Say not you, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
What a softening power there is in distance; how often an object, on which you gazed with great delight while beheld afar off, will lose its attractiveness when it is brought near. Every admirer of the natural landscape is thoroughly conscious of this. Now, we are inclined to suppose that there is much the same power in distance, with regard to what we may call the moral landscape, which is so universally acknowledged with regard to the natural. We believe that what is rough becomes so softened, and what is hard so mellowed through being viewed in the retrospect, that we are hardly fair judges of much on which we bestow unqualified admiration. If, however, it were only the softening power of distance which had to be taken into the account, it might be necessary to caution men against judging without making allowance for this power, but we should scarcely have to charge it upon them as a fault, that they looked so complacently on what was far back. But from one cause or another men become disgusted with the days in which their lot is cast, and are therefore disposed to the concluding that past days were better. Whence does it arise that old people are so fond of talking of the degeneracy of the times, and referring to the days when they were young, as days when all things were in a healthier and more pleasing condition? If you were to put implicit faith in the representations you would conclude that there was nothing which had not changed for the worse, and that it was indeed a great misfortune that you had not been born half a century sooner. And here comes into play the precept of our text — "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this." To quote the words of a brilliant modern historian: "The more carefully we examine the history of the past, the more reason shall we find to dissent from those who imagine that our ago has been fruitful of new social evils. The truth is, that the evils are, with scarcely an exception, old. That which is new is the intelligence which discerns them, and the humanity which relieves them." But we shall speak only of the religious advantages of different times, in endeavouring to prove "that the former days" were not "better than these."
1. And first, it ought to be carefully observed in regard of human nature that it did not grow corrupt by degrees, but became all at once as bad as it was ever to be. The being who had been formed in the very image of his Maker became instantly capable of the most heinous of crimes; and so far was human nature from requiring long familiarity with wickedness, in order to the learning to commit it in its most atrocious shapes, that well nigh its first essay after apostatizing from God was one which still fills us with horror, notwithstanding our daily acquaintance with a thousand foul deeds. Sin was never an infant; it was a giant in the very birth; and forasmuch as we should have had precisely the same evil nature whensoever we had lived, it would be very hard to show that any former period would have been better for us than the present. You may fix on a time when there was apparently less of open wickedness, but this would not necessarily have been a better time for individual piety. The religion of the heart, perhaps, flourishes most when there is most to move to zeal for the insulted law of God. Or you may fix upon a time when there was apparently less of misery; but we need not say that this would not necessarily have been a better time for growth in Christian holiness, seeing that confessedly it is amidst the deepest sorrows that the strongest virtues are produced. So that if a man regard himself as a candidate for immortality, we can defy him to put his finger on an age of the past, in which, as compared with the present, it would necessarily have been more advantageous for him to live.
2. Now, we are quite aware that this general statement does not exactly meet the several points which will suggest themselves to an inquiring mind; but we propose to examine next certain of the reasons which might be likely to lead men to a different conclusion from that which seems stated in our text. And here again we must narrow the field of inquiry, and confine ourselves to points in which, as Christians, we have an especial interest. Would any former days have been better days for us, estimating the superiority by the superior facilities for believing the Christian religion, and acquiring the Christian character? In answering such a question, we must take separately the evidences and the truths of our holy religion. And first, as to the evidences. There is a very common and a very natural feeling with regard to the evidences of Christianity, that they must have been much stronger and much clearer, as presented to those who lived in the times of our Lord and of His apostles, than as handed down to ourselves through a long succession of witnesses. Many are disposed to imagine that if with their own eyes they could see miracles wrought, they should have a proof on the side of Christianity far more convincing than any which they actually have, and that there would be no room whatever for a lingering doubt if they stood by a professed teacher from God, whilst he stilled the tempest, or raised the dead. Why should such superior power be supposed to reside in the seeing a miracle? The only thing to be sure about is, that the miracle has been wrought. There are two ways of gaining this assurance: the one is by the testimony of the senses, the other is by the testimony of competent witnesses. The first, the testimony of the senses, is granted to the spectator of a miracle; only the second, the testimony of witnesses, to those who are not present at the performance. But shall it be said that the latter must necessarily be less satisfactory than the former? Shall it be said that those who have not visited Constantinople cannot be as certain that there is such a city as others who have? The testimony of witnesses may be every jot as conclusive as the testimony of your own senses. Though, even if we were forced to concede that the spectator of a miracle has necessarily a superiority over those to whom the miracle travels down in the annals of well-attested history, we should be far enough from allowing that there is less evidence now on the side of Christianity than was granted to the men of some preceding age. Let it be, that the evidence of miracle is not so clear and powerful as it was; what is to be said of the evidence of prophecy? Who will venture to deny, that as century has rolled away after century, fresh witness has been given to the Bible by the' accomplishment of the predictions recorded in its pages? The stream of evidence has been like that beheld in mystic vision by Ezekiel, when waters issued out from the eastern gate of the temple. Yes, the Christian religion now appeals to mightier proofs than when it first engaged in combat with the superstitions of the world. Its own protracted existence, its own majestic triumphs, witness for it with a voice far more commanding than that which was heard when its first preachers called to the dead, and were answered by their starting into life. Away, then, with the thought that it would have been better for those who are dissatisfied with the evidences of Christianity, had they lived when Christianity was first promulgated on earth.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.