That the constitution of the Hebrew government was a standing confutation of idolatry in a visible protection of the Hebrew nation, giving it possession of the lands of the idolatrous Canaanites, shewing God’s immediate hand in partiticular providence; and that God had not left the government of the world in the hands of demons, or inferior beings, whom the idolatrous world worshipped as gods, proving Jehovah the one true God superior to all the gods in which the idolatrous nations trusted: That it was very fit to punish the idolatrous Canaanites by the Hebrews, as a nation owning the one true God; and finally, that a toleration of idolatry in the Holy Land, was absolutely inconsistent with the principal designs and wise intentions of the Constitution.
The particular wisdom of every constitution, is to be learned from the particular design and intention of it; the Hebrew government was not a mere civil polity, in which care was taken only of the civil liberty, peace and prosperity of the nation. One principal intention of this government, as we have already seen, was to put a stop to the swift progress of idolatry, which had well nigh overspread all the world, and to which the Hebrew nation was very much inclined. Idolatry was an evil of such nature, as not only greatly weakened all principles of religion and virtue, but greatly encouraged and recommended all manner of vice and wickedness in principles and practice. It taught men to imitate the gods, they worshiped, in the worst crimes of intemperance, lasciviousness, and sins against nature, and hallowed murder as one of the most sacred rites of religious worship, teaching no sacrifices were so acceptable to the gods as human. It was a design then worthy the wisdom and the goodness of the great Governor of the world, to find out some proper way to stop this spreading evil, and to preserve as the great blessings of the world the knowledge of the one only true God, and of the obedience due to him, the only true religion, the best principles of virtue and of moral goodness, of the peace, order and happiness of society, as well as of the prosperity and happiness of private persons.
This we have seen was the first intention of this Constitution, and in order to it, one main design which runs through the whole of it, is to keep the Hebrew nation a distinct people, separate from all idolatrous nations, and idolatrous customs, so far as any part of this Constitution answers this design, so far the wisdom of it will appear, either as necessary or useful to promote the general intention of the whole Constitution.
If we consider the parts of the Hebrew Constitution in this view, how many objections to the wisdom or goodness of them will immediately disappear?
How many cavils are there raised against the laws, which forbid idolatrous customs and usages? When nothing sure could be more reasonable or wise, than to prohibit all such idolatrous customs in a Constitution, the principal design was to prevent idolatry. Consider the whole Constitution in the same view, as a standing Constitution of idolatry, and it will equally and as plainly show the wisdom and the goodness of it.
Here is then a Constitution founded on the authority of Jehovah. He is the sole lawgiver of that nation, he forms all the parts of their Constitution, he condescends himself to become their King and chief Governor, on their receiving him as the only true God, and putting themselves solely under his protection, renouncing all demon protectors and trust in idols. Jehovah promises them a pleasant land to inhabit. He brings them into that promised land, and settles them in it. They hold it of Jehovah, as his gift. He drives out the Canaanite before them for their abominable wickedness, the fruits in great measure of their idolatry, He blesses this nation in the land he gave them with liberty, plenty, peace and prosperity, as they keep his covenant; but when they break it, he permits their enemies to afflict and oppress them. Thus a nation is set up to the view of the world, small in itself, and weak in comparison of the great and powerful empires which arose in its neighborhood. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks, all rose, and all fell one after another, when this little kingdom, though surrounded every way by them, saw them rise, and outlived their fall. They suffered indeed sometimes severely, for their corruption of the original Constitution of their government and religion; yet still they continued their distinct government, laws and religion for above fourteen hundred years; a much longer time than any known empire or kingdom of the world, if we set aside the fabulous stories of the Assyrian and Egyptian empires, and keep to historical truth. This nation was moreover placed in such a situation, as to be known to all the great empires of the world, attempted by them all, and yet protected against them all, by the power of Jehovah as the only true God, often with visible marks of his immediate protection and most wonderful works of his power.
