Ebenezer Pemberton on Divine Meditation

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Ebenezer Pemberton, Jr. (1705-1777) was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). His father, Ebenezer Pemberton, Sr., served as pastor of the Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts; the younger Pemberton served as the pastor of the First (Wall Street) Presbyterian Church of New York City for 26 years.

He preached the ordination sermon for David Brainerd, as well as a notable sermon on the death of George Whitefield (published with Phillis Wheatley’s poem on Whitefield). These and other works by Pemberton (Jr.) have been recently added to Log College Press.

Another publication of note by Pemberton is the preface which he authored to Samuel Willard’s Some Brief Sacramental Meditations Preparatory for Communion at the Great Ordinance of the Supper (1743). Before praising the Puritan Willard, whose Sacramental Meditations were published posthumously, Pemberton highlighted the importance of Divine Meditation.

Divine Meditation is a religious exercise of great account in the School of Christ; and will be the employment of serious souls, that value their proficiency in Christianity. The very power and capacity for it argues the dignity of human nature; and the right exercise; and the right exercise of it will advance the soul to a divine and angelic perfection. This duty will afford the most agreeable employment, and pleasing entertainment to our thoughts, in their largest compass, and closest collection: it will exalt the most noble powers of the soul to satisfying converse with God the first Truth, and the supreme Good: And hence must be perspective of the soul in knowledge and holiness.

By meditation the mind comes to take a steady view of divine truths in their reality, excellency, and important aspect upon the soul. It chases away those clouds that veil the face of divine objects, that they may appear in their native beauty. There are indeed any times sudden flashes of light breaking into the soul by transient thoughts; which may afford hints, which, if improved and followed, would lead to many surprising and profitable discoveries of truth: yet this sudden blaze of thought, though never so bright, will not lay open the hidden mysteries of divine things to our view, unless the mind be brought by mediation to a holy praise upon them. These beams of truth may with their superficial touches for a moment lightly gild the mind; but not afford a steady light, or lasting impression; unless by deep and close musing, thoughts be fired and inflamed; which will not barely amuse but better the mind. For hereby the soul will be led to new discoveries of spiritual things, to a more full apprehension of truths already known, and known truths will leave more more of a transforming power upon all the faculties of the soul.

Meditation is there a duty of vast consequence to the Christian, in that it tends to advance his improvement in the graces of the divine nature, and in the duties of the divine life. This gives life and strength to faith: for herein the devout believer takes a view of the fullness and stability of the promises, and the unalterable fidelity of the Promiser; and can triumph in this, that he knows in whom he has believed. Hereby Hope is made more sure and steady; and its purifying and refreshing virtue strengthened. It brings food to gratify and nourish the most raised Hope: for in devout meditation the soul stands with Moses on Mount Pisgah, and surveys the good land of Promise; herein it is taken as the three favorite disciples into the Mount of Transfiguration, where it is encircled with some beams of heavenly glory; herein it receives some fore-tastes of the joys of the coming world, some pledges and earnests of the expected inheritance in light: whereby the Christian comes to know by happy experience, in some good measure, what is the hope of the calling of God, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints. Hereby divine love in the soul is maintained and cherished: it blows up the heavenly spark into an holy flame; and brings new fuel to preserve, and increase its power and brightness. Hereby the spirit of true devotion is warmed and raised. It disengages the mind from those things below that do dampen the force and heat of the Spirit in its holy aspirations, and ascents to God. It gives both fixation and flame to the soul in its divine musings. While the Psalmist was musing, the fire burned, and his heart was hot within him.

Again, meditation tends to make Providences more instructive in duty, and impressive of the obligations to it on the heart. Hereby divine ordinances will be made more mighty through God, to turn the sinner from the error of his ways to the wisdom of the just; and to make the man of God more perfect in grace, rich in comfort, and ripe for glory.

Sure I am, holy meditation can never be more seasonable, than when we make our solemn approaches to the table of the Lord. Meditation should be our preparation for it, our entertainment at it, and the conclusion of this spiritual banquet. And were this duty more exercised, we should attend this ordinance with greater awe and solemnity of spirit, with keener appetites after those spiritual dainties there set before us; and go away from it more strengthened with the Bread of Life, and more refreshed with the Wine of Consolation. And have the evidence of it by being less slothful in business, and more fervent in Spirit serving the Lord.

In the language of a colonial American (nevertheless, which has been slightly modernized), Ebenezer Pemberton here describes meditation as the spark that fuels a fire in the soul. It is the “musing,” or careful pondering, consideration and deliberation of select edifying thoughts which constitutes the divine meditation here in view. These may be Scripture verses, or themes, or occasional matters which furnish deeper thoughts on divine principles. The employment of this duty is especially of use, Pemberton argues, in preparation for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, wherein we are to examine ourselves and to discern the Lord’s body. Its neglect has a detrimental effect on spiritual life, and that is true whether we are speaking of the 18th century or the 21st.

