But let us be sure that we are hearkening to the voice with which He speaks through our daily circumstances as well as by the unmistakable revelation of His will and heart in Jesus Christ. And then let us be sure that no word of His, that comes fluttering down from the heavens, meaning a benediction and enclosing a promise, falls at our feet ungathered and unregarded, or is trodden into the dust by our careless heels. The manna lies all about us; let us see that we gather it. 'When Thou saidst, Seek ye My Face, my heart said unto Thee, Thy Face, Lord, will I seek.' When Thou saidst, 'I will be thy Strength and thy Righteousness,' have I said, 'Surely, O Jehovah! Thou art my Refuge'? Turn His promises into your creed, and whatever He has declared in the sweet thunder of His voice, loud as the voice of many waters, and melodious as 'harpers harping with their harps,' do you take for your profession of faith in the faithful promises of your God.
Still further, this cry of the devout soul suggests to me that our response ought to be the establishment of a close personal relation between us and God. 'Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge.' The Psalmist did not content himself with saying 'Lord! Thou hast been our Dwelling-place in all generations,' or as one of the other psalmists has it, 'God is our Refuge and our Strength.' That thought was blessed, but it was not enough for the Psalmist's present need, and it is never enough for the deepest necessities of any soul. We must isolate ourselves and stand, God and we, alone together—at heart-grips—we grasping His hand, and He giving Himself to us—if the promises which are sent down into the world for all who will make them theirs can become ours. They are made payable to your order; you must put your name on the back before you get the proceeds. There must be what our good old Puritan forefathers used to call, in somewhat hard language, 'the appropriating act of faith,' in order that God's richest blessings may be of any use to us. Put out your hand to grasp them, and say, 'Mine,' not 'Ours.' The thought of others as sharing in them will come afterwards, for he who has once realised the absolute isolation of the soul and has been alone with God, and in solitude has taken God's gifts as his very own, is he who will feel fellowship and brotherhood with all who are partakers of like precious faith and blessings. The 'ours' will come; but you must begin with the 'mine'—'my Lord and my God.' 'He loved me, and gave Himself for me.'
Just as when the Israelites gathered on the banks of the Red Sea, and Miriam and the maidens came out with songs and timbrels, though their hearts throbbed with joy, and music rang from their lips for national deliverance, their hymn made the whole deliverance the property of each, and each of the chorus sang, 'The Lord is my Strength and my Song, He also is become my Salvation,' so we must individualise the common blessing. Every poor soul has a right to the whole of God, and unless a man claims all the divine nature as his, he has little chance of possessing the promised blessings. The response of the individual to the worldwide promises and revelations of the Father is, 'Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge.'
Further, note how this cry of the devout soul recognises God as He to whom we must go because we need a refuge. The word 'refuge' here gives the picture of some stronghold, or fortified place, in which men may find security from all sorts of dangers, invasions by surrounding foes, storm and tempest, rising flood, or anything else that threatens. Only he who knows himself to be in danger bethinks himself of a refuge. It is only when we know our danger and defencelessness that God, as the Refuge of our souls, becomes precious to us. So, underlying, and an essential part of, all our confidence in God, is the clear recognition of our own necessity. The sense of our own emptiness must precede our grasp of His fulness. The conviction of our own insufficiency and sinfulness must precede our casting ourselves on His mercy and righteousness. In all regions the consciousness of human want must go before the recognition of the divine supply.
II. Now, note the still more abundant answer which that cry evokes.
I said that the words on which I have been commenting thus far, seem to break in two the continuity of the stream of blessings and promises. But there may be observed a certain distinction of tone between those promises which precede and those which follow the cry. Those that follow have a certain elevation and depth, completeness and fulness, beyond those that precede. This enhancing of the promises, following on the faithful grasp of previous promises, suggests the thought that, when God is giving, and His servant thankfully accepts and garners up His gifts, He opens His hand wider and gives more. When He pours His rain upon the unthankful and the evil, and they let the precious, fertilising drops run to waste, there comes after a while a diminution of the blessing; but they who store in patient and thankful hearts the faithful promises of God, have taken a sure way to make His gifts still larger and His promises still sweeter, and their fulfilment more faithful and precious.
But now notice the remarkable language in which this answer is couched. 'Thou hast made the Most High thy Habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.'
Did you ever notice that there are two dwelling-places spoken of in this verse? 'Thou hast made the Most High thy Habitation'; 'There shall no plague come nigh thy dwelling.' The reference of the latter word to the former one is even more striking if you observe that, literally translated, as in the Revised Version, it means a particular kind of abode—namely, a tent. 'Thou hast made the Most High thy habitation.' The same word is employed in the 90th Psalm: 'Lord, Thou hast been our Dwelling-place in all generations.' Beside that venerable and ancient abode, that has stood fresh, strong, incorruptible, and unaffected by the lapse of millenniums, there stands the little transitory canvas tent in which our earthly lives are spent. We have two dwelling-places. By the body we are brought into connection with this frail, evanescent, illusory outer world, and we try to make our homes out of shifting cloud-wrack, and dream that we can compel mutability to become immutable, that we may dwell secure. But fate is too strong for us, and although we say that we will make our nest in the rocks, and shall never be moved, the home that is visible and linked with the material passes and melts as a cloud. We need a better dwelling-place than earth and that which holds to earth. We have God Himself for our true Home. Never mind what becomes of the tent, as long as the mansion stands firm. Do not let us be saddened, though we know that it is canvas, and that the walls will soon rot and must some day be folded up and borne away, if we have the Rock of Ages for our dwelling-place.
Let us abide in the Eternal God by the devotion of our hearts, by the affiance of our faith, by the submission of our wills, by the aspiration of our yearnings, by the conformity of our conduct to His will. Let us abide in the Eternal God, that 'when the earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved,' we may enter into two buildings 'eternal in the heavens'—the one the spiritual body which knows no corruption, and the other the bosom of the Eternal God Himself. 'Because thou hast made Him thy Habitation,' that Dwelling shall suffer no evil to come near it or its tenant.
Still further, notice the scope of this great promise. I suppose there is some reference in the form of it to the old story of Israel's exemption from the Egyptian plagues, and a hint that that might be taken as a parable and prophetic picture of what will be true about every man who puts his trust in God. But the wide scope and the paradoxical completeness of the promise itself, instead of being a difficulty, point the way to its true interpretation. 'There shall no plague come nigh thy dwelling'—and yet we are smitten down by all the woes that afflict humanity. 'No evil shall befall thee'—and yet 'all the ills that flesh is heir to' are dealt out sometimes with a more liberal hand to them who abide in God than to them who dwell only in the tent upon earth. What then? Is God true, or is He not? Did this psalmist mean to promise the very questionable blessing of escape from all the good of the discipline of sorrow? Is it true, in the unconditional sense in which it is often asserted, that 'prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament, and adversity of the New'? I think not, and I am sure that this psalmist, when he said, 'there shall no evil befall thee, nor any plague come nigh thy dwelling,' was thinking exactly the same thing which Paul had in his mind when he said, 'All things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.' If I make God my Refuge, I shall get something a great deal better than escape from outward sorrow—namely, an amulet which will turn the outward sorrow into joy. The bitter water will still be given me to drink, but it will be filtered water, out of which God will strain all the poison, though He leaves plenty of the bitterness in it; for bitterness is a tonic. The evil that is in the evil will be taken out of it, in the measure in which we make God our Refuge, and 'all will be right that seems most wrong' when we recognise it to be 'His sweet will.'
Dear brother! the secret of exemption from every evil lies in no peculiar Providence, ordering in some special manner our outward circumstances, but in the submission of our wills to that which the good hand of the Lord our God sends us for our good; and in cleaving close to Him as our Refuge. Nothing can be 'evil' which knits me more closely to God; and whatever tempest drives me to His breast, though all the four winds of the heavens strive on the surface of the sea, it will be better for me than calm weather that entices me to stray farther away from Him.
We shall know that some day. Let us be sure of it now, and explain by it our earthly experience, even as we shall know it when we get up yonder and 'see all the way by which the Lord our God has led us.'
THE ANSWER TO TRUST
'Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known My name.' —PSALM xci. 14.