This standing example of providence struck at the very foundations of idolatry and idolatrous worship, and to all who would observe it was sufficient to shew how weak and false all trusts in the idols of the heathens were.
The world might see in this constant example of the Hebrew nation, it was a groundless and false imagination, that the supreme God had left the disposal of particular events relating to men’s lives or fortunes to inferior beings. It might observe, that the blessings of long life, health, plenty, victory, and such temporal advantages as they looked for from the favor and protection of their idol gods, were indeed reserved by Jehovah the one true God in his own hands. A constant admonition to all men to trust alone in Jehovah, and not in lying vanities; the idols to whom they sacrificed, whose protection and favor they endeavored to obtain, not only by silly and ridiculous ceremonies, but by immoral and wicked, most inhuman and abominable rites.
Here was a constant example to shew the power of Jehovah, the one true God, was supreme, in fact superior to the powers of any whom the idolatrous nations worshipped as gods. Thus when Jehovah brought Israel out of Egypt, with an high hand and an out-stretched arm, when the walls of Jericho fell down in so wonderful manner, how natural was it not only for the Hebrews, but for all others to whom the knowledge of these things should come to say, There is none among the Gods like unto Jehovah? Or, to use the words of the psalmist, we may reason with him, so the heathen shall fear the name of the Lord (Jehovah), and all the kings of the earth his Glory, Psalm 102:15. Let a particular instance explain this reason against idolatry, and shew the strength and thereby the wisdom of it, as a standing confutation of idolatry.
When Sennacherib king of Assyria invaded Hezekiah, king of Judah, he sends a message to Hezekiah to this effect: Let not thy God in whom thou trustiest deceive thee. Have the gods of the nations delivered them, which my fathers have destroyed? 2 Kings 19: 10-12. How does Hezekiah reason on this message from an idolatrous king, and in reproach of his own trust in Jehovah, the God of Israel? Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have destroyed the nations (or the heathen); and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no Gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone; therefore they have destroyed them. Now therefore, O Lord our God, I beseech thee save thou us out of his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord God, even thou only, 2 Kings 19: 17,18,19.
What followed upon this prayer of Hezekiah, and his trust in Jehovah, the God of Israel, as the only God? Isaiah was sent to promise Hezekiah, that God would deliver him from all the formidable power of the king of Assyria, and defend Jerusalem to save it. And accordingly it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand; and when they arose early in the morning, behold they were all dead corpses. Thus God declared his Glory among the heathen, his wonders among all the people, 2 Kings 19:34,35. This shewed, Jehovah is great and greatly to be praised, that he is to be feared above all gods; for all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the Heavens, Psalms 96:3,4,5. This declares among the heathen, that the Lord reigneth, Psalms 96:10. It was no wonder that the kings of Assyria should destroy the lands of the heathen nations, together with their gods, because they were idols, vain objects of trust, and no gods. Yet Jehovah, as God and protector of Israel, is able to save them; for in one night he can cut off the whole force of the most powerful enemies of his people.
Thus far, you may perceive without any difficulty, the wisdom of the Hebrew Constitution, as a preservative against idolatry, and as a standing confutation of it.
But some will still say, why must the Canaanites be driven out of their country, be deprived of their just property and liberty, by a people who had no pretences to damage them, either in their estates or persons? The Hebrews, some say, had no right at all to molest the Canaanites; and it was, they add, a manifest violation of the most sacred rules of justice, for the Hebrews to take away the estates and lives of the Canaanites, who had never injured the Israelites, or given them the least just reason to declare war, and invade them in an hostile manner.
So this case is commonly, but very unfairly put; for it is no part of the question what right the Hebrews had to dispossess the Canaanites of their land, not whether they had in themselves any right at all. The sole question is, whether God, as supreme governor of the world, had a right to punish the wickedness of the Canaanites, when their iniquities were full; or whether the justice of government will justify such forfeitures and penalties, as the Canaanites were punished with, by express command of God, for their great and abominable crimes, and as a people past all hopes of amendment? The abominable crimes of the Canaanites were proved by such open and notorious acts of wickedness, as no pretences to freedom of thought or liberty of conscience could justify, or were allowed to justify, in any well ordered government in the world. If murder, if sins against nature, are justly punishable, whatever principles they may proceed from, if the wisest lawgivers have made such crimes capital, can the supreme lawgiver and judge of the earth be hindered or barred by justice from punishing what every lawful government has a right to punish by justice?