The extract above from Pemberton’s Preface, along with Willard’s Sacramental Meditations, may be of use to stir us up in this often-neglected duty. Take time to consider the value of divine meditation, and then, with this encouragement, put it into practice, and it will be a blessing to you, dear reader.

Ashbel Green on the Best Way to Spend the Christian Sabbath

When the Westminster Confession of Faith says that “the whole time [of the Lord’s Day, or Christian Sabbath]” should be taken up in the public and private exercises of His worship (and in the duties of necessity and mercy, which is a topic for another post), how are we to understand this? Ashbel Green tackles this question in his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Vol. 2 (1841):

That our whole time, on the Sabbath, is to be spent in "the public and private exercise of God's worship," with no other exceptions, than those which we are afterwards to notice.

"God's worship," you will observe, includes in it, not only acts of prayer and praise, in which it immediately and more especially consists, but also every thing calculated to dispose us to those acts, and enable us to perform them with enlightened and holy ardour; and indeed, whatever has a tendency to promote the honour and glory of God.

The exercises suitable for the Sabbath are so many, that I can do little more than name them, and furnish you with some hints, on which you must enlarge for yourselves.

Green then lists the chief devotional activities that are consistent with Biblical Sabbath-keeping, such as:

  1. Meditation. — This is a duty too little practised, or thought of, by Christians generally. The Psalmist says — "My meditation of thee shall be sweet, I will be glad in the Lord." Meditation, intermingled with devout ejaculations and aspirations of soul, is exemplified in many of the Psalms, and should form a part of a Christian's exercises on every Lord's day. The subjects of meditation are the works, the government, and the providence of God, his providence in relation to our own lot in life particularly, and more than all, the glorious plan of redemption, as a whole, and in its various parts and aspects.

  2. Self-examination. — This is a duty which no Christian should neglect on the Lord's day. He should, if I may so speak, settle his spiritual account with himself, on the regular return of this day. He should examine, generally, whether he is in a gracious state, consider whether he is gaining or losing in religion; and should particularly go over the past week, to mark his defects, to observe the temper he has been in, the example he has set, to repent of what was wrong, and to form good resolutions for the future.

  3. Secret prayer and praise. — Although no real Christian can neglect secret prayer, habitually, on any day of the week, yet he should perform this duty more frequently, particularly, and extensively, on the Sabbath, than he ordinarily can on other days, unless they be days specially set apart for the purpose of prayer. It is in secret prayer and praise, that the soul of the believer holds converse and communion with God; and what so proper as this, on the day which he claims as his own: and when this converse and communion is very sensible, no exercise so fully antedates heaven, the sabbatical "rest which remaineth for the people of God."

  4. Reading the Holy Scriptures, and other books of devotion. — This, although it should be, to some extent, and as circumstances favour, an employment of a portion of our time on other days, yet it demands a special attention on the Sabbath. As far as practicable, method should be adopted in this, as in every other important concern. Let me advise you, my young friends, to confine yourselves principally, if not wholly to reading, studying, and meditating, on the word of God, in the former part of his day; to read some sound, doctrinal and practical writer, in the latter part; and to leave sacred poetry (except psalms and hymns,) with religious periodicals, to the evening. By pursuing this course, you will avoid the danger, which seems to be real and imminent at the present time, that the numerous publications of a periodical kind, will exclude almost every other sort of religious reading. Should this unhappily be realized, the rising generation, whatever zeal they may possess, will be greatly deficient in that sound doctrinal knowledge, which is the only sure basis of consistent, stable and exemplary piety.

  5. Family devotion and catechetical instruction. Family devotion, you are aware, consists of prayer and praise, connected with the reading of the Holy Scriptures. These exercises should, ordinarily, be somewhat more extended on the Sabbath than on secular days: and the reading of some pious commentator, such as Henry, Burkitt, or Scott, on a portion of the divine word, will also he profitable. By catechetical instruction, I mean especially a due attention to the Shorter Catechism of our church, which every member of the family should be able accurately to repeat without book, and which the younger members should recite, and hear a portion of it explained by the head of the family. It will be well, if they can add the scripture proofs, and better still, if they can add to both the Larger Catechism. These were once common attainments, in pious families of our church; and I am persuaded that whatever has taken their place, is not for the better, but the worse. But in catechetical instruction, I also include a questioning of the children of the family, on a previously prescribed portion of the Bible; requiring an account of what other books they have read; and examining them, as to what they can remember of the discourses they may have heard in public. It is this family instruction, which must, in most cases, be principally communicated and acquired on the Lord's day, and which more than any thing — I had almost said, more than every thing beside — contributes to raise up a generation of well in- formed and steadfast Christians. It was this which long distinguished the best reformed churches, and for it, I am persuaded, no adequate substitute ever has been, or will be found

