A Classic Study:
The Danger of Prosperity
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A Classic Study by William Bates (1635–1699)
[Here we continue a study by the eminent English Puritan William Bates, concerning the danger of prosperity. ]—Ed.
The Danger of Prosperity, pt. 8
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
The second thing to be considered is the folly of prosperous sinners. Folly is the cause of their abusing prosperity, and the effect of their prosperity abused. The most proper notion of folly is, that the understanding mistakes in judging and comparing things, from whence the will slides into error, and makes an unworthy choice: And according to the weight and consequence of things, the more remarkable is the degree of folly in not discerning their differences. Now, when men value and are delighted in temporal prosperity as their happiness, and heaven with its glory and joys is neglected and vilified in the comparison, it is folly above all wonder—folly of so rare and singular a nature, that if the judicative faculty were not corrupted, it were impossible they should be guilty of it. This will appear by considering the essential and inseparable properties of man’s felicity:
1. The perfection of man does principally consist in the excellencies of his spiritual and immortal part. As in the various kinds of creatures, there is something that is their proper excellency, something for which they were made, and accordingly are valued: as strength or beauty, swiftness or courage. So, the first and chief and proper excellency of man is the rational mind, which distinguishes him from other creatures, and gives him a natural and regular dominion over them. It is the highest and most divine faculty of the soul; and from hence the deduction is clear, that our felicity consists in the perfection of the mind. If the excellencies of all other creatures were united in man, they could derive no true worth to him, because they cannot adorn and perfect what is his proper excellence.
Now, according to the quality of the objects, about which the mind is conversant, it is either tainted and depreciated, or purified and exalted. To apply it to sensual worldly things, how to increase riches, and make provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts (see Rom. 13:14), is more truly vilifying, than if a prince should employ his counselors of state, and the judges of his courts, in the offices of his kitchen, or to dig in the culprits. The mind is corrupted and debased by application to inferior perishing things, as gold and silver are allayed, and lose of their purity and value, by a mixture with copper and tin. God alone is the sovereign object of the mind, with respect to its dignity and capacity, its superior and noblest operations: and by contemplating His glorious attributes and excellencies, who is best in himself, and best to us; the mind is enlightened and enlarged, renewed and raised, made holy and heavenly, full of beauty, order, and tranquility, and transformed into the likeness of the divine perfections.
2. All the prosperity in the world cannot bring true satisfaction to him that enjoys it. This is so clear by reason, that it may seem as needless and impertinent to insist on it, as to use arguments to prove that gold and diamonds are the proper food the body. But the self-deceiving folly of the carnal heart, so enamored with the vanity of the world, makes it necessary to inculcate known truths, that men may timely prevent the sad consequences of such folly, and not be accessories to their tormenting conviction by experience. It is true that carnal and material things pleasantly affect the outward man; yet such a vanity is in them, that they are neither a pure nor a prevalent good, with respect to the natural and civil state of man here. Riches, and honors, and sensual pleasures, are not without a mixture of bitterness, which corrupts the contentment that men expect in them. They are not efficacible to remove or allay the evil to which all are exposed in this open state. A sharp disease makes all the joys of the world insipid and despicable. But suppose the riches be in their elevation, they still cannot supply the wants and exigencies, nor satisfy the desires of the soul. They cannot restore men to the favor of God, and blessed communion with Him; nor renew the image of His holiness in them. They are but a vain name, a naked shadow of felicity, and entirely depend upon the simplicity and fancies of men for their valuation. The Apostle therefore tells us that they “that will be rich, fall into temptation, and a snare, and into many foolish lusts” (I Tim. 6:9). Those who resolve and labor to get riches, thinking to find felicity in them, are misled by a gross folly, as those who resume by their costly preparations to turn brass and lead into gold. For if it be folly to desire and attempt what is impossible, it is equally so in those who seek for joyful satisfaction in wealth, and in any other secular things, as in the alchemists, that waste their real estates for imaginary treasures.