There are two voices speaking in the earlier part of this psalm: one that of a saint who professes his reliance upon the Lord, his Fortress; and another which answers the former speaker, and declares that he shall be preserved by God. In this verse, which is the first of the final portion of the psalm, we have a third voice—the voice of God Himself, which comes in to seal and confirm, to heighten and transcend, all the promises that have been made in His name. The first voice said of himself, 'I will trust'; the second voice addresses that speaker, and says, 'Thou shalt not be afraid'; the third voice speaks of him, and not to him, and says, 'Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him.'
Why does this divine voice speak thus indirectly of this blessing of His servant? I think partly because it heightens the majesty of the utterance, as if God spake to the whole universe about what He meant to do for His friend who trusts Him; and partly because, in that general form of speech, there is really couched an 'whosoever'; and it applies to us all. If God had said, 'Because thou hast set thy love upon Me, I will deliver thee,' it had not been so easy for us to put ourselves in the place of the man concerning whom this great divine voice spoke; but when He says, 'Because he hath set his love upon Me,' in the 'he' there lies 'everybody'; and the promise spoken before the universe as to His servants is spoken universally to His servants.
So, then, these words seem to me to carry two thoughts: the first, what God delights to find in a man; and the second, what God delights to give to the man in whom He finds it.
I. Note, first, what God delights to find in man.
There is, if we may reverently say so, a tone of satisfaction in the words, 'Because he hath set his love upon Me,' and 'because he hath known My name.' Thus, then, there are two things that the great Father's heart seeks, and wheresoever it finds them, in however imperfect a degree, He is glad, and lavishes upon such a one the most precious things in His possession.
What are these two things? Let us look at each of them. Now the word rendered 'set his love' includes more than is suggested by that rendering, beautiful as it is. It implies the binding or knitting oneself to anything. Now, though love be the true cement by which men are bound to God, as it is the only real bond which binds men to one another, yet the word itself covers a somewhat wider area than is covered by the notion of love. It is not my love only that I am to fasten upon God, but my whole self that I am to bind to Him. God delights in us when we cling to Him. There is a threefold kind of clinging, which I would urge upon you and upon myself.
Let us cling to Him in our thoughts, hour by hour, moment by moment, amidst all the distractions of daily life. Whilst there are other things that must legitimately occupy our minds, let us see to it that, ever and anon, we turn ourselves away from these, and betake ourselves, with a conscious gathering in of our souls, to Him, and calm and occupy our hearts and minds with the bright and peaceful thoughts of a present God ever near us, and ever gracious to us. Life is but a dreary stretch of wilderness, unless all through it there be dotted, like a chain of ponds in a desert, these moments in which the mind fixes itself upon God, and loses sorrows and sins and weakness and all other sadnesses in the calm and blessed contemplation of His sweetness and sufficiency. The very heavens are bare and lacking in highest beauty, unless there stretch across them the long lines of rosy-tinted clouds. And so across our skies let us cast a continuous chain of thoughts of God, and as we go about our daily work, let us try to have our minds ever recurring to Him, like the linked pools that mirror heaven in the midst of the barren desert, and bring a reflection of life into the midst of its death. Cleave and cling to God, brother! by frequent thoughts of Him, diffused throughout the whole continuity of the busy day.
Then again, we might say, let us cleave to Him by our love, which is the one bond of union, as I said, between man and God, as it is the one bond of union between man and man. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength,' was from the beginning the Alpha, and until the end will be the Omega, of all true religion; and within the sphere of that commandment lie all duty, all Christianity, all blessedness, and all life. The heart that is divided is wretched; the heart that is consecrated is at rest. The love that is partial is nought; the love that is worth calling so is total and continuous. Let us cling to Him with our thoughts; let us cling to Him with the tendrils of our hearts.
Let us cleave to Him, still further, by the obedient contact of our wills with His, taking no commandments from men, and no overpowering impressions from circumstances, and no orders from our own fancies and inclinations and tastes and lusts, but receiving all our instructions from our Father in heaven. There is no real contact between us and God, no real cleaving to Him, howsoever the thought of God may be in our minds, and some kind of imperfect love to Him may be supposed to be in our hearts, unless there be the absolute submission of our wills to His authority; and only in the measure in which we are able to say, What He commands I do, and what He sends I accept, and my will is in His hands to be moulded, do we really get close and keep close to our Father in the heavens. He that hath brought himself into loving touch with God, and clings to Him in that threefold fashion, by thought, love, and submission, he, and only he, is so joined to the Lord as to be one Spirit.
Now that is not a state to be won and kept without much vigorous, conscious effort. The nuts in a machine work loose; the knots in a rope 'come untied,' as the children say. The hand that clasps anything, by slow and imperceptible degrees, loses muscular contraction, and the grip of the fingers becomes slacker. Our minds and affections and wills have that same tendency to slacken their hold of what they grasp. Unless we tighten up the machine it will work loose; and unless we make conscious efforts to keep ourselves in touch with God, His hand will slip out of ours before we know that it is gone, and we shall fancy that we feel the impression of the fingers long after they have been taken away from our negligent palms.
Besides our own vagrancies, and the waywardness and wanderings of our poor, unreliable natures, there come in, of course, as hindrances, all the interruptions and distractions of outside things, which work in the same direction of loosening our hold on God. If the shipwrecked sailor is not to be washed off the raft he must tie himself on to it, and must see that the lashings are reliable and the knots tight; and if we do not mean to be drifted away from God without knowing it, we must make very sure work of anchor and cable, and of our own hold on both. Effort is needed, continuous and conscious, lest at any time we should slide away from Him. And this is what God delights to find: a mind and will that bind themselves to Him.
There is another thing in the text which, as I take it, is a consequence of that close union between man in his whole nature and God: 'I will set him on high because he hath known My name.' Notice that the knowledge of the name comes after, and not before, the setting of the love or the fixing of the nature upon God. God's 'name' is the same thing as His self-revelation or His manifested character. Then, does not every one to whom that revelation is made know His name? Certainly not. The word 'know' is here used in the same deep sense in which it is employed all but uniformly in the New Testament—the same sense in which it is used in the writings of the Apostle John. It describes a knowledge which is a great deal more than a mere intellectual acquaintance with the facts of divine revelation. Or, to put the thought into other words, this is a knowledge which comes after we have set our love upon God, a knowledge which is the child of love. We forget sometimes that it is a Person, and not a system of truth, whom the Bible tells us we are to know. And how do you know people? Only by familiar acquaintance with them. You might read a description of a man, perfectly accurate, sufficiently full, but you would not therefore say you knew him. You might know about him, or fancy you did, but if you knew him, it would be because you had summered and wintered with him, and lived beside him, and were on terms of familiar acquaintance with him. As long as it is God and not theology, the knowledge of whom makes religion, so long it will not be the head, but the heart or spirit, that is the medium or organ by which we know Him. You have to become acquainted with Him and be very familiar with Him—that is to say, to fix your whole self upon Him—before you 'know' Him; and it is only the knowledge which is born of love and familiarity that is worth calling knowledge at all. Just as with our earthly relationships and acquaintances, only they who love a man or a woman know such a one right down to the very depth of their being, so the one way to know God's name is to bind myself to Him with mind and heart and will, as friends cleave to one another. Then I shall know Him and be known of Him.
Still further, this knowledge which God delights to find in us men, is a knowledge which is experience. There is all the difference between reading about a foreign country and going to see it with your own eyes. The man that has been there knows it; the man that has not knows about it. And only he knows God to whom the commonplaces of religion have turned into facts which he verifies by his own experiences.
It is a knowledge, too, which influences life. Obviously the words of my text look back to what the saint was represented as saying in an earlier portion of the psalm. Why does God declare that the man has set his love upon Him, and knows His name? Because the saint professed this, 'I will say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress.' These are His name. The man knows it; he has it not only upon his lips, but in his heart, and feels that it is true, and acts accordingly. 'He is my Refuge and my Fortress; my God, in Him will I trust.' The knowledge which God regards as knowledge of Him is one based upon experience and upon familiar acquaintance, and issuing in joyful recognition of my possession of Him as mine, and the outgoing of my confidence to Him. These are the things that God desires and delights to find in men.
II. Note, secondly, what God gives to the man in whom He finds such things.
'I will deliver him'; 'I will set him on high.' These two clauses are substantially parallel, and yet there is a difference between them, as is the nature of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, where the same ideas are repeated with a shade of modification, and the second of them somewhat surpassing the first. 'I will deliver him,' says the promise. That confirms the view that the promise in the previous verse, 'There shall no plague come nigh thy dwelling,' does not mean exemption from sorrow and trial because, if so, there would be no relevancy or blessedness in the promise of deliverance. He who needs 'deliverance' is the man who is surrounded by evils, and God's promise is not that no evil shall come to the man who trusts Him, but that he shall be delivered out of the evil that does come, and that it will not be truly evil.
