Dear friends! it seems to me that the ordinary Christian life of this day is terribly wanting in this experience of frank, free talk with God, and that that is one reason why so many of us professing Christians know so little of the blessedness of the man that trusts in God. You have religion enough to keep you from doing certain gross acts of sin; you have religion enough to make you uncomfortable in neglected duty. You have religion enough to impel you to certain acts that you suppose to be obligatory upon you. But do you know anything about the elasticity and spring of spirit in getting near God, and pouring out all your hearts to Him? The life of faith is not blessed unless it is a life of frank speaking with God.
III. The life of faith is blessed, because it has fixed its desires on the true good.
The Psalmist goes on—'A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand; I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.' 'A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand.' We all know how strangely elastic time is, and have sometimes been amazed when we remembered what an infinity of joy or sorrow we had lived through in one tick of the pendulum. When men are dreaming, they pass through a long series of events in a moment's space. When we are truly awake, we live long in a short time, for life is measured, not by the length of its moments, but by the depth of its experiences. And when some new truth is flashed upon us, or some new emotion has shaken us as with an earthquake, or when some new blessing has burst into our lives, then we know how 'one day' with men may be as it is with God, in a deeper sense, 'as a thousand years,' so great is the change that it works upon us. There is nothing that will so fill life to the utmost bounds of its elastic capacity as strong trust in Him. There is nothing that will make our lives so blessed. This Psalmist, speaking with the voice of all them that trust in the Lord, here declares his clear consciousness that the true good for the human soul is fellowship with God.
But the clearest knowledge of that fact is not enough to bring the blessedness. There must be the next step—'I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness'—the definite resolve that I, for my part, will act according to my conviction, and believing that the best thing in life is to have God in life, and that that will make life, as it were, an eternity of blessedness even while it is made up of fleeting days, will put my foot down and make my choice, and having made it, will stick to it. It is all very well to say that 'A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand': have I chosen to dwell in the courts; and do I, not only in estimate but in feeling and practice, set communion with God high above everything besides?
This psalm, according to the superscription attached to it, is one 'for the sons of Korah.' These sons of Korah were a branch of the Levitical priesthood, to whose charge was committed the keeping of the gates of the Temple, and hence this phrase is especially appropriate on their lips. But passing that, let me just ask you to lay to heart, dear friends! this one plain thought, that the effect of a real life of faith will be to make us perfectly sure that the true good is in God, and fixedly determined to pursue that. And you have no right to claim the name of a believing Christian, unless your faith has purged your eyes, so that you can see the hollowness of all besides, and has stiffened your will so that you can determine that, for your part, 'the Lord is the Strength of your heart, and your Portion for ever.' The secret of blessedness lies here. 'Seek ye the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.'
IV. Lastly, a life of faith is a life of blessedness, because it draws from God all necessary good.
I must not dwell, as I had hoped to do, upon the last words preceding my text, 'The Lord God is a Sun and Shield'—brightness and defence—'the Lord will give grace and glory': 'grace,' the loving gifts which will make a man gracious and graceful; 'glory,' not any future lustre of the transfigured soul and glorified body, but the glory which belongs to the life of faith here on earth. Link that thought with the preceding one. 'The Lord is a Sun ... the Lord will give glory'; like a little bit of broken glass lying in the furrows of a ploughed field, when the sun smites down upon it, it flashes, outshining many a diamond. If a man is walking upon a road with the sun behind him, his face is dark. He wheels himself round, and it is suffused with light, as Moses' face shone. 'We all, with unveiled faces beholding, are changed from glory to glory.' If we walk in the sunshine we shall shine too. If we 'walk in the light' we shall be 'light in the Lord.'
'No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly.' Trust is inward, and the outside of trust is an upright walk; and if a man has these two, which, inasmuch as one is the root and the other is the fruit, are but one in reality, nothing that is good will be withheld from Him. For how can the sun but pour its rays upon everything that lives? 'Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.' So the life is blessed that talks with God; that has fixed its desires on Him as its Supreme Good; that is irradiated by His light, glorified by the reflection of His brightness, and ministered to with all necessary appliances by His loving self-communication.
We come back to the old word, dear friends! 'Trust in the Lord, and do good, and verily thou shalt be fed.' We come back to the old message that nothing knits a man to God but faith with its child, righteousness. If trusting we love, and loving we obey, then in converse with Him, in fixed desires after Him, in daily and hourly reception from Him of Himself and His gifts, the life of earth will be full of a blessedness more real, more deep, more satisfying, more permanent, than can be found anywhere besides.
Who was it that said, 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man cometh to the Father but by Me'? Tread that path, and you will come into the house of the Lord, and will dwell there all the days of your life. 'Believe in God, believe also in Me.'
'THE BRIDAL OF THE EARTH AND SKY'
'Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 11. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven. 12. Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase. 13. Righteousness shall go before Him, and shall set us in the way of His steps.'—PSALM lxxxv. 10-13.
This is a lovely and highly imaginative picture of the reconciliation and reunion of God and man, 'the bridal of the earth and sky.'
The Poet-Psalmist, who seems to have belonged to the times immediately after the return from the Exile, in strong faith sees before him a vision of a perfectly harmonious co-operation and relation between God and man. He is not prophesying directly of Messianic times. The vision hangs before him, with no definite note of time upon it. He hopes it may be fulfilled in his own day; he is sure it will, if only, as he says, his countrymen 'turn not again to folly.' At all events, it will be fulfilled in that far-off time to which the heart of every prophet turned with longing. But, more than that, there is no reason why it should not be fulfilled with every man, at any moment. It is the ideal, to use modern language, of the relations between heaven and earth. Only that the Psalmist believed that, as sure as there was a God in heaven, who is likewise a God working in the midst of the earth, the ideal might become, and would become, a reality.
So, then, I take it, these four verses all set forth substantially the same thought, but with slightly different modifications and applications. They are a four-fold picture of how heaven and earth ought to blend and harmonise. This four-fold representation of the one thought is what I purpose to consider now.
I. To begin with, then, take the first verse:—'Mercy and Truth are met together, Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other.' We have here the heavenly twin-sisters, and the earthly pair that correspond.
'Mercy and Truth are met together'—that is one personification; 'Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other' is another. It is difficult to say whether these four great qualities are here regarded as all belonging to God, or as all belonging to man, or as all common both to God and man. The first explanation is the most familiar one, but I confess that, looking at the context, where we find throughout an interpenetration and play of reciprocal action as between earth and heaven, I am disposed to think of the first pair as sisters from the heavens, and the second pair as the earthly sisters that correspond to them. Mercy and Truth—two radiant angels, like virgins in some solemn choric dance, linked hand in hand, issue from the sanctuary and move amongst the dim haunts of men making 'a sunshine in a shady place,' and to them there come forth, linked in a sweet embrace, another pair, Righteousness and Peace, whose lives depend on the lives of their elder and heavenly sisters. And so these four, the pair of heavenly origin, and the answering pair that have sprung into being at their coming upon earth;—these four, banded in perfect accord, move together, blessing and light-giving, amongst the sons of men. Mercy and Truth are the divine—Righteousness and Peace the earthly.
Let me dwell upon these two couples briefly. 'Mercy and Truth are met together' means this, that these two qualities are found braided and linked inseparably in all that God does with mankind; that these two springs are the double fountains from which the great stream of the 'river of the water of life,' the forthcoming and the manifestation of God, takes its rise.
'Mercy and Truth.' What are the meanings of the two words? Mercy is love that stoops, love that departs from the strict lines of desert and retribution. Mercy is Love that is kind when Justice might make it otherwise. Mercy is Love that condescends to that which is far beneath. Thus the 'Mercy' of the Old Testament covers almost the same ground as the 'Grace' of the New Testament. And Truth blends with Mercy; that is to say—Truth in a somewhat narrower than its widest sense, meaning mainly God's fidelity to every obligation under which He has come, God's faithfulness to promise, God's fidelity to His past, God's fidelity, in His actions, to His own character, which is meant by that great word, 'He sware by Himself!'
