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. 10
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
It now follows that by application we should make this great doctrine more useful to ourselves.
In the general, it is of excellent use to rectify our judgments about the things and men of the world. The most are miserably deluded, and live in a blindness so gross and misleading, that they feel secure when near steep ruin. Asclepius being blind, mournfully complained, that he was said to be led by a child: but carnal men are voluntarily guided by sense and fancy, the false lights that rule in children, and blindly follow, without considering who is their leader, and whither they are led. Or they are like one in a slumber, who is strongly affected with slight things: a scene of fancy in a dream transports him as a glorious reality; a prick of a pin makes him start as fearfully as if a viper bit him. Thus carnal men are as deeply affected with temporal good and evil things, as if they were eternal, wherein their blessedness or misery consists. And there is nothing of greater use and defense to the soul, than to make a true judgment of things that greatly and nearly concern us. From thence proceeds a wise choice, a well-ordered conversation, and upon it our blessed end depends. For as the rudder is to a ship, the will is to man; if it be duly turned it conducts him safely to felicity.
The particular just inferences from the doctrine are:
1. Temporal prosperity is not a certain sign of God’s special favor. There are some benefits dispersed by a general providence to all, like the common benefits of a prince to all within his dominions, and then there are some are like special gifts to his favorites. Of the first kind are riches and honors, and whatever is the support or comfort of the present life. Of the second are spiritual and heavenly blessings, the graces and comforts of the Holy Spirit of God, the infallible seal of His love to us. The Psalmist prays, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favor you bear unto Thy people: O visit me with Thy salvation” (Psalm 106:4). There is a favor common to all men as His creatures, and the fruits of it are promiscuous to the evil and the good: but the favor from whence proceeds grace and glory, is the privilege of His chosen.
2. The temporal prosperity of the wicked is consistent with God’s hatred. When men turn His blessings into the fuel of their lusts, and His patience into an advantage of sinning more securely, how flourishing soever they are in the world, He looks on them with an avenging eye. He hates all the workers of iniquity. His seeming connivance is no argument that He is not highly provoked by their sins, or that they may obtain an easy pardon. Yet this is the inward principle of the gross and outward sins in the lives of men, though unobserved by them. As the vital heat is not felt in the heart, it is the cause of all the heat that is felt in the outward parts of the body. “These things hast thou done”, (says God to the rebellious sinner) “and I kept silence”, that is, suspended the terrible effects of justice, “you thought I was altogether such a one as thyself” (Psalm 50:21). Astonishing blindness! Not to discern the apparent antipathy of such connections. As if God’s forbearance of the guilty were forgiveness: and rebellion against His commands, and the love of sin which is enmity to Him, were consistent with the fruition of His favor. But we have the most clear and convincing assurance, that God cannot be pleased with men, without their being made like Him in righteousness and true holiness. He sees and hates sin, and abhors the sinners though for a time they are spared. Justice and patience are His attributes: “He is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not acquit the guilty. He endures with much patience the vessels of wrath, till they are fitted for destruction” (Nahum 1:3). The presumptuous sinner that is encouraged and hardened (as if sin were not so hateful to God), because he enjoys the world in abundance, and expects as easy remission at last, fearfully deceives his soul: He sows the wind, and shall reap the whirlwind (see Hosea 8:7)
3. The prosperity of the wicked is so far from being a sign of God’s love, that it often proceeds from His deepest displeasure. It is a curse candied over with a little vanishing sweetness, but deadly in the operation. It makes people careless of God and their souls of heaven and eternity, and they become irrecoverable in their lost state. Prosperity induces false security, that presages and accelerates their ruin. It is expressed as the most fearful and sorest judgment by the prophet, “The Lord has poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep” (Isaiah 29:10), an insensibleness of the worst evils, their sins, and the infinite danger that attends them. This judgment is usually inflicted from the righteous God by the prosperity of the wicked, and extremely provokes Him, it being a sin of the greatest guilt, as well as a punishment of former high provocations. It is a distinguishing judgment inflicted upon His enemies, from which His children are exempted. Other judgments that cause grief and trouble to sinners, often incline His compassions to them; but this judgment inflames His wrath. In short, the prosperity of the wicked here, is a fatal sign they are reserved for the severity of justice, for their abuse of the riches of His mercy: and of all judgments that is more terrible, that insensibly destroys, and certainly brings damnation.
