There is something very remarkable in the variety-in-monotony of this, the longest of the psalms. Though it be the longest it is in one sense the simplest, inasmuch as there is but one thought in it, beaten out into all manner of forms and based upon all various considerations. It reminds one of the great violinist who out of one string managed to bring such music and melody.
The one thought is the infinite preciousness of God's law, by which, of course, is not meant the written record of that law which lies in Scripture, but the utterances of God's law in any form, by which men may receive it. You will find that that wider signification of the word 'law,' 'commandment,' 'statute,' is essential to the understanding of every portion of this psalm.
And now these two petitions which I have put together base the prayer, which they both offer, in slightly varied form ('Teach me Thy statutes,' or 'Hide not Thy commandments from me,') upon two diverse considerations, which, taken in conjunction, are extremely interesting.
The two facts on which the one petition rests, are like two great piers on two opposite sides of a river, each of which holds one end of the arch. 'The earth is full of Thy mercy'; ay! but 'I am a stranger upon the earth.' These two things are both true, and from each of them, and still more from both of them taken together, rises up this petition. Let us look then at the facts, and then at the prayer that is built upon them.
Take first that thought of the rejoicing earth, full of God's mercy as some cup is full of rich wine, or as the flowers in the morning are filled with dew. The Bible does not look at the external world, the material universe, from a scientific point of view, nor does it look at it from a poetical point of view, but from a simply religious one. Nothing that modern science has taught us to say about the world in the least affects this principle which the Psalmist lays down, that it is all full of God's mercy. The thought is intended to exclude man and man's ways and all connected with him, as we shall see presently, but the Psalmist looks out upon the earth and all the rest of its inhabitants, and he is sure of two things: one, that God's direct act is at work in it all, so as that every creature that lives, and everything that is, lives and is because God is there, and working there; and next, that everything about us is the object of loving thoughts of God's; and has, as it were, some reflection of God's smile cast across it like the light of flowers upon the grass. Spring days with life 're-orient out of dust,' and the annual miracle beginning again all round, with the birds in the trees, that even dwellers in towns can hear singing as if their hearts would burst for very mirth and hopefulness, the blossoms beginning to push above the frosty ground, and the life breaking out of the branches that were stiff and dry all through the winter, proclaim the same truth as the Psalmist was contemplating when he spoke thus. He looks all round, and everywhere sees the signature of a loving divine Hand.
The earth is full to brimming of Thy mercy. It takes faith to see that; it takes a deeper and a firmer hold of the thought of a present God than most men have, to feel that. For the most of us, the world has got to be very empty of God now. We hear rather the creaking of the wheels of a great machine, or see the workings of a blind, impersonal force. But I believe that all that is precious and good in the growth of knowledge since the old days when this Psalmist wrote may be joyfully accepted by us, and deep down below all we may see the deeper, larger truth of the living purpose and will of God Himself. And I know no reason why twentieth-century men, full to the fingertips of modern scientific thought, may not say as heartily as the old Psalmist said, 'The earth, O Lord! is full of Thy mercy.'
But then there is another side to all this. Amidst all this sunny play of gladness, and apocalypse of blessing, there stands one exception. Hearken to the other word of my texts, 'I am a stranger upon the earth.' Man is out of joint with the great whole, out of harmony with the music, the only hungry one at the feast. All other creatures are admirably adapted for the place they fill, and the place they fill is sufficient for them. But I stand here, knowing that I do not belong to this goodly fellowship, feeling that I am an exception to the rule. As Colonel Gardiner said, 'I looked at the dog, and I wished that I was a dog.' Ah! many another man has felt, Why is it that whilst every creature, the motes that dance in the sunbeam, and the minutest living things, however insignificant, are all filled to the very brim of their capacity—why is it that I, the roof and crown of things, stand here, a sad and solitary stranger, having made acquaintance with grief; having learned what they know not, the burden of toil and care, cursed with forecast and anticipation, saddened by memory, torn by desires? 'We look before and after, and pine for what is not.' All other beings fit their place, and their place fits them like a glove upon a fair hand, but I stand here 'a stranger upon the earth.' And the more I feel, or at least the more I am convinced that it is full of God's mercy, the more I feel that there is something else which I need to make me, in my fashion, as really and as completely blessed as the lowest of His creatures.
The Psalmist tells us what that something more is: 'I am a stranger upon the earth; hide not Thy commandments from me.' That is my food, that is what I need; that is the one thing that will make our souls feel at rest, that we shall have not merely a Bible in our hands, but the will of God, the knowledge and the love of the will of God, in our hearts. When we can say 'I delight to do Thy will, and my whole being seeks to lay itself beneath the mould of Thine impressing purpose, and to be shaped accordingly'; Oh! then, then the care and the toil and the sorrow and the restlessness and the sense of transiency, all change. Some of them pass away altogether; those of them that survive are transfigured from darkness to glory. Just as some gloomy cliff, impending over the plain, when the rising sun smites upon it, is changed into a rosy and golden glory, so the frowning peaks that look down upon us, are all transmuted and glorified, when once the light of God's recognised will falls upon them.
'All is right that seems most wrong, If it be His sweet will.'
And when He has not hidden His commandments from us, but we have them in our hearts, for the joy and the strength of our lives, then, then it does not matter, though we have to say, 'foxes have holes, and birds of the air have their roosting-places,' and I only, in creation, have 'not where to lay my head.' If we have His will in our hearts, and are humbly and yet lovingly trying to do it, then toil becomes easy, and work becomes blessedness. If we have His will in our hearts, and are seeking to cleave to it, then and only then, do we cease to feel that it is sad that we should be strangers upon the earth, because then and then only can we say 'we seek for a better country, that is, a heavenly.'
Oh, dear friends! we shall be cursed with restlessness and 'weighed upon with sore distress'; and a fleeting world will, by its very fleetingness, be a misery to us, until we have learned to yield our wills to God, and to drink in His law as the joy and the rejoicing of our hearts. A stranger upon the earth needs the statutes of the Lord, he needs no more, and then they will be as the Psalmist says in another place, 'his song in the house of his pilgrimage.'
But the first of our two texts suggests further to us the certainty that this petition shall not be in vain. If the thought, 'I am a stranger in the earth,' teaches us our need of God's commandments, the thought, 'the earth is full of Thy mercies,' assures us that we shall get what we need.
Surely it is not going to be the case that we only are to be left hungry when all other creatures sit at His table and feast there. Surely He who knows what each living thing requires, and opens His hand, and satisfies their desires, is not going to leave the nobler famishing of an immortal soul uncared for.
Surely if all through the universe besides, we see that the measure of a creature's capacity is the measure of God's gift to it, there is not going to be, there need not be, any disproportion between what we require and what we possess. Surely if His ear can hear and translate, and His loving hand can open to satisfy, the croaking of the young raven when it cries, He will neither mistake nor neglect the voice of a man's heart, when it is asking what is so in accordance with His will as that He should let him know and love His statutes.
It is not meant to be the case that we lie in the middle of His creation, the one exception to the universal law, like Gideon's fleece, dry and dusty, while every poor bit of bush and grass round about is soaked with His dew. If 'the earth is full of Thy mercy,' Thou thereby hast pledged Thyself that my heart shall be full of Thy law and Thy grace, if I desire it.
And so, dear brethren! whilst the one of these twin considerations should send us to our knees, the other should hearten and wing our prayers. And if, on the one hand, we feel that to bring us up to the level of the poorest of His creatures, we need a firm grasp and a hearty love of His law deep in our spirits, on the other hand, the fact that the feeblest and the poorest of His creatures is saturated and soaked with as much of God's goodness as it can suck in, may make us quite sure that our souls will not vainly pant after Him in a 'dry and thirsty land where no water is.' 'The earth, O Lord! is full of Thy mercy.' Am I to be empty of the highest mercy, the knowledge of Thy will? Never! never!
And so, 'Say not, Who shall ascend up into the heavens? say not, Who shall pass over the sea to bring Thy law near, that we may hear and do it? Behold! the word is very nigh thee.' The law, the will of God, and the power to perform it are braided together, in inextricable union, in Jesus Christ Himself; and the prayer of my psalm most deeply understood, turns itself all into this:—Give me Christ, more of the knowledge of Him who is my law and Thine uttered will; more of the love of Him whom to love is to be at home everywhere, and to be filled with Thy mercy; more of the likeness to Him whom to imitate is holiness; whom to resemble is perfection. 'The earth is full of Thy mercy.' 'The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and we beheld His glory, full of grace and truth.' And of that fulness can all we receive. Then will we be strangers here no longer; and our hearts will be replenished with a better mercy than all the universe beside is capable of containing.
