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A PROSPEROUS CHURCH.
NUMBERS XXIV. 5, 6.-How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign-aloes, which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar-trees beside the waters.
PERHAPS in the whole compass of sacred history you will not meet with a character more extraordinary and inexplicable than that of the man who uttered these words. Such was his reverence for the divine authority, or his dread of the divine displeasure, that he refused to accompany the messengers of Balak without permission from God; and after having gone, he refused to curse the tribes of Israel, declaring that though "Balak were to give him his house full of silver and gold, he could not go beyond the commandment of God to do either good or bad." Notwithstanding of this, we trace in almost every step of his conduct an anxious, but preposterous, wish to obtain permission from God to do what he well knew to be contrary to God's unalterable determination.
Eager as Balaam was to curse Israel, and thus to obtain from Balak the promised reward, he was not only prevented from cursing them, but compelled to pronounce on them benedictions the most ample, and
panegyrics the most splendid and beautiful. With one of these panegyrics we are presented in the passage selected as the subject of present consideration. "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lignaloes, which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar-trees beside the waters."
There is something agreeable and pleasing in the very sound of these words; and they bring before us scenes and objects fitted at once to ravish the eye, and gladden the soul; scenes and objects in which the elements of verdure and beauty, of variety, fertility, and fragrance, mingle their respective attractions. Beautiful as is this description, it is not more beautiful than just. The Israelites were now encamped on the plains of Moab; and even a man of less sensibility and fancy than Balaam, might have been struck with admiration at the spectacle which they presented. It was not unnatural, then, that Balaam, viewing them from a neighbouring height, observing their vast number and their regular order, recollecting the miraculous deliverances which had already been wrought for them, and meditating on the glorious victories and conquests which they were soon to achieve,-it was not unnatural, I say, that he should break forth into the exclamation before us, and compare them to well-watered gardens, to rich and extended valleys, and to trees remarkable for strength and stateliness, or for the verdure of their leaves, and the beauty and fragrance of their flowers.
It is recorded respecting the pious Mr Newton, that when conversing with Robinson of Leicester, author of the Scripture Characters, respecting the church to which they belonged, he expressed the sentiments of admiration and affection with which they
regarded it, by quoting the exclamation in our text. Whether the application was a just one, or whether the attention of that venerable person was attracted more by what was secular than by what was spiritual in his church,-by what addresses itself to the eye rather than by what addresses itself to the mind, I shall not stop to inquire. It will readily be admitted, however, that the beautiful description in the text may be fitly accommodated to the christian church, or to a particular congregation when in a prosperous and flourishing condition, and that is the application which I propose at present to make of it.
In the sequel, I shall inquire, What are the principal features which a religious society will exhibit, when, in a flourishing state, it realizes in some good measure the description in the text?
In reply to this question, I remark,
I. When a church is in a prosperous and flourishing condition, its office-bearers will be eminent for personal piety, and will be faithful in the discharge of their official duties. In every society, whether sacred or secular, much will depend on the character and conduct of the office-bearers. If they are grossly deficient in the requisite qualifications, or if they are indolent and remiss in the discharge of their peculiar duties, the society cannot be expected to prosper. Its private members will either become dissatisfied and discontented, or they will cease to feel much interested in its welfare, and sink down into a state of apathy and inactivity.
This is what may be expected to happen even in a political or worldly, and much more may it be expected to happen in a religious society. I say, therefore, that when a church is in a prosperous and flourishing state its office-bearers will be eminent for
personal piety, and will be faithful in the discharge of their official duties. They will be eminent for personal piety, and will exhibit an attractive pattern to all under their inspection, and to all around them, of humility and patience, of sobriety and purity, of zeal and charity. They will discharge also with fidelity and diligence their official duties. He who is appointed to teach will expound the doctrines and enforce the requirements of the gospel with plainness and earnestness; and by a manifestation of the truth will endeavour to commend himself to every man's conscience as in the sight of God. As "he that teacheth will wait on teaching," so they "that rule will rule with diligence." They will strive to make themselves intimately acquainted with all under their superintendence; and with this view they will hold frequent and friendly intercourse with them. With affectionate and unwearied assiduity, they will instruct and encourage the young, cheer and strengthen the aged and infirm, counsel and console the dying and the mourner, admonish and stimulate the careless and remiss, and endeavour to reclaim the backslider; and it will not be till all other means have been tried, and tried in vain, that they will inflict the highest censures of the church, by excluding those who prove obstinately contumacious and incorrigible.
Such, brethren, is the infirmity of human nature, that men are generally more willing to listen to a statement of the duties and failings of others, than to a statement of their own duties and failings. The latter topic, however, if not the more palatable, is by far the more profitable of the two; and therefore, instead of insisting on the preceding particular, I go on to others which concern all the members of the church without exception. I remark, then,
II. That when a church is in a prosperous and flourishing condition, all or almost all its members will evince an ardent attachment to the public ordinances of religion. No man who possesses any thing like a competent knowledge of scripture, can need to be informed that the most illustrious of the saints, whose history it records, were distinguished by an ardent love to the sanctuary and its services. "The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up," says David; a declaration, however, which is applied in the New Testament to one greater and holier than David. "A day in thy courts," says David for himself, "a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness." Never, probably, has the world witnessed a generation of christians equal to those of the apostolic age; and what was their conduct in respect to the duty more immediately under consideration? With great frequency and untiring perseverance, "they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” And again it is said of them, that "they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart; praising God, and having favour with all the people."
With these and many similar intimations before our eyes, we may confidently lay it down as a general rule, that an ardent love to the sanctuary and its services is an essential element—a marked feature in the character of the decided christian. Independently, indeed, of these explicit intimations, the single consideration that the public ordinances of religion are appointed to be the grand channels for the conveyance of spiritual influences and heavenly blessings, evinces their incal