Well, then, is anybody to go in? Let us read on in our psalm. An impossible requirement is laid down, broad and stern and unmistakable. But is that all? 'He shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.' So, then, the impossible requirement is made possible as a gift to be received. And although I do not know that this psalmist, in the twilight of revelation, saw all that was involved in what he sang, he had caught a glimpse of this great thought, that what God required, God would give, and that our way to get the necessary, impossible condition realised in ourselves is to 'receive' it. 'He shall receive ... righteousness from the God of his salvation.' Now, do you not see how, like some great star, trembling into the field of the telescope, and sending arrowy beams before it to announce its approach, the great central Christian truth is here dawning, germinant, prophesying its full rising? And the truth is this, 'that I might be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, but that which is of God through Christ.' Ah, brethren! impossibilities become possible when God comes and says, 'I give thee that which thou canst not have.' The old prophet asked the question, 'What doth God require of thee?' and his answer was, 'That thou shouldst do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.' If he had gone on to ask a better question, 'What does God give thee?' he would have said what all the New Testament says, 'He gives what He commands, and He bestows before He requires.' And so in Jesus Christ there is the forgiveness that blots out the past, and there is the new life bestowed that will develop the righteousness far beyond our reach. And thus the question which evoked first the answer that might drive us to despair, evokes next a response that commands us to hope.
But that is not all, for the psalm goes on: 'This is the generation of them that seek Him, that seek Thy face.' Yes; couched in germ there lies in that last word the great truth which is expanded in the New Testament, like a beech-leaf folded up in its little brown sheath through all the winter, and ready to break and give out its green plumelets as soon as the warm rains and sunshine of spring come. 'They that seek Him'—'if thou seek Him He will be found of thee.' The requirement of righteousness, as I have said, is not abolished by the Gospel, as some people seem to think that it substitutes faith for righteousness; but it is made possible by the Gospel which through faith gives righteousness. And what the Psalmist meant by 'seeking' we Christian people mean by 'faith.' Earnest desire and confident application to Him are sure to obtain righteousness. To these there will never be returned a refusing answer. 'I have never said to any of the seed of Jacob, seek ye Me in vain.' So, brethren! if we seek we shall receive; if we receive we shall be holy, if we are holy we shall dwell with God, in sweet and blessed communion, and be denizens of His house, and sit together in heavenly places with Him all the days of our lives, and then shall pass, when 'goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our lives,' and 'dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.'
THE GOD WHO DWELLS WITH MEN
'Lift up your heads, O ye gates: and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. 8. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. 9. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. 10. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory.' —PSALM xxiv. 7-10.
This whole psalm was probably composed at the time of the bringing of the ark into the city of Zion. The former half was chanted as the procession wound its way up the hillside. It mainly consists of the answer to the question 'Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?' and describes the kind of men that dwell with God, and the way by which they obtain their purity.
This second half of our psalm is probably to be thought of as being chanted when the procession had reached the summit of the hill and stood before the barred gates of the ancient Jebusite city. It is mainly in answer to the question, 'Who is this King of Glory?' and is the description of the God that dwells with men, and the meaning of His dwelling with them.
We are to conceive of a couple of half choirs, the one within, the other without the mountain hold. The advancing choir summons the gates to open in the grand words: 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates! even lift them up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.' Their lofty lintels are too low for His head to pass beneath; so they have to be lifted that He may find entrance. They are 'everlasting doors,' grey with antiquity, hoary with age. They have looked down, perhaps, upon Melchizedek, King of Salem, as he went forth in the morning twilight of history to greet the patriarch. But in all the centuries they have never seen such a King as this King of Glory, the true King of Israel who now desires entrance.