'TIME FOR THEE TO WORK'
'It is time for Thee, Lord, to work; for they have made void Thy Law. 127. Therefore I love Thy commandments above gold, yea, above fine gold. 128. Therefore I esteem all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.' —PSALM cxix. 126-128.
If much that we hear be true, a society to circulate Bibles is a most irrational and wasteful expenditure of energy and money. We cannot ignore the extent and severity of the opposition to the very idea of revelation, even if we would; we should not if we could. We are told with some exaggeration—the wish being father to the thought—that the educated mind of the country has broken with Christianity, a statement which is equally remarkable for its accuracy and for its modesty. But it has a basis of truth in the widespread disbelief diffused through the literary and so-called cultivated classes. There is no need to spend time in referring at length to facts which are only too familiar to most of us. Every sphere of knowledge, every form of literature, is enlisted in the crusade. Periodicals that lie on all our tables, works of imagination that your daughters read, newspapers that go everywhere, are full of it. Poetry, forgetting her lineage and her sweetness, strains her voice in rhapsodies of hostility. Science, leaping the hedge beyond which she at all events is a trespasser,—or in finer language, 'prolonging its gaze backwards beyond the boundary of experimental evidence,' or in still plainer terms, guessing, affirms that she discerns in matter the promise and potency of every form of life; or presently, in a devouter mood, looking on the budding glories of the spring, declines to profess the creed of Atheism. Learned criticism demonstrates the impossibility of supernatural religion. The leader of an influential school leaves behind him a voice hollow and sad, as from the great darkness, in which we seem to hear the echoes of a life baffled in the attempt to harmonise the logical and the spiritual elements of a large soul: 'There may be a God. The evidence is insufficient for proof. It only amounts to one of the lower degrees of probability. He may have given a revelation of His will. There are grounds sufficient to remove all antecedent improbability. The question is wholly one of evidence; but the evidence required has not been, and cannot be, forthcoming. There is room to hope for a future life, but there is no assurance whatever. Therefore cultivate in the region of the imagination merely those hopes which can never become certainties, for they are infinitely precious to mankind.'
Ah, brethren! do we not hear in these dreary words the cry of the immortal hunger of the soul for God, for the living God? The concessions they make to Christian apologists are noteworthy, but that unconscious confession of need is the most noteworthy. Surely, as the eye prophesies light, so the longing of the soul and the capacity for forming such ideals are the token that He is for whom heart and flesh do thus yearn. And how blessed is it to set over against these dreary ghosts that call themselves hopes, and that pathetic vain attempt to find refuge in the green fields of the imagination from the choking dust of the logical arena, the old faithful words: 'This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and that this life is in His Son'!
But my object in referring to these forms of opinion was merely to prepare the way for my subsequent observations; I have no intention of dealing with any of them by way of criticism or refutation. This is not the place nor the audience, nor am I the person, for that task. But I have thought that it might not be inappropriate to this occasion if I were to ask you to consider with me, from these words, the attitude of mind and heart to God's word which becomes the Christian in times of opposition.
The Psalmist was surrounded, as would appear, by widespread defection from God's law. But instead of trembling as if the sun were about to expire, he turns himself to God, and in fellowship with Him sees in all the antagonism but the premonition that He is about to act for the vindication of His own work. That confidence finds expression in the sublime invocation of our text. Then with another movement of thought, the contemplation of the departures makes him tighten his own hold on the law of the Lord, and the contempt of the gainsayers quickens his love: 'Therefore I love,' etc. And as must needs be the case, that love is the measure of his abhorrence of the opposite; and because God's commandments are so dear to him, therefore he recoils with healthy hatred from false ways. So, I think, we have a fourfold representation here of our true attitude in the face of existing antagonism—calm confidence in God's work for His law; earnest prayer, which secures the forthputting of the divine energy; an increased intensity of cleaving to the word; and a decisive opposition to the ways which make it void.
I ask your attention to some remarks on each of these in their order. So, then, we have—
I. Calm confidence that times of antagonism evoke God's work for His word.
Now I dare say that some of you feel that is not the first thought that should be excited by the opposition around us. 'We have no sort of doubt,' you may say, 'that God will take care of His own word, if there be such a thing; but the question that presses is, Have we it in this book? Answer that for us, and we will thank you; but platitudes about God watching over His truth are naught. The first thing to do is to meet these arguments and establish the origin of Scripture. Then it will follow of itself that it will not perish.'
But I take leave to think we, as Christians, arc not bound to revise the foundation belief of our lives at the call of every new antagonist. Life is too short for that. There is too much work waiting, to suspend our activity till we have answered each denier. We do not hold our faith in the word of God, as the winners at a match do their cups and belts, on condition of wrestling for them with any challenger. It is a perfectly legitimate position to say, We hold a ground of certitude, from which none of this strife of tongues is able to dislodge us. 'We have heard Him ourselves, and know that this is the Christ.' The Scriptures which we have received, not without knowledge of the grounds on which controversialists defend them, have proved themselves to us by their own witness. The light is its own proof. We have the experience of Christ and His law. He has saved our souls, He has changed our lives. We know in whom we have believed, and we are neither irrational nor obstinate when we avow that we will not pretend to suspend these convictions on the issue of any debate. We decline to dig up the piles of the bridge that carries us over the abyss because voices tell us that it is rotten. It is shorter and perfectly reasonable to answer, 'Rotten, did you say? Well, we have tried it, and it bears'; which, being translated into less simple language, is just the assertion of certitude built on facts and experience which leaves no place for doubt. All the opposition will be broken into spray against that rock bulwark: 'Thy words were found, and I did eat them, and they are the joy and rejoicing of my heart.'
So I venture to think that, speaking to Christian men and women, I have a right to speak on the basis of our common belief, and to encourage them to cherish it notwithstanding gainsayers. I am not counselling stolid indifference to the course of modern thought, nor desertion of the duty of defence. We are not to say, 'God will interfere; I need do nothing.' But the task of controversy is not for all Christians, nor the duty of following the flow of opinion. There is plenty of more profitable work than that for most of us. The temper which our text enjoins is for us all; and this calm confidence, that at the right time God will work for His word, is its first element.
This confidence rests upon our belief in a divine providence that governs the world, and on the observed laws of its working. It is ever His method to send His succour after the evil has been developed, and before it has triumphed. Had it come sooner, the priceless benefits of struggle, the new perceptions won in controversy of the many-sided meaning and value of His truth, the vigour from conflict, the wholesome sense of our weakness, had all been lost. Had it come later, it had come too late. So He times His help, in order that we may derive the greatest possible benefit from both the trial and the aid. We have all been dealt with so in our personal histories, whereof the very motto might be, 'When I said my foot slippeth, Thy mercy, O Lord! held me up.' The same law works on the wider platform. The enemy shall be allowed to pass through the breadth of the land, to spread dread and sorrow through village and hamlet, to draw his ranks round Jerusalem, as a man closes his hand on some insect he would crush. To-morrow, and the assault will be made; but to-night 'the angel of the Lord went forth and smote the camp; and when they arose in the morning,' expecting to hear the wild war-cry of the conquerors as they stormed across the undefended walls, 'they were all dead corpses.' Then, as it would appear, a psalmist, moved by that mighty victory, cast it into words, which remain for all generations the law of the divine aid, and imply all that I am urging now: 'The Lord is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; the Lord shall help her at the dawning of the morning.' True, we are no judges of the time. Our impatience is ever outrunning His calm deliberation. An illusion besets us all that our conflicts with unbelief are the severest the world has ever seen; and there is a great deal of exaggeration on both sides at present as to the real extent and importance of existing antagonism to God's revelation. A widespread literature provides so many—I would not say empty—spaces for any voice to reverberate in, that both the shouters and the listeners are apt to fancy the assailants are an army, when they are only a handful, armed mainly with trumpets and pitchers. There have been darker days of antagonism than these. 'He that believeth shall not make haste.' This confidence in the punctual wisdom of His working involves the other belief, that if He does not 'work,' it is because the time is not yet ripe; the negations and contradictions have still an office to fulfil, and no hurt that cannot be repaired has been done to the faith of the Church or the power of the word.