And why is he to be delivered? 'Because he has bound himself to Me,' says God, 'therefore will I deliver him.' Of course, if I am fastened to God, nothing that does not hurt Him can hurt me. If I am knit to Him as closely as this psalm contemplates, it is impossible but that out of His fulness my emptiness shall be filled, and with His rejoicing strength my weakness will be made strong. It is just the same idea as is given to us in the picture of Peter upon the water, when the cold waves are up to his knees, and the coward heart says, 'I am ready to sink,' but yet, with the faith that comes with the fear, he puts out his hand and grasps Christ's hand, and as soon as he does, and the two are united, he is buoyant, and rises again, and the water is beneath the soles of his feet. 'He sent from above, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.' Whoever is joined to God is lifted above all evil, and the evil that continues to eddy about him will change its character, and bear him onwards to his haven. For he who is thus knit to God in the living, pulsating bond of thought and affection and submission, will be delivered from sin.
When a boy first learns to skate, he needs some one to go behind him and hold him up whilst he uses his unaccustomed limbs; and so, when we are upon the smooth, treacherous ice of this wicked world, it is by leaning on God that we are kept upright. 'He hath set himself close to Me, I will deliver him,' says God. 'Yea! he shall not fall, for the Lord is able to make him stand.'
Still further, we have another great promise, which is the explanation and extension of the former, 'I will set him on high, because he hath known My name.' That is more than lifting a man up above the reach of the storms of life by means of any external deliverance. There is a better thing than that—namely, that our whole inward life be lived loftily. If it is true of us that we know His name, then our lives are 'hid with Christ in God,' and far below our feet will be all the riot of earth and its noise and tumult and change. We shall live serene and uplifted lives on the mount, if we know His name and have bound ourselves to Him, and the troubles and cares and changes and duties and joys of this present will be away down below us, like the lowly cottages in some poor village, seen from the mountain top, the squalor out of sight, the magnitude diminished, the noise and tumult dimmed to a mere murmur that interrupts not the sacred silence of the lofty peak where we dwell with God. 'I will set him on high because he knows My name.'
Then, perhaps, there is a hint in the words, as there is in subsequent words of the verse, of an elevation even higher than that, when, life ended and earth done, He shall receive into His glory those whom He hath guided by His counsel. 'I will set him on high, because he hath known My name,' says the Jehovah of the Old Covenant. 'To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me on My throne,' says the Jesus of the New, who is the Jehovah of the Old.
WHAT GOD WILL DO FOR US
'He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. 16. With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation.'—PSALM xci. 15, 16.
When considering the previous verses of this psalm, I pointed out that at its close we have God's own voice coming in to confirm and expand the promises which, in the earlier portion of it, have been made in His name to the devout heart. The words which we have now to consider cover the whole range of human life and need, and may be regarded as being a picture of the sure and blessed consequences of keeping our hearts fixed upon our Father, God. He Himself speaks them, and His word is true.
The verses of the text fall into three portions. There are promises for the suppliant, promises for the troubled, promises for mortals. 'He shall call upon Me and I will answer him'; that is for the suppliant. 'I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honour him'; that is for the distressed. 'With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation'; that is for the mortal. Now let us look at these three.
I. The promise to the suppliant.
'He will call upon Me and I will answer.' We may almost regard the first of these two clauses as part of the promise. It is not merely a Hebrew way of putting a supposition, 'If he calls upon Me, then I will answer him,' nor merely a virtual commandment, 'Call, if you expect an answer,' but itself is a part of the blessing and privilege of the devout and faithful heart. 'He shall call upon Me'; the King opens the door of His chamber and beckons us within.
In these great words we may see set forth both the instinct, as I may call it, of prayer, and the privilege of access to God. If a man's heart is set upon God, his very life-breath will be a cry to His Father. He will experience a need which is not degraded by being likened to an instinct, for it acts as certainly as do the instincts of the lower creatures, which guide them by the straightest possible road to the surest supply of their need. Any man who has learned in any measure to love God and trust Him will, in the measure in which he has so learned, live in the exercise and habit of prayer; and it will be as much his instinct to cry to God in all changing circumstances as it is for the swallows to seek the sunny south when the winter comes, or the cold north when the sunny south becomes torrid and barren. So, then, 'He shall call upon Me' is the characteristic of the truly God-knowing and God-loving heart, which was described in the previous verse. 'Because he has clung to Me in love, therefore will I deliver him; because he has known My name, therefore will I set him on high,' and because he has clung and known therefore it is certain that He will 'call upon Me.'
My friend! do you know anything of that instinctive appeal to God? Does it come to your heart and to your lips without your setting yourself to pray, just as the thought of dear ones on earth comes stealing into our minds a hundred times a day, when we do not intend it nor know exactly how it has come? Does God suggest Himself to you in that fashion, and is the instinct of your hearts to call upon Him?
Again, we see here not only the unveiling of the very deepest and most characteristic attribute of the devout soul, but also the assurance of the privilege of access. God lets us speak to Him. And there is, further, a wonderful glimpse into the very essence of true prayer. 'He shall call upon Me.' What for? No particular object is specified as sought. It is God whom we want, and not merely any things that even He can give. If asking for these only or mainly is our conception of what prayer is, we know little about it. True prayer is the cry of the soul for the living God, in whom is all that it needs, and out of whom is nothing that will do it good. 'He shall call upon Me,' that is prayer.
'I will answer him.' Yes! Of course the instinct is not all on one side. If the devout heart yearns for God, God longs for the devout heart. If I might use such a metaphor, just as the ewe on one side of the hedge hears and answers the bleating of its lamb on the other, so, if my heart cries out for the living God, anything is more credible than that such a cry should not be answered. You may not get this, that, or the other blessing which you ask, for perhaps they are not blessings. You may not get what you fancy you need. We are not always good at translating our needs into words, and it is a mercy that there is Some One that understands what we do want a great deal better than we do ourselves. But if below the specific petition there lies the cry of a heart that calls for the living God, then whether the specific petition be answered or dispersed into empty air will matter comparatively little. 'He shall call upon Me,' and that part of his prayer 'I will answer' and come to him and be in him. Is that our experience of what it is to pray, and our notion of what it is to be answered?
II. Further, here we have a promise for suppliants.
I take the next three clauses of the text as being all closely connected. 'I will be with him in trouble. I will deliver him and honour him'—in trouble, His presence; from trouble, His deliverance; after trouble, glorifying and refining. There are the whole theory and process of the discipline of the devout man's life.
'I will be with him in trouble.' The promise is not only that, when trials of any kind, larger or smaller, more grave or more slight, fall upon us, we shall become more conscious, if we take them rightly, of God's presence, but that all which is meant by God's presence shall really be more fully ours, and that He is, if I may say so, actually nearer us. Though, of course, all words about being near or far have only a very imperfect application to our relation to Him, still the gifts that are meant by His presence—that is to say, His sympathy, His help, His love—are more fully given to a man who in the darkness is groping for his Father's hand, and yet not so much groping for as grasping it. He is nearer us as well as felt to be nearer us, if we take our sorrows rightly. The effect of sorrow devoutly borne, in bringing God closer to us, belongs to it, whether it be great or small; whether it be, according to the metaphor of an earlier portion of this psalm, 'a lion or an adder'; or whether it be a buzzing wasp or a mosquito. As long as anything troubles me, I may make it a means of bringing God closer to myself.
Therefore, there is no need for any sorrowful heart ever to say, 'I am solitary as well as sad.' He will always come and sit down by us, and if it be that, like poor Job upon his dunghill, we are not able to bear the word of consolation, yet He will wait there till we are ready to take it. He is there all the same, though silent, and will be near all of us, if only we do not drive Him away. 'He will call upon Me and I will answer him'; and the beginning of the answer is the real presence of God with every troubled heart.
