Say not you, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
The matter in controversy is, the pre-eminence of the former times above the present; when we must observe, that though the words run in the form of a question, yet they include a positive assertion, and a downright censure.
1. That it is ridiculous to ask why former times are better than the present, if really they are not better, and so the very supposition itself proves false; this is too apparently manifest to be matter of dispute: and that it is false we shall endeavour to prove.
(1) By reason: because there were the same objects to work upon men, and the same dispositions and inclinations in men to be wrought upon, before, that there are now. All the affairs of the world are the births and issue of men's actions; and all actions come from the meeting and collision of faculties with suitable objects. There were then the same incentives of desire on the one side, the same attractiveness in riches, the same relish in sovereignty, the same temptation in beauty, the same delicacy in meats and taste in wines; and, on the other side, there were the same appetites of covetousness and ambition, the same fuel of lust and intemperance.
(2) The same may be proved by history, and the records of antiquity; and he who would give it the utmost proof that it is capable of from this topic must speak volumes, and preach libraries, bring a century within a line, and an age into every period. Is the wickedness of the old world forgot, that we do so aggravate the tempest of this? In those clays there were giants in sin, at well as sinners of the first magnitude, and of the largest size and proportion. And to take the world in a lower epochs, what after-age could exceed the lust of the Sodomites, the idolatry and tyranny of the Egyptians, the fickle levity of the Grecians? and that monstrous mixture of all baseness in the Roman Nerds, Caligulas, and Domitians, emperors of the world, and slaves to their vice? I conceive the state of the Christian Church also may come within the compass of our present discourse. Take it in its infancy, and with the properties of infancy, it was weak and naked, vexed with poverty, torn with persecution, and infested with heresy. It began the breach with Simon Magus, continued it with Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Aerius, some rending her doctrine, some her discipline; and what are the heresies that now trouble it, but new editions of the old with further gloss and enlargement?
2. I shall now take it in a lower respect; as a case disputable, whether the preceding or succeeding generations are to be preferred; and here I shall dispute the matter on both sides.
(1) And first for antiquity, and the former ages, we may plead thus. Certainly everything is purest in the fountain and most untainted in the original. The dregs are still the most likely to settle in the bottom, and to sink into the last ages. The world cannot but be the worse for wearing; and it must needs have contracted much dross, when at the last it cannot be purged but by a universal fire.
(2) But secondly, for the pre-eminence of the succeeding ages above the former, it may be disputed thus: If the honour be due to antiquity, then certainly the present age must claim it, for the world is now oldest, and therefore upon the very right of seniority may challenge the precedency; for certainly, the longer the world lasts, the older it grows. And if wisdom ought to be respected, we know that it is the offspring of experience, and experience the child of age and continuance. In every thing and action it is not the beginning, but the end that is regarded: it is still the issue that crowns the work, and the Amen that seals the petition: the plaudite is given to the last act: and Christ reserved the best wine to conclude the feast; nay, a fair beginner would be but the aggravation of a bad end. And if we plead original, we know that sin is strongest in its original; and we are taught whence to date that. The lightest things float at the top of time, but if there be such a thing as a golden age, its mass and weight must needs sink it to the bottom and concluding ages of the world. In sum, it was the fulness of time which brought Christ into the world; Christianity was a reserve for the last: and it was the beginning of time which was infamous for man's fall and ruin; so, in Scripture, they are called the "last days" and the "ends of the world," which are ennobled with his redemption. But lastly, if the following ages were not the best, whence is it that the older men grow the more still they desire to live? Now such things as these may be disputed in favour of the latter times beyond the former.
3. That admitting this supposition as true, that the former ages are really the best, and to be preferred: yet still this querulous reflection upon the evil of the present times, stands obnoxious to the same charge of folly: and, if it be condemned also upon this supposition, I see not where it can take sanctuary. Now that it ought to be so, I demonstrate by these reasons.
(1) Because such complaints have no efficacy to alter or remove the cause of them: thoughts and words alter not the state of things. The rage and expostulations of discontent are like a thunder without a thunderbolt, they vanish and expire into noise and nothing; and, like a woman, are only loud and weak.
(2) Such complaints of the evil of the times are irrational, because they only quicken the smart, and add to the pressure. Such querulous invectives against a standing government are like a stone flung at a marble pillar, which not only makes no impression upon that, but rebounds and hits the flinger in the face.
(3) These censorious complaints of the evil of the times are irrational, because the just cause of them is resolvable into ourselves. It is not the times that debauch men, but men that derive and rob a contagion upon the time: and it is still the liquor that first taints and infects the vessel.
(R. South, D. 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.