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ON THE END OF MAN'S EXISTENCE.
Ezek. XV. 2.- What is the vine tree more than any tree, or than
a branch which is among the trees of the forest?
The vine-tree is weaker than most trees, so as to be unfit for any work, and would therefore be very contemptible but for that property it possesses of bringing forth a valuable and delicious fruit. On this account it is highly prized, and diligently cultivated. But if it fail of producing fruit, the only purpose to which it can be applied, is to turn it to fuel. Such is the figurative representation which the prophet gives us, in this passage, of man, considered especially as the object of divine care and culture. He is naturally capable of yielding a precious fruit; in this consists his sole excellency; this is the sole end of his existence; and if he fails in this, he is of no use but to be destroyed.
I. Man is naturally capable of yielding a most precious fruit : this fruit consists in living to God.
1. He is possessed of all the natural powers which are requisite for that purpose. He is endowed with reason and understanding, enabling him to perceive the proofs of the being of God, and to entertain just, though inadequate conceptions of the principal attributes of his nature; his self-existence, his absolute perfection, his power,
his wisdom, his all-sufficiency, his omnipresence, his holiness, justice, and goodness. Inferior animals do not; on which account he is a vine-tree amongst the trees of the wood; inferior in many properties to some of them, but superior in those particulars which fit him for this end, and on that account incomparably more valuable.
2. As we are possessed of natural powers, fitting us for the service of God, so he has bestowed upon us much care and culture, with an express view to this end. The religious instruction he gave to his ancient people, is frequently compared in scripture to the cultivation which men bestow upon vines. “My beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill,” &c.* “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant.”+ He gave them his will, his ordinances, his prophets, and separated them from all nations by peculiar rites, that they might be to him for a name, and a praise, and a peculiar treasure, above all nations. He has done much more for us under the gospel. None can be ignorant of the intention of God in all these provisions. “Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou now turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?” I
II. This is the only end for which mankind are formed and preserved; this is the proper fruit of human nature, which admits of nothing being substituted in its room.
* Isaiah y. 1. + Isaiah v. 7. Jer. ii. 21.
1. A mere selfish, voluptuous life, cannot be supposed to be the proper fruit of human nature. He who lives to himself is universally despised and condemned. “ Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth to himself.”* “ For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter." op
2. A life of social benevolence, in which the public good is preserved, without a supreme regard to God, cannot be this fruit. Can such persons be said to neglect the end of their existence? Undoubtedly; for the following reasons:
(1.) To do good to our fellow-creatures, without regard to God, is to forget the principal relation in which we stand, and, consequently, to neglect the principal duty. A right behaviour to each other is no proper compensation for the want of obedient regards to God: instanced in pirates and rebels. A regard to God is the root and origin of all real virtue.
(2.) The end of man's existence cannot, with any propriety, be considered as confined to this world; but the proper end accomplished by mere social virtues, is entirely confined to the present state.
(3.) No collective number of men can be independent of God, more than a single individual ; therefore no such collective body has a right to consult their common interest, to the neglect of God, any more than a single individual to pursue * Hos, x. 1.
+ Deut. xxxii. 32.
his individual interest. The aggregate of mankind appears something great and imposing in the eyes of men ; in consequence of which a peculiar importance is attached to those actions which tend to the public good. The magnitude of the general interest, imposes a value on those actions which are adapted to advance so great an object. But, in the sight of God, all nations are as the “ drop of a bucket;” “ he taketh up the isles as a very little thing." Suppose all the subjects of a lawful prince were to agree to stand by each other, and to promote each other's interest to the utmost; would this be allowed by the prince as any atonement for a great and persevering rebellion ? Or suppose a single individual so disposed, would not the result be the same? No other can be substituted for this.
III. He who answers not the end of his existence, is fit only to be destroyed. He is like a vessel marred in the hand of the potter, proper only to be broken.
The barren vine may be useful as fuel, and to this purpose it is much applied in eastern countries. Thus wicked men may be useful with a subordinate kind of usefulness, by their destruction.
1. They may thereby become edifying examples of the just vengeance of God, in order to deter others. That this will be one of the ends answered by the punishment of the wicked, seems intimated in several passages of scripture, as well as is supported by its analogy to human government. “ And they shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” *
2. They will serve to manifest those attributes of the Great Supreme which their conduct disowned, and which it seemed virtually to call in question. “ What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction ?”+ This is a subordinate use, not a primary end. It is that which men fit themselves for, by their presumptuous and impenitent neglect of God.
(1.) What blindness attaches to those who live in the total neglect of God and religion !
(2.) What little room is there for that confidence which many place in the correctness of deportment towards their fellow-creatures, while religion is not even pretended to be the governing principle of their lives!
(3.) What need have we all to examine ourselves, and seriously to inquire, whether we are yielding that fruit unto God, on which we have been insisting!
(4.) How ought those to be alarmed, when the result of such examination is, that they have been hitherto utterly without fruit! How strong the * Isaiah lxvi. 24.
† Rom. ix. 22.