  6. Public worship. — This is an important and essential part of the exercises of the Sabbath, to all who can avail themselves of it. Alas! that there are so many parts of our country, in which the privileges of the sanctuary cannot be enjoyed. But great is the criminality of those who neglect these privileges, when placed within their power. The command to such is explicit, " Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is;" and the pretence too often made, that the Sabbath may as well be employed without going to the sanctuary, as by attending there, is utterly vain and inexcusable. Nothing but the want of health and opportunity, can justify the omission. In religion, the blessing of God is every thing, and he will not confer it on those who disobey his command. Nor is it a formal attendance, but one truly devout, that God requires. We should, in ordinary circumstances, always make special prayer for a blessing to ourselves and others from the ser- vices of the sanctuary, immediately before going to them, if this be practicable; and for a blessing on what we have heard, immediately on our return to our retirements. But although I thus inculcate the duty of public worship, I cannot forbear to say, that I think there are some Christians, who greatly err, in endeavouring to spend almost the whole of the Sabbath in public. Much of it should be spent in private, in those exercises which I have already specified. Two attendances on public worship are, as a habit, as many as will be profitable, to those who seek to employ their holy time in the most advantageous manner.

  7. Religious conversation is the last exercise, that I shall mention as proper for the Lord's day. This should take place when Christian friends are together on this day, and whenever we go to, or return from, the house of God in company, unless we pass the time in silence. Conversation on news, or politics, or other secular subjects, though mournfully common, is a real profanation of the day, in any part of it, and peculiarly so, immediately before, or after, the services of the sanctuary. By this evil practice, all serious thought and good impressions are often prevented; or banished or effaced, after they have been received. The conversation of Christian families, while taking their meals together, ought also to be on religious subjects. Often a profitable topic may be furnished by the sermons they have heard — not however if they be subjected to severe criticism, but when so treated as to impress the sacred truths which have been heard in public.

As Sabbath-time is the most precious time of the week, may we consider how best to spend the whole day in these activities listed by Ashbel Green and so to honor the Lord on his holy day.

Charles Hodge on Meditation as a Means of Grace

In the context of discussing a recurring theme in sermons by Charles Hodge dealing with the importance of meditation in the life of the Christian believer, Andrew Hoffecker writes:

In a conference sermon on the subject “Meditation as a Means of Grace,” Hodge pointed out the main distinction between meditation and mere intellectual consideration of an idea. The object of the latter is merely to understand intellectually while the object of meditation is to experience the power of God’s Word. He outlines suggestions to aid in this exercise. Believers ought to purpose to do this faithfully, setting aside times when it might be regularly performed. It should be done concomitantly with prayer, i.e., “not only in the formal sense of the word, but also as meaning converse with God.” (W. Andrew Hoffecker, Piety and the Princeton Theologians, pp. 82-83)

Here is the text briefly and directly from Hodge:

Meditation as a Means of Grace

I. What is meditation?
It is the serious, prolonged, devout contemplation of divine things. 1. This is distinguished from mere intellectual examination or consideration. It has a different object. The object of the one is to understand, of the other to experience the power. 2. It is distinguished from casual devout thought and aspiration.

II. It is a means of grace. By means of grace is meant a divinely appointed instrumentality for promoting holiness in the soul. That meditation is such a means is proved, 1. From its being frequently enjoined in Scripture for this end. 2. From the example of the saint as recorded in Scripture. 3. From the experience of the people of God in all ages.

III. Why is it thus salutary? 1. Because God has appointed his truth as the great means of sanctification. 2. Because the truth, to produce its effect, must be present to the mind. "God is not in all his thoughts," it is said of the wicked. "Estranged from God," is the description of the ungodly. 3. The intimate relation between knowledge and feeling, between the cognition and recognition, the … (knowing), and the … (acknowledgment) of divine truth. 4. Because all unholy feelings are subdued in the presence of God, unsound principles are corrected in the light of divine truth. We become conformed to the things with which we are familiar.

IV. Subjects on which we should meditate, are, God, — his law, — his Son, — the plan of salvation, — our own state as sinners, — heaven, etc.

V. Difficulties in the way of this duty. 1. The difficulty of continuous thought. 2. Preoccupation with other things. 3. Indisposition to holding communion with God. 4. Want of method and purpose.

VI. Directions for the performance of the duty. 1. Form the purpose to be faithful in its discharge, from a sense of duty and conviction of its importance. 2. Have a time and place sacred to the duty. 3. Connect it with prayer, not only in the formal sense of the word, but also as meaning converse with God. 4. Connect it with the reading of the Scriptures. Meditate on the word. Read it slowly, with self-application, and pondering its import. 5. Cultivate the habit application, and pondering its import. 5. Cultivate the habit of controlling your thoughts. Do not let them be governed by accident or fortuitous association. Keep the rudder always in your hand. 6. Do not be discouraged by frequent failure; and do not suppose that the excitement of feeling is the measure of advantage. There may be much learned, and much strength gained when there is little emotion. 7. Consecrate the hours especially of social and public worship to this work. Let the mind be filled with God while in his house. (Charles Hodge, sermon preached on Oct. 28, 1855 in Princeton Sermons, pp. 298-299 and Conference Papers, pp. 298-299)