The charge to the watchers.
We do not know what the office of these watchers was, but in the second Temple, to the period of which this psalm may possibly belong, their duties were carefully defined, and Rabbinical literature has preserved a minute account of the work of the nightly patrol.
According to the authorities, two hundred and forty priests and Levites were the nightly guard, distributed over twenty-one stations. The captain of the guard visited these stations throughout the night with flaming torches before him, and saluted each with 'Peace be unto thee.' If he found the sentinel asleep he beat him with his staff, and had authority to burn his cloak (which the drowsy guard had rolled up for a pillow). We all remember who warned His disciples to watch, lest coming suddenly He should find them asleep. We may remember, too, the blessing pronounced in the Apocalypse on 'Him who watcheth and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked.' Shortly before daybreak the captain of the guard came, as the Talmud says: 'All times were not equal. Sometimes he came at cockcrow, or near it, before or after it. He went to one of the posts where the priests were stationed, and opened a wicket which led into the court. Here the priests, who marched behind him torch in hand, divided into two companies which went one to the east, and one to the west, carefully ascertaining that all was well. When they met each company reported "It is peace." Then the duties of the watch were ended, and the priests who were to prepare for the daily sacrifice entered on their tasks.'
Our psalm may be the chant and answering chant with which the nightly charge was given over to the watchers, or it may be, as some commentators suppose, 'the call and counter-call with which the watchers greeted each other when they met.'
Figure then, to yourselves, the band of white-robed priests gathered in the court of the Temple, their flashing torches touching pillar and angle with strange light, the city sunk in silence and sleep, and ere they part to their posts the chant rung in their ears:—'Bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord which by night stand in the House of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the Sanctuary, and bless the Lord!'
Notice, then, that the priests' duty is to praise. It is because they are the servants of the Lord that, therefore, it is their business to bless the Lord. It is because they stand in the House of the Lord that it is theirs to bless the Lord. They who are gathered into His House, they who hold communion with Him, they who can feel that the gate of the Father's dwelling, like the gate of the Father's heart, is always open to them, they who have been called in from their wanderings in a homeless wilderness, and given a place and a name in His House better than of sons and daughters, have been so blessed in order that, filled with thanksgiving for such an entrance into God's dwelling and of such an adoption into His family, their silent lips may be filled with thanksgiving and their redeemed hands be uplifted in praise.
So for us Christians. We are servants of the Lord—His priests. That we 'stand in the House of the Lord' expresses not only the fact of our great privilege of confiding approach to Him and communion with Him, whereby we may ever abide in the very Holy of Holies and be in the secret place of the Most High, even while we are busy in the world, but it also points to our duty of ministering; for the word 'stand' is employed to designate the attendance of the priests in their office, and is almost equivalent to 'serve.' 'To bless the Lord,' then, is the work to which we are especially called. If we are made a 'royal priesthood,' it is that we 'should show forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light.' The purpose of that full horn of plenty, charged with blessings which God has emptied upon our heads, is that our dumb lips may be touched into thankfulness, because our selfish hearts have been wooed and charmed into love and life.
The Rabbis had a saying that there were two sorts of angels: the angels that served, and the angels that praised; of which, according to their teaching, the latter were the higher in degree. It was only a half-truth, for true service is praise.
But whatever the form in which praise may come, whether it be in the form of vocal thanksgiving, or whether it be the glad surrender of the heart, manifested in the conscious discharge of the most trivial duties, whether we 'lift up our hands in the Sanctuary, and bless the Lord' with them, or whether we turn our hands to the tools of our daily occupation and handle them for His sake, alike we maybe praising Him. And the thing for us to remember is that the place where we, if we are Christians, stand, and the character which we, if we are Christians, sustain, bind us to live blessing and praising Him whilst we live. 'Behold!'—as if He would point to all the crowded list of God's great mercies—'Bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord that ... stand in the house of the Lord.'
And then there is another point that comes out of this charge to the watchers, viz. the necessity of strenuously trying to unite together service of God and communion with God. These priests might have said—'When we go our rounds through the empty and echoing corridors of the dark Temple, we perform the charge which God gave us; and it needs not that we pray. We are working for Him and doing the work which He appointed us; and that is better than all external ritual.' But this unknown speaker who charges them knew better than that. The priests' service under the Old Covenant was very unspiritual service. Their work was sometimes very repulsive and always purely external work, which might be done without one trace of religion or devotion in it. And so the speaker here warns them, as it were, against the temptation which besets all men that are concerned in the outward service of the house of God, to confound the mere outward service with inward devotion. The charge bids us remember that the more sedulously our hands and thoughts are employed about the externals of religious duties, the more must we see to it that our inmost spirits are baptized into fellowship with God.
It is not enough to patrol the Temple courts unless we 'lift up our hands to the sanctuary,' and with our hearts 'bless the Lord.' And all we who in any degree and any department are officially or semi-officially connected with the work of the Christian Church have very earnestly and especially to lay this to heart. We ministers, deacons, Sunday-school teachers, tract distributors, have much need to take care that we do not confound watching in the courts of the Temple with lifting up our own hands and hearts to our Father that is in heaven; and remember that the more outward work we do, the more inward life we ought to have. The higher the stem of the tree grows and the broader its branches spread the deeper must strike and the wider must extend its underground roots, if it is not to be blown over and become a withered ruin.
And so all you Christian men and women! will you take the plain lesson that is here? All ye that stand ready for service, and doing service, all 'ye that stand in the house of the Lord, behold' your peril and your duty—and 'bless ye the Lord,' and remember that the more work the more prayer to keep it from rotting; the more effort the more communion; and that at the end we shall discover with alarm, and with shame confess 'I kept others' vineyards and my own vineyard have I not kept'; unless, like our Master, we prepare for a day of work and toil in the Temple by a night of quiet communion with our Father on the mountainside.
And then there is another lesson here which I only touch, and that is that all times are times for blessing God. 'Ye who by night stand in the house of the Lord, bless the Lord': so though no sacrifice was smoking on the altar, and no choral songs went up from the company of praising priests in the ritual service; and although the nightfall had silenced the worship and scattered the worshippers, yet some low murmur of praise would be echoing through the empty halls all the night long, and the voice of thanksgiving and of blessing would blend with the clank of the priests' feet on the marble pavements as they went their patrolling rounds; and their torches would send up a smoke not less acceptable than the wreathing columns of the incense that had filled the day. And so as in some convents you will find a monk kneeling on the steps of the altar at each hour of the four-and-twenty, adoring the Sacrament exposed upon it, so (but in inmost reality and not in a mere vulgar outside form that means nothing) in the Christian heart there should be a perpetual adoration and a continual praise—a prayer without ceasing. What is it that comes first of all into your minds when you wake in the middle of the night? Yesterday's business, to-morrow's vanities, or God's present love and your dependence upon Him?
In the night of sorrow, too, do our songs go up, and do we hear and obey the charge which commands not only perpetual adoration, but bids us fill the night with music and with praise? Well for us if it be, anticipating the time when 'they rest not day nor night saying, Holy! Holy! Holy!'
Now, that is the priests' charge. Look for a moment at the answering blessing: 'The Lord that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.'
