had said, Is it possible you should be ignorant of so great a truth as this, so often and so plainly taught you by the Gospel of Christ? Certainly if you know not this, you know nothing in Christianity. And yet, alas! in this our age, how many, among those that call themselves Christians, seem to be wholly ignorant of this great fundamental principle of our religion! A principle more