Besides, the happiest condition here, as it is like the moon, that at the brightest is spotted and imperfect; so eclipses are not less strange to it than to that planet. The world is at the best of a transient use, and the pleasant error of the carnal mind will be of short continuance. Within a little while, that which was declared with such solemnity by the angel in the Revelation— “He lifted up his hand to heaven, and swore by him that lives forever, that time shall be no more” (Rev. 10:5-6)— will be true of every mortal person. The rich man that was surveying his estate with carnal complacency, and extending his hopes of voluptuous living to many years, was surprised with the fatal sentence: “You fool, this night shall thy soul be required of you: then whose shall those things by which you has provided?” (Luke 12:20). Now, can that be our happiness that is of such an uncertain tenure, that every house may be snatched upon us, or we from it? If one should with great expenses build a mansion, and plant gardens in a place subject to frequent earthquakes, that would overturn all into confusion, would not his folly be conspicuous? Yet how many practice themselves what they would deride in others? They set their heart upon the things of the world, which are liable to a thousand changes, and must shortly be parted with forever. The slaves of honor, which are so swelled with airy titles of greatness, and the flattering respects of others, must shortly be divested of all; and when laid in their tombs, the trophies of vanity, will be insensible of the renown and applause of the world. Alexander the Great is long since dead to the pleasure of his immortal name. And death will make a final separation between the rich and their treasures, and put an end to all the delights of men. Now, what folly is it to prefer a felicity that is deceitful in the enjoyment, and leaves the soul empty when it most fills it, and that is so vain and transitory, over an eternal heaven: a blessedness that surpasses our hopes, that secures our fears, that satisfies our immense desires; a blessedness that the humane understanding in all the capacity of its thoughts is not able to comprehend; a blessedness becoming the majesty and magnificence of God that bestows it. What madness to despise heaven, as if the eternity of the next world were but a moment, and to love this world as if this momentary life were an eternity. The full aggravation of this dyes the love of the world with the deepest tincture of folly, as will become apparent by considering:
A. It is a voluntary chosen folly. Thus the divine wisdom with passion reproaches wretched sinners, “How long you simple ones, will you love simplicity?” (Prov. 1:22). This heightens their character to love, so obstinately, what is so unlovely and unbecoming the reasonable nature. The light of reason and revelation discovers the vanity of the world: it is not for want of evidence, but for want of using the light, that men do not discern their wretched mistake. God complains in the prophet, “My people do not consider” (Isa. 1:3). The means of restoring men to a sound mind is by due consideration. The soul, retired from the world, and makes a solemn enquiry: For what end am I created? For what do I consume my time? If my endeavors are all for the earth, what remains for heaven? What do I prepare, what shall attend me, what shall I meet in the next state? How long will it be before I must leave the visible world, and after the irrevocable step into the next, immediately appear before the enlightened tribunal of God, whose judgment is so strict, that the “Righteous are scarcely saved” (see I Pet. 4:18), and so heavy that the strongest sinners cannot endure? Can the world prevent my doom to hell, or release me from it? Will the remembrance of enjoyments here, afford any refreshment in everlasting burnings? By such sad and frequent soliloquies, the vicious sensual affections are eradicated, and the heart is transplanted from earth to heaven. If men would wisely ponder things, if conscience, the sincere and unsuspected judge did hold the balance, and put into one scale the glory, the riches, and pleasures of this world; and into the other the promises that belong to godliness here and hereafter how despicably light how will they be found? It was truly said, that false scarlet appears with luster, until compared with the rich and true; so the fictitious felicity of this world is very specious, and ravishes the mind of men, until compared with celestial felicity. Worldly honor is counterfeit, because it is no certain argument of inherent worth. Vain-glory and real infamy, often meet in the same person: yet it is admired, and ambitiously sought, until compared with the Honor of the saints. What is a reputation and honor with the worms and moles of the earth, compared with the honor that comes from the esteem of God, and angels, and other blessed spirits above, who incomparably exceed all mortals in number, and infinitely in understanding? What is a vanishing shadow of reputation, against an eternal inestimable weight of glory? What are the riches of this world, gold and silver, and jewels, for gaining of which so many lose their souls, but vile trash compared with the sacred treasures of heaven, the graces of the saints? What are the empty delights of the senses compared with the “peace of conscience, and joy in the holy ghost” (Rom. 14:7), that can sweeten all our sorrows here, and the fullness of joy that springs from God’s presence in heaven? If men would make judicious comparisons, their affections would cool towards perishing vanities. But they will only look upon what is pleasant and attractive to the world, without regarding its miserable defects, without considering what is infinitely better, and most worthy of their ardent desires and vigorous endeavors. They are so pleased with their error, so engaged in the sweet capacity of the world, that they cannot extricate themselves if they would, because they will not if they could.
B. It is a culpable and guilty folly. Children prefer things of luster before things of value, their childish toys, before real treasures. They choose a little present enjoyment, before a future good that is incomparably better, their folly is innocent, because reason cannot display its operations in them. But when men, who are capable to distinguish between the things that “are seen and temporal, and the things that are not seen and eternal” (see II Cor. 4:18); when they sottishly prefer sensual things before the spiritual, notwithstanding the vast difference between them, both in the quality and duration, their choice is so criminal, as deserves an everlasting hell. If Esau had been a child when he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, his folly would have been excused; for he was compelled by hunger; and the glorious dignity of the birthright was disproportionate to his appetite and understanding. But in his mature age, when capable to understand his interest, to part with so sacred and precious an advantage, for a little sensual satisfaction, was so profane an act that he was justly deprived of the divine blessing that was annexed to the birthright. That beasts are wholly led by their sensual appetites is natural and regular. Their voracity and cruelty, folly and filthiness, envy and fury, are not vicious passions, because sense is the superior faculty in them. But when men are so brutish that the objects that please their eyes and carnal senses are the only attractives of their affections, it is unnatural and monstrous, because reason should have the supremacy in them. The body considered as the seat of the senses, has natural appetites, and might enjoy what is suitable to them according to their capacity; but united with an immortal spirit, that is stamped with the living image of God. Its desires must be limited and directed by the mind, and the pleasing of sense in actions forbidden of the mind, is rebellion against the ruling faculty. If one be under a disease that wine inflames and increases, and the physician forbids it as deadly, yet the patient will judge only by his palate whether wine be good for him; were it not a kind of brutishness worthy of the evil that attends it? Such perverse folly are men guilty of in their sensual satisfactions, whereby the soul is unspeakable wronged, and God highly dishonored, who has given to man a more excellent spirit, than the fowls of the air, that he may judge of things, not as they appear, but as they are.