'Thee?' Whom? Him who gave the solemn charge. Their obedience to it is implied in the blessing which the priests invoke on the head of the unnamed speaker. So they express their joyful consent to his charge, and their desires for his welfare whose clear voice has summoned them to their high duty and privilege. They obey, and their first prayer is a prayer for him.
May we venture to draw from this interchange of counsel and benediction a simple lesson as to the best form in which mutual goodwill and friendship may express itself? It is by the interchange of stimulus to God's service and praise, and of grateful prayer. He is my best friend who stirs me up to make my whole life a strong sweet song of thanksgiving to God for all His numberless mercies to me. Even if the exhortation becomes rebuke, faithful are such wounds. It is but a shallow affection which can be eloquent on other subjects of common interests, but is dumb on this, the deepest of all; which can counsel wisely and rebuke gently in regard to other matters, but has never a word to say to its dearest concerning duty to the God of all mercies.
And the true response to any loving exhortation to bless God, or any religious impulse which we receive from one another, is to invoke God's blessing on faithful lips that have given us counsel.
This is the best recompense to Christian teachers. If any poor words of ours have come to any of your hearts with power for conviction, or instruction, or encouragement, let your response be, I beseech you, 'The Lord that hath made heaven and earth bless thee.' We need your prayers. We are weak, often sad, often discouraged. We are tempted ever to handle God's truth professionally, instead of living on it for ourselves. We are tempted to think that our work is in vain, and to lose heart because we do not see the spiritual results which we would fain reap. And in many an hour of languor and despondency, when the wheels of life turn heavily and the sky seems very far away, and our message seems to have lost its grandeur and certainty to ourselves, and our handling of it looks as if it had been one long failure, then we need and may be helped by the voice of cheer coming through the night from those whom we have tried to counsel: 'The Lord that made heaven and earth bless thee.'
But observe, further, the two kinds of blessing which answer to one another—God's blessing of man, and man's blessing of God. The one is communicative, the other receptive and responsive. The one is the great stream which pours itself over the precipice; the other is the basin into which it falls and the showers of spray which rise from its surface, rainbowed in the sunshine, as the cataract of divine mercies comes down upon it. God blesses us when He gives. We bless God when we thankfully take, and praise the Giver. God's blessing then, must ever come first. 'We love Him because He first loved us.' Ours is but the echo of His, but the acknowledgment of the divine act, which must precede our recognition of it as the dawn must come in order that the birds may wake to sing.
Our highest service is to take the gifts of God, and with glad hearts to praise the Giver.
Our blessings are but words. God's blessings are realities. We wish good to one another when we bless each other. But He does good to men when He blesses them. Our wishes may be deep and warm, but, alas! how ineffectual. They flutter round the heads of those whom we would bless, but how seldom do they actually rest upon their brows. But God's blessings are powers. They never miss their mark. Whom He blesses are blessed indeed.
That experience of the ineffectual emptiness of blessings from the most loving hearts gives point to the emphatic designation here of 'the Lord which made heaven and earth,' a formula which is common in this connection. It brings before the eye of faith the mighty Name, and the mighty work of Him in whose blessing we shall be rich. He is the Lord, the Eternal and the Covenant King. He has made heaven and earth. If He who lives above all limitations of time, the Source of life, who has the fulness of life in Himself, He who has revealed Himself to Israel and bound Himself to fulfil His covenant with all who plead it, He whose sovereign effortless power willed and spake into being the azure deeps of heaven with all its stars, and the solid earth with its tribes—if He, with such infinite resources to bestow on us as we need, if He blesses us, it will be with no vain wishes nor with the invoking of the goodwill of a higher power, but with the veritable communication of good, and we shall be blessed indeed.
Observe, too, the channel through which God's blessings come—'out of Zion.' For the Jew, the fulness of divine glory dwelt between the Cherubim, and the richest of the divine blessings were bestowed on the waiting worshippers there, and no doubt it is still true that God dwells in Zion, and blesses men from thence. The New Testament analogue to the Old Testament Temple is no outward building. That would be absurd confusing of the very nature of type and antitype. A material type must have a spiritual fulfilment. A rite cannot correspond to a rite, nor a building to a building. But the correspondence in Christianity to the Temple where God dwelt, and from which He scattered His blessings is twofold—one proper and original, the other secondary and derived. In the true sense, Jesus Christ is the Temple. In Him God dwelt; in Him, man meets God; in Him was the place of revelation; in Him the place of sacrifice. 'In this place is one greater than the Temple,' and the abiding of Jehovah above the mercy-seat was but a material symbol, shadowing and foretelling the true indwelling of all the fulness of the Godhead bodily in that true Tabernacle which the Lord hath pitched and not man. So the great fountain of all possible good and benediction which was opened for the believing Jew in 'Zion,' is opened for us in Jesus Christ who stood in the very court of the Temple, and called in tones of clear, loud invitation: 'If any man thirst let him come unto Me and drink.' We may each pass through the rent veil into the holiest of all, and there, laying our hand on Jesus, touch God, and opening our empty palm extended to Him, can receive from Him all the blessing that we need.
There is another application of the Temple symbol in the New Testament—a derivative and secondary one—to the Church, that is, to the aggregate of believers. In it God dwells through Christ. Receiving His Spirit, instinct with His life, it is His Body, and as in His earthly life 'He spake of the Temple of His "literal" body,' so now that Church becomes the Temple of God, being builded through the ages. In that Zion all God's best blessings are possessed and stored, that the Church may, by faithful service, impart them to the world. Whosoever desires to possess these blessings must enter thither—not by any ceremonial act, or outward profession, but by becoming one of those who put their whole heart's confidence in Jesus Christ. Within that sacred enclosure we receive whatever divine love and power can give. If we are knit to Christ by our faith, we share in proportion to our faith in all the wealth of blessing with which God has blessed Him. We possess Christ and in Him all. The ancient benediction, which came from the lips of the priestly watchers, and rang through the empty corridors of the darkened Temple, asked for much: 'The Lord who made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.' But the Apostolic assurance sounds a yet deeper and more wonderful note of confidence when it proclaims that already, however to ourselves we may seem sad and needy, and however little we may have counted our treasures or made them our own, 'God hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.'
GOD'S SCRUTINY LONGED FOR
'Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; 24. And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.'—PSALM cxxxix. 23, 24.
This psalm begins with perhaps the grandest contemplation of the divine Omniscience that was ever put into words. It is easy to pour out platitudes upon such a subject, but the Psalmist does not content himself with generalities. He gathers all the rays, as it were, into one burning point, and focusses them upon himself: 'Oh, Lord! Thou hast searched me, and known me.' All the more remarkable, then, is it that the psalm should end with asking God to do what it began with declaring that He does. He knows us each, altogether; whether we like it or not, whether we try to hinder it or not, whether we remember it or not. Singular, therefore, is it to find this prayer as the very climax of all the Psalmist's contemplation. It is more than the 'searching' which was spoken of at the beginning, which is desired at the end. It is a process which has for its issue the cleansing of all the evil that is beheld. The prayer of the text is in fact the yearning of the devout soul for purity. I simply wish to consider the series of petitions here, in the hope that we may catch something of their spirit, and that some faint echo of them may sound in our desires. My purpose, then, will be best accomplished if I follow the words of the text, and look at these petitions in the order in which they stand.