4. From hence we are instructed to look upon prosperous sinners with pity; not with envy and indignation. They please themselves, and triumph in their conceited happiness, as the psalmist expressed it, “While he live, he blessed his soul” (Ps. 49:18). But how contrary is the opinion of vain men to the judgment of Christ. He pronounced (and upon His sentence depends eternity), “Woe unto you that are rich, for you have received your consolation! Woe unto you that are full, for you shall hunger; Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24ff). And we are told by the inspired prophet, “Man that is in honor, and understands not” (that does not consider the vanity and frail tenure of his present flourishing state; nor his duty and interest to employ his riches, power, and greatness, for securing his everlasting felicity) “is like the beasts that perish” (Ps. 49:21), that is, stupid and insensible of approaching ruin, like the beast that was to be sacrificed, and did not perceive that the gilding its horns, and adorning it with garlands, was a sign it was destined to death. They now live in ease and pleasures; but they must shortly remove from their rich possessions, and splendid palaces, to the dark regions of woe, and death will be an entrance into endless sorrows. “The laughter of fools is like the crackling of thorns under the pot” (Eccl. 7:6), a short blaze soon damped and extinguished.
It is a dreadful imprecation of the holy psalmist: “Let their way be dark and slippery; and let the angel of the Lord persecute them” (Ps. 35:6). To fly in the dark and in slippery places, and so to fall into the mire and pits, is a fit emblem of their condition, who are prosperous and wicked. They are hoodwinked by prosperity, in a voluntary darkness, and see not the precipices that surround them. And how slippery is their way by so numerous and insinuating temptations! How easily, how frequently and dangerously do they fall, and both defile and wound themselves!Briefly, they are truly miserable here, even while they most pleasantly and contentedly enjoy the world. They are accumulating the treasures of wrath, and preparing new torments for their souls. They stand upon brittle ice, and hell is beneath ready to swallow them up in its deepest gulf. As it is said by the apostle, concerning the saints deadened by sorrows here, that their glorious life is hid in God, and shall illustriously appear with Christ at His second coming (see Col. 3:3ff). So the terrible death of the wicked, while they flourish here, is hid from the eyes of sense, but shall be revealed in the day of wrath. And to a wise observer, to a serious believer, the prosperous sinner is the most unhappy and compassionable object in the world; for he perishes by such a flattering kind of death that he is neither apprehensive, nor affected with his danger.
And when an illuminate Christian sees the marks of damnation in sinners, whom prosperity deceives and hardens, he cannot but be tenderly moved, and is obliged most earnestly to pray to the merciful Father of Spirits, whose grace is omnipotent, that He would recover their lapsed souls, bleeding to eternal death. If there be any heavenly charity in our breasts, it will melt our hearts, and dissolve us in tears to prevent, or at least to solemnize and lament their heavy destiny.
5. From hence we are instructed to judge truly and wisely of afflictions: they are the necessary and merciful dispensations of heaven, to recover sinners corrupted by prosperity, and to return them to God. Sense, though its principal end is to preserve the body, is not always a fit judge of things beneficial to it; the appetites and aversions are sometimes pernicious: One in a dropsy drinks to quench his thirst and increases his distemper. A bitter potion is rejected by a sick child, not considering that a medicine, not sweet meats, can cure his disease. The pleasure of the taste, is no certain indication of what is wholesome for health: Much more incapable is sense to judge of what is useful for the soul. Reason is entirely renounced, and fallacious sense is on the throne, when prosperity with its gaudy allurements is esteemed as our happiness, and adversity is abhorred as the worst misery. The wise man instructed by dear experience tells us, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: For that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: For by the sadness of countenance, the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4). Prosperity irritates and fortifies the sensual vile affections, the pleasing of which is fatal to the soul. As it is observed by the natural historian, that the sparkling color and delicious relish of wine, tempts men to drinking without thirst, and from intemperance, innumerable diseases flow.
Prosperity diverts the mind from considering the things that belong to our eternal peace, and the will from consenting to them. The thoughts are so scattered abroad, that few are left at home, duly to ponder the miserable effects of sin. Not in this the rules of natural and spiritual medicine agree, that one extreme is to be cured by another. The devil cruelly destroys the souls of men by the pleasures of sin; and God, the wise and compassionate Physician, recovers them by bitter sorrows, the most congruous and powerful means for that blessed effect.