Then there follows the next stage, deliverance from trouble; 'I will deliver him.' That is not the same word as is employed in the previous verse, though it is translated in the same way in our Bibles. The word here means lifting up out of a pit, or dragging up out of the midst of anything that surrounds a man, and so setting him in some place of safety. Is this promise always true, about people who in sorrow of any kind cast themselves upon God? Do they always get deliverance from Him? There are some sorrows from the pressure of which we shall never escape. Some of us have to carry such. Has this promise no application to the people for whom outward life can never bring an end of the sorrows and burdens that they carry? Not so. He will deliver us not only by taking the burden off our backs, but by making us strong to carry it, and the sorrow, which has changed from wild and passionate weeping into calm submission, is sorrow from which we have been delivered. The serpent may still wound our heel, but if God be with us He will give us strength to press the wounded heel on the malignant head, and we can squeeze all the poison out of it. The bitterness remains; be it so, but let us be quite sure of this, that though sorrow be lifelong, that does not in the least contradict the great and faithful promise, 'I will be with him in trouble and deliver him,' for where He is there is deliverance.
Lastly, there is the third of these promises for the troubled. 'I will honour him.' The word translated 'honour' is more correctly rendered 'glorify.' Is not that the end of a trouble which has been borne in company with Him; and from which, because it has been so borne, a devout heart is delivered even whilst it lasts? Does not all such sorrow hallow, ennoble, refine, purify the sufferer, and make him liker his God? 'He for our profit, that we should be partakers of His holiness.' Is not that God's way of glorifying us before heaven's glory? When a blunt knife is ground upon a wheel, the sparks fly fast from the edge held down upon the swiftly-revolving emery disc, but that is the only way to sharpen the dull blade. Friction, often very severe friction, and heat are indispensable to polish the shaft and turn the steel into a mirror that will flash back the sunshine. So when God holds us to His grindstone, it is to get a polish on the surface. 'I will deliver him and I will glorify him.'
III. Last of all, we have the promise for mortals.
'With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation.' I do not know whether by that first clause the Psalmist meant, as people who sometimes like to make the Psalmist mean as little as possible tell us that he did mean, simply 'length of days.' For my own part I do not believe that he did. He meant that, no doubt, for longevity was part of the Old Testament promises for this life. But 'length of days' does not 'satisfy' all old people who attain to it, and that 'satisfaction' necessarily implies something more than the prolongation of the physical life to old age. The idea contained in this promise may be illustrated by the expression which is used in reference to a select few of the Old Testament saints, of whom it is recorded that they died 'full of days.' That does not merely mean that they had many days, but that, whatever the number, they had as many as they wished, and departed unreluctantly, having had enough of life. They looked back, and saw that all the past had been very good, and that goodness and mercy had determined and accompanied all their days, and so they did not wish to linger longer here, but closed their eyes in peace, with no hungry, vain cravings for prolonged life. They had got all out of the world which it could give, and were contented to have done with it all.
So this promise assures us that, if we are of those who, in the midst of fleeting days, lay hold on the 'Ancient of Days' and live by Him, we shall find a table spread in the wilderness, and like travellers in an inn, having eaten enough, shall willingly obey the call to leave the meal provided on the road, and pass into the Father's house, and sit at the bountiful feast there.
The heart that lives near God, whether its years be few or many, will find in life all that life is capable of giving, and when the end comes will not be unwilling that it should come, nor hold on desperately to the last fag-end and fragment of life that it can keep within its clutches, but will be satisfied to have lived and be contented to die.
Nor is this all, for says the Psalmist, 'I will show him My salvation.' That sight comes after he is satisfied with length of days here. And so I think the fair interpretation of the words, in their place in this psalm, is, that however dimly, yet certainly, here the Psalmist saw something beyond. It was not a black curtain which dropped at death. He believed that, yonder, the man who here had been living near God, calling to Him, realising His presence, and satisfied with the fatness of His house upon earth, would see something that would satisfy him more. 'I shall be satisfied when I awake in Thy likeness.' That is satisfaction indeed, and the vision, which is possession, of that perfected salvation is the vision that makes the blessedness of heaven.
So, dear friends! we, if we will, may have access to God's chamber at every moment, and may have His presence, which will make it impossible that we should ever be alone. We may have Him to deliver us from all the evil that is in evil, and to turn it into good. We may have Him to purge, and cleanse, and uplift, and change us into His likeness, even by the ministry of our trials. We may get out of life the last drop of the sweetness that He has put in it; and when it comes to a close, may say, 'It is enough! Let Thy servant depart in peace; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,' and then we may go to see it better in that world where we shall all, if we attain thither, be 'satisfied' when we 'awake in His likeness.'
FORGIVENESS AND RETRIBUTION
'Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though Thou tookest vengeance of their inventions.'—PSALM xcix. 8.
When the prophet Isaiah saw the great vision which called him to service, he heard from the lips of the seraphim around the Throne the threefold ascription of praise: 'Holy! holy! holy! Lord God of hosts.' This psalm seems to be an echo of that heavenly chorus, for it is divided into three sections, each of which closes with the refrain, 'He is holy,' and each of which sets forth some one aspect or outcome of that divine holiness. In the first part the holiness of His universal dominion is celebrated; in the second, the holiness of His revelations and providences to Israel, His inheritance; in the third, the holiness of His dealings with them that call upon His name, both when He forgives their sins and when He scourges for the sins that He has forgiven.
Two remarks of an expository character will prepare the way for what I have further to say. The first is that the word 'though' in my text, which holds together the two statements that it contains, is commentary rather than translation. For the original has the simple 'and,' and the difference between the two renderings is this, that 'though' implies some real or apparent contrariety between forgiveness and taking vengeance, which makes their co-existence remarkable, whereas 'and' lays the two things down side by side. The Psalmist simply declares that they are both there, and puts in no such fine distinction as is represented by the words 'though,' or 'but,' or 'yet.' To me it seems a great deal more eloquent in its simplicity and reticence that he should say, 'Thou forgavest them and tookest vengeance,' than that he should say 'Thou forgavest them though Thou tookest vengeance.'
Then there is another point to be noted, viz. we must not import into that word 'vengeance,' when it is applied to divine actions, the notions which cluster round it when it is applied to ours. For in its ordinary use it means retaliation, inflicted at the bidding of personal enmity or passion. But there are no turbid elements of that sort in God. His retribution is a great deal more analogous to the unimpassioned, impersonal action of public law than it is to the 'wild justice of revenge.' When we speak of His 'vengeance' we simply mean—unless we have dropped into a degrading superstition—the just recompense of reward which divinely dogs all sin. There is one saying in Scripture which puts the whole matter in its true light, 'Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,' saith the Lord; the last clause of which interprets the first. So, then, with these elucidations, we may perhaps see a little more clearly the sequence of the Psalmist's thought here—God's forgiveness, and co-existing with that, God's scourging of the sin which He forgives; and both His forgiveness and the scourging, the efflux and the manifestation of the divine holiness. Now just let us look at these thoughts. Here we have—
I. The adoring contemplation of the divine forgiveness.
I suppose that is almost exclusively a thought due to the historical revelation, through the ages, to Israel, crowned, as well as deepened, by the culmination and perfecting of the eternal revelation of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. I suppose the conception of a forgiving God is the product of the Old and of the New Testament. But familiar as the word is to us, and although the thing that it means is embodied in the creed of Christendom, 'I believe ... in the forgiveness of sins,' I think that a great many of us would be somewhat put to it, if we were called upon to tell definitely and clearly what we mean when we speak of the forgiveness of sins. Many of us, prior to thinking about the matter, would answer 'the non-infliction or remission of penalty.' And I am far from denying that that is an element in forgiveness, although it is the lowest and the most external, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament conception of it. But we must rise a great deal higher than that. We are entitled, by our Lord's teaching, to parallel God's forgiveness and man's forgiveness; and so perhaps the best way to understand the perfect type of forgiveness is to look at the imperfect types which we see round us. What, then, do we mean by human forgiveness? It is seen in multitudes of cases where there is no question at all of penalty. Two men get alienated from one another. One of them does something which the other thinks is a sin against friendship or loyalty, and he who is sinned against says, 'I forgive you.' That does not mean that he does not inflict a penalty, because there is no penalty in question. Forgiveness is not a matter of conduct, then, primarily, but it is a matter of disposition, of attitude, or, to put it into a shorter word, it is a matter of the heart; and even on the lower level of the human type, we see that remission of penalty may be a part, sometimes is and sometimes is not, but is always the smallest part of it, and a derivative and secondary result of something that went before. An unconscious recognition of this attitude of mind and heart, as being the essential thing in forgiveness, brings about an instance of the process by which two words that originally mean substantially the same thing come to acquire each its special shade of meaning. What I refer to is this—when a judicial sentence on a criminal is remitted, we never hear any one speak about the criminal being 'forgiven.' We keep the word 'pardon,' in our daily conventional intercourse, for slight offences or for the judicial remission of a sentence. The king pardons a criminal; you never hear about the king 'forgiving' a criminal. And that, as I take it, is just because people have been groping after the thought that I am trying to bring out, viz. that the remission of penalty is one thing, and purging the heart of all alienation and hatred is another; and that the latter is forgiveness, whilst the former has to be content with being pardon.