I. Note then, first, the longing for the searching of God's eye.
Now, the word which is here rendered 'search' is a very emphatic and picturesque one. It means to dig deep. God is prayed, as it were, to make a cutting into the man, and lay bare his inmost nature, as men do in a railway cutting, layer after layer, going ever deeper down till the bed-rock is reached. 'Search me'—dig into me, bring the deep-lying parts to light—'and know my heart'; the centre of my personality, my inmost self. That is the prayer, not of fancied fitness to stand investigation, but of lowly acknowledgment. In other words, it is really a form of confession. 'Search me. I know Thou wilt find evil, but still—search me!' It seems to me that there are two main ideas in this petition, on each of which I touch briefly.
One is, that it is a glad recognition of a fact which is very terrible to many hearts. The conception of God as 'knowing me altogether,' down to the very roots of my being, is either the most blessed or the most unwelcome thought, according to my conception of what His heart to me is. If I think of Him, as so many of us do, as simply the 'austere man' who 'gathers where he did not straw,' and 'reaps where he did not sow'; if my thought of God is mainly that of an Investigator and a Judge, with pure eyes and rigid judgment, then I shall be more ignorant of myself, and more confident in myself, than the most of men are when they bethink themselves, if I do not feel that I shrink up like a sensitive plant's leaf when a finger touches it, and would fain curl myself together, and hide from His eye something that I know lurks and poisons at the centre of my being.
The gaoler's eye at the slit in the wall of the solitary prisoner's cell is a constant terror to the man who knows that it may be upon him at every moment, and does not know where the eyehole is, or when the merciless eye may be at it, but if we love one another we do not shrink from opening out our inward baseness to each other. We can venture to tell those that are dear to us as our own hearts the things that lie in our own hearts and make them black and ugly in all eyes but love's; or if we cannot venture to do it wholly, at all events we do it more fully, and more willingly, and with more of something that is almost pleasure in the very act of confession, in proportion as we are bound by the sacred ties of love to the recipient of the confession. There is a joy, and a blessedness deeper than joy, in discovering ourselves, even our unworthy selves, when we know that the eye that looks is a loving eye.
If, then, we have rightly conceived of our relation to Him, that infinite Lover of all our hearts, who looks, 'with other eyes than ours, and makes allowance for us all,' there will be a certain blessedness, almost like joy, in turning ourselves inside out before Him; and in feeling that every corner of our hearts lies naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. 'Search me, O God!' is the voice of confident love, which is sure of the love that contemplates the sinner.
And for us Christian people, to whom all these attributes of Deity are gathered together and brought very near our hearts and our experiences in the person of our Brother Christ, the thought of such knowledge of us becomes still more blessed. Just as the Apostle who was conscious of many sins, could say to his Master, not in petulance, but in deeply-moved confidence, 'Thou knowest all things! Why dost Thou ask me questions? Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest, notwithstanding my denials, that I love Thee,' so may we turn to Jesus Christ, who knows what is in men, and who knows each man, and may be sure that the eye which looks upon our unworthiness pities our sinfulness, and is ready to bear it all away. There is a deeper gladness in pouring out our hearts to our loving Lord than in locking them in sullen silence, with the vain conceit that we thereby hide ourselves from Him. Make a clean breast of your evil, and you will find that the act has in it a blessedness all unique and poignant. 'Pour out your hearts before Him, O ye people! God is a refuge for us.'
This prayer is also an expression of absolute willingness to submit to the searching process. God is represented in my text as searching the secrets of a man's heart, not that God may know, but that the man may know. By His Spirit He will come into the innermost corners of our nature, if this prayer is a real expression of our desire, and there the illumination of His presence will flash light into all the dark places of our experience and of our natures. We cannot afford to be in ignorance of these. Pestilence breathes in the unventilated, unlighted, uncleansed recesses of a neglected nature. It is only on condition of the light of God's convincing Spirit being cast into every part of our being that we shall be able to overcome and annihilate the creeping swarms of microscopic sins that are there, minute but mighty in their myriads to destroy a man's soul. 'Search me' is the expression of a penitence that knows itself to be full of evil, that does not know all the evil of which it is full, that needs enlightenment, that desires deliverance, that is sure of the love that looks, and that so spreads itself, as a bleacher spreads some piece of stained cloth in the gracious sunshine and sprinkles it with the pure water of heaven that all the stains may melt away.
It is useless to ask God to search us if we lock our hearts against His searching. The mere natural exercise, if I may so say, of the divine attribute of Omniscience we cannot hinder. He knows us thereby altogether, whether we like it or not; but the 'searching' of my text is one which He cannot put in force without our consent. We have to confess our sins unto the Lord ere this kind of divine scrutiny can be brought to bear. By His natural Omniscience, He knows them altogether, but the seeing which is preparatory to destroying them depends on our willingness to submit ourselves to the often painful process by which He drags our sins to light. Do you want Him to come and search your hearts, and tell you in your spirits what He has found there? Do you desire to know your hidden evil? Then keep close to Him, and tell Him what the sin is which you know to be sin; and ask Him to show you what the sins are which, as yet, you have not grown up to the height of understanding and acknowledging.
II. Next, there follows the longing for the divine testing of our thoughts.
Now you will have observed, I suppose, that in the second clause of my text, 'try me, and know my thoughts' the result of the investigation is somewhat different from that of the previous clause. The 'searching' issued in a divine knowledge of the heart; the 'trying,' or testing, issues in a divine knowledge of the thoughts. The distinction between these two, in the Biblical use of the expressions, is not precisely the same as in our modern popular speech. We are accustomed to talk of the heart as being the seat of emotions, affections, feelings, whereas we relegate thoughts to the head. But Scripture does not quite take that metaphorical view. In it the heart is the centre of personal being, and out of it there come, not only emotions and loves, but 'thoughts and intents.' The difference, then, between these two, 'heart' and 'thoughts' is this, the one is the workshop and the other is the product. The heart is the place where the thoughts are elaborated. So you see the process of the Psalmist's prayer is from the centre a little outwards, first the inmost self, and then the 'thoughts,' meaning thereby the whole web of activities, both intellectual and emotional, of which the heart, in his sense of the word, is the seat and source. In like manner as the field of investigation is somewhat shifted in the second petition, so the manner of investigation is correspondingly different. 'Search' is the divine scrutiny of the inner man by the eye; 'test' is the trial as metals are tried and proved by the fiery furnace.
So, then, the innermost man is searched by the divine knowledge, and the thoughts which the innermost man produces are tested by the divine providence. And our second petition is for a trial by facts, by external agencies, of the true nature and character of the purposes, desires, designs, intentions, as well as of the affections and loves and joys. That is to say, this second prayer submits absolutely to any discipline, fiery and fierce and bitter, by which the true character of a man's activities may be made clear to himself. Oh! it is a prayer easily offered; hard to stand by. It is a prayer often answered in ways that drive us almost to despair. It means, 'Do anything with me, put me into any seven-fold heated furnace of sorrow, do anything that will melt my hardness, and run off my dross, which Thy great ladle will then skim away, that the surface may be clear, and the substance without alloy.'