Thus the sentiment of mercy, the tender grace and gentleness of that condescending love, has impressed upon it the seal of permanence when we say: 'Grace and Truth, Mercy and Faithfulness, are met together.' No longer is love mere sentiment, which may be capricious and may be transient. We can reckon on it, we know the law of its being. The love is lifted up above the suspicion of being arbitrary, or of ever changing or fluctuating. We do not know all the limits of the orbit, but we know enough to calculate it for all practical purposes. God has committed Himself to us, He has limited Himself by the obligations of His own past. We have a right to turn to Him, and say; 'Be what Thou art, and continue to be to us what Thou hast been unto past ages,' and He responds to the appeal. For Mercy and Truth, tender, gracious, stooping, forgiving love, and inviolable faithfulness that can never be otherwise, these blend in all His works, 'that by two immutable things, wherein it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation.'
Again, dear brethren! let me remind you that these two are the ideal two, which as far as God's will and wish are concerned, are the only two that would mark any of His dealings with men. When He is, if I may so say, left free to do as He would, and is not forced to His 'strange act' of punishment by my sin and yours, these, and these only, are the characteristics of His dealings. Nor let us forget—'We beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.' The Psalmist's vision was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, in whom these sweet twin characteristics, that are linked inseparably in all the works of God, are welded together into one in the living personality of Him who is all the Father's grace embodied; and is 'the Way and the Truth and the Life.'
Turn now to the other side of the first aspect of the union of God and man, 'Mercy and Truth are met together'; these are the heavenly twins. 'Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other'—these are the earthly sisters who sprang into being to meet them.
Of course I know that these words are very often applied, by way of illustration, to the great work of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, which is supposed to have reconciled, if not contradictory, at least divergently working sides of the divine character and government. And we all know how beautifully the phrase has often been employed by eloquent preachers, and how beautifully it has been often illustrated by devout painters.
But beautiful as the adaptation is, I think it is an adaptation, and not the real meaning of the words, for this reason, if for no other, that Righteousness and Peace are not in the Old Testament regarded as opposites, but as harmonious and inseparable. And so I take it that here we have distinctly the picture of what happens upon earth when Mercy and Truth that come down from Heaven are accepted and recognised—then Righteousness and Peace kiss each other.
Or, to put away the metaphor, here are two thoughts, first that in men's experience and life Righteousness and Peace cannot be rent apart. The only secret of tranquillity is to be good. He who is, first of all, 'King of Righteousness' is 'after that also King of Salem, which is King of Peace.' 'The effect of righteousness shall be peace,' as Isaiah, the brother in spirit of this Psalmist, says; and on the other hand, as the same prophet says, 'The wicked is like a troubled sea that cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt; there is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked,' but where affections are pure, and the life is worthy, where goodness is loved in the heart, and followed even imperfectly in the daily practice, there the ocean is quiet, and 'birds of peace sit brooding on the charmed wave.' The one secret of tranquillity is first to trust in the Lord and then to do good. Righteousness and Peace kiss each other.
The other thought here is that Righteousness and her twin sister, Peace, only come in the measure in which the mercy and the truth of God are received into thankful hearts. My brother! have you taken that Mercy and that Truth into your soul, and are you trying to reach peace in the only way by which any human being can ever reach it—through the path of righteousness, self-suppression, and consecration to Him?
II. Now, take the next phase of this union and cooperation of earth and heaven, which is given here in the 11th verse—'Truth shall spring out of the earth, and Righteousness shall look down from heaven.' That is, to put it into other words—God responding to man's truth.
Notice that in this verse one member from each of the two pairs that have been spoken about in the previous verse is detached from its companion, and they are joined so as to form for a moment a new pair. Truth is taken from the first couple; Righteousness from the second, and a third couple is thus formed.
And notice, further, that each takes the place that had belonged to the other. The heavenly Truth becomes a child of earth; and the earthly Righteousness ascends 'to look down from heaven.' The process of the previous verse in effect is reversed. 'Truth shall spring out of the earth, Righteousness shall look down from heaven'; that is to say—man's Truth shall begin to grow and blossom in answer, as it were, to God's Truth that came down upon it. Which being translated into other words is this: where a man's heart has welcomed the Mercy and the Truth of God there will spring up in that heart, not only the Righteousness and Peace, of which the previous verse is speaking, but specifically a faithfulness not all unlike the faithfulness which it grasps. If we have a God immutable and unchangeable to build upon, let us build upon Him immutability and unchangeableness. If we have a Rock on which to build our confidence, let us see that the confidence which we build upon it is rocklike too. If we have a God that cannot lie, let us grasp His faithful word with an affiance that cannot falter. If we have a Truth in the heavens, absolute and immutable, on which to anchor our hopes, let us see to it that our hopes, anchored thereon, are sure and steadfast. What a shame it would be that we should bring the vacillations and fluctuations of our own insincerities and changeableness to the solemn, fixed unalterableness of that divine Word! We ought to be faithful, for we build upon a faithful God.
And then the other side of this second picture is 'Righteousness shall look down from heaven,' not in its judicial aspect merely, but as the perfect moral purity that belongs to the divine Nature, which shall bend down a loving eye upon the men beneath, and mark the springings of any imperfect good and thankfulness in our hearts; joyous as the husbandman beholds the springing of his crops in the fields that he has sown.
God delights when He sees the first faint flush of green which marks the springing of the good seed in the else barren hearts of men. No good, no beauty of character, no meek rapture of faith, no aspiration Godwards is ever wasted and lost, for His eye rests upon it. As heaven, with its myriad stars, bends over the lowly earth, and in the midnight when no human eye beholds, sees all, so God sees the hidden confidence, the unseen 'Truth' that springs to meet His faithful Word. The flowers that grow in the pastures of the wilderness, or away upon the wild prairies, or that hide in the clefts of the inaccessible mountains, do not 'waste their sweetness on the desert air,' for God sees them.
It may be an encouragement and quickening to us to remember that wherever the tiniest little bit of Truth springs upon the earth, the loving eye—not the eye of a great Taskmaster—but the eye of the Brother, Christ, which is the eye of God, looks down. 'Wherefore we labour, that whether present or absent, we may be well-pleasing unto Him.'
III. And then the third aspect of this ideal relation between earth and heaven, the converse of the one we have just now been speaking of, is set forth in the next verse: 'Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good and our land shall yield her increase.' That is to say, Man is here responding to God's gift.
You see that the order of things is reversed in this verse, and that it recurs to the order with which we originally started. 'The Lord shall give that which is good.' In the figure that refers to all the skyey influence of dew, rain, sunshine, passing breezes, and still ripening autumn days; in the reality it refers to all the motives, powers, impulses, helps, furtherances by which He makes it possible for us to serve Him and love Him, and bring forth fruits of righteousness.
And so the thought which has already been hinted at is here more fully developed and dwelt upon, this great truth that earthly fruitfulness is possible only by the reception of heavenly gifts. As sure as every leaf that grows is mainly water that the plant has got from the clouds, and carbon that it has got out of the atmosphere, so surely will all our good be mainly drawn from heaven and heaven's gifts. As certainly as every lump of coal that you put upon your fire contains in itself sunbeams that have been locked up for all these millenniums that have passed since it waved green in the forest, so certainly does every good deed embody in itself gifts from above. No man is pure except by impartation; and every good gift and every perfect gift cometh from the Father of Lights.
So let us learn the lesson of absolute dependence for all purity, virtue, and righteousness on His bestowment, and come to Him and ask Him ever more to fill our emptiness with His own gracious fulness and to lead us to be what He commands and would have us to be.
And then there is the other lesson out of this phase of the ideal relation between earth and heaven, the lesson of what we ought to do with our gifts. 'The earth yields her increase,' by laying hold of the good which the Lord gives, and by means of that received good quickening all the germs. Ah, dear brethren! wasted opportunities, neglected moments, uncultivated talents, gifts that are not stirred up, rain and dew and sunshine, all poured upon us and no increase—is not that the story of much of all our lives, and of the whole of some lives? Are we like Eastern lands where the trees have been felled, and the great irrigation works and tanks have been allowed to fall into disrepair, and so when the bountiful treasure of the rains comes, all that it does is to swell for half a day the discoloured stream that carries away some more of the arable land; and when the sunshine comes, with its swift, warm powers, all that it does is to bleach the stones and scorch the barren sand? 'The earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and yieldeth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth the blessing of God.' Is it true about you that the earth yieldeth her increase, as it is certainly true that 'the Lord giveth that which is good'?
IV. And now the last thing which is here, the last phase of the fourfold representation of the ideal relation between earth and heaven is, 'Righteousness shall go before Him and shall set us in the way of His steps.' That is to say, God teaches man to walk in His footsteps.
