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free course of civil justice was preserved, and likewise unity and uniformity in religion, which are the great support as well as the glory of a church and nation : or it may signify that church's being defended and maintained by the secular arm, whereby it was protected against the insults of wicked men, and grew and flourished under the tender care and safeguard of the government; which in so degenerate a world as this, is necessary to the outward prosperity and peace of any church.
Now when all things were put into this excellent order, and the vineyard made ready to be dressed and cultivated, and nothing but that wanting in order to its bringing forth fruit for him by whom it was planted, the great Lord of it let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: that is, he intrusted this his favourite plantation, about which he had taken such extraordinary care, to those whose particular business it should be to look well after it, and do what was needful to its making a good return, viz. the priests and Levites, and scribes and rulers, who had a share in the management of the affairs of that church to the honour of its divine Founder and the public good. And then he left things to go on, according to the measures he had prescribed, until he should think fit to inquire after the improvement they had made, and see what his vineyard produced.
And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. By the servants here is meant the prophets, those extraordinary ministers of God, whom he sent to that people, to remind them of their duty when they began to forget it, to reprove them for their iniquities, and denounce God's judgments against them, if they did not speedily appease his anger by repentance and amendment: and likewise for the encouragement of those that were truly good, to foretell what wonderful instances of favour and mercy he designed for them in the latter ages; and not for them only, but for all the world, that would comply with those gracious conditions he should require in order to it.
But the unwelcome freedom these servants of God took with all degrees of men, from the highest to the lowest, in exposing their faults, upbraiding them for their ingratitude, and the ill return they made to the great Author of all their blessings and comforts, and who had been so peculiarly kind and good to them above all other people; and withal plainly telling them what would be the sad consequence of this at last; this, though they evidently shewed their divine commission for doing it, did so enrage those who rather should have been humbled by it, that they took those servants of God, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another; used them most barbarously, as if they were the greatest malefactors, who yet came for no worse purpose than to prevent their ruin.
Thus our Lord pathetically expostulates with them, 0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, upon this merciful errand; how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate f. And St. Stephen agreeably, in his cutting discourse to the Jews, Which of the prophets, says he, have not your fathers persecuted ? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers &. By which he exasperated them so bitterly against him, that, as their fathers did, so did they, and with furious rage gnashed upon him with their teeth, and stopped their ears against any that should dissuade them from their cruel purpose,
f Matt. xxiii. 37, 38.
and cast him out of the city and stoned him: swelling thereby that stream of righteous blood still higher, which had been shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abelh until then; and adding to the cry it made to Heaven for vengeance, upon that most wicked generation, which in so provoking a manner made such haste to fill up the measure of their fathers' iniquities.
But so great was the longsuffering of God towards those wicked husbandmen, who not only neglected their duty to his vineyard, but treated his servants so inhumanly, who came to advise them better, that he again sent other servants more than the first, (as the prophets were more numerous in the times that were nearest to the coming of the Messias, like so many harbingers to prepare the way before him,) to try if that his goodness would lead them to repentance. But instead of making this right use of it, they grew more vile and hardened than ever, (as is evident from what Malachi charges them with, who was the last prophet that was sent to them,) and dealt as ill by those servants as they had done by the first; and thereby, one would have thought, had treasured up wrath, withg Acts vii. 52.
b Matt. xxiii. 35.
out any further interposal of mercy, against the day of wrath, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Yet, notwithstanding all these provocations, which nothing but infinite goodness would have borne so long, he crowns all with an amazing act of condescension, and as the last offer of his favour, and highest expression of his kindness to them, and earnest desire of their happiness, he sent unto them his only, his well-beloved son, saying, They will reverence him when they see himi, and hearken to his instructions and reproofs, and be inclined by him to render the acceptable fruits of holiness to their great Lord.
And if so much goodness and sweetness of temper, so many admirable discourses, backed with so many amazing and beneficial miracles, and such unblamable holiness of life; if all this, which shone with so great lustre in the blessed Jesus, even through the mean veil of his humanity, and bespoke him to be the Son of the most high God as well as the Son of man; if all this would not create the profoundest reverence of his person, mixed with the most ardent love, and produce the most ready and entire obedience to every thing that he should enjoin, it would be wonderfully strange indeed.
What shall I do? says the great lord of the vineyard, when the husbandmen had so cruelly handled all the servants he had sent to them; What shall I do? as if he was at a stand what further course to take with them, to reduce them to a better mind. And then, as his last reserve, the only way left to do it, and which in all likelihood could not miss of success, he resolves to send his son, whom
he thought they could not choose but reverence; and whose winning behaviour, joined with his high authority, would not fail to bring them to repentance and their duty.
But instead of this, so great was the perverseness and obstinacy of these wicked people, when they saw the son, so far were they from giving him such a reception as was due to the heir of the great King of heaven and earth, that they consulted together, and said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance: that is, though the Jewish priests and rulers had reason to believe that the blessed Jesus was the expected Messias, from the completion of ancient prophecies in him, and from his convincing discourses and amazing miracles, and could not withhold an inward assent to his being so; yet the meanness of his outward appearance, the purity of his doctrine, preaching up self-denial and poverty of spirit, &c., and declaring that his kingdom was not of this world ; this was so contrary to their pride and ambition and sensuality, that they were resolved not to confess it, but rather to dispatch him out of hand, that they might quietly enjoy that state and wealth and honour, which they were then in possession of, and preferred before all that Christ could bestow upon them in heaven.
And accordingly (as our Lord spoke prophetically of his death, and the manner of it) they proceeded to execute what they had plotted against him, and caught him and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him: imbruing their vile hands in the most sacred and innocent blood that ever was.
But whatever fond hopes they might have of