C. It is the most ignominious folly. Shame arises from the sense of a debased excellence: the understanding is the most excellent faculty in man, and nothing brings a greater disreputation to him, than when he is deceived by the ignorance or inconsiderateness of his mind. And the delusion is most shameful in matters of great moment. Now for a man to exchange his soul, that is of angelical eminence, for transitory vanities: O folly! How enormous, how astonishing! The Lord Jesus, who as the Creator, and Redeemer of Souls, perfectly knew their worth, puts the question, so as to imply the strongest denial, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or, what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). The vanity of purchase, and the value of the loss, is such that no man, conscious of his immortality in the next state, can help but acknowledge that he is an infinite loser, and a prodigious fool, who gains the world by the loss of his soul. It is said of the ancient Germans, that in their commerce with the Romans, receiving silver for their amber that has no virtue but to draw straws to it, they were amazed at the price. And certainly the great tempter cannot but wonder at the foolish exchange that men make, in giving their immortal souls to him for perishing vanities; and having this scornful advantage, will much more upbraid them hereafter, than ever he allured them here. The shame that attends this folly is sometimes felt by sinners in this world, when they are shaken out of their stupefying slumber, and fully awaked to discover their evil choice. Thus the apostle speaks, “What fruit had you of those things whereof you are now ashamed, for the end of those things is death?” (Rom. 6:21). When the memory of sin is revived, with a true judgment of it, that which has emptiness in the beginning, and death in the issue, must have shame in the middle. The prophet tells us, “He that gets riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool” (Jer. 17:11). He was a fool all along that deceived others, though reputed worldly wise, but in the issue, when that which he gained cannot be kept (and the soul being lost, can never be recovered), by the conviction of his conscience, he is a fool and reflects upon his past folly with confusion. But at the last day, the shame of foolish sinners shall be displayed before the eyes of the whole world. It is foretold, that “some shall rise to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Obscurity is the mask of shame, but to be exposed, a spectacle of scorn before a thronged theatre, is the aggravation and eminence of the shame. How confounding will the shame of sinners be in the universal confluence of angels and saints, and the presence of the glorious God, the judge of all? The sense of their guilt and folly will sting them forever.
D. It is the most woeful folly. Here such mischievous effects proceed from it as deserve the saddest lamentation. The understanding, the highest faculty, the beauty and excellency of man, is blinded, the will is fettered by corrupt passions, and the whole man miserably enslaved to Satan. What a spectacle of compassion was Samson in the slavery of the Philistines? He that had been the general and judge of Israel, was deprived of his sight, and divine strength: his warlike hands, which had been of equal power with an army, and performed such glorious achievements, were employed in turning a mill, the work of a beast. And his misery was pointed and made sharper by the insultation of his enemies. The true emblem of the degenerate state of Men; the soul that was created in the image of God, and had a peaceful sovereignty over the sensual appetites, a superiority over sensible things, is now enslaved and employed in the vile drudgery of sin, and become the derision of the devils. This is little thought of, or lamented, but therefore the more woeful. The loss of the kingdom was not so dismal a judgment to Nebuchadnezzar, as the loss of his understanding. When his reason was taken away, and the heart of a beast was given to him, it was the lowest and saddest degradation.
But hereafter the misery of foolish sinners will be extreme. The apostle tells us that the love of the world causes men “to fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (I Tim. 6:9). The expressions are full to exaggerate the horror of their ruins, and to signify that it is absolute and irrecoverable. The lusts of men are equally foolish and pernicious; they please themselves in the enjoyments of the world, and are secure, as if bathing in the fountains of felicity, when ready to be swallowed up the whirlpool of death. By sensual vanities they are estranged from God, careless of their duty, and are finally separated from his blessed presence. And as the enjoying God, without a possibility of losing him, is our consummate happiness; so to lose Him, without hopes of ever enjoying Him, is extreme misery. The foolish sinner is not affected with this now; while he lives in pleasure, he is content to be without God in the world; but hereafter, when he shall be deprived of these slight short-lived pleasures, and shall know the invaluable loss of his happiness, sorrows will overwhelm him forever. As it befell that infidel in 2 Kings 8, he saw the plenty, but was not suffered to taste of it; so the damned shall see the glory of heaven shining in the saints, but shall not partake of it.