There is some difficulty about the meaning of the last clause of this verse, but I think that having regard to the whole context and to that idea of the interpenetration of the heavenly with the human which we have seen running through it, the reading in our English Bible gives substantially, though somewhat freely, the meaning. The clause might literally be rendered 'make His footsteps for a way,' which comes to substantially the same thing as is expressed in our English Bible. Righteousness, God's moral perfectness, is set forth here in a twofold phase. First it is a herald going before Him and preparing His path. The Psalmist in these words draws tighter than ever the bond between God and man. It is not only that God sends His messengers to the world, nor only that His loving eye looks down upon it, nor only 'that He gives that which is good'; but it is that the whole heaven, as it were, lowers itself to touch earth, that God comes down to dwell and walk among men. The Psalmist's mind is filled with the thought of a present God who moves amongst mankind, and has His 'footsteps' on earth. This herald Righteousness prepares God's path, which is just to say that all His dealings with mankind—which, as we have seen, have Mercy and Faithfulness for their signature and stamp—are rooted and based in perfect Rectitude.
The second phase of the operation of Righteousness is that that majestic herald, the divine purity which moves before Him, and 'prepares in the desert a highway for the Lord,'—that that very same Righteousness comes and takes my feeble hand, and will lead my tottering footsteps into God's path, and teach me to walk, planting my little foot where He planted His. The highest of all thoughts of the ideal relation between earth and heaven, that of likeness between God and man, is trembling on the Psalmist's lips. Men may walk in God's ways—not only in ways that please Him, but in ways that are like His. 'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.'
And the likeness can only be a likeness in moral qualities—a likeness in goodness, a likeness in purity, a likeness in aversion from evil, for His other attributes and characteristics are His peculiar property; and no human brow can wear the crown that He wears. But though His mercy can but, from afar off, be copied by us, the righteousness that moves before Him, and engineers God's path through the wilderness of the world, will come behind Him and nurselike lay hold of our feeble arms and teach us to go in the way God would have us to walk.
Ah, brethren! that is the crown and climax of the harmony between God and man, that His mercy and His truth, His gifts and His grace have all led us up to this: that we take His righteousness as our pattern, and try in our poor lives to reproduce its wondrous beauty. Do not forget that a great deal more than the Psalmist dreamed of, you Christian men and women possess, in the Christ 'who of God is made unto us Righteousness,' in whom heaven and earth are joined for ever, in whom man and God are knit in strictest bonds of indissoluble friendship; and who, having prepared a path for God in His mighty mission and by His sacrifice on the Cross, comes to us, and as the Incarnate Righteousness, will lead us in the paths of God, leaving us an Example, that 'we should follow in His steps.'
A SHEAF OF PRAYER ARROWS
'Bow down Thine ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy. 2. Preserve my soul, for I am holy: O Thou my God, save Thy servant that trusteth in Thee. 3. Be merciful unto me, O Lord: for I cry unto Thee daily. 4. Rejoice the soul of Thy servant: for unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. 5. For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Thee.'—PSALM lxxxvi. 1-5.
We have here a sheaf of arrows out of a good man's quiver, shot into heaven. This series of supplications is remarkable in more than one respect. They all mean substantially the same thing, but the Psalmist turns the one blessing round in all sorts of ways, so great does it seem to him, and so earnest is his desire to possess it. They are almost all quotations from earlier psalms, just as our prayers are often words of Scripture, hallowed by many associations, and uniting us with the men of old who cried unto God and were answered.
The structure of the petitions is remarkably uniform. In each there are a prayer and a plea, and in most of them a direct invocation of God. So I have thought that, if we put them all together now, we may get some lessons as to the invocations, the petitions, and the pleas of true prayer; or, in other words, we may be taught how to lay hold of God, what to ask from Him, and how to be sure of an answer.
I. First, the lesson as to how to lay hold upon God.
The divine names in this psalm are very frequent and significant, and the order in which they are used is evidently intentional. We have the great covenant name of Jehovah set in the very first verse, and in the last verse; as if to bind the whole together with a golden circlet. And then, in addition, it appears once in each of the other two sections of the psalm, with which we have nothing to do at present. Then we have, further, the name of God employed in each of the sections; and further, the name of Lord, which is not the same as Jehovah, but implies the simple idea of superiority and authority. In each portion of the psalm, then, we see the writer laying his hand, as it were, upon these three names—'Jehovah,' 'my God,' 'Lord'—and in all of them finding grounds for his confidence and reasons for his cry.
Nothing in our prayers is often more hollow and unreal than the formal repetitions of the syllables of that divine name, often but to fill a pause in our thoughts. But to 'call upon the Name of the Lord' means, first and foremost, to bring before our minds the aspects of His great and infinite character, which are gathered together into the Name by which we address Him. So when we say 'Jehovah!' 'Lord!' what we ought to mean is this, that we are gazing upon that majestic, glorious thought of Being, self-derived, self-motived, self-ruled, the being of Him whose Name can only be, 'I am that I am.' Of all other creatures the name is, 'I am that I have been made,' or 'I am that I became,' but of Him the Name is, 'I am that I am.' Nowhere outside of Himself is the reason for His being, nor the law that shapes it, nor the aim to which it tends. And this infinite, changeless Rock is laid for our confidence, Jehovah the Eternal, the Self-subsisting, Self-sufficing One.
There is more than that thought in this wondrous Name, for it not only expresses the timeless, unlimited, and changeless being of God, but also the truth that He has entered into what He deigns to call a Covenant with us men. The name Jehovah is the seal of that ancient Covenant, of which, though the form has vanished, the essence abides for ever, and God has thereby bound Himself to us by promises that cannot be abrogated. So that when we say, 'O Lord!' we summon up before ourselves, and grasp as the grounds of our confidence, and we humbly present before Him as the motives, if we may so call them, for His action, His own infinite being and His covenanted grace.
Then, further, our psalm invokes 'my God.' That names implies in itself, simply, the notion of power to be reverenced. But when we add to it that little word 'my,' we rise to the wonderful thought that the creature can claim an individual relation to Him, and in some profound sense a possession there. The tiny mica flake claims kindred with the Alpine peak from which it fell. The poor, puny hand, that can grasp so little of the material and temporal, can grasp all of God that it needs.
Then, there is the other name, 'Lord,' which simply expresses illimitable sovereignty, power over all circumstances, creatures, orders of being, worlds, and cycles of ages. Wherever He is He rules, and therefore my prayer can be answered by Him. When a child cries 'Mother!' it is more than all other petitions. A dear name may be a caress when it comes from loving lips. If we are the kind of Christians that we ought to be, there will be nothing sweeter to us than to whisper to ourselves, and to say to Him, 'Abba! Father!' See to it that your calling on the Name of the Lord is not formal, but the true apprehension, by a believing mind and a loving heart, of the ineffable and manifold sweetnesses which are hived in His manifold names.
II. Now, secondly, we have here a lesson as to what we should ask.
The petitions of our text, of course, only cover a part of the whole field of prayer. The Psalmist is praying in the midst of some unknown trouble, and his petitions are manifold in form, though in substance, as I have said, they may all be reduced to one. Let me run over them very briefly. 'Bow down Thine ear and hear me.' That is not simply the invocation of the omniscience of a God, but an appeal for loving, attentive regard to the desires of His poor servant. The hearing is not merely the perception in the divine mind of what the creature desires, but it is the answer in fact, or the granting of the petition. The best illustration of what the Psalmist desires here may be found in another psalm, where another Psalmist tells us his experience and says, 'My cry came unto His ears, and the earth shook and trembled.' You put a spoonful of water into a hydraulic press at the one end, and you get a force that squeezes tons together at the other. Here there is a poor, thin stream of the voice of a sorrowful man at the one end, and there is an earthquake at the other. That is what 'hearing' and 'bowing down the ear' means.