Nor can we forecast the manner of His working. He can call forth from the solitary sheepfolds the defenders of His word, as has ever been His wont, raising the man when the hour had come, even as He sent His son in the fulness of time. He can lead science on to deeper truth; He can quicken His Church into new life; He can guide the spirit of the age. We believe that the history of the world is the unfolding of His will, and the course of opinion guided in its channel by the Voice which the depths have obeyed from of old. Therefore we wait for His working, expecting no miracle, prescribing no time, hurried by no impatience, avoiding no task of defence or confession; but knowing that, unhasting and unresting He will arise when the storm is loudest, and somehow will say, 'Peace! be still.' Then they who had not cast away their confidence for any fashion of unbelief that passeth away will rejoice as they sing, 'Lo! this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us.'
This confidence is confirmed by the history of all the past assaults on Scripture.
The whole history of the origin, collection, preservation, transmission, diffusion, and present influence of the Bible involves so much that is surprising and unique, as to amount to at least a strong presumption of a divine care. Among all the remarkable things about the Book, nothing is more remarkable than that there it is, after all that has happened. When we think of the gaps and losses in ancient literature, and the long stormy centuries that lie between us and its earlier pages, we can faintly estimate the chances against their preservation. It is strange that the Jewish race should have so jealously preserved books which certainly did not flatter national pride, which put a mortifying explanation on national disasters, which painted them and their fathers in dark colours, which proclaimed truths they never loved, and breathed a spirit they never caught. It is stranger still, that in the long years of dispersion the very vices and limitations of the people subserved the same end, and that stiff pedantry and laborious trifling—the poorest form of intellectual activity—should have guarded the letter of the word, as the coral insects painfully build up their walls round some fair island of the Southern Sea. When one thinks of the great gulf of language between the Old and New Testaments, of the variety of authors, periods, subjects, literary form, the animosities of Christian and Jew, it is strange that we have the Book here one, and that all these parts should blend into unity, unless the source and theme were one, and one Hand had shaped each, and cared for the gathering together of all.
It has been demonstrated over and over again to have no pretensions to be a divine revelation; and yet here it is, believed by millions, and rooted so firmly in European language and thought, that no revolution short of a return to barbarism can abolish it. It has been proved to be a careless, unauthenticated collection of works of different periods, styles, and schools of thought, having no unity but what is given by the bookbinder: and lo! here it is still, not disintegrated, much less dissolved. Each age brings its own destructive criticism to play on it, confessing thereby that its predecessors have effected nothing; for as the Bible says about sacrifices, so we may say about assaults on Scripture, 'If they had done their work, would they not have ceased to be offered?' And the effect of the heaviest artillery that can be brought into position is as transient as the boom of their report and the puff of their smoke. Why, who knows anything about the world's wonders of books that a hundred years ago made good men's hearts tremble for the ark of God? You may find them in dusty rows on the top shelves of great libraries. But if their names had not occurred in the pages of Christian apologists, flies in amber, nobody in this generation would ever have heard of them. And still more conspicuously is it so with earlier examples of the same kind. Their work is as hopelessly dead as they. And the Book seems none the worse for all the shot—like the rock that a ship fired at all night, taking it for an enemy, and could not provoke to answer nor succeed in sinking. Surely some dim suspicion of the hopelessness of the attempt might creep into the hearts of men who know what has been. Surely the signal failure and swift fading away of all former efforts to dethrone the Bible might lead to the question, 'Does it not lay its deep foundations in the heart of man and the purpose of God, too deep to be reached by the short tools of mere criticism, too massive to be overthrown by all the weight of materialistic science?' It is with the Bible as it was with the Apostle, on whose hand, as he crouched over the newly-lit flame, the viper fastened, 'and he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.' The barbarous people, who changed their minds after they had looked a great while and saw no harm come to him, were not altogether wrong, and might teach a lesson to some modern wise men, that, among the other facts which they deal with, they should try to estimate this fact of the continued existence and influence of Scripture, and the failure thus far of all attempts to shake its throne or break the sweet influences of its bands.
Brethren! we, at all events, should learn the lesson of historical experience. The Gospel and the Book which is its record, have met with eager, eloquent, learned antagonists before to-day, and they have passed. Little more than a generation has sufficed to sweep them to oblivion. So it will be again. The forms of opinion, the tendencies of thought, which now seem to some of its enemies so certain to conquer, will follow these forgotten precursors into the dim land. May we not see them—these ancient discrowned kings that ruled over men and rebelled against Christ, these beliefs that no man now believes—rising from their shadowy thrones in the underworld to meet the now living and ruling unbelief, when it, too, shall have gone down to them; 'All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?' Yes, each in its turn 'becomes but a noise' when he 'passes the time appointed'—the time when God arises to do His act and vindicate His word.
II. We have here, secondly, earnest prayer which brings that divine energy.
The confidence that God will work underlies and gives energy to the prayer that God would work. The belief that a given thing is in the line of the divine purpose is not a reason for saying, 'We need not pray; God means to do it,' but is a reason for saying on the contrary, 'God means to do it; let us pray for it.' And this prayer, based upon the confidence that it is His will, is the best service that any of us can render to the Gospel in troublous times.
I shall have a word to say presently on the sort of outflow of the divine energy which we should principally expect and desire; but let me first remind you, very briefly, how the prayers of Christian men do condition—I had almost said regulate—that outflow.
I need not put this matter on its abstract and metaphysical side. Two facts are enough for my present purpose—one, a truth of faith, that the actual power wherewith God works for His word remains ever the same; one, a truth of observation and experience, that there are variations in the intensity of its operations and effects in the world. Wherefore? Surely because of the variations in the human recipients and organs of the power. Here at one end is the great fountain, ever brimming. Draw from it ever so much, it sinks not one hair's-breadth in its pure basin. Here, on the other side, is an intermittent flow, sometimes in scanty driblets, sometimes in painful drops, sometimes more full and free on the pastures of the wilderness. Wherefore these jerks and spasms? It must be something stopping the pipe. Yes, of course. God's might is ever the same, but our capacity of receiving and transmitting that might varies, and with it varies the energy with which that unchanging power is exerted in the world. Our faith, our earnestness of desire, our ardour and confidence of prayer, our faithfulness of stewardship and strenuousness of use, measure the amount of the unmeasured grace which we can receive. So long as our vessels are brought, the golden oil does not cease to flow. When they are full, it stays. The principle of the variation in actual manifestation of the unvarying might of God is found in the Lord's words: 'According to your faith be it unto you.' So, then, we may expect periods of quickened energy in the forth-putting of the divine power. And these will correspond to, and be consequent on, the faithful prayers of Christian men. See to it, brethren! that you keep the channels clear, that the flow may continue full and increase. Let no mud and ooze of the world, no big blocks of sin nor subtler accumulations of small negligences, choke them again. Above all, by simple, earnest prayer keep your hearts, as it were, wide open to the Sun, and His light will shine on you, and His grace fructify through you, and His Spirit will work in you mightily.
The tenor of these remarks presupposes a point on which I wish to make one or two observations now, viz. that the manner of the divine working which we should most earnestly desire in a time of diffused unbelief is the elevation of Christian souls to a higher spiritual life.
I do not wish to exclude other things, but I believe that the true antidote to a widespread scepticism is a quickened Church. We may indeed desire that in other ways the enemy should be met. We ought to pray that God would work by sending forth defenders of the truth, by establishing His Church in the firm faith of disputed verities, and by all the multitude of ways in which He can sway the thoughts and tendencies of men. But I honestly confess that I, for my part, attach but secondary importance to controversial defences of the faith. No doubt they have their office; they may confirm a waverer, they may establish a believer, they may show onlookers that the Christian position is tenable; they may, in some rare cases of transcendent power, prevent a heresy from spreading and from descending to another generation. But oftenest they are barren of result, and where they do their work, it is not to be forgotten that there may remain as true a making void of God's law by an evil heart of unbelief as by an understanding cased in the mail of denial. You may hammer ice on an anvil, or bray it in a mortar. What then? It is pounded ice still, except for the little portion melted by heat of percussion, and it will soon all congeal again. Melt it in the sun, and it flows down in sweet water, which mirrors that light which loosed its bonds of cold. So hammer away at unbelief with your logical sledge-hammers, and you will change its shape, perhaps; but it is none the less unbelief because you have ground it to powder. It is a mightier agent that must melt it—the fire of God's affection, of all lower, howsoever tender, loves that once filled the whole heart. Such surrender is not pain but gladness, inasmuch as the deeper well that has been sunk dries the surface springs, and gathers all their waters into itself. The new treasure that has filled the heart compels, by glad compulsion, the surrender or, at least, the subordination, of all former affections to the constraint of all-mastering love.