Do you pray that prayer, brother! knowing all that it means, and being willing to take the answer, in forms that may rack your heart, and sadden your whole lives? If you are wise, you will. Better to go crippled into life than, 'having two hands or two feet, to be cast into hell fire'! Better to be saved though maimed, than to be entire and lost.
'Try me.' It is an awful prayer. Let us not offer it lightly, or unadvisedly; but if we are wise let it be our inmost desire. And when the answer comes, and sorrows fall, do not let us murmur, do not let us kick, do not let us wonder, but let us say, 'Thou art a God that hearest prayer,' and 'I will glorify God in the fires.' Then 'the trial of your faith being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, shall be found unto praise and honour and glory.'
III. The next petition of my text is a longing for the casting out of evil.
'See if there be any wicked way in me.' Now, that if is not the 'if' of doubt whether any such 'ways' are in the man, but it is the 'if' of consciousness that there are such, though what they are he may not clearly discern. And so, it is the 'if' of humility—knowing that he is not justified because he knows nothing against himself—and not the 'if' of presumption.
I have only time to observe here, in a word or two, what would well deserve more expanded treatment, and that is, the very striking and significant expression here employed for this evil way that the Psalmist desires to be detected, that it may be cast out. The word rendered 'wicked'—or more properly, wickedness—is literally 'forced labour,' which was, in old times, and still is in some countries, laid upon the inhabitants at the command of authority; and then, because forced labour is grievous labour, it comes to mean sorrow. So the 'way of wickedness' that the Psalmist feels is in him is the way of compulsory service, and the way that leads to sorrow. That is to say, all sin is slavery, and all sin leads to a bitter and a bad end, and its fruit is death. And so, because the man feels that his better self is in bondage, and shudderingly apprehends that the courses which he pursues can only end in bitterness and misery, he turns to God and asks Him that He would enlighten him as to what these fatal courses are. 'See if there be any way of wickedness in me,' because he is quite sure that the evil which God sees, God will help him to overcome.
Ah, friends! we all have such ways deeply lodged within us, and we do not always know that we have; but if we will turn ourselves to Him, He will prevent our 'condemning ourselves in things that we allow' and increasing the sensitiveness of our consciences, He will teach us that many things that we did not know to be wrong are harmful.
As soon as we learn that they are, He will help us to cast them out. God has nothing to do with our evil but to fight against it. Be sure of this, that whatsoever evil in us He thus searches and shows us. He does so in order to fling it from us. He goes down into the cellars of our hearts, with the candle of His Spirit in His hand, in order that He may lay hold of all the explosives there, and having drenched them so that they shall not catch fire, may cast them clean out so that they may not blow us to destruction.
IV. The last petition of my text is for guidance in 'the everlasting way.'
The 'ways of wickedness' are in us; the 'way everlasting' we need to be led into. That is to say, naturally we incline to evil; it must be the divine hand and the divine Spirit that lead our feet in the paths of righteousness. When we ask Him to 'guide us in the way everlasting,' we ask that we may know what is duty, and that we may incline to do it. And He answers it by the gift of His divine Spirit, by the quickening of our consciences, by bringing nearer to our hearts the great Example who has left us His footsteps as a legacy that we may tread in them.
Whosoever walks in Christ's footsteps is walking in 'the way everlasting,' for that path is rightly so named which leads to eternal blessedness. It is everlasting, too, inasmuch as nothing of human effort or work abides except that which is in conformity with the will of God, and inasmuch as it, and it alone, is not broken short off by death, but runs, borne upon one mighty arch that spans the gorge, clean across the black abyss, and continues straight on in the same course, only with a swifter upward gradient, through all the ages of eternity. The man who here has lived for God will live yonder as he has lived here, only more completely and more joyously for ever. 'A highway shall be there, and a way, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs, and everlasting joy upon their heads.'
THE INCENSE OF PRAYER
'Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.'—PSALM cxli. 2.
The place which this psalm occupies in the Psalter, very near its end, makes it probable that it is considerably later in date than the prior portions of the collection. But the Psalmist, who here penetrates to the inmost meaning of the symbolic sacrificial worship of the Old Testament, was not helped to his clear-sightedness by his date, but by his devotion. For throughout the Old Testament you find side by side these two trends of thought—a scrupulous carefulness for the observance of all the requirements of ritual worship, and a clear-eyed recognition that it was all external and symbolical and prophetic. Who was it that said 'Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams'? Samuel, away back in the times when many scholars tell us that the loftier conceptions of worship had not yet emerged. Similar utterances are scattered throughout the Old Testament, and the prominence given to the more spiritual side depends not on the speaker's date but on his disposition and devotion. So here this Psalmist, because his soul was filled with true longings after God, passes clear through the externals and says, 'Here am I with no incense, but I have brought my prayer. I am empty-handed, but because my hands are empty, I lift them up to Thee; and Thou dost accept them, as if they were—yea, rather than if they were—filled with the most elaborate and costly sacrifices.'
So here are two thoughts suggested, which sound mere commonplace, but if we realised them, in our religious life, that life would be revolutionised; first, the incense of prayer; second, the sacrifice of the empty-handed. Let us look at these two points.
I. The Incense of Prayer. 'Let my prayer come before Thee as incense.'
Now, that symbol of incense is thus used in many places in Scripture. I need only remind you of one or two instances. You remember how, when the father of John the Baptist went into the Holy Place, as was his priestly duty at the time of the offering of the evening oblation, the whole multitude were in the Outer Court praying; he in the Inner Court, presenting the symbolical worship, and they, without, offering the real. Then, if we turn to the grand imagery of the Book of the Revelation, where we find the heavenly temple opened up to our reverent gaze, we read that the elders, the representatives of redeemed humanity, have 'golden bowls full of odours, which are the prayers of the saints.' So there is no fancifulness in interpreting the incense of the ancient ritual as meaning simply the prayers of devout hearts. Of course there has been a great deal of nonsense talked about the symbolical signification of these Old Testament rites, and there is need for sober sense to put the rein upon a vivid imagination in interpreting these; still clear utterances of Scripture as well as this verse itself remove all need for hesitation to accept this meaning of the symbol.
Now, let me remind you of the place which the Altar of Incense occupied. The Temple was divided into three courts, the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Holiest of All. The Altar of Incense stood in the second of these, the Holy Place; the Altar of Burnt Offering stood in the court without. It was not until that Altar, with its expiatory sacrifice, had been passed, that one could enter into the Holy Place, where the Altar of Incense stood. There were three pieces of furniture in that Place, the Altar of Incense, the Golden Candlestick, and the Table of the Shewbread. Of these three, the Altar of Incense stood in the centre. Twice a day the incense was kindled upon it by a priest, by means of live coals brought from the Altar of Burnt Offering in the Outer Court, and, thus kindled, the wreaths of fragrant smoke ascended on high. All day long the incense smouldered upon the altar; twice a day it was kindled into a bright flame.
Now, if we take these things with us, we can understand a little more of the depth and beauty of this prayer, and see how much it tells us of what we, as the priests of the most High God—which we are, if we are Christian people at all—ought to have in our censers.