The answer to the summons comes from the choir within. 'Who is this King of Glory?' the question represents ignorance and possible hesitation, as if the pagan inhabitants of the recently conquered city knew nothing of the God of Israel, and recognised no authority in His name. Of course, the dramatic form of question and answer is intended to give additional force to the proclamation as by God Himself of the Covenant name, the proper name of Israel's God, as Baal was the name of the Canaanite's God, 'the Lord strong and mighty; the Lord mighty in battle,' by whose warrior power David had conquered the city, which now was summoned to receive its conqueror. Therefore the summons is again rung out, 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates! and the King of Glory shall come in.' And once more, to express the lingering reluctance, ignorance not yet dispelled, suspicion and unwilling surrender, the dramatic question is repeated, 'Who is this King of Glory?' The answer is sharp and authoritative in its brevity, and we may fancy it shouted with a full-throated burst—'The Lord of Hosts,' who, as Captain, commands all the embattled energies of earth and heaven conceived as a disciplined army. That great name, like a charge of dynamite, bursts the gates of brass asunder, and with triumphant music the procession sweeps into the conquered city.
Now these great words, throbbing with the enthusiasm at once of poetry and of devotion, may, I think, teach us a great deal if we ponder them.
I. Notice, first, their application, their historical and original application, to the King who dwelt with Israel.
We must never forget that in the Old Testament we have to do with an incomplete and a progressive revelation, and that if we would understand its significance, we must ever endeavour to ascertain to what point in that progress the words before us belong. We are not to read into these words New Testament depth and fulness of meaning; we are to take them and try to find out what they meant to David and to his people; and so we shall get a firm basis for any deeper significance which we may hereafter see in them. The thought of God, then, in these words is mainly that of a God of strong and victorious energy, a warrior-God, a conquering King, one whose word is power, who rules amidst the armies of heaven, and amidst the inhabitants of earth.
A brief consideration of each expression is all which can be attempted here. 'Who is this King of Glory?' The first idea, then, is that of sovereign rule; the idea which had become more and more plain and clear to the national consciousness of the Hebrew with the installation of monarchy amongst them. And it is very beautiful to see how David lays hold of that thought of God being Himself the King of Israel; and dwells so often in his psalms on the idea that he, poor, pale, earthly shadow, is but a representative and a viceroy of the true King who sits in the heavens. He takes off his crown and lays it before His throne and says: 'Thou art the King of Israel, the King of Glory.'
The Old Testament meaning of that word 'glory' is a great deal more definite than the ordinary religious use of it amongst us. The 'glory of God' in the Old Testament is, first and foremost, the supernatural light that dwelt between the cherubim and was the manifestation and symbol of the divine Presence. And next it is the sum total of all the impression made upon the world by God's manifestation of Himself, the Light, of which the material and supernatural light between the cherubs was but the emblem; all by which God flames and flashes Himself upon the trembling and thankful heart; that glory which is substantially the same as the Name of the Lord. And in this brightness, lustrous and dark with excess of light, this King dwells. The splendour of His regalia is the brightness that emanates from Himself. He is the King of Glory.
Next, we have the great Name, 'the Lord,' Jehovah, which speaks of timeless, independent, unchanging, self-sufficing being. It declares that He is His own cause, His own law, His own impulse, the staple from which all the links of the chain of being depend, and not Himself a link, the fontal Source of all which is.
We say: 'I am that which I have become; I am that which I have been made; I am that which I have inherited; I am that which circumstances and example and training have shaped me to be.' God says: 'I AM THAT I AM.' This name is also significant, not only because it proclaims absolute, independent, underived, timeless being, but because it is the Covenant name, and speaks of the God who has come into fellowship with men, and has bound Himself to a certain course of action for their blessing, and is thus the Lord of Israel, and the God, in a special manner, of His people.
'The Lord mighty in battle.' A true warrior-God, who went out in no metaphorical sense, but in prose reality, fought for His people and subdued the nations under them, in order that His name might be spread and His glory be known in the earth.