The same thing is true in regard to the union of the soul with Christ. The description of the bride's abandonment of former duties and ties may be transferred, without the change of a word, to our relations to Him. If love to Him has really come into our hearts, it will master all our yearnings and tendencies and affections, and we shall feel that we cannot but yield up everything besides, by reason of the sovereign power of this new affection. Christ demands from us (if I may use the word 'demand' for the beseeching of love), for His sake, and for our sakes, the entire surrender of ourselves to Him. And that new affection will deal with the old loves, just as the new buds upon the beech-trees in the spring deal with the old leaves that still hang withered on some of the branches. It will push them from their hold, and they will drop. If a river should be turned into some dark cave where unclean beasts have herded and littered for years, the bright waters would sweep out on their bosom all the filth and rottenness. So, when the love of Christ comes surging and flashing into a heart, it will bear out on its broad surface all conflicting and subordinate inclinations, with the passions and lusts that used to rule and befoul the spirit. Christ demands complete surrender, and, if we are Christians, that absolute abandonment will not be a pain nor unwelcome. We epidemic. That is a doctrine which one influential school of modern disbelievers, at all events, cannot but admit.
What then? Why this—that to change the opinions you must change the atmosphere; or, in other words, the true antagonist of a diffused scepticism is a quickened Christian life. Brethren! if we had been what we ought, would such an environment have ever been possible as that which produces this modern unbelief? Even now, depend upon it, we shall do more for Christ by catching and exhibiting more of His Spirit than by many arguments—more by words of prayer to God than by words of reasoning to men. A higher tone of spiritual life would prove that the Gospel was mighty to mould and ennoble character. If our own souls were gleaming with the glory of God, men would believe that we had met more than the shadow of our own personality in the secret place. If the fire of faith were bright in us, it would communicate itself to others, for nothing is so contagious as earnestness. If we believed, and therefore spoke, the accent of conviction in our tones would carry them deep into some hearts. If we would trust Christ's Cross to stand firm without our stays, and arguing less about it, would seldomer try to prop it, and oftener to point to it, it would draw men to itself. When the power and reality of Scripture as the revelation of God are questioned, the best answer in the long-run will be a Church which can adduce itself as the witness, and can say to the gainsayers, 'Why, herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence He is, and yet He hath opened mine eyes!' Brethren! do you see to it that your life be thus a witness that you have heard His voice; and make it your contribution to the warfare of this day, if you do not bear a weapon, that you lift your hands and heart to God. Moses on the mount helped the struggling ranks below in their hand-to-hand combat with Amalek. Hezekiah's prayer, when he spread the letter of the invader before the Lord, was more to the purpose than all his munitions of war. Let your voice rise to heaven like a fountain, and blessings will fall on earth. 'Arise, O Lord! plead Thine own cause. The tumult of those that rise up against Thee increaseth continually.'
III. We have here, thirdly, as the fitting attitude in times of widespread unbelief, a love to God's word made more fervid by antagonism.
There may be a question what reason for the Psalmist's love is pointed at in this 'therefore.' We shall hardly be satisfied with the slovenly and not very reverent explanation, that the word is introduced, without any particular meaning, because it begins with the initial letter proper to this section; nor does it seem enough to suppose a mere general reference to the excellences of the law of the Lord, which are the theme of the whole psalm. Such an interpretation blunts the sharp edge of the thought, and has nothing in its favour but the general want of connection between the separate verses. There are, however, one or two other instances where a thought is pursued through more than one verse, and the usual mere juxtaposition gives place to an interlocking, so that the construction is not unexampled. It is most natural to take the plain meaning of the words, and to suppose that when the Psalmist said, 'They have made void Thy law, therefore I love Thy commandments,' he meant, 'The prevailing opposition is the reason why I, for my part, grasp Thy law more strongly.' The hostility of others evokes my warmer love. The thought, so understood, is definite, true, and important, and so I venture to construe it, and enforce it as containing a lesson for the day.
And here I would first observe that I desire not to be understood as urging the substitution of feeling for reason, nor as trying to enlist passion in a crusade against the opponent's logic. Still less do I desire to counsel the exaggeration of opinions because they are denied—that besetting danger of all controversy.
But surely the emotions have a place and an office, if not indeed in the search for, and the submission to, the truth of God, yet in the defence and adherence to that truth when found. The heart may not be the organ for the investigation and apprehension of truth, though it has a part to play even there; but the tenacity with which I cleave to truth, when apprehended, is far more an affair of the will than of the understanding—it is the heart's love steadying the mind, and holding it fixed to the rock. And love has also a place in the defence of the truth. It gives weight to blows, and wings to the arrows. It makes arguments to be wrought in fire rather than in frost. It lights the enthusiasm which cannot despair, the diligence that will not weary, the fervour that often goes farther to sway other minds than the sharpest dialectics of a passionless understanding. There are causes in which an unimpassioned advocacy is worse than silence; and this is one of them. The word of the living God which has saved our souls and brought to us all that makes our natures rich and strong, and all that peoples the great darkness with fair hopes solid as certainties, demands and deserves fervour in its soldiers, and loyal love in its subjects.
And while it is weakness to over-emphasise our beliefs merely because they are denied, and one of the saddest issues of controversy, that both sides are apt to be hurried into exaggerated statements which calmer thoughts would repudiate; on the other hand, there is a legitimate prominence which ought to be given to a truth precisely because it is denied. The time to underline and accentuate strongly our convictions is, when society is slipping away from them, provided it be done without petulance, passion, or the falsehood of extremes.
If ever there was a period when such general considerations as these had a practical application, this is the time. Would that all such as my voice now reaches would take these grand words for theirs: 'They make void Thy law, therefore I love Thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold!'
Such increase of affection because of gainsayers is the natural instinct of loyal and chivalrous love. If your mother's name were defiled, would not your heart bound to her defence? When a prince is a dethroned exile, his throne is fixed deeper in the hearts of his adherents 'though his back be at the wall' and common souls become heroes because their devotion has been heightened to sublimity of self-sacrifice by a nation's rebellion. And when so many voices are proclaiming that God has never spoken to men, that our thoughts of His Book are dreams, and its long empire over men's spirits a waning tyranny, does cool indifference become us? Will not fervour be sobriety, and the glowing emotion of our whole nature our reasonable service?
Such increase of affection because of gainsayers is the fitting end and main blessing of the controversy which is being waged. We never fully hold our treasures till we have grasped them hard, lest they should be plucked from us. No truth is established till it has been denied and has survived. Antagonism to the word of God should have, and will have, to those who use it rightly, a blessing in its train, in bringing out yet more of the preciousness and manifoldness, the all-sufficiency and the universality of the Book. 'The more 'tis shook, the more it shines.' The fiercer the blast, the firmer our confidence in the inexpugnable solidity of that tower of strength that stands four square to every wind that blows. 'The word of the Lord is tried, therefore Thy servant loveth it.'
Such increase of attachment to the word of God because of gainsayers, is the instinct of self-preservation. The sight of so many making void the law makes a man bethink himself of what his own standing is. We, as they, are the children of the age. The tendencies to which they have yielded operate on us too, and our only strength is, 'Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe!' The present condition of opinion remands us all to our foundations, and should teach us that nothing but firm adherence to God revealed in His word, and to the word which reveals God, will prevent us, too, from drifting away to shoreless, solitary seas of doubt, barren as the foam, and changeful as the crumbling, restless wave.