Affliction makes us retire within our hearts, and shuts out the noisy throng of worldly distracting objects; and then truth and conscience, that were under unrighteous restraints, will break the fetters, and speak loudly and terribly to the sinner. Affliction fixes the mind on those objects, that duly considered, are able to terrify the most determined and resolved sinner. There is no man so prodigiously bad, so perfectly a brute, but has at times some twinges of conscience, some workings in his Spirit, some desires of salvation. Even Balaam, who in the judgment of the angel was more stupid than the donkey he rode on, yet had some springing in his heart towards heaven: “O that I might die the death of righteous, and my last end may be like his” (Numb. 23:10): But these are fleeting and variable, and so weak in comparison of the opposite desires of the flesh, that while prosperity continues, they prove abortive. Now, affliction deadens the flaming edge of the affection to vanity. When the sinner feels the truth of the divine threatening, then he is effectually convinced of the evil of sin, and understands, by beginning of sorrows here, what the issues will be hereafter, and retracts his foolish choice. In the time of affliction, our sins find us out; and it is more likely we shall then find our sins out, and with repenting tears acknowledge them, and with hatred renounce them.
Now the consideration of the designed benefit by afflictions, should reconcile them to our wills, and persuade us, with patience and thankfulness, to accept of them as the testimonies of God’s peculiar favor. Our Savior declares, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19). God is often most angry, when a man make no sensible discovery that He is so. Thus He threatens the rebellious Jews, “I will make my fury towards you to rest, and my jealousy shall depart from three, and I will be quiet, and will be no more angry” (Ezekiel 16:42), implying a final divorce, leaving them to their impure idolatries, without more correction. If there be such a hardness of heart as the fire cannot melt, such a rush that the fire cannot purify, God will not waste His judgments on such desperate sinners. He withdraws His chastising hand, as hopeless of their amendment, and that desertion is a fatal signature of reprobation. And on the contrary, many times God’s love is most tender and compassionate to us, when to sense there is the least evidence of it. Even the heathens in the twilight, between the darkness of idolatry, and the light of nature, discovered that afflictions were the privilege of those that are regularly beloved of God. And Christians have a more sure word for their instruction, “Whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb 12:6). There is not a stronger evidence of His fatherly wise love, than the discipline of the rod; and the afflicted returning sinner may, with an adoptive assurance come to the throne of grace. By afflictions, the world is less enticing and hurtful to us, and heaven is more amiable and desirable: The things that are seen, are vilified and distasteful; and invisible things are sought with our highest esteem and respect, and zealous endeavors. Those lusts that spring and grow, and flourish in prosperity, are blasted and wither, and die in adversity. Those who forget God when prosperous in the world, are taught by the voice of the rod to adore His majesty, obey His laws, imitate His holiness, and humbly to accept of His mercy. By afflictions the sensual appetites are subdued and brought into order; a low state, is a protection from many strong and destructive temptations. Sickness that brings near the grace, and makes us feel how frail we are, renders the world despicable, that by their lusts so powerfully infatuates men to their ruin. Sanctified affliction, is a happy preparative for the fullness of joy in the blessed presence of God. The first to whom our savior promised the rest and joy of paradise, was the companion of His cross.
Let us therefore, with free judgments, and sincere affections, make an estimate of all sensible things, not judge ourselves to be in the favor of God by the good things received here, nor under His wrath by evil: Let us not be surprised at the prosperity of the wicked, nor shaken at the afflictions of the godly, but regulate our thoughts by the unerring wisdom of God, so clearly revealed in His word. He is propitious, when He denies or takes from us those temporal enjoyments that we are apt to abuse; and severe when He bestows them, and seems to indulge men’s carnal affections. It is but a little while, and the pleasures of sinners, and the afflictions of the saints, will end in a state directly contrary to what is enjoyed or suffered here. With God a thousand years are but as one day. The world is not of a weeks standing in the divine account: He measures all things by eternity. The vessels of mercy are by sanctified afflictions made fit for eternal glory. The vessels of wrath are by the abuse of His bounty and patience, fitted for eternal destruction.