The highest type of forgiveness is the paternal. Every one of us who remembers our childhood, and every one of us who has had children of his own, knows what paternal forgiveness is. It is not when you put away the rod that the little face brightens again and the tears cease to flow, but it is when your face clears, and the child knows that there is no cloud between it and the father, or still more the mother, that forgiveness is realised. The immediate effect of our transgressions is that we, as it were, thereby drop a great, black rock into the stream of the divine love, and the channel is barred by our action; and God's forgiveness is when, as was the case in another fashion in the Deluge, the floods rise above the tops of the highest hills; and as the good old hymn that has gone out of fashion nowadays, says, over sins:
'Like the mountains for their size, The seas of sovereign grace arise.'
When the love of God flows over the black rock, as the incoming tide does over some jagged reef, then, and not merely when the rod is put on the shelf, is forgiveness bestowed and received.
But, as I have said, the remission of penalty is an element in forgiveness. Some people say: 'It is a very dangerous thing, in the interests of Christian truth, to treat that relation of a loving Father as if it expressed all that God is to men.' Quite so; God is King as well as Father. There are analogies, both in paternal and regal government, which help us to understand the divine dealings with us; though, of course, in regard to both we must always remember that the analogies are remote and not to be pressed too far. But even in recognising the fact that an integral part of forgiveness is remission of penalty, we come back, by another path, to the same point, that the essence of forgiveness is the uninterrupted flow of love. Remission of penalty;—yes, by all means. But then the question comes, what is the penalty of sin? And I suppose that the deepest answer to that is, separation from God. But if the true New Testament conception of the penalty of sin is the eternal death which is the result of the rending of a man away from the Source of life, then the remission of the penalty is precisely identical with the uninterrupted flow of the divine love. The mists of autumnal mornings drape the sky in gloom, and turn the blessed sun itself into a lurid ball of fire. Sweep away the mists, and its rays again pour out beneficence. The man who sins, piles up, as it were, a cloud-bank between himself and God, and forgiveness, which is the remission of the penalty, is the sweeping away of the cloud-bank, and the pouring out of sunshine upon a darkened heart. So, brethren! the essence of forgiveness is that God shall love me all the same, though I sin against Him.
But now turn, in the next place, to
II. God's scourging of the sin which He forgives.
Look at the instances in our psalm, 'Moses and Aaron among His priests.... They called upon the Lord and He answered them. Thou wast a God that forgavest them, and Thou tookest vengeance of their doings.' Moses dies on Pisgah, Aaron is stripped of his priestly robes by his brother's hand and left alone amongst the clouds and the eagles, on the solitary summit of the mountain, and yet Moses and Aaron knew themselves forgiven the sins for which they died those lonely deaths. And these are but instances of what is universally true, that the sin which is pardoned is also 'avenged' in the sense of having retribution dealt out to it.
I need not dwell upon this at any length, but let me just remind you how there are two provinces of human experience in which this is abundantly true: one, that of outward consequences, and another that of inward consequences. Take, for instance, two men, boon companions, who together have wasted their substance in riotous living. One of them is converted, as we call it, becomes a Christian, knows himself forgiven. The other one is not. Is the one less certain to have a corrugated liver than the other? Will the disease, the pauperism, the ruined position in life, the loss of reputation be any different in the cases of him who is pardoned and of him who is not? No; the two will suffer in a similar fashion, and the different attitude that the one has to the divine love from that which the other has, will not make a hair of difference as to the results that follow. The consequences are none the less divine retribution because they are the result of natural laws, and none the less penal because they are automatically inflicted.
There is another department in which we see the same law working, and that is the inward consequences. A man does change his attitude to his former sins, when he knows that he is pardoned; but the results of these sins will follow all the same, whether he is forgiven or not. Memory will be tarnished, habits will be formed and chain a man, capacities will be forfeited, weaknesses will ensue. The wounds may be healed, but the scars will remain, and when we consider how certainly, and as I said, divinely, such issues dog all manner of transgression, we can understand what the Psalmist meant when, not thinking about a future retribution, but about the present life's experiences, he said, 'Thou wast a God that forgavest them, and Thou tookest vengeance of their inventions.' 'The sluggard will not plough by reason of the cold, therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing,' and that will be his case whether he is forgiven, or not forgiven, by the divine love.
So, dear friends! do not let us confound the two things which are so widely separated, the flow of the divine love to us irrespective of our sins, which is the true forgiveness, and the remission of the penalty, the infliction of which may itself be a part of forgiveness. 'Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap,' and he will reap it whether he has sown darnel and tares and poisonous seeds, of which he is now ashamed, and for which he has received forgiveness, or whether he has not asked nor received it.
Only remember that if we humbly realise the great fact that God has forgiven us, we can, as they say, 'take our punishment' in an altogether different spirit and temper, and it comes to be, not judicial penalty, but paternal chastisement, the token of love, and of which we can say that 'We are judged of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.'
Lastly, my text leads us to think of—
III. Forgiveness and scourging as both issues of holy love.
Some people, in their narrow and altogether superficial view of Christianity, would divide between the two, and say forgiveness comes from God's love, and scourging comes from His holiness. But this psalm puts the two together, just as we must put together as inseparable from each other the two conceptions of holiness and of love. Now our modern notions of what is meant by the love of God are a great deal too sentimental and gushing and limp. Love is degraded unless there be holiness in it. It becomes immoral good nature, much more than anything that deserves the name of love. A God who is all love, so much so that it makes no difference to Him whether a man is a saint or a sinner, is not a God to be worshipped, and scarcely a God to be admired. He is lower than we, not higher. But His holy love is like a sea of glass mingled with fire; the love being shot all through, as it were, with streams of flame.
This holy love underlies the forgiveness of sins. To forgive may sometimes be profoundly right; it may sometimes be profoundly immoral. A general gaol delivery simply sets the scoundrels free; a universal amnesty is a failure of justice, and a very doubtful benefit. But the forgiveness, which is the issue of holy love, is a means to an end, and the end which it has in view is that, drawn by answering love to a pardoning God, we may be drawn from the sins which alienate us from Him. There is no such sure way of making a man forsake his sins as to give him the assurance that God has forgiven them. 'Thou shalt be ashamed and confounded, and never open thy mouth any more, because of thy sins, when'—I smite? no—'I am pacified towards thee for all that thou hast done.' 'Thou wast a God that forgavest them,' and in the very act of forgiving, didst draw them from their sins.
That holy love, in like manner, underlies retribution. I have been speaking of retribution mainly as it is seen in the working of natural law. It is none the less God's act, because it is the operation of the laws which He impressed upon His creation at the beginning. You have weaving machines in your mills that whenever a thread breaks, stop dead. Is it the machine or the maker that is to get the credit of that? God has set us in an order of things wherein, and has given us a nature whereby, automatically, every sin, as it were, stops the loom, and 'every transgression and disobedience receives its just recompense of reward.' But men sometimes say 'that is Nature; that is not God.' God lies at the back of Nature, and works through Nature. Although Nature is not God, God is Nature. Therefore it is 'Thou' that 'takest vengeance of their inventions.' Let us, then, remember that retribution is a token of love, meant to drive us from our sins, just as forgiveness is meant to draw us from them. Our Psalmist had come the length of putting these two things together, forgiveness and retribution. We have reached further, and here is the New Testament enlargement and deepening and explanation of the Old Testament thought: 'If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins,' and in the very act, 'to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' 'If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.'
INVIOLABLE MESSIAHS AND PROPHETS
'He reproved kings for their sakes; 15. Saying, Touch not Mine anointed, and do My prophets no harm.'—PSALM cv. 14, 15.