I need not dwell upon the careful and sedulous preparation from pure spices which went to the making of the incense. So we have to prepare ourselves by sedulous purity if there is to be any life or power in our devotions. But I pass from that, and ask you to think of the lovely picture of true devoutness given in that inflamed incense, wreathing in coils of fragrance up to the heavens. Prayer is more than petition. It is the going up of the whole soul towards God. Brother! do you know anything of that instinctive and spontaneous rising up of desire and aspiration and faith and love, up and up and up, until they reach Him? Do you realise that just in the measure in which we set our minds as well as our affections, and our affections as well as our minds, on the things which are above, just to that extent, and not one hairsbreadth further, have we the right to call ourselves Christians at all? I fear me that for the great mass of Christian professors the great bulk of their lives creeps along the low levels like the mists in winter, that hug the marshes instead of rising, swirling up like an incense cloud, impelled by nothing but the fire in the censer up and up towards God. Let us each ask the question for himself, Is my prayer 'directed'—as is the true meaning of the Hebrew word—'before Thee as incense'?
Remember, too, that the incense lay dead, unfragrant, and with no capacity of soaring, till it was kindled; that is to say, unless there is a flame in my heart there will be no rising of my aspirations to God. Cold prayers do not go up more than a foot or two above the ground; they have no power to soar. There must be the inflaming before there can be the mounting of the aspiration. You cannot get a balloon to go up unless the gas within it is warmer than the atmosphere round it. It is because we are habitually such tepid Christians that we are so tongue-tied in prayer.
Where was the incense kindled from? From coals brought from the Altar of Burnt Offering in the outer court; that is to say, light the fire in your heart with a coal brought from Christ's sacrifice, and then it will flame; and only then will love well upwards and desires be set on the things above. The beginning of Christian fervour lies in the habitual realising as a fact of the great love which 'loved me and gave itself for me.' There is no patent way of getting a vivid Christian experience except the old way of clinging close to Jesus Christ the Saviour; and in order to do that, we have to think about Him, as well as to feel about Him, a great deal more than I fear the most of us do.
Further, does not this lovely symbol of my text suggest to us a glorious thought, the acceptableness even of our poor prayers, if they come from hearts inflamed with love because of Christ's great redeeming love? The Psalmist, thinking humbly of himself and of the worth of anything that he can bring, says, 'Let my prayer come before Thee as incense,' an 'odour of a sweet smell, acceptable to God'; yes, even our prayers will be sweet to Him if they are prayers of true aspiration and mounting faith, leaping from a kindled heart, kindled at the great flame of Christ's love.
Were you ever in a Roman Catholic cathedral? Did you ever see there the little boys that carry the censers, swinging them backwards and forwards every now and then, and by means of the silver chains lifting the covers? What is that for? Because the incense would go out unless the air was let into it. So a constant effort is needed in order to keep the incense of our prayers alight. We have to swing the censer to get rid of the things that make our hearts cold; we have to stir the fire, and only so shall we keep up our devotion. Remember the incense burned all day long on the altar; though perhaps but smouldering, like the banked-up fires in the furnaces of a steamer that lies at anchor, still the glow was there; and twice a day there came the priest with his pan full of fresh glowing coals from the altar in the Outer Court, and kindled it up into a flame once more. Which things are thus far an allegory that our devotion is to be diffused throughout our lives in a lambent glow, and if it is, it will have to be fed by special acts of worship day by day.
You hear people talk of not caring about times and seasons of prayer, and of the beauty of making all life a prayer. Amen! I say so too. But depend upon it that there will never be devotion diffused through life unless there is devotion concentrated at points in the life. There must be reservoirs as well as pipes in order to supply the water through the whole city. So the incense is perpetually to be heaped on the Altar of Incense, but also it is to be stirred to a fragrant blaze and fed, morning and evening, by fresh coals from the altar.
II. Now let me say a word about the other thought here—the sacrifice of the empty-handed.
'The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.' In accordance with the genius of Hebrew poetry the same general idea is repeated in the second member of the parallelism, but with modifications. What is implied in likening the uplifted empty hands to the evening sacrifice? First, it is a confession of impotent emptiness, a lifting up of expectant hands to be filled with the gift from God. And, says this Psalmist, 'Because I bring nothing in my hand, Thou dost accept me, as if I came laden with offerings.' That is just a picturesque way of putting a familiar, threadbare truth, which, threadbare as it is, needs to be laid to heart a great deal more by us, that our true worship and truest honour of God lies not in giving but in taking. 'He is not worshipped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, seeing that He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.' That one truth, Paul felt on Mars Hill, was sure enough to make all the temples and statues by which he was surrounded crumble into nothingness. But it does not merely destroy idolatry. It cuts up by the root much of what we call Christian worship. How many people worship because they think they ought? How many people talk about Christian worship as being a duty—'Our duty we have now performed'? How many have never had a glimpse of this thought, that God wills us to draw near to Him, not because it pleases Him but because it blesses us, and that we are to worship, not in order that we may bring anything, either the sacrifices of bulls and goats, or the more refined ones that we bring nowadays, but in order that, bringing our emptiness into touch with His infinite fulness, as much of that fulness as we need to make us full, and as much of that blessedness as we need to make us blessed, may pass into our lives. Oh! if we understand 'the giving God,' as James calls Him in his letter; and if we had learned the old lesson of that fiftieth Psalm, 'If I were hungry I would not tell thee.... Will I eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats? He that offereth praise glorifieth Me, and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I show the salvation of God'—if we had learned that, and laid it to heart, and applied it to our own worship and our lives, mountains of misconception would be lifted away from many hearts. In our service we do not need to bring any merit of our own. This great principle destroys not only the gross externalities of heathen sacrifice, and the notion that worship is a duty, but it destroys the other notion of our having to bring anything to deserve God's gifts. And so it is an encouragement to us when we feel ourselves to be what we are, and what we should always feel ourselves to be, empty-handed, coming to Him not only with hearts that aspire like incense, but with petitions that confess our need, and cast ourselves upon His grace. See that you desire what God wishes to give; see that you go to Him for what He does give. See that you give to Him the only thing that He does wish, or that it lies in your power to give, and that is yourself.
Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy Cross I cling.
'Let the lifting of my hands be as the evening sacrifice'; as the Psalmist has it in another place, 'What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits?'—it is not a question of rendering, but 'I will take the cup of salvation.' Taking is our truest worship, and the lifting up of empty, expectant hands is, in God's sight, as the evening sacrifice.
THE PRAYER OF PRAYERS
'Teach me to do Thy will; for Thou art my God! Thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness.'—PSALM cxliii. 10.
These two clauses mean substantially the same thing. The Psalmist's longings are expressed in the first of them in plain words, and in the second in a figure. 'To do God's will' is to be in 'the land of uprightness.' That phrase, in its literal application, means a stretch of level country, and hence is naturally employed as an emblem of a moral or religious condition. A life of obedience to the will of God is likened to some far stretching plain, easy to traverse, broken by no barren mountains or frowning cliffs, but basking, peaceful and fruitful, beneath the smile of God. Into such a garden of the Lord the Psalmist prays to be led.