Then the prayers go on to three petitions, which may be all regarded as diverse acts of deliverance or of help. 'Preserve my soul.' The word expresses the guardianship with which a garrison keeps a fortress. It is the Hebrew equivalent of the word employed by Paul—'The peace of God shall keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.' The thought is that of a defenceless man or thing round which some strong protection is cast. And the desire expressed by it is that in the midst of sorrow, whatever it is, the soul may be guarded from evil. Then, the next petition—'Save Thy servant'—goes a step further, and not only asks to be kept safe in the midst of sorrows, but to be delivered out of them. And then the next petition—'Be merciful unto me, O Lord!'—craves that the favour which comes down to inferiors, and is bestowed upon those who might deserve something far otherwise, may manifest itself, in such acts of strengthening, or help, or deliverance, as divine wisdom may see fit. And then the last petition is—'Rejoice the soul of Thy servant.' The series begins with 'hearing,' passes through 'preserving,' 'saving,' showing 'mercy,' and comes at last to 'rejoice the soul' that has been so harassed and troubled. Gladness is God's purpose for us all; joy we all have a right to claim from Him. It is the intended issue of every sorrow, and it can only be had when we cleave to Him, and pass through the troubles of life with continual dependence on and aspiration towards Himself.
So these are the petitions massed together, and out of them let me take two or three lessons. First, then, let us learn to make all wishes and annoyances material of prayer. This man was harassed by some trouble, the nature of which we do not know; and although the latter portion of his psalm rises into loftier regions of spiritual desire, here, in the first part of it, he is wrestling with his afflicting circumstances, whatever they were, and he has no hesitation in spreading them all out before God and asking for His delivering help. Wishes that are not turned into prayers irritate, disturb, unsettle. Wishes that are turned into prayers are calmed and made blessed. Stanley and his men lived for weeks upon a poisonous root, which, if eaten crude, brought all manner of diseases, but, steeped in running water, had all the acrid juices washed out of it, and became wholesome food. If you steep your wishes in the stream of prayer the poison will pass out of them. Some of them will be suppressed, all of them will be hallowed, and all of them will be calmed. Troubles, great or small, should be turned into prayers. Breath spent in sighs is wasted; turned into prayers it will swell our sails. If a man does not pray 'without ceasing,' there is room for doubt whether he ever prays at all. What would you think of a traveller who had a valuable cordial of which he only tasted a drop in the morning and another in the evening; or who had a sure staff on which to lean which he only employed at distant intervals on the weary march, and that only for a short time? Let us turn all that we want into petitions, and all that annoys us let us spread before God.
Learn, further, that earnest reiteration is not vain repetition. 'Use not vain repetitions as the heathen do, for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking,' said the Master. But the same Master 'went away from them and prayed the third time, using the same words.' As long as we have not consciously received the blessing, it is no vain reiteration if we renew our prayers that it may come upon our heads. The man who asks for a thing once, and then gets up from his knees and goes away, and does not notice whether he gets the answer or not, does not pray. The man who truly desires anything from God cannot be satisfied with one languid request for it. But as the heart contracts with a sense of need, and expands with a faith in God's sufficiency, it will drive the same blood of prayer over and over again through the same veins; and life will be wholesome and strong.
Then learn, further, to limit wishes and petitions within the bounds of God's promises. The most of these supplications of our text may be found in other parts of Scripture, as promises from God. Only so far as an articulate divine word carries my faith has my faith the right to go. In the crooked alleys of Venice there is a thin thread of red stone, inlaid in the pavement or wall, which guides through all the devious turnings to the Piazza, in the centre, where the great church stands. As long as we have the red line of promise on our path, faith may follow it and will come to the Temple. Where the line stops it is presumption, and not faith, that takes up the running. God's promises are sunbeams flung down upon us. True prayer catches them on its mirror, and signals them back to God. We are emboldened to say, 'Bow down Thine ear!' because He has said, 'I will hear.' We are encouraged to cry, 'Be merciful!' because we have our foot upon the promise that He will be; and all that we can ask of Him is, 'Do for us what Thou hast said; be to us what Thou art.'
The final lesson is, Leave God to settle how He answers your prayer. The Psalmist prayed for preservation, for safety, for joy; but he did not venture to prescribe to God how these blessings were to be ministered to him. He does not ask that the trouble may be taken away. That is as it may be; it may be better that it shall be left. But he asks that in it he shall not be allowed to sink, and that, however the waves may run high, they shall not be allowed to swamp his poor little cockle-shell of a boat. This is the true inmost essence of prayer—not that we should prescribe to Him how to answer our desires, but that we should leave all that in His hands. The Apostle Paul said, in his last letter, with triumphant confidence, that he knew that God would 'deliver him and save him into His everlasting kingdom.' And he knew, at the same time, that his course was ended, and that there was nothing for him now but the crown. How was he 'saved into the kingdom' and 'delivered from the mouth of the lion'? The sword that struck off the wearied head that had thought so long for God's Church was the instrument of the deliverance and the means of the salvation. For us it may be that a sharper sorrow may be the answer to the prayer, 'Preserve Thy servant.' It may be that God's 'bowing down His ear' and answering us when we cry shall be to pass us through a mill that has finer rollers, to crush still more the bruised corn. But the end and the meaning of it all will be to 'rejoice the soul of the servant' with a deeper joy at last.
III. Finally, mark the lesson which we have here as to the pleas that are to be urged, or the conditions on which prayer is answered.
'I am poor and needy,' or, as perhaps the words more accurately mean, 'afflicted and poor.' The first condition is the sense of need. God's highest blessings cannot be given except to the men who know they want them. The self-righteous man cannot receive the righteousness of Christ. The man who has little or no consciousness of sin is not capable of receiving pardon. God cannot put His fulness into our emptiness if we conceit ourselves to be filled and in need of nothing. We must know ourselves to be 'poor and naked and blind and miserable' ere He can make us rich, and clothe us, and enlighten our eyes, and flood our souls with His own gladness. Our needs are dumb appeals to Him; and in regard to all outward and lower things, they bind Him to supply us, because they themselves have been created by Him. He that hears the raven's croak satisfies the necessities that He has ordained in man and beast. But, for all the best blessings of His providence and of His love, the first steps towards receiving them are the knowledge that we need them and the desire that we should possess them.
Then the Psalmist goes on to put another class of pleas derived from his relation to God. These are mainly two—'I am holy,' and 'Thy servant that trusteth in Thee.' Now, with regard to that first word 'holy,' according to our modern understanding of the expression it by no means sets forth the Psalmist's idea. It has an unpleasant smack of self-righteousness, too, which is by no means to be found in the original. But the word employed is a very remarkable and pregnant one. It really carries with it, in germ, the great teaching of the Apostle John. 'We love Him because He first loved us.' It means one who, being loved and favoured by God, answers the divine love with his own love. And the Psalmist is not pleading any righteousness of his own, but declaring that he, touched by the divine love, answers that love, and looks up; not as if thereby he deserved the response that he seeks, but as knowing that it is impossible but that the waiting heart should thus be blessed. They who love God are sure that the answer to their desires will come fluttering down upon their heads, and fold its white wings and nestle in their hearts. Christian people are a great deal too much afraid of saying, 'I love God.' They rob themselves of much peace and power thereby. We should be less chary of so saying if we thought more about God's love to us, and poked less into our own conduct.
Again, the Psalmist brings this plea—'Thy servant that trusteth in Thee.' He does not say, 'I deserve to be answered because I trust,' but 'because I trust I am sure that I shall be answered'; for it is absurd to suppose that God will look down from heaven on a soul that is depending upon Him, and will let that soul's confidence be put to shame. Dear friend! if your heart is resting upon God, be sure of this, that anything is possible rather than that you should not get from Him the blessings that you need.
The Psalmist gathers together all his pleas which refer to himself into two final clauses—'I cry unto Thee daily,' 'I lift up my soul unto Thee'—which, taken together, express the constant effort of a devout heart after communion with God. To withdraw my heart from the low levels of earth, and to bear it up into communion with God, is the sure way to get what I desire, because then God Himself will be my chief desire, and 'they who seek the Lord shall not want any good.'
But the true and prevailing plea is not in our needs, desires, or dispositions, but in God's own character, as revealed by His words and acts, and grasped by our faith. Therefore the Psalmist ends by passing from thoughts of self to thoughts of God, and builds at last on the sure foundation which underlies all his other 'fors' and gives them all their force—'For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Thee.'
Brethren! turn all your wishes and all your annoyances into prayers. If a wish is not fit to be prayed about, it is not fit to be cherished. If a care is too small to be made a prayer, it is too small to be made a burden. Be frank with God as God is frank with you, and go to His throne, keeping back nothing of your desires or of your troubles. To carry them there will take the poison and the pain out of wasps' stings, and out of else fatal wounds. We have a Name to trust to, tenderer and deeper than those which evoked the Psalmist's triumphant confidence. Let us see to it that, as the basis of our faith is firmer, our faith be stronger than his. We have a plea to urge, more persuasive and mighty than those which he pressed on God and gathered to his own heart. 'For Christ's sake' includes all that he pled, and stretches beyond it. If we come to God through Him who declares His name to us, we shall not draw near to the Throne with self-willed desires, nor leave it with empty hands. 'If ye ask anything in My Name, I will do it.'
'Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of Thy countenance.'—PSALM lxxxix. 15.
The Psalmist has just been setting forth, in sublime language, the glories of the divine character—God's strength, His universal sway, the justice and judgment which are the foundation of His Throne, the mercy and truth which go as heralds before His face. A heathen singing of any of his gods would have gone on to describe the form and features of the god or goddess who came behind the heralds, but the Psalmist remembers 'Thou shalt not make unto thyself any ... likeness of God.' A sacred reverence checks his song. He veils his face in his mantle while He whom no man can see and live passes by. Then he breaks into rapturous exclamations which are very prosaically and poorly represented by our version. For the text is not a mere statement, as it is made to be by reading 'Blessed is the people,' but it is a burst of adoring wonder, and should be read, 'Oh! the blessedness of the people that know the joyful sound.'
Now, the force of this exclamation is increased if we observe that the word that is rendered 'joyful sound' is the technical word for the trumpet blast at Jewish feasts. The purpose of these blasts, like those of the heralds at the coronation of a king, was to proclaim the presence of God, the King of Israel, in the festival, as well as to express the gladness of the worshippers. Thus the Psalmist, when he says, 'Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound,' has no reference, as we ordinarily take him to have, to the preaching of the Gospel, but to the trumpet-blasts that proclaimed the present God and throbbed with the gladness of the waiting worshippers. So that this exclamation is equivalent to 'Oh! how blessed are the people who are sure that they have God with them!' and who, being sure, bow before Him in loving worship. It is to be further noticed that the subsequent words of the text state the first element which it indicates of that blessedness of a devout life, 'They shall walk, O Lord! in the light of Thy countenance.'
I. We deal first with the meaning of this phrase.
Of course, 'the light of Thy countenance' is a very obvious and natural symbol for favour, complacency, goodwill on the part of Him that is conceived of as looking on any one. We read, for instance, in reference to a much lower subject in the Book of Proverbs, 'In the light of the king's countenance is life, and his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain.' Again we have, in the Levitical benediction, the phrase accompanied in the parallel clauses by what is really an explanation of it, 'The Lord cause His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee.' So that the simple and obvious meaning of the words, 'the light of Thy countenance,' is the favour and lovingkindness of God manifested in that gracious Face which He turns to His servants. As for the other chief word in the clause, 'to walk' is the equivalent throughout Scripture for the conduct of the active life and daily conversation of a man, and to walk in the light is simply to have the consciousness of the divine Presence and the experience of the divine lovingkindness and friendship as a road on which we travel our life's journey, or an atmosphere round us in which all our activities are done and in which we ever remain, as a diver in his bell, to keep evil and sin from us.
There is only one more remark in the nature of explanation which I make, and that is that the expression here for walking is cast in the original into a form which grammarians call intensive, strengthening the simple idea expressed by the word. We may express its force if we read, 'They walk continually in the light of Thy countenance.'
Is not that just a definition of the Christian life as an unbroken realisation of the divine Presence, and an unbroken experience of the lovingkindness and favour of God? Is not that religion in its truest, simplest essence, in its purest expression? The people who are sure that they have their King in their midst, and who feel that He is looking down upon them with tender pity, with loving care, with nothing but friendship and sweetness in His heart, these people, says the Psalmist, are blessed. So much, then, for the meaning of the word.
II. Consider the possibility of such a condition being ours.
Can such a thing be? Is it possible for a man to go through life carrying this atmosphere constantly with him? Can the continuity which, as I remarked, is expressed by the original accurately rendered, be kept up through an ordinary life that has all manner of work to do, or are we only to 'hear the joyful sound,' now and then, at rare intervals, on set occasions, answering to these ancient feasts? Which of the two is it to be, dear brethren? There is no need whatever why any amount of hard work, or outward occupations of the most secular character, or any amount of distractions, should break for us the continuity of that consciousness and of that experience. We may carry God with us wherever we go, if only we remember that where we cannot carry Him with us we ought not to go. We may carry Him with us into all the dusty roads of life; we may always walk on the sunny side of the street if we like. We may always bear our own sunshine with us. And although we are bound to be diligent in business, and some of us have had to take a heavy lift of a great deal of hard work, and much of it apparently standing in no sort of relation to our religious life, yet for all that it is possible to bend all to this one direction, and to make everything a means of bringing us nearer to God and fuller of the conscious enjoyment of His presence. And if we have not learned to do that with our daily work, then our daily work is a curse to us. If we have allowed it to become so absorbing or distracting as that it dims and darkens our sense of the divine Presence, then it is time for us to see what is wrong in the method or in the amount of work which is thus darkening our consciences. I know it is hard, I know that an absolute attainment of such an ideal is perhaps beyond us, but I know that we can approach—I was going to say infinitely, but a better word is indefinitely—nearer it than any of us have ever yet done. As the psalm goes on to say in the next clause, it is possible for us to 'rejoice in His Name all the day.' Ay, even at your tasks, and at your counters, and in your kitchens, and in my study, it is possible for us; and if our hearts are what and where they ought to be, the possibility will be realised. Earthly duty has no necessary effect of veiling the consciousness of God.
Nor is there any reason why our troubles, sorrows, losses, solitude should darken that sunshine. I know that that is hard, too, perhaps harder than the other. It is more difficult to have a sense of the sunshine of the divine Presence shining through the clouds of disaster and sorrow than even it is to have it shining through the dust that is raised by traffic and secular occupation. But it is possible. There is nothing in all the sky so grand as clouds smitten by sunshine, and the light is never so glorious as when it is flashed back from them and dyes their piled bosoms with all celestial colours. There is no experience of God's Presence so blessed as that of a man who, in the midst of sorrow, has yet with him the assurance of the Father's friendship and favour and love, and so can say 'as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.' This sunshine shines in the foulest corners, and the most thunder-laden clouds only flash back its glories in new forms.
There is only one thing that breaks the continuity of that blessedness, and that is our own sin. We carry our own weather with us, whether we will or no, and we can bring winter into the middle of summer by flinging God away from us, and summer into the midst of winter by grappling Him to our hearts. There is only one thing that necessarily breaks our sense of His Presence, and that is that our hearts should turn away from His face. A man can work hard and yet feel that God is with him. A man can be weighed upon by many distresses and yet feel that God is with him and loves him; but a man cannot commit the least tiny sin and love it, and feel at the same time that God is with him. The heart is like a sensitive photographic plate, it registers the variations in the sunshine; and the one hindrance that makes it impossible for God's light to fall upon my soul with the assurance of friendship and the sense of sweetness, is that I should be hugging some evil to my heart. It is not the dusty highway of life nor the dark vales of weeping and of the shadow of death through which we sometimes have to pass that make it impossible for this sunlight to pour down upon us, but it is our gathering round ourselves of the poisonous mists of sin through which that light cannot pierce; or if it pierce, pierces transformed and robbed of all its beauty.
III. Let me note next the blessedness which draws out the Psalmist's rapturous exclamation.
The same phrase is employed in one of the other psalms, which, I think, bears in its contents the confirmation of the attribution of it to David. When he was fleeing before his rebellious son, at the very lowest ebb of his fortunes, away on the uplands of Moab, a discrowned king, a fugitive in danger of death at every moment, he sang a psalm in which these words occur: 'There be many that say, Who will show us any good?' 'Lord, lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us'; and then follows, 'Thou hast put gladness into my heart more than when their corn and wine abound.' The speech of the many, 'Who will show us any good?' is contrasted with the prayer of the one, 'Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us.' That is blessedness. It is the only thing that makes the heart to be at rest. It is the only thing that makes life truly worth living, the only thing that brings sweetness which has no after taint of bitterness and breeds no fear of its passing away. To have that unsetting sunshine streaming down upon my open heart, and to carry about with me whithersoever I go, like some melody from hidden singers sounding in my ears, the Name and the Love of my Father God—that and that only, brother, is true rest and abiding blessedness. There are many other joys far more turbulent, more poignant, but they all pass. Many of them leave a nauseous taste in the mouth when they are swallowed; all of them leave us the poorer for having had them and having them no more. For one who is not a Christian I do not know that it is
'Better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.'