And then, still further, 'the Lord of Hosts,' the Captain of all the armies of heaven and earth. In that name is the thought to which the modern world is coming so slowly by scientific paths, that all being is one ordered whole, subject to the authority of one Lord. And in addition to that, the grander thought, that the unity of nature is the will of God; and that as the Commander issues His orders over all the field, so He speaks and it is done. The hosts are the angels of whom it is said: 'Bless the Lord all ye His hosts; ye ministers of His that do His pleasure.' The hosts are the stars that fill the nightly heavens, of whom it is said, 'He bringeth out their host by number.' The hosts are all creatures that live and are; and all are the soldiers and servants of this conquering King. Such is the name of the Lord that dwelt with Israel, the great conception that rises before this Psalmist.
II. Now turn to the second application of these great words, that speak to us not only of the God that dwelt in Zion in outward and symbolical form, by means of a material Presence which was an emblem of the true nearness of Israel's God, but yet more distinctly, as I take it, of the Christ that dwells with men.
The devout hearts in Israel felt that there was something more needed than this dwelling of Jehovah within an earthly Temple, and the process of revelation familiarised them with the thought that there was to be in the future a 'coming of the Lord' in some special manner unknown to them. So that the whole anticipation and forward look of the Old Testament system is gathered into and expressed by almost its last words, which prophesy that 'the Lord shall suddenly come to His Temple,' and that once again this King of Glory shall stand before the everlasting gates and summon them to open.
And when was that fulfilled? Fulfilled in a fashion that at first sight seems the greatest contrast to all this vision of grandeur, of warlike strength, of imperial power and rule with which we have been dealing; but which yet was not the contrast to these ideas so much as the highest embodiment of them. For, although at first sight it seems as if there could be no greater contrast than between the lion might of the Jehovah of the Old Testament, and the lamb gentleness of the Jesus of the New, if we look more closely we shall see that it is not a relation of contrast that exists between the two. Christ is all, and more than all, that this psalm proclaimed the Jehovah of the Old Covenant to be. Let us look again from that point of view at the particulars already referred to.
He is the highest manifestation of the divine rule and authority. There is no dominion like the dominion of the loving Christ, a kingdom based upon suffering and wielded in gentleness, a kingdom of which the crown is a wreath of thorns, and the sceptre a rod of reed; a dominion which is all exercised for the blessing of its subjects, and which, therefore, is an everlasting dominion. There is no rule like that; no height of divine authority towers so high as the authority of Him who rules us so absolutely because He gave Himself for us utterly. This is the King, the Prince of the kings of the earth, because this is the Incarnate God who died for us.
Christ is the highest raying out of the divine Light, or, as the Epistle to the Hebrews calls it, 'the effulgence of His glory.' The true glory of God lies in His love, and of that love Christ is the noblest and most wondrous example. So all other beams of the divine character, bright as their light is, are but dim as compared with the sevenfold lustre of the light that shines from the gentle loving-kindness of the heart of Christ. He has glorified God because He shows us that the divinest thing in God is love.
For the same reason, He is the mightiest exhibition of the divine power—'the Lord strong and mighty.' There is no work of God's hand, no work of God's will so great as that by which we are turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. The Cross is God's noblest revelation of power; and in Him, His weakness, His surrender, His death, with all the wonderful energies that flow from that death for man's salvation, we see the divine strength made perfect in the human weakness of Jesus. The Gospel of Christ 'is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.' There is divine power in its noblest form, in the paradoxical shape of a dying man; in its noblest effect, salvation; in its widest sweep to all who believe.
''Twas great to speak a world from nought, 'Tis greater to redeem.'
This 'strong Son of God' is the arm of the Lord in whom live and act the energies of omnipotence.
Christ is 'the Lord mighty in battle.' True, He is the Prince of peace, but He is also the better Joshua, the victorious Captain, in whom dwells the conquering divine might. Through all the gentleness of His life there winds a martial strain, and it is not in vain that the Evangelist who was most deeply penetrated by the sweetness of His love, is the one who most often speaks of Him as overcoming, and who has preserved as His last words to His timid followers, that triumphant command, 'Be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.' He has conquered for us, binding the strong man, and so He will spoil his house. Sin, hell, death, the devil, law, fear, our own foolish hearts, all temptations that hover around us—they are all vanquished foes of a 'Lord' that is 'mighty in battle.' And as He overcame, so shall we if we will trust Him.