In each case his prayer is based upon a motive or plea. 'Thou art my God'; his faith apprehends a personal bond between him and God, and feels that that bond obliges God to teach him His will. If we adopt the reading in our Bibles of our second clause a still deeper and more wonderful plea is presented there. 'Thy Spirit is good,' and therefore the trusting spirit has a right to ask to be made good likewise. The relation of the believing spirit to God not only obliges God to teach it His will, but to make it partaker of His own image and conformed to His own purity. So high on wings of faith and desire soared this man, who, at the beginning of his psalm, was crushed to the dust by enemies and by dangers. So high we may rise by like means.
I. Notice, then, first, the supreme desire of the devout soul.
We do not know who wrote this psalm. The superscription says that it was David's, and although its place in the Psalter seems to suggest another author, the peculiar fervour and closeness of intimacy with God which breathes through it are like the Davidic psalms, and seem to confirm the superscription. If so, it will naturally fall into its place with the others which were pressed from his heart by the rebellion of Absalom. But be that as it may, whosoever wrote the psalm, was a man in extremest misery and peril, and as he says of himself, 'persecuted,' 'overwhelmed,' 'desolate.' The tempest blows him to the Throne of God, and when he is there, what does he ask? Deliverance? Scarcely. In one clause, and again at the end, as if by a kind of after-thought, he asks for the removal of the calamities. But the main burden of his prayer is for a closer knowledge of God, the sound of His lovingkindness in his inward ear, light to show him the way wherein he should walk, and the sweet sunshine of God's face upon his heart. There is a better thing to ask than exemption from sorrows, even grace to bear them rightly. The supreme desire of the devout soul is practical conformity to the will of God. For the prayer of our text is not 'Teach me to know Thy will.' The Psalmist, indeed, has asked that in a previous clause—'Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk.' But knowledge is not all that we need, and the gulf between knowledge and practice is so deep that after we have prayed that we may be caused to know the way, and have received the answer, there still remains the need for God's help that knowledge may become life, and that all which we understand we may do. To such practical conformity to the will of God all other aspects of religion are meant to be subservient.
Christianity is a revelation of truth, but to accept it as such is not enough. Christianity brings to me exemption from punishment, escape from hell, deliverance from condemnation and guilt, and by some of us, that is apt to be regarded as the whole Gospel; but pardon is only a means to an end. Christianity brings to us the possibility of indulgence in sweet and blessed emotions, and a fervour of feeling which to experience is the ante-past of heaven, and for some of us, all our religion goes off in vaporous emotion; but feeling alone is not Christianity. Our religion brings to us sweet and gracious consolations, but it is a poor affair if we only use it as an anodyne and a comfort. Our Christianity brings to us glorious hopes that flash lustre into the darkness, and make the solitude of the grave companionship, and the end of earth the beginning of life, but it is a poor affair if the mightiest operation of our religion be relegated to a future, and flung on to the close. All these things, the truth which the Gospel brings, the pardon and peace of conscience which it ensures, the joyful emotion which it sets loose from the ice of indifference, the sweet consolations with which it pillows the weary head and bandages the bleeding heart, and the great hopes which flash light into glazing eyes, and make the end glorious with the rays of a beginning, and the western heaven bright with the promise of a new day—all these things are but subservient means to this highest purpose, that we should do the will of God, and be conformed to His image. They whose religion has not reached that apex have yet to understand its highest meaning. The river of the water of life that proceeds from the Throne of God and the Lamb is not sent merely to refresh thirsty lips, and to bring music into the silence of a waterless desert, but it is sent to drive the wheels of life. Action, not thought, is the end of God's revelation, and the perfecting of man.
But, then, let us remember that we shall most imperfectly apprehend the whole sweep and blessedness of this great supreme aim of the devout soul, if we regard this doing of God's will as merely the external act of obedience to an external command. Simple doing is not enough; the deed must be the fruit of love. The aim of the Christian life is not obedience to a law that is recognised as authoritative, but joyful moulding of ourselves after a law that is felt to be sweet and loving. 'I delight to do Thy will, yea! Thy law is within my heart.' Only when thus the will yields itself in loving and glad conformity to the will of God is true obedience possible for us. Brother! is that your Christianity? Do you desire, more than anything besides, that what He wills you should will, and that His law should be stamped upon your hearts, and all your rebellious desires and purposes should be brought into a sweet captivity which is freedom, and an obedience to Christ which is kingship over the universe and yourselves?
II. Note, secondly, the divine teaching and touch which are required for this conformity.
The Psalmist betakes himself to prayer, because he knows that of himself he cannot bring his will into this attitude of harmonious submission. And his prayer for 'teaching' is deepened in the second clause of our text into a petition, which is substantially the same in meaning, but yet sets the felt need and the coveted help in a still more striking light, in its cry for the touch of God's good spirit to guide, as by a hand grasping the Psalmist's hand, into the paths of obedience.
We may learn from this prayer, then, that practical conformity to God's will can never be attained by our own efforts. Remember all the hindrances that rise between us and it; these wild passions of ours, this obstinate gravitating of tastes and desires towards earth, these animal necessities, these spiritual perversities, which make up so much of us all—how can we coerce these into submission? Our better selves sit within like some prisoned king, surrounded and 'fooled by the rebel powers' of his revolted subjects; and our best recourse is to send an embassy to the Over-lord, the Sovereign King, praying Him to come to our help. We cannot will to will as God wills, but we can turn ourselves to Him, and ask Him to put the power within us which shall subdue the evil, conquer the rebels, and make us masters of our own else anarchic and troubled spirits. For all honest attempts to make the will of God our wills, the one secret of success is confident and continual appeal to Him. A man must have gone a very little way, very superficially and perfunctorily, on the path of seeking to make himself what he ought to be, unless he has found out that he cannot do it, and unless he has found out that there is only one way to do it, and that is to go to God and say, 'O Lord! I am baffled and beaten. I put the reins into Thy hand; do Thou inspire and direct and sanctify.'
That practical conformity to the will of God requires divine teaching, but yet that teaching must be no outward thing. It is not enough that we should have communicated to us, as from without, the clearest knowledge of what we ought to be. There must be more than that. Our Psalmist's prayer was a prophecy. He said, 'Teach me to do Thy will.' And he thought, no doubt, of an inward teaching which should mould his nature as well as enlighten it; of the communication of impulses as well as of conceptions; of something which should make him love the divine will, as well as of something which should make him know it.
You and I have Jesus Christ for our Teacher, the answer to the psalm. His teaching is inward and deep and real, and answers to all the necessities of the case. We have His example to stand as our perfect law. If we want to know what is God's will, we have only to turn to that life; and however different from ours His may have been in its outward circumstances, and however fragmentary and brief its records in the Gospels may sometimes seem to us, yet in these little booklets, telling of the quiet life of the carpenter's Son, there is guidance for every man and woman in all circumstances, however complicated, and we do not need anything more to teach us what God's will is than the life of Jesus Christ. His teaching goes deeper than example. He comes into our hearts, He moulds our wills. His teaching is by inward impulses and communications of desire and power to do, as well as of light to know. A law has been given which can give life. As the modeller will take a piece of wax into his hand, and by warmth and manipulation make it soft and pliable, so Jesus Christ, if we let Him, will take our hard hearts into His hands, and by gentle, loving, subtle touches, will shape them into the pattern of His own perfect beauty, and will mould all their vagrant inclinations and aberrant distortions into 'one immortal feature of loveliness and perfection.' 'The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared unto all men teaching that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly,' controlling ourselves, 'righteously,' fulfilling all our obligations to our fellows, 'and godly,' referring everything to Him, 'in this present world.'