But for those to whom God's Face is as a Sun, life in all its possibilities is blessed; and there is no blessedness besides. So let us keep near Him, 'walking in the light,' in our changeful days, 'as He is in the light' in His essential and unalterable being; and that light will be to us all which it is taken in Scripture to symbolise—knowledge and joy and purity; and in us, too, there will be 'no darkness at all.'
But there is one last word that I must say, and that is that a possible terror is intertwined with this blessedness. The next psalm to this says, with a kind of tremulous awe in the Psalmist's voice: 'Thou hast set our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance.' In that sense all of us, good and bad, lovers of God and those that are careless about Him, walk all the day long in the light of His face, and He sees and marks all our else hidden evil. It needs something more than any of us can do to make the thought that we do stand in the full glaring of that great searchlight, not turned occasionally but focussed steadily on us individually, a joy and a blessing to us. And what we need is offered us when we read, 'His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength, and I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His hand upon me and said, Fear not! I am He that liveth and was dead; and behold! I am alive for ever more.' If we put our poor trust in the Eternal Light that was manifest in Christ, then we shall walk in the sunshine of His face on earth, and that lamp will burn for us in the darkness of the grave and lead us at last into the ever-blazing centre of the Sun itself.
THE CRY OF THE MORTAL TO THE UNDYING
'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.—PSALM xc. 17.
If any reliance is to be placed upon the superscription of this psalm, it is one of the oldest, as it certainly is of the grandest, pieces of religious poetry in the world. It is said to be 'A prayer of Moses, the man of God,' and whether that be historically true or no, the tone of the psalm naturally suggests the great lawgiver, whose special task it was to write deep upon the conscience of the Jewish people the thought of the wages of sin as being death.
Hence the sombre magnificence and sad music of the psalm, which contemplates a thousand generations in succession as sliding away into the dreadful past, and sinking as beneath a flood. This thought of the fleeting years, dashed and troubled by many a sin, and by the righteous retribution of God, sent the Psalmist to his knees, and he found the only refuge from it in these prayers. These two petitions of our text, the closing words of the psalm, are the cry forced from a heart that has dared to look Death in the eyes, and has discovered that the world after all is a place of graves.
'Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish Thou the work of our hands upon us.' There are two thoughts there—the cry of the mortal for the beauty of the Eternal; and the cry of the worker in a perishable world for the perpetuity of his work. Look at these two thoughts briefly.
I. We have here, first, the yearning and longing cry of the mortal for the beauty of the Eternal.
The word translated 'beauty' in my text is, like the Greek equivalent in the New Testament, and like the English word 'grace,' which corresponds to them both susceptible of a double meaning. 'Grace' means both kindness and loveliness, or, as we might distinguish both graciousness and gracefulness. And that double idea is inherent in the word, as it is inherent in the attribute of God to which it refers. For that twofold meaning of the one word suggests the truth that God's lovingkindness and communicating mercy is His beauty, and that the fairest thing about Him, notwithstanding the splendours that surround His character, and the flashing lights that come from His many-sided glory, is that He loves and pities and gives Himself. God is all fair, but the central and substantial beauty of the divine nature is that it is a stooping nature, which bows to weak and unworthy souls, and on them pours out the full abundance of its manifold gifts. So the 'beauty of the Lord' means, by no quibble or quirk, but by reason of the essential loveliness of His lovingkindness, both God's loveliness and God's goodness; God's graciousness and God's gracefulness (if I may use such a word).
The prayer of the Psalmist that this beauty may be upon us conceives of it as given to us from above and as coming floating down from heaven, like that white Dove that fell upon Christ's head, fair and meek, gentle and lovely, and resting on our anointed heads, like a diadem and an aureole of glory.
Now that communicating graciousness, with its large gifts and its resulting beauty, is the one thing that we need in view of mortality and sorrow and change and trouble. The psalm speaks about 'all our years' being 'passed away in Thy wrath,' about the very inmost recesses of our secret unworthiness being turned inside out, and made to look blacker than ever when the bright sunshine of His face falls upon them. From that thought of God's wrath and omniscience the poet turns, as we must turn, to the other thought of His gentle longsuffering, of His forbearing love, of His infinite pity, of His communicating mercy. As a support in view both of our dreary and yet short years, and our certain mortality, and in the contemplation of the evils within and suffering from without, that harass us all, there is but one thing for us to do—namely, to fling ourselves into the arms of God, and in the spirit of this great petition, to ask that upon us there may fall the dewy benediction of His gentle beauty.
That longing is meant to be kindled in our hearts by all the discipline of life. Life is not worth living unless it does that for us; and there is no value nor meaning either in our joys or in our sorrows, unless both the one and the other send us to Him. Our gladness and our disappointments, our hopes fulfilled and our hopes dissipated and unanswered are but, as it were, the two wings by which, on either side, our spirits are to be lifted to God. The solemn pathos of the earlier portion of this psalm—the funeral march of generations—leads up to the prayerful confidence of these closing petitions, in which the sadness of the minor key in which it began has passed into a brighter strain. The thought of the fleeting years swept away as with a flood, and of the generations that blossom for a day and are mown down and wither when their swift night falls, is saddening and paralysing unless it suggests by contrast the thought of Him who, Himself unmoved, moves the rolling years, and is the dwelling-place of each succeeding generation. Such contemplations are wholesome and religious only when they drive us to the eternal God, that in Him we may find the stable foundation which imparts its own perpetuity to every life built upon it. We have experienced so many things in vain, and we are of the 'fools' that, being 'brayed in a mortar,' are only brayed fools after all, unless life, with its sorrows and its changes, has blown us, as with a hurricane, right into the centre of rest, and unless its sorrows and changes have taught us this as the one aspiration of our souls: 'Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,' and then, let what may come, come, let what can pass, pass, we shall have all that we need for life and peace.
And then, note further, that this gracious gentleness and long-suffering, giving mercy of God, when it comes down upon a man, makes him, too, beautiful with a reflected beauty. If the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, it will cover over our foulness and deformity. For whosoever possesses in any real fashion God's great mercy will have his spirit moulded into the likeness of that mercy. We cannot have it without reflecting it, we cannot possess it without being assimilated to it. Therefore, to have the grace of God makes us both gracious and graceful. And the true refining influence for a character is that into it there shall come the gift of that endless pity and patient love, which will transfigure us into some faint likeness of itself, so that we shall walk among men, able, in some poor measure, after the manner of our Master, to say, 'He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.' He said it in a sense and in a measure which we cannot reach, but the assimilation to and reflection of the divine character is our aim, or ought to be, if we are Christians. 'Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,' and 'change us into the same image from glory to glory.'
II. We have here the cry of the worker in a fleeting world for the perpetuity of his work.
'Establish,' or make firm, 'the work of our hands upon us, yea the work of our hands establish Thou it.' The thought that everything is passing away so swiftly and inevitably, as the earlier part of the psalm suggests, might lead a man to say, 'What is the use of my doing anything? I may just as well sit down here, and let things slide, if they are all going to be swallowed up in the black bottomless gulf of forgetfulness.' The contemplation has actually produced two opposite effects, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,' is quite as fair an inference from the fact as is 'Awake to righteousness and sin not,' if the fact itself only be taken into account. There is nothing religious in the clearest conviction of mortality, if it stands alone. It may be the ally of profligate and cynical sensuality quite as easily as it may be the preacher of asceticism. It may make men inactive, from their sense of the insignificant and fleeting nature of all human works, or it may stimulate to intensest effort, from the thought, 'I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day. The night cometh.' All depends on whether we link the conviction of mortality with that of eternity, and think of our perishable selves as in relationship with the unchanging God.
This prayer expresses a deep longing, natural to all men, and which yet seems incompatible with the stern facts of mortality and decay. We should all like to have our work exempted from the common lot. What pathetically futile attempts to secure this are pyramids, and rock-inscriptions, and storied tombs, and posthumous memoirs, and rich men's wills! Why should any of us expect that the laws of nature should be suspended for our benefit, and our work made lasting while everything beside changes like the shadows of the clouds? Is there any way by which such exceptional permanence can be secured for our poor deeds? Yes, certainly. Let us commit them to God, praying this prayer, 'Establish Thou the work of our hands upon us.'