The original reference of these words is to the fathers of the Jewish people—the three wandering shepherds, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Psalmist transfers to them the great titles which properly belong to a later period of Jewish history. None of the three were ever in the literal sense of the word 'anointed,' but all the three had what anointing symbolised. None of them were in the literal or narrow sense of the word 'prophets'—that is to say, predicters of future events—but one of them was called a 'prophet' even in his lifetime. And they all possessed that intimacy of communion with God which imparted the power of forth-speaking for Him. Insignificant as they were, they were bigger than the Pharaohs and Abimelechs and the other kinglets that strutted their little day beside them. Astonished as the monarch of Egypt would have been, or the king of the Philistines either, if he had been told that the wandering shepherd was of far more importance for the world than he was, it was true. 'He suffered no man to do them wrong: yea, He reproved kings for their sakes, saying, Touch not Mine anointed, and do My prophets no harm.'
Further, as Judaism, with its anointings and prophecies was a narrower system following upon a wider one, so a wider one has succeeded it; and we step into the position occupied by these patriarchs—on whose heads no anointing oil had been poured, and into whose lips no supernatural gifts of prediction had been infused. It is no arrogance, but the simplest recognition of the essential facts of the case, if we take these words of the Psalmist's and transfer them bodily to the whole mass of Christian people, and to each individual atom that makes up the mass. All are anointed; all are prophets; of all it is true that God suffers no man nor thing to do them wrong. And kings and dynasties and the politics of the world are all in the hands of One whose supreme purpose is that through men there may be made known to all mankind the significant tidings of His love. Therefore, His Church is founded upon a rock, and earth is the servant of the servants of God.
I. Every Christian is a 'messiah.'
You know that the word 'anointed' is a translation of the Hebrew word 'Messiah,' or of the Greek word 'Christ.' The meaning of the symbolic 'anointing' was simply consecration to office by the divine will, and endowment with the capacity for that office by the divine gift. In the ancient system it was mainly employed—though not, perhaps, exclusively—as a means of designating, and when received in humble dependence on God, of fitting, a man for the two great offices of king and priest.
Oil was an appropriate symbol. Its gentle flow, its soothing, suppling effect, and in another aspect, its value as a means of invigoration and sustenance, and in yet another, as a source of light, peculiarly adapted it to be an emblem of the bestowment on a patient and trustful and submissive heart that was saying, 'Lord, take me, and use me as Thou wilt,' of that divine Spirit by whose silent, sweet, soft-flowing, strong influences men were prepared for God's service.
Jesus was the Christ, the Messias, because that Divine Spirit dwelt in Him without measure. If we are Christians in the real sense of the word, then, however imperfectly, yet really, and by God's grace increasingly, there is such a union between us and our Saviour as that into us there does flow the anointing of His Spirit. There being a community of life derived from the Source of Life, it is no presumption to say that every Christian man is a Christ.
The word has been used of late with unwise significations, but the truth that has been inadequately expressed by such uses is the great truth of Scripture; 'He that is joined to the Lord is one Spirit,' and there does flow the anointing oil from the head of the High Priest to the skirts of the garments. Every man and woman who has any hold of Jesus Christ at all, in the measure of his or her hold, is drawing from Him this 'unction of the Holy One.' So, brethren, rise to the solemnity, the awfulness, the joyfulness of your true position, and understand that you, too, are anointed, though not for the same purposes (and in humbler and derived fashion), for which the Spirit dwelt without measure upon 'the First-born among many brethren.'
Kings were anointed; and when that divine gift comes into a man's heart, it, and as I believe, only it, makes him lord of himself, of circumstances, of time, and of the world. 'All things are yours, and ye are Christ's.' There is one real royalty—the royalty of the man who rules because he submits. Every Christian soul may be described as Gideon's brethren were described, 'As thou art, so were they: each one resembled the children of a king,' for if Christ's Spirit is in the Christian's spirit, the disciple will grow like his Master, and it will be growingly true of us, that 'as He is, so are we in this world.'
Priests were anointed. And we, if we are Christian people, have the prerogative of direct access to the Divine Presence, and need neither Church nor sacraments to intervene or mediate between us and Him. The true democracy of Christianity lies in that word 'Mine anointed.'
II. Further, every Christian man is a prophet.
I have already said that there is no historical warrant for supposing that the gift of prophecy, in its narrower sense, was ever bestowed upon any of these patriarchs. But prediction is only one corner of the prophetic office. The word is connected with a root which means 'to boil, or bubble like a fountain,' and it expresses, not so much the theme of the utterance as its nature. The welling up, from a full heart, of God's thoughts and God's truth, that is prophecy. The patriarchs were prophets, not in the sense that they had the gift of beholding and foretelling visions of the future, and all the wonder that should be, but in the higher sense—for it is the higher as well as broader—of being bearers of a divine word, breathed into them by that anointing Spirit, that it might be uttered forth by them. That sort of prophetic inspiration belongs to all Christians. It is the result of the relationship between Christ and Christians of which we have been speaking. Every one who has been anointed will be thus gifted.
God's 'messiahs' will be God's prophets. If we are in touch with God, and have our hearts and whole spiritual natures drawn and kept so near Him as that we are ever receiving from Him of His transcendent and mysterious life, then silence will be impossible. The lips will not be able to contain themselves, but will speak forth that of which the heart is full. And thus every Christian man, in the measure of his true Christianity, will be a prophet of the most High.
I do not need to point the lesson. A silent Christian is an anomaly, a contradiction in terms, as much as black light, or dark stars. If Christ is in you He will come out of you. If your hearts are full the crystal treasure will flow over the brim. It is easy to be dumb when you have nothing to say, and that is the condition of hundreds of people who fancy themselves to be, and are called by others, 'Christians.' 'Mine anointed' cannot help being 'My prophets.' If you are not prophets, if there never is any bubbling up of the fountain demanding utterance, ask yourselves whether there is any fountain there at all.
III. And so, lastly, every Christian man, in his double capacity of anointed and prophet, is watched over by God.
One is tempted to diverge into wider considerations, and speak of the relative importance of things secular and sacred (to adopt a doubtful distinction) in the history of the world, and how the former are for the sake of the latter. But I do not yield to the temptation. Let me rather take the thought here as it applies to our own little lives.
Abraham more than once in his lifetime, though sometimes by his own fault, was brought into very perilous places. There are one or two incidents which are familiar to most of us, I dare say, in his life which are evidently referred to in the phrase 'He reproved kings for their sakes.' The principle remains in full force to-day, and God says to every thing and person, Death included, 'Do My prophets no harm.' They may slay; they cannot harm. If I might use a very homely metaphor, sportsmen train retriever dogs to bring their game without ruffling a feather. God trains evils and sorrows to lay hold of us, and bring us to, and lay us down at, His feet untouched.
There is no real harm in so-called evil. That is the interpretation that Christianity gives to such words as this of my text, not because it is forced to weaken them by the obstinate facts of life, but because it has learned to strengthen them by the understanding of what is harm and what is good; what is gain and what is loss. Peter shall be delivered out of prison by the skin of his teeth when they are hammering at the scaffold on the other side of the wall, and the dawn is just beginning to show itself in the sky; whilst James shall have his head cut off. Was that because God loved Peter better than James? Was one harmed and the other not? Ah! Peter's turn came all in good time. Peter and his brother Paul had both to bow their necks to the headsman's sword one day, although one of them said, 'Who shall harm you if ye be followers of that which is good?' and the other said, when within sight of his death, 'He shall deliver me from every evil work.' Were they disappointed? Let us hear how Paul ends the same verse: 'and shall save me into His heavenly kingdom.' Ay! and he was 'saved into the heavenly kingdom' when outside the walls of Rome; where a gaudy church stands now, he died for his Master. No harm came to him. God said to Death, 'Do My prophet no harm!' and Death docilely did him good, and brought him to his Lord.
Only, dear friends! let us remember that the inviolableness of the ambassador depends on his function, and not on his person; and that if we want to be kept from all evil, we must do the work for which we have been sent here. So let us understand the meaning of our difficulties and sorrows. Let us set ourselves to our tasks, live up to the level of the high names which we have a right to claim, and be sure that there is no harm in the harm that befalls us; and that all evil things 'work together for good to them that love God.'
GOD'S PROMISES TESTS
'Until the time that his word came, the word of the Lord tried him.' —PSALM cv. 19.