One great end of punishments, and which shews the wise and necessary use of them in government, is to make great offenders examples, to deter others from doing the like evils, that others may learn to fear like punishment for like offences; a wise and good design to prevent the huge mischiefs, vicious and ill-disposed minds would surely produce without such restraints.
Who can reasonably think, or assert, that the justice of government forbids the Governor of the world to take away the life of a very wicked man, whose life would be forfeited to the justice of every civil government; or that it would be unjust for God to cut off such a person in the midst of his days, by some untimely death; whom the justice of the smallest city, or civil community, might condemn to lose their lives by the hands of a common executioner.
Many, I hope, who use such arguments as these, are ignorant of the consequences of them. They do not perceive it may be, that if it be contrary to justice for God to punish the unrighteousness of wicked men, by a forfeiture of the blessings of present life, it will be full out as unjust for God to punish any wicked man, or any wickedness of men at all; so that the most wicked men and greatest offenders against the laws of moral righteousness, virtue and goodness, have no reason to fear any punishment at the hands of God at all. And this too, which sure seems somewhat strange, from the laws of justice and moral government, which declare them to be crimes fit to be restrained and therefore worthy of punishment. Such assertions do not only oppose all revelation, but moreover what are usually accounted the allowed principles of deism. A noble author represents it, “As a doctrine taught by all the eminent philosophers among the heathen from the common principles of moral philosophy, that nothing is more agreeable to the divine nature, than that God should reward good with good, and evil with evil. And since they observed, that sometimes good men were afflicted, and wicked men prosperous in this life, they concluded with most certain evidence from the justice and goodness of God, there was a reward for the good and a punishment for the wicked appointed them after this life; for otherwise there could be no reasonable account given, either of the divine justice or goodness, Herbert de Relig. Gentil. p. 274,275.”
To set aside these so generally received principles of moral philosophy, as well as all authority of revelation, is to run through deism into downright atheism, to assign all events either to fate and necessity, or to unguided chance, which is the same thing as to ascribe all effects to no cause at all; on which supposition it is nonsense to talk of justice, goodness, or any other moral perfection or action whatsoever.
It deserves further to be considered, that if it be unjust to restrain men of any liberties, or to punish them for any abuse of them; so that justice forbids God himself to punish any with forfeiture of estate or life, whatever they do. What rights then can any men have to punish their fellow-creatures with such forfeitures. This will make all laws of society for the restraint or punishment of the greatest wickedness and most notorious offenders, unjust too. What will be unjust in God will be evidently as unjust in men. The worst of offenders will have a just right to defend themselves against justice, and may surely justify themselves in doing what God cannot justify himself in punishing them for. And thus, this principle will end in an entire subversion of all government both divine and human, and on pretence of preserving the rights of justice, will make it impossible to have any such thing as the public justice of government, and must, if such principles should prevail, banish it out of the earth. Such over strained notions of justice, as leave no room for the exercise of any justice at all, must certainly be unreasonable and false. Let it then be observed, this question is very weakly as well as unfairly put on the foot of justice; for it must be allowed, either that God can in justice punish great incorrigible offenders, or that none can justly punish them; that is, they cannot in justice be punished at all; that is, there is no such thing as justice at all.
Yet still some will insist upon it, there is no appearance of wisdom at least of goodness, that God should punish the Canaanites, by giving a commission to the Hebrews to drive them out of their possessions, or put them to the sword. If God would punish the Canaanites for their iniquities, why was it not done, they say, by his own hand? By unfruitful seasons or pestilential distempers, that it might appear it was a punishment inflicted on them by God, as Governor of the world, and to prevent any pretences men might make of reforming the erroneous, by dispossessing them of their estates, liberties, or lives? An example, they say, that may be used to justify and encourage the highest acts of injustice and cruelty, under the mask of religion, and in the name of the Lord.