Such strength of affection in the presence of diffused doubt is not to be won without an effort. All our churches afford us but too many examples of men and women who have lost the warmth of their first love, if not their love itself, for no better reason than because so many others have lost it. The effect of popular unbelief stretches far beyond those who are directly affected by its arguments, or avowedly adopt its conclusions. It is hard to hold by a creed which so many influential voices tell you it is a sign of folly and of being behind the age to believe. The consciousness that Christian truth is denied, makes some of you falter in its profession, and fancy that it is less certain simply because it is gainsaid. The mist wraps you in its folds, and it is difficult to keep warm in it, or to believe that love and sunshine are above it all the same. 'Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.'
Therefore, brethren! do you consciously endeavour that the tempest shall make you tighten your hold on Christ and His word. He appeals to us, too, with that most pathetic question, in which yearning for our love and sorrow over the departed disciples blend so wondrously, as if He cast Himself on our loyalty: 'Will ye also go away?' Let us answer, not with the self-confidence that was so signally put to shame, 'Though all should forsake Thee, yet will not I'; but with the resolve that draws its firmness from His fulness and from our knowledge of the power of His truth, 'Lord! to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.'
IV. And lastly, we have here, as the final trait in the temper which becomes such times, healthy opposition to the ways which make void the word of the Lord.
That is the Psalmist's last movement of feeling, and you see that it comes second, not first, in the order of his emotions. It is the consequence of his love, the recoil of his heart from the practices and theories which contradicted God's law.
Now, far be it from me to say a word which should fan the embers of the odium theologicum into a blaze against either men or opinions. But there is a truth involved which seems to be in danger of being forgotten at present, and that to the detriment of large interests as well as of the forgetters. The correlative of a hearty love for any principle or belief is—we may as well use the obnoxious word—a healthy hatred for its denial and contradiction. They are but two aspects of one thing, like that pillar of old which, in its single substance, was a cloud and darkness to the foes, and gave light by night to the friends of Him who dwelt in it. Nay, they are but two names for the very same thing viewed in the very same motion, which is love as it yearns towards and cleaves to its treasure; and hatred, as by the identical same act it recoils and withdraws from the opposite: 'He will hold to the one, and therefore and therein despise the other.'
Much popular teaching as to Christian truth seems to me to ignore this plain principle, and to be working harm, especially among our younger cultivated men and women, whom it charms by an appearance of liberality, which in their view, contrasts very favourably with the narrowness of us sectarians. I am free to admit that in our zeal about small matters (and in a certain 'provincialism,' so to speak, which characterised the type of English Christianity till within a recent period) we needed, and still need, the lesson, and I will thankfully accept the rebuke that reminds me of what I ever tend to forget, that the golden rod, wherewith the divine Builder measures from jewel to jewel in the walls of the New Jerusalem, takes in wider spaces than we have meted with our lines. But that is a very different matter from the tone which vitiates and weakens so much modern adherence to Christ's Gospel and Christ's Church. The old principle, 'in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty,' made no attempt to determine what belonged to these two classes, and in practice their bounds may often have been wrongly set, so as to include many of the latter among the former; but it at all events recognised the distinction as the basis of its next clause, 'in all things, charity.' But nowadays, to listen to some liberal teachers, one would think that nothing was necessary, except the great sacred principle, that nothing is necessary; and that charity could not exist, unless that distinction were effaced.
I pray you, and if I may venture so far, I would especially pray my younger hearers, to take note, that however fair this way of looking at varying forms of Christian opinion may be, it really reposes on a basis which they will surely think twice before accepting, the denial that there is such a thing as intellectual certitude in religion which can be cast into definite propositions. If there be any truth at all, to confess it is to deny its opposite, to cleave to this is to reject that, to love the one is to hate the other. I fear—I know—that there are many minds among us who began with simply catching this tone of tolerance, and who have been insensibly borne along to an enfeebled belief that there is such a thing as religious truth at all, and that the truth lies in the word of God. Dear friends! let me beseech you to take heed lest, while you are only conscious of your hearts expanding with the genial glow of liberality, by little and little you lose your power of discerning between things that differ, your sense of the worth of the Scripture as the depository of divine truth, and from your slack hand the hem of the vesture in which its healing should fall away.
As broad a liberality as you please within the limits that are laid down by the very nature of the case. 'These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, ye might have life through His name.' Wheresoever that record is accepted, that divine Name confessed, that faith exercised, and that life possessed, there, with all diversities, own a brother. Wheresover these things are not, loyalty to your Lord demands that the strength of your love for His word should be manifested in the strength of your recoil from that which makes it void. 'I love Thy commandments, and I hate every false way.'
I am much mistaken if times are not rapidly coming on us when a decisive election of his side will be forced on every man. The old antagonists will be face to face once more. Compromises and hesitations will not serve. The country between the opposing forces will be stripped of every spot that might serve as cover for neutrals. On the one side a mighty host, its right the Pharisees of ecclesiasticism and ritual, with their banner of authority, making void the law of God by their tradition; its left, and never far away from their opposites on the right with whom they are strangely leagued, working into each other's hands, the Sadducees denying angel and spirit, with their war-cry of unfettered freedom and scientific evidence; and in the centre, far rolling, innumerable, the dusky hosts of mere animalism, and worldliness, and self, making void the law by their sheer godlessness. And on the other side, 'He was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood, and His name is called the Word of God, and they that were with Him were called, and chosen, and faithful.' The issue is certain from of old. Do you see to it that you are of those who were valiant for the truth upon the earth.
Let not the contradiction of many move you from your faith; let it lift your eyes to the hills from whence cometh our help. Let it open your desires in prayer to Him who keeps His own word, that it may keep His Church and bless the world. Let it kindle into fervent enthusiasm, which is calm sobriety, your love for that word. Let it make decisive your rejection of all that opposes. Driftwood may float with the stream; the ship that holds to her anchor swings the other way. Send that word far and wide. It is its own best evidence. It will correct all the misrepresentation of its foes, and supplement the inadequate defences of its friends. Amid all the changes of attacks that have their day and cease to be, amid all the changes of our representations of its endless fulness, it will live. Schools of thought that assail and defend it pass, but it abides. Of both enemy and friend it is true, 'The grass withereth, and the flower thereof passeth away.' How antique and ineffectual the pages of the past generations of either are, compared with the ever-fresh youth of the Bible, which, like the angels, is the youngest and is the oldest of books. The world can never lose it; and notwithstanding all assaults, we may rest upon His assurance, whose command is prophecy, when He says, 'Write it before them in a table, and note it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever.'
SUBMISSION AND PEACE
'Great peace have they which love Thy law; and nothing shall offend them.' PSALM cxix. 165.
The marginal note says 'they shall have no stumbling block.'
We do great injustice to this psalm—so exuberant in its praises of 'the law of the Lord'—if we suppose that that expression means nothing more than the Mosaic or Jewish revelation. It does mean that, of course, but the psalm itself shows that the writer uses the expression and its various synonyms as including a great deal more than any one method by which God's will is made known to man. For he speaks, for instance, in one part of the psalm of God's 'word,' as being settled for ever in the heavens, and of the heavens and earth as continuing to this day, 'according to Thine ordinances.'
So we are warranted in giving to the thought of our text the wider extension of taking the divine 'law' to include not only that directory of conduct contained in Scripture, but the expressed will of God, involving duties for us, in whatever way it is made known. The love of that uttered will, the Psalmist declares, will always bring peace. Such an understanding of the text does not exclude the narrower reference, which is often taken to be the only thought in the Psalmist's mind, nor does it obliterate the distinction between the written law of God and the disclosures of His will which we collect by the exercise of our faculties on events around and facts within us. But it widens the horizon of our contemplations, and bases the promised peace on its true foundation, the submission of the human to the divine will.
Let us then consider how true love to the will of God, however it is made known to us, either in the Book or in our consciousness, or in daily providences, or by other people's hints, is the talisman that brings to us, in all circumstances, and in every part of our nature, a tranquillity which nothing can disturb.
Of course, by 'love' here is meant, not only delight in the expression of, but the submission of the whole being to, God's will; and we love the law only when, and because, we love the Lawgiver.
I. Thus loving the law of God, not only with delight in the vehicle of its expression, but with inward submission to its behests, we shall have, first of all, the peacefulness of a restful heart.
