“Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”—Psal. 90:16, 17.
In every undertaking we have an end or ends to answer, to which all our labours are directed. It is no less so in religious undertakings than in others; and as these are pure and worthy of pursuit, such is the good or evil of our exertions. What are, or at least should be, the great ends of a Christian congregation in rearing a place for Divine worship? What are the main desires of serious people among you now it is reared? If I mistake not, they are depicted in the passage I have read:—That God’s work may appear among you in your own time—that it may be continued to posterity—that God would beautify you with salvation—and prosper the work of your hands.
The Psalm was written by Moses, probably on occasion of the sentence of mortality passed upon the generation of Israelites which came out of Egypt, on account of their unbelief, as recorded in the fourteenth chapter of Numbers. It was a heavy sentence, and very affectingly lamented by the holy man; but he discovers a greater concern for the cause of God than for the loss of temporal comfort. He prays that they may be taught to make such a use of this awful providence as to apply their hearts unto wisdom; and that however God might afflict them, during forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, he would bless them with spiritual prosperity.
This prayer was answered. That generation which was trained in the wilderness was, perhaps, the best that Israel exhibited during their existence as a nation. It was of them that the Lord himself spoke, saying, “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel then was holiness to the Lord.” May our prayer for the prosperity of God’s cause among us be thus answered.
All I shall attempt will be to review the objects desired, and show the desirableness of them.
The objects desired, though expressed by the Jewish lawgiver, have nothing in them peculiar to that dispensation; but are equally suited to our times as to others. They prove that the cause of God is one, through every dispensation, and is directed to one great end—the establishment of truth and righteousness in the earth.
The first branch of this comprehensive petition is that God’s work might appear unto his servants. All God’s works are great. Creation is full of his glory; providence is no less so: and each is sought out by them that have pleasure therein. But it is evident that by the work of God, in this connexion, is meant the operation of his grace. When the Almighty took Israel to be his people, he bestowed blessings upon them of two kinds—temporal and spiritual. He gave them the promise of a good land, and of great prosperity, in case of their obedience to his will. But this was not all; he set up his cause among them. They were his visible people, by whom true religion was practised, and its interests promoted. It is the carrying on of this cause that is here intended. It was begun from the time when God made promise to Abraham their grand progenitor, and was carried on during the lives of the patriarchs. When they were brought out of Egypt with a high hand, and formed into a people for himself, it became more apparent, and wore a more promising aspect; but when they were doomed to die in the wilderness, it seemed as if it must sink. Hence Moses, who was tenderly affected with what concerned the honour of God, pleads as he does. Thus he pleaded his great name on a former occasion: and thus the prophet Habakkuk pleaded when Judah was going into captivity, and the cause of God was likely to be ruined: “O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years; in the midst of the years make known: in wrath remember mercy.”
The work of God may be said to appear among us when sinners are converted to himself. Conversion is not confined to Jews and heathens; but extends to sinners of all ages and nations. It is not enough that we are born and educated under the light of revelation, nor that we yield a traditional assent to it. Nicodemus could boast of all this, and more; yet he was told by the faithful and true Witness, that, “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” Conversion work is peculiarly the work of God. Ministers and parents may be the instruments, but God is the proper cause of it. None but he who made the heart of man can turn it from its rooted aversion to the love of himself. Ministers and parents know this by painful experience; and therefore can each adopt the prayer here presented as their own. Wherever this work is, it will appear by its holy and happy effects. The drunkard will become sober, the churl liberal, the unclean chaste, and the malignant persecutor of Christ’s people a humble sufferer for his name’s sake.
The work of God will also appear among us if Christians grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The power of Divine grace is no less apparent in the carrying on of God’s work, than in the beginning of it. Nothing short of an almighty arm can preserve creatures, so prone to fall away, from falling, and present those who are so faulty “faultless before the presence of his glory.” And where this part of the work is, it will appear also by its holy and happy effects. Such Christians bear the most impressive testimony to the world of the reality and importance of religion.
A second branch of the petition is, that God’s work might so appear as that there might be an illustrious display of his glory. All God’s works display his glory; but the work of grace in the salvation of sinners most of all. Other things manifest his wisdom and power; but this his holy nature. The carrying on of his cause in the world, by the conversion and sanctification of sinners, gives a kind of visibility to the Divine character. It is seen, and even felt, by the most abandoned of men. God is said to have appeared in his glory in building up Zion, after it had been broken down by the Chaldeans. Even the heathen, when they saw what he had wrought, could not forbear to acknowledge, “The Lord hath done great things for them!” But the building up of the gospel church, by turning the captivity of those who were the slaves of Satan, is still more glorious. The Lord could accomplish the former merely by his providence; but the latter is the effect of the travail of his soul.