Our work will be established if it is His work. This prayer in our text follows another prayer (verse 16)—namely, 'Let Thy work appear unto Thy servants.' That is to say, My work will be perpetual when the work of my hands is God's work done through me. When you bring your wills into harmony with God's will, and so all your effort, even about the little things of daily life, is in consonance with His will, and in the line of His purpose, then your work will stand. If otherwise, it will be like some slow-moving and frail carriage going in the one direction and meeting an express train thundering in the other. When the crash comes, the opposing motion of the weaker will be stopped, reversed, and the frail thing will be smashed to atoms. So, all work which is man's and not God's will sooner or later be reduced to impotence and either annihilated or reversed, and made to run in the opposite direction. But if our work runs parallel with God's, then the rushing impetus of His work will catch up our little deeds into the swiftness of its own motion, and will carry them along with itself, as a railway train will lift straws and bits of paper that are lying by the rails, and give them motion for a while. If my will runs in the line of His, and if the work of my hands is 'Thy work,' it is not in vain that we shall cry 'Establish it upon us,' for it will last as long as He does.
In like manner, all work will be perpetual that is done with 'the beauty of the Lord our God' upon the doers of it. Whosoever has that grace in his heart, whosoever is in contact with the communicating mercy of God, and has had his character in some measure refined and ennobled and beautified by possession thereof, will do work that has in it the element of perpetuity.
And our work will stand if we quietly leave it in His hands. Quietly do it to Him, never mind about results, but look after motives. You cannot influence results, let God look after them; you can influence motives. Be sure that they are right, and if they are, the work will be eternal.
'Eternal? What do you mean by eternal? how can a man's work be that?' Part of the answer is that it may be made permanent in its issues by being taken up into the great whole of God's working through His servants, which results at last in the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Just as a drop of water that falls upon the moor finds its way into the brook, and goes down the glen and on into the river, and then into the sea, and is there, though undistinguishable, so in the great summing up of everything at the end, the tiniest deed that was done for God, though it was done far away up amongst the mountain solitudes where no eye saw, shall live and be represented, in its effects on others and in its glad issues to the doer.
In the highest fashion the Psalmist's cry for the perpetuity of the fleeting deeds of dying generations will be answered in that region in which his dimmer eye saw little but the sullen flood that swept away youth and strength and wisdom, but in which we can see the solid land beyond the river, and the happy company who rejoice with the joy of harvest, and bear with them the sheaves, whereof the seed was sown on this bank, in tears and fears. 'Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord. Their works do follow them.' 'The world passeth away, and the fashion thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.'
THE SHELTERING WING
'He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust: His truth shall be thy shield and buckler.' —PSALM xci. 4.
We remember the magnificent image in Moses' song, of God's protection and guidance as that of the eagle who stirred up his nest, and hovered over the young with his wings, and bore them on his pinions. That passage may possibly have touched the imagination of this psalmist, when he here employs the same general metaphor, but with a distinct and significant difference in its application. In the former image the main idea is that of training and sustaining. Here the main idea is that of protection and fostering. On the wing and under the wing suggest entirely different notions, and both need to be taken into account in order to get the many-sided beauties and promises of these great sayings. Now there seems to me here to be a very distinct triad of thoughts. There is the covering wing; there is the flight to its protection; and there is the warrant for that flight. 'He shall cover thee with His pinions'; that is the divine act. 'Under His wings shalt thou trust'; that is the human condition. 'His truth shall be thy shield and buckler'; that is the divine manifestation which makes the human condition possible.
I. A word then, first, about the covering wing.
Now, the main idea in this image is, as I have suggested, that of the expanded pinion, beneath the shelter of which the callow young lie, and are guarded. Whatever kites may be in the sky, whatever stoats and weasels may be in the hedges, the brood are safe there. The image suggests not only the thought of protection but those of fostering, downy warmth, peaceful proximity to a heart that throbs with parental love, and a multitude of other happy privileges realised by those who nestle beneath that wing. But while these subsidiary ideas are not to be lost sight of, the promise of protection is to be kept prominent, as that chiefly intended by the Psalmist.
This psalm rings throughout with the truth that a man who dwells 'in the secret place of the Most High' has absolute immunity from all sorts of evil; and there are two regions in which that immunity, secured by being under the shadow of the Almighty, is exemplified here. The one is that of outward dangers, the other is that of temptation to sin and of what we may call spiritual foes. Now, these two regions and departments in which the Christian man does realise, in the measure of his faith, the divine protection, exhibit that protection as secured in two entirely different ways.
The triumphant assurances of this psalm, 'There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling,'—'the pestilence shall smite thousands and ten thousands beside thee, but not come nigh thee,'—seem to be entirely contradicted by experience which testifies that 'there is one event to the evil and the good,' and that, in epidemics or other widespread disasters, we all, the good and the bad, God-fearers and God-blasphemers, do fare alike, and that the conditions of exemption from physical evil are physical and not spiritual. It is of no use trying to persuade ourselves that that is not so. We shall understand God's dealings with us, and get to the very throbbing heart of such promises as these in this psalm far better, if we start from the certainty that whatever it means it does not mean that, with regard to external calamities and disasters, we are going to be God's petted children, or to be saved from the things that fall upon other people. No! no! we have to go a great deal deeper than that. If we have felt a difficulty, as I suppose we all have sometimes, and are ready to say with the half-despondent Psalmist, 'My feet were almost gone, and my steps had well-nigh slipped,' when we see what we think the complicated mysteries of divine providence in this world, we have to come to the belief that the evil that is in the evil will never come near a man sheltered beneath God's wing. The physical external event may be entirely the same to him as to another who is not covered with His feathers. Here are two partners in a business, the one a Christian man, and the other is not. A common disaster overwhelms them. They become bankrupts. Is insolvency the same to the one as it is to the other? Here are two men on board a ship, the one putting his trust in God, the other thinking it all nonsense to trust anything but himself. They are both drowned. Is drowning the same to the two? As their corpses lie side by side among the ooze, with the weeds over them, and the shell-fish at them, you may say of the one, but only of the one, 'There shall no evil befall thee, neither any plague come nigh thy dwelling.'
For the protection that is granted to faith is only to be understood by faith. It is deliverance from the evil in the evil which vindicates as no exaggeration, nor as merely an experience and a promise peculiar to the old theocracy of Israel, but not now realised, the grand sayings of this text. The poison is all wiped off the arrow by that divine protection. It may still wound but it does not putrefy the flesh. The sewage water comes down, but it passes into the filtering bed, and is disinfected and cleansed before it is permitted to flow over our fields.
And so, brethren! if any of you are finding that the psalm is not outwardly true, and that through the covering wing the storm of hail has come and beaten you down, do not suppose that that in the slightest degree impinges upon the reality and truthfulness of this great promise, 'He shall cover thee with His feathers.' Anything that has come through them is manifestly not an 'evil.' 'Who is he that will harm you if ye be followers of that which is good?' 'If God be for us who can be against us?' Not what the world calls, and our wrung hearts feel that it rightly calls, 'sorrows' and 'afflictions,'—these all work for our good, and protection consists, not in averting the blows, but in changing their character.
Then, there is another region far higher, in which this promise of my text is absolutely true—that is, in the region of spiritual defence. For no man who lies under the shadow of God, and has his heart filled with the continual consciousness of that Presence, is likely to fall before the assaults of evil that tempt him away from God; and the defence which He gives in that region is yet more magnificently impregnable than the defence which He gives against external evils. For, as the New Testament teaches us, we are kept from sin, not by any outward breastplate or armour, nor even by the divine wing lying above us to cover us, but by the indwelling Christ in our hearts. His Spirit within us makes us 'free from the law of sin and death,' and conquerors over all temptations.
I say not a word about all the other beautiful and pathetic associations which are connected with this emblem of the covering wing, sweet and inexhaustible as it is, but I simply leave with you the two thoughts that I have dwelt upon, of the twofold manner of that divine protection.
II. And now a word, in the second place, about the flight of the shelterless to the shelter.
The word which is rendered in our Authorised Version, 'shalt thou trust,' is, like all Hebrew words for mental and spiritual emotions and actions, strongly metaphorical. It might have been better to retain its literal meaning here instead of substituting the abstract word 'trust.' That is to say, it would have been an improvement if we had read with the Revised Version, not, 'under His wings shalt thou trust,' but 'under His wings shalt thou take refuge.' For that is the idea which is really conveyed; and in many of the psalms, if you will remember, the same metaphor is employed. 'Hide me beneath the shadow of Thy wings'; 'Beneath Thy wings will I take refuge until calamities are overpast'; and the like. Many such passages will, no doubt, occur to your memories.