Christ is the Commander and Wielder of all the forces of the universe. As one said to Him in the days of His flesh, 'I am a man under authority, and I say to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. So do Thou speak and Thy word shall be sovereign.' And so it was. He spake to diseases and they vanished. He spake to the winds and the seas and there was a great calm. He spake to demons, and murmuring, but yet obedient, they came out of their victims. He flung His word into the recesses of the grave, and Lazarus came forth, fumbling with the knots on his grave-clothes, and stumbling into the light. 'He spake and it was done.' Who is He, the utterance of whose will is sovereign amongst all the regions of being? 'Who is the King of Glory?' 'Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ!' 'Thou art the Everlasting Son of the Father.'
III. And now, lastly, let me ask you to look, and that for a moment, at the application of these words to the Christ who will dwell in our hearts.
His historical manifestation here upon earth and His Incarnation, which is the true dwelling of Deity amongst men, are not enough. They have left something more than a memory to the world. He is as ready to abide as really within our spirits as He was to tabernacle upon earth amongst men. And the very central message of that Gospel which Is proclaimed to us all is this, that if we will open the gates of our hearts He will come in, in all the plenitude of His victorious power, and dwell in our hearts, their Conqueror and their King.
What a strange contrast, and yet what a close analogy there is between the victorious tones and martial air of this summons of my text. 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates! that the King of Glory may come in,' and the gentle words of the Apocalypse: 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice and open the door, I will come in to him.' But He that in the Old Covenant arrayed in warrior arms, summoned the rebels to surrender, is the same as He who, in the New, with the night-dews in His hair, and patience on His face, and gentleness in the touch of His hand upon the door, waits to enter in. Brethren! open your hearts, 'and the King of Glory shall come in.'
And He will come in as a king that might seek to enter some city far away on the outposts of his kingdom, besieged by his enemies. If the King comes in, the city will be impregnable. If you open your hearts for Him He will come and keep you from all your foes and give you the victory over them all. So, to every hard-pressed heart, waging an unequal contest with toils and temptations, and sorrows and sins, this great hope is given, that Christ the Victor will come in His power to garrison heart and mind. As of old the encouragement was given to Hezekiah in his hour of peril, when the might of Sennacherib insolently threatened Jerusalem, so the same stirring assurances are given to each who admits Christ's succours to his heart—'He shall not come into this city, for I will defend this city to save it for Mine own sake' Open your hearts and the conquering King will come in.
And do not forget that there is another possible application of these words lying in the future, to the conquering Christ who shall come again. The whole history of the past points onwards to yet a last time when 'the Lord shall suddenly come to His temple,' and predicts that Christ shall so come in like manner as He went up to heaven. Again will the summons ring out. Again will He come arrayed in flashing brightness, and the visible robes of His imperial majesty. Again will He appear, mighty in battle, when 'in righteousness He shall judge and make war.' For a Christian, one great memory fills the past—Christ has come; and one great hope brightens the else waste future—Christ will come. That hope has been far too much left to be cherished only by those who hold a particular opinion as to the chronology of unfulfilled prophecy. But it should be to every Christian heart 'the blessed hope,' even the appearing of the glory of Him who has come in the past. He is with and in us, in the present. He will come in the future 'in His glory, and shall sit upon the throne of His glory.' All our pardon and hope of God's love depend upon that great fact in the past, that 'the Lord was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.' Our purity which will fit us to dwell with God, our present blessedness, all our power for daily strife, and our companionship in daily loneliness, depend on the present fact that He dwells in our hearts by faith, the seed of all good, and the conquering Antagonist of every evil. And the one light which fills the future with hope, peaceful because assured, streams from that most sure promise that He will come again, sweeping from the highest heavens, on His head the many crowns of universal monarchy, in His hand the weapons of all-conquering power, and none shall need to ask, 'Who is this King of Glory?' for every eye shall know Him, the Judge upon His throne, to be the Christ of the Cross. Open the doors of your hearts to Him, as He sues for entrance now in the meekness of His patient love, that on you may fall in that day of the coming of the King, the blessing of the servants who wait for their returning Lord, that 'when He cometh and knocketh, they may open unto Him immediately.'