As it is well known, so there is no need to deny, that the Hebrews did claim the land of Canaan as the gift of God to them. It is as well known, that they made their claim of it as the gift of God upon the forfeiture of the Canaanites, when their iniquities were fully ripe. On this is founded that solemn admonition to the Hebrews themselves, Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things, for in these the nations are defiled, which I cast out before you, and the land is defiled; therefore I do visit the iniquities thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall not commit any of these abominations…that the land spew not you also when ye defile it, as it spewed out the nations that were before you, Lev 18: 24.
In this punishment of the Canaanites God did visit their iniquities, and he punished their iniquities by giving their land to the Hebrews; which they were to hold by a grant from God, by keeping his statutes and judgments, and not committing any of the abominations for which the Canaanites were thus punished. That is, the Canaanites were punished with a forfeiture of their country, because of their abominations, which they were guilty of chiefly by means of their idolatry; and the Hebrews were to hold it on the grant of the true God, keeping themselves from the like abominations. Now in this grant both the Habendum and Reddeudum, are a public condemnation of idolatry and standing confutation of it, in maintaining and supporting the Hebrews in possession of this grant, by the superior power of the one true God, in opposition to the power of all the idol gods, their neighboring heathen nations worshipped.
This, if rightly considered, will show us, that as it became the justice of God to punish the Canaanites for their abominations, so it became the wisdom and goodness of God to punish them in this manner, preferable to all others, by a grant of their lands to the Hebrews, on condition of keeping themselves from idolatry; so particularly expressed in the Habendum and Reddendum of the grant itself, as the reasons on which it was granted, and the service by which it was held. God had already tried other methods of punishment, and they were found in experience ineffectual. He had destroyed the whole world by a flood, except Noah and his family, which was preserved to repeople it. He had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in this very country of Canaan by fire from heaven. Unfruitful and unhealthy seasons were easily interpreted usual and common accidents; or, to precede from the displeasure of their demons or some of the idol gods they worshipped, and were to be prevented or removed by some of their idolatrous or magical ceremonies. Such sorts of punishment in fact, considering the corruption of men’s minds and prevailing idolatry of the times were abused to give new strength to idoltry, rather than to root it out. But when God is pleased to give a commission to a people professing the worship of the only true God, in opposition to all idols, when it should appear that this one true God had granted the land of Canaan to this people, and given them possession of it, with many visible marks of supreme power, and maintained them in their possession against all the powers of those idols in whom the Canaanites trusted, or by whose assistance any other idolatrous nation hoped to dispossess them; you immediately perceive a standing confutation of the hopes of idolaters, and a standing encouragement of the hopes of the Hebrews, and of all other worshippers of the one true God.
If then it became the wisdom and goodness of God to put a stop to idolatry, and to raise up a nation to preserve the first principle of religion, the unity of God, the great principle of virtue and moral goodness, of public and private happiness; no means could have been more agreeable both to wisdom and goodness, than to drive the Canaanites out of the land by the Hebrews, and to preserve the Hebrews in the possession of that land which God gave them by a special grant, with constant evident marks of favor and powerful protection. A just and powerful motive, to persuade the Hebrews, and with them their neighbor idolatrous nations, how vain it was to trust in idols, how wise to trust alone in Jehovah the only true God.
Yet still there remains, some say, an unanswerable objection, that such an example will encourage enthusiasts and imposters, to invade their neighbors, to pretend religion whenever they have a mind to their estates; and to do the highest acts of injustice, in depriving their neighbors of their fortunes, liberties and lives. Can God give a commission that is like to encourage so fearful consequences as these?