But what I wish to signalise is just this, that in this emblem of flying into a refuge from impending perils we get a far more vivid conception, and a far more useful one, as it seems to me, of what Christian faith really is than we derive from many learned volumes and much theological hair-splitting. 'Under His wings shalt thou flee for refuge.' Is not that a vivid, intense, picturesque, but most illuminative way of telling us what is the very essence, and what is the urgency, and what is the worth, of what we call faith? The Old Testament is full of the teaching—which is masked to ordinary readers, but is the same teaching as the New Testament is confessedly full of—of the necessity of faith as the one bond that binds men to God. If only our translators had wisely determined upon a uniform rendering in Old and New Testament of words that are synonymous, the reader would have seen what is often now reserved for the student, that all these sayings in the Old Testament about 'trusting in God' run on all fours with 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.'
But just mark what comes out of that metaphor; that 'trust,' the faith which unites with God, and brings a man beneath the shadow of His wings, is nothing more or less than the flying into the refuge that is provided for us. Does that not speak to us of the urgency of the case? Does that not speak to us eloquently of the perils which environ us? Does it not speak to us of the necessity of swift flight, with all the powers of our will? Is the faith which is a flying into a refuge fairly described as an intellectual act of believing in a testimony? Surely it is something a great deal more than that. A man out in the plain, with the avenger of blood, hot-breathed and bloody-minded, behind him might believe, as much as he liked, that there would be safety within the walls of the City of Refuge, but unless he took to his heels without loss of time, the spear would be in his back before he knew where he was. There are many men who know all about the security of the refuge, and believe it utterly, but never run for it; and so never get into it. Faith is the gathering up of the whole powers of my nature to fling myself into the asylum, to cast myself into God's arms, to take shelter beneath the shadow of His wings. And unless a man does that, and swiftly, he is exposed to every bird of prey in the sky, and to every beast of prey lurking in wait for him.
The metaphor tells us, too, what are the limits and the worth of faith. A man is not saved because he believes that he is saved, but because by believing he lays hold of the salvation. It is not the flight that is impregnable, and makes those behind its strong bulwarks secure. Not my outstretched hand, but the Hand that my hand grasps, is what holds me up. The power of faith is but that it brings me into contact with God, and sets me behind the seven-fold bastions of the Almighty protection.
So, brethren! another consideration comes out of this clause: 'Under His wings shalt thou trust.' If you do not flee for refuge to that wing, it is of no use to you, however expanded it is, however soft and downy its underside, however sure its protection. You remember the passage where our Lord uses the same venerable figure with modifications, and says: 'How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not.' So our 'would not' thwarts Christ's 'would.' Flight to the refuge is the condition of being saved. How can a man get shelter by any other way than by running to the shelter? The wing is expanded; it is for us to say whether we will 'flee for refuge to the hope set before us.'
III. Now, lastly, the warrant for this flight.
'His truth shall be thy shield.' Now, 'truth' here does not mean the body of revealed words, which are often called God's truth, but it describes a certain characteristic of the divine nature. And if, instead of 'truth,' we read the good old English word 'troth,' we should be a great deal nearer understanding what the Psalmist meant. Or if 'troth' is archaic, and conveys little meaning to us; suppose we substitute a somewhat longer word, of the same meaning, and say, 'His faithfulness shall be thy shield.' You cannot trust a God that has not given you an inkling of His character or disposition, but if He has spoken, then you 'know where to have him.' That is just what the Psalmist means. How can a man be encouraged to fly into a refuge, unless he is absolutely sure that there is an entrance for him into it, and that, entering, he is safe? And that security is provided in the great thought of God's troth. 'Thy faithfulness is like the great mountains.' 'Who is like unto Thee, O Lord! or to Thy faithfulness round about Thee?' That faithfulness shall be our 'shield,' not a tiny targe that a man could bear upon his left arm; but the word means the large shield, planted in the ground in front of the soldier, covering him, however hot the fight, and circling him around, like a wall of iron.
God is 'faithful' to all the obligations under which He has come by making us. That is what one of the New Testament writers tells us, when he speaks of Him as 'a faithful Creator.' Then, if He has put desires into our hearts, be sure that somewhere there is their satisfaction; and if He has given us needs, be sure that in Him there is the supply; and if He has lodged in us aspirations which make us restless, be sure that if we will turn them to Him, they will be satisfied and we shall be at rest. 'God never sends mouths but He sends meat to fill them.' 'He remembers our frame,' and measures His dealings accordingly. When He made me, He bound Himself to make it possible that I should be blessed for ever; and He has done it.
God is faithful to His word, according to that great saying in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the writer tells us that by 'God's counsel,' and 'God's oath,' 'two immutable things,' we might have 'strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.' God is faithful to His own past. The more He has done the more He will do. 'Thou hast been my Help; leave me not, neither forsake me.' Therein we present a plea which God Himself will honour. And He is faithful to His own past in a yet wider sense. For all the revelations of His love and of His grace in times that are gone, though they might be miraculous in their form, are permanent in their essence. So one of the Psalmists, hundreds of years after the time that Israel was led through the wilderness, sang: 'There did we'—of this present generation—'rejoice in Him.' What has been, is, and will be, for Thou art 'the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.' We have not a God that lurks in darkness, but one that has come into the light. We have to run, not into a Refuge that is built upon a 'perhaps,' but upon 'Verily, verily! I say unto thee.' Let us build rock upon Rock, and let our faith correspond to the faithfulness of Him that has promised.
THE HABITATION OF THE SOUL
'Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.'—PSALM xci. 9, 10.
It requires a good deal of piecing to make out from the Hebrew the translation of our Authorised Version here. The simple, literal rendering of the first words of these verses is, 'Surely, Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge'; and I do not suppose that any of the expedients which have been adopted to modify that translation would have been adopted, but that these words seem to cut in two the long series of rich promises and blessings which occupy the rest of the psalm. But it is precisely this interruption of the flow of the promises which puts us on the right track for understanding the words in question, because it leads us to take them as the voice of the devout man, to whom the promises are addressed, responding to them by the expression of his own faith.
The Revised Version is much better here than our Authorised Version, for it has recognised this breach of continuity of sequence in the promises, and translated as I have suggested; making the first words of my text, 'Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge,' the voice of one singer, and 'Because thou hast made the Most High thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any evil come nigh thy dwelling,' the voice of another.
Whether or no it be that in the Liturgical service of the Temple this psalm was sung by two choirs which answered one another, does not matter for our purpose. Whether or no we regard the first clause as the voice of the Psalmist speaking to God, and the other as the same man speaking to himself, does not matter. The point is that, first, there is an exclamation of personal faith, and that then that is followed and answered, as it were, by the further promise of continual blessings. One voice says, 'Thou, Lord! art my Refuge,' and then another voice—not God's, because that speaks in majesty at the end of the psalm—replies to that burst of confidence, 'Thou hast made the Lord thy habitation' (as thou hast done by this confession of faith), 'there shall no evil come nigh thy dwelling.'
I. We have here the cry of the devout soul.
I observed that it seems to cut in two the stream of promised blessings, and that fact is significant. The psalm begins with the deep truth that 'He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.' Then a single voice speaks, 'I will say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress, my God, in Him will I trust.' Then that voice, which thus responds to the general statement of the first verse, is answered by a stream of promises. The first part of our text comes in as the second speech of the same voice, repeating substantially the same thing as it said at first.
Now, notice that this cry of the soul, recognising God as its Asylum and Home, comes in response to a revelation of God's blessing, and to large words of promise. There is no true refuge nor any peace and rest for a man unless in grasping the articulate word of God, and building his assurance upon that. Anything else is not confidence, but folly; anything else is building upon sand, and not upon the Rock. If I trust my own or my brother's conception of the divine nature, if I build upon any thoughts of my own, I am building upon what will yield and give. For all peaceful casting of my soul into the arms of God there must be, first, a plain stretching out of the hands of God to catch me when I drop. So the words of my text, 'Thou art my Refuge,' are the best answer of the devout soul to the plain words of divine promise. How abundant these are we all know, how full of manifold insight and adaptation to our circumstances and our nature we may all experience, if we care to prove them.