I do not think I shall be mistaken if I affirm that these words do not convey any very clear idea to most readers. They were spoken with reference to Joseph, during the period of his imprisonment. For the understanding of them I think we must observe that there is a contrast drawn between two 'words,' 'his' (i.e. Joseph's) and God's. If we lay firm hold of that clue, I think it will lead us into clear daylight, and it will be obvious that Joseph's word, which delayed its coming, or fulfilment, was either his boyish narrative of the dreams that foreshadowed his exaltation, or less probably, his words to his fellow-prisoners in the interpretation of their dreams. In either case, the terminus ad quem, the point to which our attention is directed, is the period when that word came to be fulfilled, and what my text says is that during that long season of unfulfilled hope, the 'word of God,' which was revealed in Joseph's dream, and was the ground on which his own 'word' rested—did what? Encouraged, heartened, strengthened him? No, that unfulfilled promise might encourage or discourage him; but the Psalmist fixes our thoughts on another effect which, whether it encouraged or discouraged, it certainly had, namely, that it tested him, and found out what stuff he was made of, and whether there was staying power enough in him to hold on, in unconquerable faith, to a promise made long since, communicated by no more reliable method than a dream, and of the fulfilment of which not the faintest sign had, for all these weary years, appeared. His circumstances, judged by appearances, shattered his early visions, and bade him believe them to be no more than the boyish aspirations which grown men dismiss or find melt away of themselves when life's realities wake the dreamer. We might either say that the non-fulfilment of the promise tested Joseph, or that the promise, by its non-fulfilment, tested him. The Psalmist chooses the latter more forcible and half paradoxical mode of speech. It proved the depth and vitality of his faith, and his ability to see things that are not as though they were. Will this man be able continually through years of poverty and imprisonment to keep his eye on the light beyond, to see his star through clouds? Will he despise the 'light affliction,' in the potent and immovable belief that it is 'but for a moment?'
Thus, for all these years the great blessed word, or the hope that was built upon it, tested Joseph in the very depths of his soul. And is not that just what our anticipations, built upon God's assurances, whether they are in regard to earthly matters that seem long in coming, or whether they, as they ought to do, travel beyond the bounds of the material, to grasp the hope which is the promise, 'the hope of eternal life,' ought to do for us, test us and find out what sort of people we are? And they do!
Let us go back to the man in our text. According to some commentators, he was imprisoned for something like ten years. We do not know how long his Egyptian bondage had lasted, nor how long before that his endurance of the active ill-will of his surly brothers had gone on. But at all events his chrysalis stage was very long, and one would not have wondered if he had said to himself, down in that desert pit or in that Egyptian dungeon, 'Ah, yes! they were dreams, and only dreams,' or if he had, as so many of us do, turned his back on his youthful visions, and gained the sad power of being able to smile at his old hopes and ambitions. Brethren! especially you young men and women, cherish your youthful dreams. They are often the prophecies of capacities and possibilities, signs of what God means you to make yourselves. But that is apart from my subject. Suppose we had clear before us, with unwavering confidence in its reality, the great promise which God has given us, do you not think that its presence would purify our souls, and give power and dignity to our lives?
The promise was a test, says my text. The word which it employs to designate the manner of testing or trying, is one drawn from the smelting operations of the goldsmith, by which, heat being applied, the mass is made fluid and the dross is run off, and as the result of the trial, there flows out gold refined by fire.
'Having these promises, dearly beloved! let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit.' 'Every man who hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.' The result of the great promise of eternal life and of the hope that it kindles is meant to be that it shall purge our spirits from meanness, from sense, from undue dependence upon the miserable trivialities of to-day, that it shall emancipate us from slavery to the moment, and lead us into the liberty of the eternities, 'while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things which are not seen.' Oh! if we would only see clearly and habitually before us—for we could if we would—what God's heart inclines Him to do for us, and what He certainly will do for us, in the far-off future, if we will only let Him, do you not think that these trifles that put us off our equanimity this morning would have been borne with a little more composure? Do you not think that the things that looked so huge when we were down abreast of them would, by the laws of perspective, diminish in their proportions as we rose steadily above them, until all the hubbub in the valley was unheard on the mountain peak, and the great trees that waved their giant branches below and shut out the sky from our eyes while we were among them would dwindle to a green smear on the plain, and all the foes 'show scarce so gross as beetles,' from the height from which we look down upon them? Get up beside God's promise, if you would take the true dimensions of cares and tasks, and burdens and sorrows. Then, brother! you will learn the truth of the paradox, 'light ... but for a moment'; though often they all but crush the burden-bearing shoulder and seem to last through slow years.
'The word of the Lord tried him,' and because it tried him, it purified him. If we give credence, as we ought to, to that word, it will purify us, and it will test of what contexture our faith is. The further away the object of any hope is, the more noble the cherishing of it makes a life. The trivial, short-lived anticipations which do not look beyond the end of next week are far less operative in making strong and noble characters than are those, of whatever kind they may be otherwise, which look far ahead and need years for their realisation. It is a blessing to have the mark far, far away, because that means that the arm that pulls the bow must draw more strongly, and the eye that sees the goal must gaze more intently. Be thankful for the promise that cannot be fulfilled in this world because it lifts us above the low levels, and already makes us feel as if we were endowed with immortality.
The word will test our patience, and it will test our willingness, though we be heirs of the kingdom, to do humble tasks. Christian men in this world are sons of a King, and look forward to a royal inheritance, but in the meantime they have, as it were, to keep a little huckster's shop in a back alley. But if we adequately realised the promise of our inheritance, the meanness of our surroundings and the triviality of our occupations would not make us mean or trivial, but our souls would be 'like stars' and 'dwell apart' while we travelled 'on life's common way in cheerful godliness,' and did small duties in such a manner as to make them great.
Because Joseph was sure that God's long-lingering word would be fulfilled, he did not mind though he had to be the lackey of his brothers, the Midianites' chattel, Potiphar's slave, Pharaoh's prisoner, and a servant of servants in his dungeon. So with us, the measure of our willing acceptance of our present tasks, burdens, humiliations, and limitations is the measure of our firm faith in the promise that tarries.
'If we hope for what we see not, then do we with patience wait for it,' says the Apostle, though most of us would have said exactly the opposite. We generally suppose that the more ardent the hope, the more is it impatient of delay. Paul had learned better. The more certain the assurance, the better we can tolerate the procrastination of its fulfilment.
So, brethren! God's greatest gift to us, like all His other gifts, has in it the quality of testing us; and we can come to a pretty fair approximation to an estimate of what sort of Christian people we are, by observing how we deal with God's promises of help according to our need here and of heaven hereafter. How do we deal with them? Why, a sadly large number of us never think about them at all; and a large proportion of the others would a great deal rather stay working in the huckster's shop in the back alley, than go home to the King. I am quite sure that if the inmost sentiments of the bulk of professing Christians about a future life were dragged into light, these would be a revelation of a faith all honeycombed with insincerity. God tests us, and it is a sharp test if we submit ourselves to it; He tests us by His promises. 'Child, wilt thou believe?' is the first testing question put to us by these. 'Wilt thou keep them hid in thy heart?' is the next. 'Wilt thou go out towards them in desire?' is the next. 'Wilt thou live worthy of them?' is the last. 'The word of the Lord tried him.'
So let us be thankful for the delays of love, for the wide gap between promise and realisation. It was for Joseph's sake that the slow years were multiplied between the first gleam of his future and the full sunshine of his exaltation. And it is for our sakes that God in like manner protracts the period of anticipation and non-fulfilment. 'If the vision tarry, wait for it.' 'Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus their brother' very dearly. 'When He heard, therefore, that he was sick, He abode still two days'—to give time for Lazarus to die—'in the same place where He was.' Ay, and when each sister came to Him with her most natural and yet most faithless 'Lord! if Thou hadst been here my brother had not died,' He only said, 'If thou wouldst believe thou shouldst see the glory of God.' Was not Lazarus dearer, restored from the grave, than he would have been, raised from his sickbed? Is not the delaying of the blessing a means of increase of the blessing? And shall not we be sure that however long 'He that shall come' may seem to tarry ere He comes, when He has come they who have waited for His coming more than they that watch for the morning and have sometimes been ready to cry out: 'Hath the Lord forgotten? Doth His promise fail for ever more?' will be ashamed of their impatient moments and will humbly and thankfully exclaim: 'He came at the very right time and did not tarry.' 'Until the time that his word came, the word of the Lord tried him,' and the coming of that word was all the more blessed for every heavy-laden hour of hope deferred, which, by God's grace, did not make the heart sick, but prepared it for fuller possession of the blessings enhanced by the delays of love.
'Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.'—PSALM cx. 3.
It is no part of my present purpose to establish the reference of this psalm to our Lord. We have Christ's own authority for that.
It does not seem to be typical—that is to say, it does not appear to have had a lower application to a king of Israel who was a shadow of the true monarch, but rather to refer only to the coming Sovereign, whom David was helped to discern, indeed, by his own regal office, but whose office and character, as here set forth, far surpass anything belonging to him or to his dynasty. The attributes of the King, the union in His case of the royal and priestly dignities, His seat at the right hand of God, His acknowledged supremacy over the greatest Jewish ruler, who here calls him 'my Lord,' His eternal dominion, His conquest of many nations, and His lifting up of His head in triumphant rule that knows no end—all these characteristics seem to forbid the possibility of a double reference, and to demand the acknowledgment of a distinct and exclusive prophecy of Christ.
Taking that for granted without more words, it strikes one as remarkable that this description of the subjects of the Priest-King should be thus imbedded in the very heart of the grand portraiture of the monarch Himself. It is the anticipation of the profound New Testament thought of the unity of Christ and His Church. By simple faith a union is brought about so close and intimate that all His is theirs, and the picture of His glory is incomplete without the vision of 'the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.' Therefore, between the word of God which elevates Him to His right hand, and the oath of God which consecrates Him a priest for ever, is this description of the army of the King.
The full force of the words will, I hope, appear as we advance. For the present it will be enough to say that there are really in our text three co-ordinate clauses, all descriptive of the subjects of the monarch, regarded as a band of warriors—and that the main ideas are these:—the subjects are willing soldiers; the soldiers are priests; the priest-soldiers are as dew upon the earth. Or, in other words, we have here the very heart of the Christian character set forth as being willing consecration; then we have the work which Christian men have to do, and the spirit in which they are to do it, expressed in that metaphor of their priestly attire; and then we have their refreshing and quickening influence upon the world.
I. The subjects of the Priest-King are willing soldiers.
In accordance with the warlike tone of the whole psalm, our text describes the subjects as an army. That military metaphor comes out more clearly when we attach the true meaning to the words, 'in the day of Thy power.' The word rendered, and rightly rendered, 'power,' has the same ambiguity which that word has in the English of the date of our translation, and for a century later, as you may find in Shakespeare and Milton, who both used it in the sense of 'army.' Singularly enough we do not employ 'powers' in that meaning, but we do another word which means the same thing—and talk of 'forces,' meaning thereby 'troops.' By the way, what a melancholy sign it is of the predominance of that infernal military spirit, that it should have so leavened language, that the 'forces' of a nation means its soldiers, its embattled energies turned to the work of destruction. But the phrase is so used here. 'The day of Thy power' is not a mere synonym for 'the time of Thy might,' but means specifically 'the day of Thine army,' that is, 'the day when Thou dost muster Thy forces and set them in array for the war.'
The King is going forth to conquest. But He goes not alone. Behind Him come His faithful followers, all pressing on with willing hearts and high courage. Then, to begin with, the warfare which He wages is one not confined to Him. Alone He offers the sacrifice by which He atones; but, as we shall see, we too are priests. He rules, and His servants rule with Him. But ere that time comes, they are to be joined with Him in the great warfare by which He wins the earth for Himself. 'As Captain of the Lord's host am I now come.' He wins no conquests for Himself; and now that He is exalted at God's right hand, He wins none by Himself. We have to do His work, we have to fight His battles as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. By power derived from Him, but wielded by ourselves; with courage inspired by Him, but filling our hearts; not as though He needed us, but inasmuch as He is pleased to use us, we have to wage warfare for and to please Him who hath chosen us to be soldiers. The Captain of our salvation sits at the right hand of God, expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. He has bidden us to keep the field and fight the fight. From His height He watches the conflict—nay, He is with us while we wage it. So long as we strike for Him, so long is it His power that teaches our hands to war. Our King's flag is committed to our care; but we are not left to defend it alone. In indissoluble unity, the King and the subjects, the Chief and His vassals, the Captain and His soldiers, are knit together—and wheresoever His people are, in all the danger and hardships of the long struggle, there is He, to keep their heads in the day of battle, and make them more than conquerors.
Then, again, that warfare is shared in by all the subjects. It is a levy en masse—an armed nation. The whole of the people are embodied for the battle. It is not the work of a select few, but of every one who calls Christ 'Lord,' to be His faithful servant and soldier. Whatever varieties of occupation may be set us by Him, one purpose is to be kept in view and one end to be effected by them all. Every Christian man is bound to strive for the reduction of all human hearts under Christ's dominion. The tasks may be different, but the result should be one. Some of us have to toil in the trenches, some of us to guard the camp, some to lead the assault, some to stay by the stuff and keep the communications open. Be it so. We are all soldiers, and He alone has to determine our work. We are responsible for the spirit of it, He for its success.
Again, there are no mercenaries in these ranks, no pressed men. The soldiers are all volunteers. 'Thy people shall be willing.' Pause for a moment upon that thought.
Dear brethren! there are two kinds of submission and service. There is submission because you cannot help it, and there is submission because you like it. There is a sullen bowing down beneath the weight of a hand which you are too feeble to resist, and there is a glad surrender to a love which it would be a pain not to obey. Some of us feel that we are shut in by immense and sovereign power which we cannot oppose. And yet, like some raging rebel in a dungeon, or some fluttering bird in a cage, we beat ourselves, all bruised and bloody, against the bars in vain attempts at liberty, alternating with fits of cowed apathy as we slink into a corner of our cell. Some of us, thank God! feel that we are enclosed on every side by that mighty Hand which none can resist, and from which we would not stray if we could, and we joyfully hide beneath its shelter, and gladly obey when it points. Constrained obedience is no obedience. Unless there be the glad surrender of the will and heart, there is no surrender at all. God does not want compulsory submission. He does not care to rule over people who are only crushed down by greater power. He does not count that those serve who sullenly acquiesce because they dare not oppose. Christ seeks for no pressed men in His ranks. Whosoever does not enlist joyfully is not reckoned as His. And the question comes to us, brethren!—What is my relation to that loving Lord, to that Redeemer King? Do I submit because His love has won my heart, and it would be a pang not to serve Him; or do I submit because I know Him strong, and am afraid to refuse? If the former, all is well; He calls us 'not servants but friends.' If the latter, all is wrong; we are not subjects, but enemies.
There is another idea involved in this description. The soldiers are not only marked by glad obedience, but that obedience rests upon the sacrifice of themselves. The word here rendered 'willing' is employed throughout the Levitical law for 'freewill offerings.' And if we may venture to bring that reference in here, it carries us a step farther in this characterisation of the army. This glad submission comes from self-consecration and surrender. It is in that host as it was in the army whose heroic self-devotion was chaunted by Deborah under her palm-tree, 'The people willingly offered themselves.' Hence came courage, devotion, victory. With their lives in their hands they flung themselves on the foe, and nothing could stand against the onset of men who recked not of themselves. There is one grand thing even about the devilry of war—the transcendent self-abnegation with which, however poor and unworthy may be the cause, a man casts himself away, 'what time the foeman's line is broke.' The poorest, vulgarest, most animal natures rise for a moment into something like nobility, as the surge of the strong emotion lifts them to that height of heroism. Life is then most glorious when it is given away for a great cause. That sacrifice is the one noble and chivalrous element which gives interest to war—the one thing that can be disentangled from its hideous associations, and can be transferred to higher regions of life. That spirit of lofty consecration and utter self-forgetfulness must be ours, if we would be Christ's soldiers. Our obedience will then be glad when we feel the force of, and yield to, that gentle, persuasive entreaty, 'I beseech you, brethren! by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice.' There is 'one Sacrifice for sin for ever'—which never can be repeated, nor exhausted, nor copied. And the loving, faithful acceptance of that sacrifice of propitiation leads our hearts to the response of thank-offering, the sacrifice and surrender of ourselves to Him who has given Himself not only to, but for us. It cannot be recompensed, but it may be acknowledged. Let us give ourselves to Christ, for He has died for us. Let us give ourselves to Christ, for only in such surrender do we truly find ourselves. Let us give ourselves to Christ, for such a sacrifice makes all life fair and noble, and that altar sanctifies the gift. Let us give ourselves to Christ, for without such sacrifice we have no place in the host whom He leads to victory. 'Thy people shall be willing offerings in the day of Thy power.'