Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, 1776

Rev. John Witherspoon, D.D., President of the College of New-Jersey, preached a Sermon at Princeton on May 17th, 1776, dedicating it to John Hancock:

The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,
at Princeton,
On the 17th of May, 1776
The General Fast appointed by the Congress
through the UNITED COLONIES.

To the Honourable JOHN HANCOCK, Esq., PRESIDENT of the CONGRESS of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; in testimony of the highest esteem for HIS PERSONAL CHARACTER and PUBLIC CONDUCT, the following SERMON is humbly inscribed by his most obedient humble servant, The Author.

A Sermon
Psalm 76:10
Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee;
the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain.

“There is a greater evidence either of the reality or the power of religion, than a firm belief of God’s universal presence, and a constant attention to the influence and operation of His Providence. It is by this means that the Christian may be said, in the emphatical Scripture language, to walk with God, and to endure as seeing Him who is invisible.

The doctrine of Divine Providence is very full and complete in the sacred oracles. It extends not only to things which we may think of great moment, and therefore worthy of notice, but to things the most indifferent and inconsiderable: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, says our Lord, and one of them falleth not on the ground without your heavenly Father; nay, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. It extends not only to things beneficial and salutary, or to the directions and assistance of those who are the servants of the living God; but to things seemingly most hurtful and destructive, and to persons the most refractory and disobedient. He over-rules all His creatures, and all their actions. Thus we are told, that fire, hail, snow, vapour and stormy wind, fulfill His Word, in the course of nature; and even so the most impetuous and disorderly passions of men, that are under no restraint from themselves, are yet perfectly subject to the dominion of Jehovah. They carry His commission, they obey His orders, they are limited and restrained by His authority, and they conspire with everything else in promoting His glory. There is the greater need to take notice of this, that men are not generally sufficiently aware of the distinction between the law of God, and His purpose; they are apt to suppose, that as the temper of the sinner is contrary to the one, so the outrages of the sinner are able to defeat the other; of which nothing can be more false. The truth is plainly asserted, and nobly expressed by the Psalmist in the text, Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee; the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain.

This psalm was evidently composed as a song of praise for some signal victory obtained, which was at the same time a remarkable deliverance from threatening danger. The author was one or other of the later prophets, and the occasion probably the unsuccessful assault of Jerusalem, by the army of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, in the days of Hezekiah. Great was the insolence and boasting of his generals and servants against the city of the living God, as may be seen in the 36th chapter of Isaiah.

Yet it pleased God to destroy their enemies, and, by His own immediate interposition, to grant them deliverance. Therefore the Psalmist says in the 5th and 6th verses of this psalm, The stout-hearted are spoiled, they have slept their sleep. None of the men of might have found their hands. At Thy rebuke, O God of Jacob! both the chariot and the horse are cast into a deep sleep. After a few more remarks to the same purpose, he draws the inference, or makes the reflection in the text, Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee; the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain: which may be paraphrased thus, the fury and injustice of oppressors, shall bring in a tribute of praise to Thee; the influence of Thy righteous Providence shall be clearly discerned; the countenance and support Thou wilt give to Thine own people shall be gloriously illustrated; Thou shalt set the bounds which the boldest cannot pass.

I am sensible, my brethren, that the time and occasion of this Psalm, may seem to be in one respect ill-suited to the interesting circumstances of this country at present. It was composed after the victory was obtained; whereas we are now but putting on the harness, and entering upon an important context, the length of which it is impossible to foresee, and the issue of which it will perhaps be thought presumptuous to foretell. But as the truth, with respect to God’s moral government, is the same and unchangeable; as the issue in the case of Sennacherib’s invasion, did but lead the prophet to acknowledge it; our duty and interest conspire in calling upon us to improve it. And I have chosen to insist upon it on this Day of Solemn Humiliation as it will probably help us to a clear and explicit view of what should be the chief subject of our prayers and endeavors, as well as the great object of our hope and trust, in our present situation.

The truth, then, asserted in this text, which I propose to illustrate and improve, is, – That all the disorderly passions of men, whether exposing the innocent to private injury, or whether they are the arrows of Divine judgment in public calamity, shall, in the end, be to the praise of God: Or apply it more particularly to the present state of the American Colonies, and the plague of war, – the ambition of mistaken princes, the cunning and cruelty of oppressive and corrupt ministers, and even the inhumanity of brutal soldiers, however dreadful, shall finally promote the glory of God, and in the meantime, while the storm continues, His mercy and kindness shall appear in prescribing bounds to their rage and fury…

In the first place, I am to point out to you in some particulars, how the wrath of man praises God. I say in some instances, because it is far from being in my power, either to mention or explain the whole. There is an unsearchable depth in the Divine counsels, which it is impossible for us to penetrate. It is the duty of every good man to place the most unlimited confidence in Divine wisdom, and to believe that those measures of Providence that are most unintelligible to him, are yet planned with the same skill, and directed to the same great purposes as others, the reason and tendency of which he can explain in the clearest manner. But where Revelation and experience enables us to discover the wisdom, equity or mercy of Divine Providence, nothing can be more delightful or profitable to a serious mind, and therefore I beg your attention to the following remarks.

In the first place, the wrath of man praises God, as it is an example and illustration of Divine Truth, and clearly points out the corruption of our nature, which is the foundation stone of the doctrine of Redemption. Nothing can be more absolutely necessary to true religion, than a clear and full conviction of the sinfulness of our nature and state. Without this, there can be neither repentance in the sinner, nor humility in the believer. Without this all that is said in Scripture of the wisdom and mercy of God, in providing a Saviour, is without force and without meaning. Justly does our Saviour say, The whole have no need of a physician, but those that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Those who are not sensible that they are sinners, will treat every exhortation to repentance, and every offer of mercy, with disdain or defiance.

But where can we have a more affecting view of the corruption of our nature, than in the wrath of man, when exerting itself in oppression, cruelty, and blood. It must be owned, indeed, that this truth is abundantly manifest in time of the greatest tranquility. Others may, if they please, treat the corruption of our nature as a chimera; for my part, I see it everywhere, and I feel it every day. All the disorders in human society, and the greatest part even of the unhappiness we are exposed to, arises from the envy, malice, covetousness and other lusts of man. If we and all about us were just what we ought to be in all respects, we should not need to go any further for Heaven, for it would be upon earth…That men should so rarely be satisfied with their own possessions and acquisitions, or even with the benefit that would arise from mutual service, but should look upon the happiness and tranquility of others, as an obstruction to their own. That, as if the great law of nature were not enough, Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return, they should be so furiously set for the destruction of each other…

But what I mean at this time to prove by the preceding reflections, and wish to impress on your minds, is the depravity of our nature. From whence come wars and fightings among you, says the Apostle James (James 4:1), come they not hence from your lusts that war in your members…

What therefore can be more to the praise of God, than that when a whole people have forgotten their resting place, when they have abused their privileges, and despised their mercies, they should by distress and suffering be made to hearken to the rod, and return to their duty1

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Witherspoon, John, D.D., L.L.D., President of the College of New-Jersey. The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. A Sermon preached at Princeton, on the 17th of May, 1776, being the General Fast appointed by the Congress through the United Colonies. Philadelphia: Printed and Sold by R. Aitken, Printer and Bookseller, Opposite the London Coffee-House, Front Street, MDCCLXXVI. (1776). Library of Congress, Rare Book Collection.

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