That practical conformity to the divine will requires, still further, the operation of the divine Spirit as our Guide. 'Thy Spirit is good lead me into the land of uprightness.' There is only one power that can draw us out of the far-off land of rebellious disobedience, where the prodigals and the swine's husks and the famine and the rags are, into the 'land of uprightness,' and that is, the communicated Spirit of God, which is given to all them that desire Him, and will lead them in paths of righteousness for His name's sake. It is He that works in us, the willing and the doing, according to His own good pleasure. 'He shall guide you,' said the Master, 'into all truth'—not merely into its knowledge, but into its performance, not merely into truth of conception, but into truth of practice, which is righteousness, and the fulfilling of the Law.
III. Lastly, note the divine guarantee that this practical conformity shall be ours.
The Psalmist pleads with God a double motive—His relation to us and His own perfectness, 'Thou art my God; therefore teach me.' 'Thy Spirit is good; therefore lead me into the land of uprightness.' I can but glance for a moment at these two pleas of the prayer.
Note, then, first, God's personal relation to the devout soul, as the guarantee that that soul shall be taught, not merely to know, but also to do His will. If He be 'my God,' there can be no deeper desire in His heart, than that His will should be my will. And this He desires, not from any masterfulness or love of dominion, but only from love to us. If He be my God, and therefore longing to have me obedient, He will not withhold what is needed to make me so. God is no hard Taskmaster who sets us to make bricks without straw. Whatsoever He commands He gives, and His commandments are always second and His gifts first. He bestows Himself and then He says, 'For the love's sake, do My will.' Be sure that the sacred bond which knits us to Him is regarded by Him, the faithful Creator, as an obligation which He recognises and respects and will discharge. We have a right to go to Him and to say to Him, 'Thou art my God; and Thou wilt not be what Thou art, nor do what Thou hast pledged Thyself to do, unless Thou makest me to know and to do Thy will.'
And on the other hand, if we have taken Him for ours, and have the bond knit from our side as well as from His, then the fact of our faith gives us a claim on Him which He is sure to honour. The soul that can say, 'I have taken Thee for mine,' has a hold on God which God is only too glad to recognise and to vindicate. And whoever, humbly trusting to that great Father in the heavens, feels that he belongs to God, and that God belongs to him, is warranted in praying, 'Teach me, and make me, to do Thy will,' and in being confident of an answer.
And there is the other plea with Him and guarantee for us, drawn from God's own moral character and perfectness. The last clause of my text may either be read as our Bible has it, 'Thy Spirit is good; lead me,' or 'Let Thy good Spirit lead me.' In either case the goodness of the divine Spirit is the plea on which the prayer is grounded. The goodness here referred to is, as I take it, not merely beneficence and kindliness, but rather goodness in its broader and loftier sense of perfect moral purity. So that the thought just comes to this—we have the right to expect that we shall be made participant of the divine nature for so sweet, so deep, so tender is the tie that knits a devout soul to God, that nothing short of conformity to the perfect purity of God can satisfy the aspirations of the creature, or discharge the obligations of the Creator.
It is a daring thought. The Psalmist's desire was a prophecy. The New Testament vindicates and fulfils it when it says 'We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.' Since He now dwells in 'the land of uprightness,' who once dwelt among us in this weary world of confusion and of sin, then we one day shall be with Him. Christ's heart cannot be satisfied, Christ's Cross cannot be rewarded, the divine nature cannot be at rest, the purpose of redemption cannot be accomplished, until all who have trusted in Christ be partakers of divine purity, and all the wanderers be led by devious and yet by right paths, by crooked and yet by straight ways, by places rough and yet smooth, into 'the land of uprightness.' Where and what He is, there and that shall also His servants be.
My brother! if to do the will of God is to dwell in the land of uprightness, disobedience is to dwell in a dry and thirsty land, barren and dreary, horrid with frowning rocks and jagged cliffs, where every stone cuts the feet and every step is a blunder, and all the paths end at last on the edge of an abyss, and crumble into nothingness beneath the despairing foot that treads them. Do you see to it that you walk in ways of righteousness which are paths of peace; and look for all the help you need, with assured faith, to Him who shall 'guide us by His counsel and afterwards receive us to His glory.'
THE SATISFIER OF ALL DESIRES
'Thou openest Thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing ... 19. He will fulfil the desire of them that fear Him: He also will hear their cry, and will save them.'—PSALM cxlv. 16, 19.
You observe the recurrence, in these two verses, of the one emphatic word 'desire.' Its repetition evidently shows that the Psalmist wishes to run a parallel between God's dealings in two regions. The same beneficence works in both. Here is the true extension of natural law to the spiritual world. It is the same teaching to which our Lord has given immortal and inimitable utterance, when He says, 'Your heavenly Father feedeth them.' And so we are entitled to look on all the wonders of creation, and to find in them buttresses which may support the edifice of our faith, and to believe that wherever there is a mouth God sends food to fill it. 'Thou openest Thine hand'—that is all—'and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.' But to fulfil the desires of them who are not only 'living things,' but 'who fear' Him, is it such a simple task? Sometimes more is wanted than an open hand before that can be accomplished. So, looking not only at the words I have read, but at the whole of their setting, which is influenced by the thought of this parallelism, we see here two sets of pensioners, two kinds of wants, two forms of appeal, two processes of satisfaction.
I. Two kinds of pensioners.
'Every living thing—' life makes a claim on God, and whatever desires arise in the living creature by reason of its life, God would be untrue to Himself, a cruel Parent, an unnatural Father, if He did not satisfy them. We do not half enough realise the fact that the condescension of creation lies not only in the act of creating, but in the willing acceptance by the Creator of the bonds under which He thereby lays Himself; obliging Himself to see to the creatures that He has chosen to make. And so, as one of the New Testament writers puts it, in his simple way, with a profound truth, 'He is a faithful Creator'; and wherever there is a creature that He has made to need anything, He has thereby said, 'As I live, that creature shall have what it needs.'
Then, take the other class, 'them that fear Him'; or as they are described in the context—by contrast with 'the wicked who are destroyed'—'the righteous.' That is to say, whilst, because we are living things, like the bee and the worm, we have a claim on God precisely parallel with theirs for what we may need by reason of His gift, which we never asked for, His gift of life, we shall have a similar but higher claim on Him if we are 'they that fear Him' with that loving reverence which has no torment in it, and that love Him with that reverential affection which has no presumption in it, and whose love and fear coalesce in making them long to be righteous like the Object of their love, to be holy like the Object of their fear. And just as the fact of physical life binds God to care for it, and to give all that is needed for its health, growth, blessedness, so the fact of man's having in his heart the faintest tremor of reverential dread, the feeblest aspiration of outgoing affection, the most faltering desire after purity of life and conduct, binds God to answer these according to the man's need. Of all incredibilities in the world, there is nothing more incredible, because there is nothing more contrary to the very depths of the divine nature, than that desires, longings, expectations, which are the direct result of the love and fear of God, and the hunger and thirst after righteousness, should not be answered.