Thus the enemies of revelation prejudice themselves, and go about to prejudice others against the Hebrew government as not of divine institution, because not consistent with the divine wisdom or goodness, as they believe, or say they believe; but if they would have patience to consider this matter a little more calmly, they would find all these fears mere panics, and the mighty dangers they pretend to foresee from the encouragement of such an example are no more than their groundless imaginations or forgeries of their own prejudices.
For this commission to the Israelites, can give no encouragement in the least to any enthusiastic pretences; for this example will allow no pretences at all. It can encourage no persons to do anything by virtue of this example, but such only who shall receive a like real commission from God, and have it as well and as fully attested as the Hebrews had theirs; and wherever this shall be the case it cannot be a pretence, for a pretence and a reality are a contradiction to each other.
This example then, instead of encouraging pretenders, whether enthusiasts or impostors, on the contrary gives wise and persuasive cautions against all pretences, without leaving room for any of what nature or kind so ever, requiring all persons to give the fullest proof and evidence of a real commission, whenever they shall undertake to act by any; and that no persons are to concur with them or to assist them, without satisfactory evidence to themselves of the truth of their commission.
This appears evident, in the care taken to prove the commission to the Hebrew nation by Moses first to the Israelites, then to Pharaoh, and even to the Canaanites themselves, in great variety of signs and wonders in Egypt, at the Red Sea, in the wilderness, at the siege and taking of Jericho, in a visible pretence of Jehovah for so long a time, in the Shechinah or Cloud of Glory, in a miraculous protection of the Israelites and provision for them in so many repeated instances. These are so full, so unquestionable evidence of the truth of their commission form God, that it can give no encouragement to pretenders whosoever they may be, as all pretenders must come without sufficient proof and evidence; for this example does not only permit, but it directs men to examine all pretences, and to admit none without full proof and unquestionable vouchers. For when God himself did give a commission to the Hebrews, he did not require any to receive it, without such proof as should leave no reasonable doubt concerning the truth and reality of such commission from God. Now, as in the reason of the thing, no pretender could ever thus prove a counterfeit or forged commission; so, in fact, there never has been a single instance of anyone who ever pretended to such proof as was given by Moses.
How groundless then are these fears, how weak and silly must it be for the sake of them to tie up the hands of the Governor of the world from giving any true commission at all. This would be hardly so wise as to set aside all use of the great seal of England, because it is possible that it may be counterfeited; for in this case, the proof required by this example, is what cannot be so counterfeit, but it will be easy to discover the fraud.
Now upon these principles how weak, how absurd must it appear, to plead for a toleration of idolatry in the Hebrew government, that is, for a toleration of what was absolutely inconsistent with the fundamental laws and principal design of the civil constitution, idolatry, in the Hebrew government, was an act of high-treason against the King of Israel, a direct denial of his right and title, and an actual proclamation of a pretender to his crown. A government in its institution designed to put a stop to idolatry, and to preserve the knowledge and worship of the one true God, in which all were to hold their estates and lands as his gift, and their peace and prosperity by his protection, on condition of having no other gods before him, or serving any other gods besides him; such a government could not possibly tolerate idolatry without violating all the rules of common sense, as well as all the maxims of political wisdom.
It deserves consideration, that as the whole land was a grant of the one true God, it was most equitable he should appoint the conditions of his own grant. If anyone, whether out of conscience, or any other reason, was not willing to accept of it with the conditions on which it was granted, there was no harm done; no man received any injury in not having a share in a grant to which he had no previous right, to which he could have no claim in justice or equity. It is very wrong to make this in any respect a punishment for the sake of conscience, either by positive penalties or negative discouragements. It was a direct civil qualification, that they who held lands of Jehovah, must own him and do homage to him as sovereign Lord of the fee.
It should be finally observed, that idolatry is not an harmless speculation, it is not consistent with the peace of society, no conscience or pretence to conscience can make principles of intemperance, uncleanness, sins against nature and murder innocent, such principles must disturb civil society; and from what has been observed before, concerning the great mischiefs of idolatry, it was not only just but becoming the wisdom and goodness of God to put a stop to it.