It is requested, thirdly, that God would impart to them his beauty: “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us!”—All God’s works are beautiful; but saints, who are his workmanship, are the subjects of a holy beauty, or of the beauty of holiness. They are comely through the comeliness which he puts upon them. Conceive of the camp of Israel after they had been humbled, and taught to fear the Lord their God. Two or three hundred thousand godly young people, following him implicitly in the wilderness, and trembling at the idea of repeating the iniquities of their fathers! This was a sight at which even a wicked prophet was struck with awe, and could not forbear exclaiming, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!” Powerful are the charms of genuine piety. There is something in it that disarms malignity itself, and extorts admiration even from those who hate it. Milton represents the devil himself, on his approaching Paradise, as awed by innocence, as staggered, as half inclined to desist from his purpose, and feeling a kind of perturbation within him, composed of malignity and pity. Something like this existed, methinks, in Balaam. He wanders from hill to mountain, seeking for curses, but scattering blessings; sometimes half inclined to unite with God, and concluding with a vain desire to die the death of the righteous. Powerful, I repeat it, are the charms of genuine piety. Conceive of a society of Christians drinking into the spirit of Christ, and walking according to his commandments! What an amiable sight! “Beautiful as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, and terrible as an army with banners!” So much as we possess of the spirit of true religion, so near as we approach its original simplicity, so far as our doctrine is incorrupt, our discipline pure and impartial, and our conversation as becometh the gospel, so much of “the beauty of the Lord our God” is upon us.
A fourth branch of the petition is, that God would set his seal to their undertakings, and establish the work of their hands. “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” It was the work of Moses and Joshua, and the rest of God’s servants, to mould and form the people, especially the rising generation; to instruct them in the words of the Lord, and impress their hearts with the vast importance of obeying them. And this has been the work of God’s servants in every age. This is our object in our stated and occasional labours, in village-preaching, and in foreign missions; this is the object in the present undertaking: but all is nothing, unless God establish the work of our hands. “Except the Lord build the house, the builders labour in vain.” As we must never confide in God to the neglect of means; so we must never engage in the use of means without a sense of our dependence on God.
It is requested, finally, that these blessings might both appear in their own times, and be continued to their posterity: “Let thy work appear unto thy servants” who are now alive, “and thy glory unto their children,” when they are no more. It is desirable that true religion should be promoted in our time. This, indeed, should be our first and chief concern. Worldly men may care nothing about this. If they gain but the corn, the wine, and the oil, it is enough for them; but God’s servants cannot be happy with mere temporal prosperity, if the interest of Christ do not prosper. Nehemiah might have lived in affluence at the court of Persia; but he could not enjoy it while the city of his God was going to ruins. The true labourers in God’s husbandry long to see it abound in fruits: the builders of his temple desire to see it rise.—And though our times lie nearest us, yet our prayers and efforts must not be confined to them, but extend to posterity. The succeeding generation should lie near our hearts. In them we hope for materials for God’s building. The prayer of David would fit the lips of every godly man, and especially of every godly parent; “That our sons may be as olive-plants, grown up in their youth; and our daughters as corner-stones, polished after the similitude of a palace!”
Such were the particular objects desired: I shall only add a few words on their desirableness.
We have seen already that the manifestation of the glory of God depends on the progress of his work: by how much, therefore, we are concerned for the one, by so much shall we be importunate for the other. It is for the glory of God that Satan’s kingdom should be overturned, and the kingdom of his Son established on its ruins. This work is the harvest of all God’s other works of glory. It was glorious in him to promise to give his Son the heathen for his inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession: but the glory of this also depends upon its being performed. It was glorious for Christ to die, that he might purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works; but it is by the actual accomplishment of this object that his glory is perfected. It was glorious for God in his providence to drive out paganism and popery from this kingdom; but if it stop here, what are we the better? The cutting down of weeds will be of but little use, if the pure seed be not sown, and spring up, and bring forth fruit in their place.
The progress of God’s work in heathen countries has a close connexion also with our spiritual prosperity at home. There is much beauty and propriety in the petitions offered up in the sixty-seventh Psalm: “God be merciful unto us.… that thy way may be known upon earth, they saving health among all nations!” God blesses the world by blessing the church, and making it a blessing. A statesman would wish for an increase in population, that the army and navy, and every other department of society, might be filled; and shall not we pray for the prosperity of the church of God, that faithful ministers, missionaries, and every other description of Christians, may not be wanting?
Finally, The regard we bear to the souls of men, especially to the rising generation, must render these blessings desirable. It is not yours, but you, that we seek. Our hearts’ desire, and prayer to God for you, is, that you may be saved. If we recommend you to attend the gospel and embrace it, is it because we want to enlist you under the banner of a party? God knoweth! Yet we shall say to you, and especially to the rising generation, as Moses said to Hobab, “Come with us, and we will do you good; for the Lord,” we trust, “hath spoken good concerning” us … “And it shall come to pass, that whatsoever good thing the Lord shall do unto us, that will we do unto you.”
Excerpt from “Desire for the Success of God’s Cause,” Sermon XXXVIII. Delivered at the opening of a new Baptist Meeting-house at Boston, Lincolnshire, June 25, 1801
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 413–417). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.