Such a heart has found an adequate and worthy object for the outgoings of its affections. Base things loved always disturb. Noble things loved always tranquillise. And he to whom his judgment declares that the best of all things is God's manifested will, and whose affections and emotions and actions follow the dictate of his judgment, has a love which grasps whatsoever things are noble and fair and of good report, and is lifted to a level corresponding with the loftiness of its objects. For our hearts are like the creatures in some river, of which they tell us that they change their colour according to the hue of the bed of the stream in which they float and of the food of which they partake. The heart that lives on the will of God will be calm and steadfast, and ennobled into reposeful tranquillity like that which it grasps and grapples.
Little boats which are made fast to the sides of a ship rise and fall with the tide, as does that to which they are attached. And our hearts, if they be roped to the fleeting, the visible, the creatural, the finite, partake of the fluctuations, and finally are involved in the destruction, of that which they have made their supreme good. And contrariwise, they who love that which is eternal shine with a light thrown by reflection from the object of their love, and 'he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever,' like the will which he doeth. 'Great peace'—the peace of a restful heart—'have they that love Thy law.'
II. Then again, such love brings the calm of a submitted will.
Brethren! it is not sorrow that troubles us so much as resistance to sorrow. It is not pain that lacerates; it cuts, and cuts clean when we keep ourselves still and let it do its merciful ministry upon us. But it is the plunging and struggling under the knife that makes the wounds jagged and hard to heal. The man who bows his will to the Supreme, in quiet acceptance of that which He sends, is never disturbed. Resistance distracts and agitates; acquiescence brings a great calm. Submission is peace. And when we have learned to bend our wills, and let God break them, if that be His will, in order to bend them, then 'nothing shall by any means hurt us'; and nothing shall by any means trouble us.
If you were ever on board a sailing-ship you know the difference between its motion when it is beating up against the wind and when it is running before it. In the one case all is agitation and uneasiness, in the other all is smooth and frictionless and delicious. So, when we go with the great stream, in not ignoble surrender, then we go quietly. It is God's great intention, in all that befalls us in this life, to bring our wills into conformity with His. Blessed is the ministry of sorrow and of pain and of loss, if it does that for us, and disastrous and accursed is the ministry of joy and success if it does not. There is no joy but calm, and there is no calm but in—not the annihilation, but—the intensest activity of will, in the act of submitting to that higher will, which is discerned to be 'good,' and is gratefully taken as 'acceptable,' and will one day be seen to have been 'perfect.' The joy and peace of a submitted will are the secret of all true tranquillity.
III. Then again, there comes by such a love the peace of an obedient life.
When once we have taken it (and faithfully adhere to the choice) as our supreme desire to do God's will, we are delivered from almost all the things that distract and disturb us. Away go all the storms of passion, and we are no more at the mercy of vagrant inclinations. We are no longer agitated by having to consult our own desires, and seeking to find in them compass and guide for our lives—a hopeless attempt! All these sources of agitation are dried up, and the man who has only this desire, to do his duty because God has made it such, has an ever powerful charm, which makes him tranquil whatever befalls.
And as thus we may be delivered from all the agitations and cross-currents of conflicting wishes, inclinations, aims, which otherwise would make a jumble and a chaos of our lives, so, on the other hand, if for us the supreme desire is to obey God, then we are delivered from the other great enemy to tranquillity—namely, anxious forecasting of possible consequences of our actions, which robs so many of us of so many quiet days. 'I do the little I can do,' said Faber, 'and leave the rest with Thee,' and that will bring peace. Instead of wondering what is to come of this step and that, whether our plans will turn out as we hope, and so being at the mercy of contingencies impossible to be forecasted, we cast all upon Him and say, 'I have nothing to do with the far end of my actions. Thou givest them a body as it has pleased Thee. I have to do with this end of my actions—their motive; and I will make that right, and then it is Thy business to make the rest right.' And so, 'great peace have they which love Thy law.'
An obedient life not only delivers us from the distractions of miscellaneous desires, and from the anxiety of unforeseen results, but it contributes to tranquillity in another way. The thing that makes us most uneasy is either sin done or duty neglected. Either of these, however small it may appear, is like a horse-hair upon the sheets of a bed, or a little wrinkle in that on which a man lies, disturbing all his repose. No man is really at rest unless his conscience is clear. 'The wicked is like the troubled sea, which cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.' But if the uttered will of the Lord is our supreme object, then in this direction, too, tranquillity is ours.
IV. Lastly, such a love gives the peace of freedom from temptations.
'Nothing shall offend them.' 'There shall be no stumbling-block to them.' The higher love casts out the lower. It is well, when, by reinforcing conscience by considerations of duty, or even sometimes by the lower thoughts of consequences, a man is able to pass by a temptation which appeals to him, and conquers the inclination to go wrong. But it is far better—and it is possible—to be lifted up into such a region as that the temptation does not appeal to him any more.
To take a very homely illustration, whether is it better for a man to steel himself, and walk past the door of a public-house, though the fumes appeal to his sense, and stir his inclinations; or to go past, and never know any attraction to enter? Which is best, to overcome our temptations, or to live away up in the high regions to which the malaria of the swamps never climbs, and where no disease-germs can ever reach?
That elevation is possible for us, if only we keep in close touch with God, and love the law because our hearts are knit to the Law-giver. 'There shall be no occasion of stumbling in him,' as the Apostle John varies the expression of my text. Within, there will be no traitors to surrender the camp to the enemy without. So Paul in the letter to the Philippians attributes to 'the peace of God which passeth understanding' a military function, and says that it will 'garrison the heart and mind,' and keep them 'in Christ Jesus,' which is but the Christian way of saying, 'Great peace have they which love Thy law; and there is no occasion of stumbling in them.'
LOOKING TO THE HILLS
'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. 2. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.' —PSALM cxxi. 1, 2.
The so-called 'Songs of Degrees,' of which this psalm is one, are usually, and with great probability, attributed to the times of the Exile. If that be so, we get an appropriate background and setting for the expressions and emotions of this psalm. We see the exile, wearied with the monotony of the long-stretching, flat plains of Babylonia, summoning up before his mind the distant hills where his home was. We see him wondering how he will be able ever to reach that place where his desires are set; and we see him settling down, in hopeful assurance that his effort is not in vain, since his help comes from the Lord. 'I will lift up my eyes unto the hills'; away out yonder westwards, across the sands, lie the lofty summits of my fatherland that draws me to itself. Then comes a turn of thought, most natural to a mind passionately yearning after a great hope, the very greatness of which makes it hard to keep constant. For the second clause of my text cannot possibly be, as it is translated in our Authorised Version, an affirmation, but must be taken as the Revised Version correctly gives it, a question: 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help?' How am I to get there? And then comes the final turn of thought: 'My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.'
So then, there are three things here—the look of longing, the question of weakness, the assurance of faith.
I. The look of longing.
'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills'—a resolution, and a resolution born of intense longing. Now the hills that the Psalmist is thinking about were visible from no part of that long-extended plain where he dwelt; and he might have looked till he wore his eyes out, ere he could have seen them on the horizon of sense. But although they were unseen, they were visible to the heart that longed for them. He directs his desires further than the vision of his eyeballs can go. Just as his possible contemporary, Daniel, when he prayed, opened his window towards the Jerusalem that was so far away; and just as Mohammedans still, in every part of the world, when they pray, turn their faces to the Kaabah at Mecca, the sacred place to which their prayers are directed; and just as many Jews still, north, east, south or west though they be, face Jerusalem when they offer their supplications—so this psalmist in Babylon, wearied and sick of the low levels that stretched endlessly and monotonously round about him, says, 'I will look at the things that I cannot see, and lift up my eyes above these lownesses about me, to the loftinesses that sense cannot behold, but which I know to be lying serene and solid beyond the narrowing horizon before me.'
There was the look of longing, and the longing which made non-vision into a look; and there was the effort to divert his attention from the things around him to the things afar off; and there was the realisation, by reason of the effort, of these distant but most certain realities.