Now that is a very wide principle, and I do not believe that it is trusted enough by many. It comes to this—wherever you find in people a confidence which grows with their love of God, be sure that there is, somewhere or other in the universe of things, that which answers it.
Take a case. If there was not a word in the New Testament about Jesus Christ's resurrection, the fact that just in proportion as men grow in devotion, in love of God, in fear of Him, in longing to be good and to appear like Him, in that same proportion does their conviction that there must be a life beyond the grave become firm and certain—that fact would be enough to make any one who believed in God sure that the hope thus rooted in love to Him, and fed by everything that draws us nearer to Him, could not be a delusion, nor be destined to be left unfulfilled.
And we might go round the whole circle of dim religious aspirations and desires, and find in all of them illustrations of the principle so profoundly and so simply put in our psalm, that the same Love which, in the realm of the physical world, binds itself to satisfy the life which it imparts, is at work in the higher regions, and will 'fulfil the desires of them that fear Him.'
II. Again, there are two sets of needs.
The first of them is very easily disposed of. 'The eyes of all wait upon Thee, and Thou givest them their meat.' That is all. Feed the beast, and give it the other things necessary for its physical existence, and there is no more to be done. But there is more wanted for the desires of the men that love and fear God. These are glanced at in the context, 'He also will hear their cry, and will save them'; 'the Lord preserveth all them that love Him.' That is to say, there are deeper needs in our hearts and lives than any that are known amongst the lower creatures. Evils, dangers inward and outward, sorrows, disappointments, losses of all sorts shadow our lives, in a fashion which the happy, careless life of field and forest knows nothing about. Give them their meat, and they curl themselves up and lie down to sleep, satisfied. Man longs for something more and needs something more.
'He will save them.' Now, I do not suppose that 'save' here is employed in its full New Testament sense, but it approximates to that sense. And, further, there are other aspects of our needs set forth in the context, on which I briefly touch. Do not let us vulgarise such a saying as this of my text, 'He will fulfil the desire of them that fear Him,' as if it only meant that if a man fears God he may set his longing upon any outward thing, and be sure to get it. There is nothing so poor, so unworthy as that promised in Scripture. For one thing, it is not true; for another, it would not be good if it were. The way to spoil children is not the way to perfect saints; and to give them what they want because they want it, is the sure way to spoil children of all ages. We may be quite certain that our heavenly Father is not going to do that. The promise here means something far nobler and loftier. The fact of creation binds God to supply all the wants which spring from life. The fact of our loving and fearing Him binds Him to supply all the wants which spring from our love and fear. And it is these desires which the Psalmist is thinking of.
What is the object of desire to a man who loves God? God. What is the object of desire to a man who fears Him? God. What is the object of desire to a righteous man? Righteousness. And these are the desires which God is sure to fulfil to us. Therefore, there is only one region in which it is safe and wise to cherish longings, and it is the region of the spiritual life where God imparts Himself. Everywhere else there will be disappointments—thank Him for them. Nowhere else is it absolutely true that He will 'fulfil the desires of them that fear Him.' But in this region it is. Whatever any of us desire to have of God, we are sure to get. We open our mouths and He fills them. In the Christian life desire is the measure of possession, and to long is to have. And there is nowhere else where it is absolutely, unconditionally, and universally true that to wish is to possess, and to ask is to have.
Oh! then, is it not a foolish thing for us to worry and torture and sweat, in order to win for ourselves for a little while the uncertain possession of incomplete bliss? Would it not be wiser, instead of letting the current of our desires dribble itself away through a thousand channels in the sand and get lost, to gather it all into one great stream which is sure to find its way to the broad ocean? 'Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thine heart,' for these will then be after Himself, and Himself only.
III. Further, there are here two forms of appeal.
'The eyes of all wait upon Thee.' That is beautiful! The dumb look of the unconscious creature, like that of a dog looking up in its master's face for a crust, makes appeal to God, and He answers that. But a dumb, unconscious look is not for us. 'He also will hear their cry.' Put your wish into words if you want it answered; not for His information, but for your strengthening. 'Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things before ye ask Him.' What then? Why should I ask Him? Because the asking will clear your thoughts about your desires. It will be a very good test of them. There are many things that we all wish, which I am afraid we should not much like to put into our prayers, not because of any foolish notion that they are too small to find a place there, but because of an uncomfortable suspicion that perhaps they are not the kind of things that we ought to wish. And if we cannot make the desire into a cry, the sooner we make it dead as well as dumb the better for ourselves. The cry will serve, too, as a stimulus to the wishes which are put into words. Silent prayer is well, but there is a wonderful power on ourselves—it may be due to our weakness, but still it exists—in the articulate and audible utterance of our petitions to God. I would fain that all of us were more in the habit of putting into distinct words that we ourselves can hear, the wishes that we cherish. I am sure our prayers would be more sincere, less wandering, more earnest and real, if they were spoken, as well as felt, prayers.
Let us remember, dear brethren! that the condition of our getting the higher gifts is not only that we should love and fear, and in the silence of our own hearts should wish for, but that we should definitely ask for, them. Not only desire, but 'their cry,' brings the answer.
IV. And now one last word. Note the two processes of satisfying.
'Thou openest Thine hand.' That is enough. But God cannot satisfy our deepest desires by any such short and easy method. There is a great deal more to be done by Him before the aspirations of love and fear and longing for righteousness can be fulfilled. He has to breathe Himself into us. Lower creatures have enough when they have the meat that drops from His hand. They know and care nothing for the hand that feeds. But God's best gifts cannot be separated from Himself. They are Himself, and in order to 'satisfy the desires of them that fear Him' there is no way possible, even to Him, but the impartation of Himself to the waiting heart.
That is a mystery deep and blessed. Oh, that we may all know, by our own living experience, what it is to have not only the gifts which drop from His hands, but the gifts which cannot be parted from Him, the Giver! He has to discipline us for His highest gifts, in order that we may receive them. And sometimes He has to do that, as I have no doubt He has done it with many of us, by withholding or withdrawing the satisfaction of some of our lower desires, and so emptying our hearts and turning the current of our wishes from earth to heaven. If you are going to pour precious wine into a chalice, you begin by emptying out the less valuable liquid that may be in it. So God often empties us, in order that He may fill us, and takes away the creatures in order that we may long for the Creator.
Not only has He to give us Himself, and to discipline us in order to receive Him, but He has to put all His gifts which meet our deepest desires into a great storehouse. He does not open His hand and give us peace and righteousness, and growing knowledge of Himself, and closer union, and the other blessings of the Christian life, but He gives us Jesus Christ. We are to find all these blessings in Him, and it depends upon us whether we find them or not, and how much of them we find. You will always find as much in Christ as you want, but you may not find nearly as much in Him as you could; and you will never find as much in Him as there is. God sends His Son, and in that one gift, like a box 'wherein sweets compacted lie,' are all the gifts that even His hand can bestow, or our desires require. So be sure that you have what you have, and that you suck out of the Rose of Sharon all the honey that lies deep in its calyx. Expand your desires to the width of Christ's great mercies; for the measure of our wishes is the limit of our possession. He has laid up the supply of all our need in the storehouse, which is Christ; and He has given us the key. Let us see to it that we enter in. 'Ye have not because ye ask not.' 'To him that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.'
END OF VOL. II.