Now this Psalmist's home-sickness, if I may so call it, had nothing at all religious about it. It was simply that he wanted to get to his own country—his own, though he had been born in exile; and there was nothing more devout or spiritual or refining about his longing than there is about the wish to return to his native country that any foreigner in a distant land feels. But when we take these words, as we all ought to do, as the motto of our lives, we must necessarily attach the loftiest religious meaning to them. And here start up the plain, simple, but tight-gripping and stimulating questions, 'Do I see the Unseen? Does that far-off, dim land assume substance and reality to me? Do I walk in the light of it raying out to me through earth's darkness? Do I dwell contented with never a glimpse of it?' It comes to be a very sharp question with us professing Christians, whether the horizon of our inward being is limited by, and coterminous with, the horizon of our senses, or whether, far beyond the narrow limits to which these can reach, our spirits' desire stretches boundless. Are, to us, the things unseen the solid things, and the things visible the shadows and the phantoms? The Apocalyptic seer, in his rocky Patmos, was told that he was to be shown 'the things which are'; and what was it that he saw? A set of what people call unreal and symbolic visions. 'The things which are,' the world would have said, 'are the rocks that you are standing on, and the sea that is dashing upon them, and all the solid-seeming Roman world, and the power that has got you in its grip. These are the realities, and these things that you think you see, these are the dreams.' But it is exactly the other way. The world and all that is about us, Manchester and its hubbub, warehouses crammed with cloth, and mills full of jennies and throstles—these are the shadows; and the things that only the believing eye beholds, that are wrapped in the invisibility of their own greatness, these, and these only, are the realities. We see with the bodily eyes the shadows on the wall, as it were, but we have to turn round and see with the eyes of our minds the light that flings the shadows. 'I will lift up my eyes' from the mud-flats where I live to the hills that I cannot see, and, seeing them, I shall be blessed.
Further, do we know anything of that longing that the Psalmist had? He was perfectly comfortable in Babylon. There was abundance of everything that he wanted for his life. The Jews there were materially quite as well off, and many of them a great deal better off, than ever they had been in their narrow little strip of mountain land, shut in between the desert and the sea. But for all that, fat, wealthy Babylon was not Palestine. So amidst the lush vegetation, the wealth of water and the fertile plains, the Psalmist longed for the mountains, though the mountains are often bare of green things. It was that longing that led to his looking to the hills. Do we know anything of that longing which makes us 'that are in this tabernacle to groan, being burdened'? 'Absent from the Lord,' and 'present in the body,' we should not be at ease, nor at home. Unless our Christianity throws us out of harmony and contentment with the present, it is worth very little. And unless we know something of that immortal longing to be nearer to God, and fuller of Christ, and emancipated from sense, and from the burdens and trivialities of life, we have yet to learn what the meaning of 'walking not after the flesh but after the Spirit' really is.
Further, do we make any effort like that of this Psalmist, who encourages and stimulates himself by that strong 'I will lift up my eyes'? You will not do it unless you make a dead lift of effort. It is a great deal easier for a man to look at what is at his feet than to crane his neck gazing at the stars.
And so, unless we take up and persevere in maintaining a habitual attitude of stirring up and lifting up ourselves, gravitation will be too much for us, and down will go the head, and down the eyes; and down will go the desires, and we shall be like men that live in some mountainous country, who never lift their gaze to the solemn white summits that travellers come across half Europe to see. Christian men and women too often walk beneath the very peaks of the mountains of God, and rarely lift their vision there. They perhaps do so for an hour and a half on a Sunday morning, or an hour on a Wednesday evening, when there is no other engagement, or for a minute or two in the morning before they hurry down to breakfast, or a minute or two at night when they are dead beat and unfit for anything. For the rest of the time, there are the mountains and here is the saint, and he seldom or never turns his head to look at them! Is that the sort of Christianity that is likely to be a power in the world, or a blessing to its possessor?
II Further, notice the question of weakness.
'From whence cometh my help?' The loftier our ideal, the more painful ought to be our conviction of incapacity to reach it. The Christian man's one security is in feeling his peril, and the condition of his strength is his acknowledgment and vivid consciousness always of his weakness. The exile in Babylon had a dreary desert, peopled by wild Arab tribes hostile to him, stretching between his present home and that where he desired to be, and it would be difficult for him to get away from the dominion that held him captive, unless by consent of the power of whom he was the vassal. So the more the thought of the mountains of Israel drew the Psalmist, the more there came into his mind the thought, 'How am I to be made able to reach that blessed soil?' And surely, if we saw, with anything like a worthy apprehension and vision, the greatness of that blessedness that lies yonder for Christian souls, we should feel far more deeply than we do the impossibility, as far as we are concerned, of our ever reaching it. The sense of our own weakness and the consciousness of the perils upon the path ought ever to be present with us all.
Brethren! if, on the one hand, we have to cultivate, for a healthy, vital Christianity, a vision of the mountains of God, on the other hand we have to try to deepen in ourselves the wholesome sense of our own impotence, and the conviction that the dangers on the road are far too great for us to deal with. 'Blessed is the man that feareth always.' 'Pride goeth before destruction.' Remember the Franco-German war, and how the French Prime Minister said that they were going into it 'with a light heart,' and how some of the troops went out of Paris in railway carriages labelled 'for Berlin'; and when they reached the frontier they were doubled up and crushed in a month. Unless we, when we set ourselves to this warfare, feel the formidableness of the enemy and recognise the weakness of our own arms, there is nothing but defeat for us.
III. Finally, notice the assurance of faith.
The Psalmist asks himself, 'From whence cometh my help?' and then the better self answers the questioning, timid self: 'My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.' There will be no reception of the divine help unless there is a sense of the need of the divine help. God cannot help me before I am brought to despair of any other help. It is only when a man says, 'There is none other that fighteth for us, but only Thou, O God!' that God comes to help.
There is a story in the Book of Chronicles, about one battle in which Judah engaged, of a very singular kind. The first step in the campaign was that the king of Judah gathered all his people together, and prayed to God, and said, 'We know not what we shall do. We have no strength against this great multitude that cometh against us, but our eyes are unto Thee.' Then a prophet came and assured him of victory, and next day they arrayed the battle. It was set in this strange fashion: in the forefront were put the priests and Levites, with their instruments of music, and not soldiers with spears and bows, and they marched out to battle with this song, 'The Lord is gracious and merciful. His mercy endureth for ever.' Then, without the stroke of sword or thrust of spear, God fought for them and scattered their foes.
'Which things are an allegory.' If we recognise our helplessness, God is our help. If we conceit ourselves to be strong, we are weak; if we know ourselves to be impotent, Omnipotence pours itself into us. We read once that Jesus Christ healed 'them that had need of healing.' Why does the Evangelist not say, without that periphrasis, 'healed the sick'? Because he would emphasise, I suppose, amongst other things, the thought that only the sense of need fits for the reception of healing and help.
If, then, we desire that God should be 'the Strength of our hearts, and our Portion for ever,' the coming of His help must be wooed and won by our sense of our own impotence, and only they who say, 'We have no might against this great multitude that cometh against us,' will ever hear from Him the blessed assurance, 'The Lord will fight for you.' 'Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord!' So, brethren! the assurance of faith follows the consciousness of weakness, and both together will lead, and nothing else will lead, to the realisation of the vision of faith, and bring us at last, weak as we are, to the hills where the weary and foot-sore flock 'shall lie down in a good fold, and on fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.'
MOUNTAINS ROUND MOUNT ZION
'They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever. 2. As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people from henceforth, even for ever.'—PSALM cxxv. 1, 2.
The so-called 'Songs of Degrees,' of which this psalm is one, are probably a pilgrim's song-book, and possibly date from the period of the restoration of Israel from the Babylonish captivity. In any case, this little psalm looks very much like a record of the impression that was made on the pilgrim, as he first topped the crest of the hill from which he looked on Jerusalem. Two peculiarities of its topographical position are both taken here as symbols of spiritual realities, for the singularity of the situation of the city is that it stands on a mountain and is girdled by mountains. There is a tongue of land or peninsula cut off from the surrounding country by deep ravines, on which are perched the buildings of the city, while across the valley on the eastern side is Olivet, and, on the south, another hill, the so-called 'Hill of Evil Counsel'; but upon the west and north sides there are no conspicuous summits, though the ground rises. Thus, really, though not apparently, there lie all round the city encircling defences of mountains. Similarly, says the Psalmist, set and steadfast as on a mountain, and compassed about by a protection, like the bastions of the everlasting hills, are they whose trust is in the Lord. Faith, then, gives inward stability, and faith secures an encircling defence.
But, more than that, notice that the mountains encompass a mountain. Faith, in some measure, makes the protected like the Protector. And then, beyond that, notice the two 'for evers.' Zion cannot be moved, it 'abideth for ever,' and 'the Lord is about His people from henceforth and for ever.' To trust in God gives the transitory creature a kind of share in the uncreated eternity of that in which he trusts. Now these are four thoughts worth carrying away with us.
I. The simple act of trust in God brings inward stability.
The word here that is rightly translated 'trust,' like most expressions in the Old Testament for religious emotion, has a distinctly metaphorical colouring about it. It literally means to 'hang upon' something, and so, beautifully, it tells us what faith is—just hanging upon God. Whoever has laid his tremulous hand on a fixed something, partakes, in the measure in which he does grasp it, of the fixity of that on which he lays hold; so 'they that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion,' that stands there summer and winter, day and night, year out and year in, with its strong buttresses and its immovable mass, the very emblem of solidity and stability.
Ay! and this is true about these tremulous hearts of ours. There is one way to make them stable, and only one; and that is that they shall be fastened, as it were, to that which is stable, and so be steadfast because they hold by what is steadfast. There is no other means by which any heart can be made immovable, except in so far as it may be moved by holy impulses and sweet drawings of love and loftinesses of aspiration towards God; there is no other means by which a heart, with all its inward perturbations and all its outward sources of agitation, can be made calm and still, except by living, deep, continual fellowship with Him who is the Eternal Calm, and from whose stable Being we mutable men can derive serenity which is a faint likeness of His immutability. 'We which have believed do enter into rest.'
How can I still these hot desires of mine, this self-asserting will, all these various passions and emotions which sweep through my soul, and which must not be made mute and dead—or else there will come corruption and stagnation—but must be made so to move as that in their very motion shall be rest? How can I do that? By one way, and one only. Live in fellowship with God, and that will quiet perturbations within and tumults without. The foot of the Master on the midnight stormy sea will smooth the waves which the moonbeams have not power to still, but only to reveal their heavings. 'They that trust in the Lord shall be like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved,' and yet is not torpid in its immobility, but full of fertility and of beauty wedded to its steadfastness.
In like manner, the only way by which not only the inward storms can be quieted, but the outward assaults of perturbing circumstances, disasters, changes, difficult duties, and the like, can ever be received with tranquillity is, that they should be received in quiet faith. And, in like manner, the only way by which men can be made steadfast and immovable in brave, pertinacious adherence to the simple law of right, whatsoever temptations may try to draw them aside, and whatsoever frowns may gather upon the face of affairs so as to frighten them from the path of rectitude—the only way by which they can conquer evil, so as not to be hurried into forbidden paths, is this same making sure of their hold upon God, and carrying with them day by day, and moment by moment, into all the little difficulties and small temptations that would lead to trivial faults, the one solemn thought that bids all these back into their lairs—God is near me and I am with Him.
Oh, brethren! if we could live in touch with Him and, as this great word for 'trust' suggests, be fastened to Him, as a man, swinging from a cliff over the crawling sea, fathoms below him, clutches the rope that is his safety—then we should live in tranquillity, and be steadfast, immovable.
They say that in the great church of St. Peter there is only one temperature in summer and winter; that the fiercest heat may be pouring down in the colonnades, or the sharpest frost may have silenced the tinkling fall of the fountains in the Piazza; but within the great portal the thermometer stands the same. Thus, if we live in the Temple, and keep inside its doors, the thermometer in our hearts will be fixed; and the anemometer—the measurer of the wind—will point to calm all the year round. 'They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved.'
II. Again, this same attitude of realising the divine Presence, Will, and Help, will bring around us encircling defences.
I have already said that one peculiarity of the topography of the sacred city is that, at first sight, the metaphor of my text seems to break down, for nobody, looking at the situation of the city with uninstructed eye, would say that it was compassed all around with mountains. On two sides it manifestly is; on two sides it apparently is not, though the land rises on the north and west till it is higher than the tops of the houses. We may not be fanciful in taking that as a parable. 'As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people'—a very real defence, but a defence that it takes an instructed eye to see; no obvious protection, palpable to the vulgar touch, and manifest to the sensuous eye, but something a great deal better than that—a real protection, through which we may be sure that nothing which is evil can ever pass.
Whatsoever does get over the encircling mountains, and reaches us, we may be sure, is not an evil but a very real good. Only we have to interpret the protection on the principles of faith, and not on those of sense. When, then, there come down upon us—as there do upon us all, thank God!—dark days, and sad days, and solitary days, and losses and bitternesses of a thousand kinds, do not let us falter in the belief that if we have our hearts set on God, nothing has come to us but what He has let through. Our sorrows are His angels, though their faces are dark, and though they bear a sword that flames and turns every way. It is hard to believe; it is certainly true, and if we could carry the confidence of it as a continual possession into our ordinary lives, they would be very different from what they are to-day.
III. And then, remember the other thing that I said. My text suggests that—
Simple trust in God, in some measure, assimilates the protected to the Protector.
The mountains girdle a mountain, and so my trust opens my heart to the entrance into my heart of something akin to God. As the Apostle Peter, in his brave way, is not afraid to say, it makes us 'partakers of the divine nature.' The immovableness of the trustful man is not all unlike the calmness of the trusted God; and the steadfastness of the one is a reflex of the unchangeableness of the other. We have not understood the meaning of faith, nor have we risen to the experience of its best effects upon ourselves, unless we understand that its great blessing and fruit, and the purpose for which we are commanded to cherish it, is that thereby we may become like Him in whom we trust. 'They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.' That is the key to the degradations that inhere in idolatrous worship, and that principle is true about all worship—as the god so is every one that trusteth in it. 'As the mountains are round about Mount Zion,' God is round about the people that are becoming Godlike.
IV. Mark further the significant repetition of the same expression in reference to the stability of the man protected and the continuance of the protection. Both are 'for ever'. That is to say, if it is true that God is round about me, and that, in some humble measure, my heart has been opening to be calmed and steadied by the influx of His own life, then His 'for ever' is my 'for ever,' and it cannot be that He should live and I should die. The guarantee of the eternal being of the trustful soul is the experience to-day of the reality of the divine protection. And thus we may face everything—life, death, whatsoever may come, assured that nothing touches the continuity and the perpetuity of the union between the trusting soul and the trusted God. 'The mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from thee; nor shall the covenant of My peace be removed, saith the Lord.' The earthquake comes. It shatters a continent and changes the face of nature; makes valleys where there were mountains, and mountains where there were vales, and open seas where there were fertile plains and covers everything with ruin and with rubbish. But there emerge from the cloudy and chaotic confusion the city perched on the hill and its encompassing heights. 'The world passeth away, and the fashion thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.'
THE CHARGE OF THE WATCHERS IN THE TEMPLE
'Behold, bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord, which by night stand in the House of the Lord. 2. Lift up your hands in the Sanctuary, and bless the Lord. 3. The Lord that made Heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.'—PSALM cxxxiv.
This psalm, the shortest but one in the whole Psalter, will be more intelligible if we observe that in the first part of it more than one person is addressed, and in the last verse a single person. It begins with 'Bless ye the Lord'; and the latter words are, 'The Lord bless thee.' No doubt, when used in the Temple service, the first part was chanted by one half of the choir, and the other part by the other. Who are the persons addressed in the first portion? The answer stands plain in the psalm itself. They are, 'All ye servants of the Lord, which by night stand in the House of the Lord.' That is to say, the priests or Levites whose charge it was to patrol the Temple through the hours of night and darkness, to see that all was safe and right there, and to do such other priestly and ministerial work as was needful; they are called upon to 'lift up their hands in'—or rather towards—'the Sanctuary, and to bless the Lord.'
The charge is given to these watching priests, these nightly warders, by some single person—we know not whom. Perhaps by the High Priest, perhaps by the captain of their band. They listen to the exhortation to praise, and answer, in the last words of this little psalm, by invoking a blessing on the head of the unnamed speaker who gave the charge. So we have in this antiphonal choral psalm a little snatch of musical ritual falling into two parts—the charge to the watchers and the answering invocation. We may find a good deal of practical teaching in it. Let us look, then, at this choral charge and the response to it.