GUIDANCE IN JUDGMENT
'Good and upright is the Lord; therefore will He teach sinners in the way. 9. The meek will He guide in judgment; and the meek will He teach His way.'—PSALM xxv. 8, 9.
The Psalmist prays in this psalm for three things: deliverance, guidance, and forgiveness. Of these three petitions the central one is that for guidance. 'Show me Thy ways, O Lord,' he asks in a previous verse; where he means by 'Thy ways,' not God's dealings with men, but men's conduct as prescribed by God. In my text he exchanges petition for contemplation; and gazes on the character of God, in order thereby to be helped to confidence in an answer to his prayer. Such alternations of petition and contemplation are the very heartbeats of devotion, now expanding in desire, now closing on its treasure in fruition. Either attitude is incomplete without the other. Do our prayers pass into such still contemplation of the face of God? Do our thoughts of His character break into such confident petition? My text contains a striking view of the divine character, a grand confidence built thereupon, and a condition appended on which the fulfilment of that confidence depends. Let us look at these in turn.
I. First, then, we have here the Psalmist's thought of God. 'Good and upright is the Lord.'
Now it is clear that the former of these two epithets is here employed, not in its widest sense of moral perfectness, or else 'upright,' which follows, would be mere tautology, but in the narrower sense, which is familiar too, to us, in our common speech, in which good is tantamount to kind, beneficent, or to say all in a word, loving. Upright needs no explanation; but the point to notice is the decisiveness with which the Psalmist binds together, in one thought, the two aspects of the divine nature which so many people find it hard to reconcile, and the separation of which has been the parent of unnumbered misconceptions and errors as to Him and to His dealings. 'Good and upright, loving and righteous is the Lord,' says the Psalmist. He puts in no qualifying word such as, loving though righteous, righteous and yet loving. Such phrases express the general notions of the relation of these two attributes. But the Psalmist employs no such expressions. He binds the two qualities together, in the feeling of their profoundest harmony.
Now let me remind you that neither of these two resplendent aspects of the divine nature reaches its highest beauty and supremest power, except it be associated with the other. In the spectrum analysis of that great light there are the two lines; the one purest white of righteousness, and the other tinged with a ruddier glow, the line of love. The one adorns and sets off the other. Love without righteousness is flaccid, a mere gush of good-natured sentiment, impotent to confer blessing, powerless to evoke reverence. Righteousness without love is as white as snow, and as cold as ice; repellent, howsoever it may excite the sentiment of awe-struck distance. But we need that the righteousness shall be loving, and that the love shall be righteous, in order that the one may be apprehended in its tenderest tenderness and the other may be adored in its loftiest loftiness.
And yet we are always tempted to wrench the two apart, and to think that the operation of the one must sometimes, at all events on the outermost circumference of the spheres, impinge upon, and collide with, the operations of the other. Hence you get types of religion—yes! and two types of Christianity—in which the one or the other of these two harmonious attributes is emphasised to such a degree as almost to blot out the other. You get forms of religion in which the righteousness has swallowed up the love, and others in which the love has destroyed the righteousness. The effect is disastrous. In old days our fathers fell into the extreme on the one hand; and the pendulum has swung with a vengeance as far from the vertical line, to the other extreme, in these days as it ever did in the past. The religion which found its centre-point and its loftiest conception of the divine nature in the thought of His absolute righteousness made strong, if it made somewhat stern, men. And now we see renderings of the truth that God is love which degrade the lofty, noble, sovereign conception of the righteous God that loveth, into mere Indulgence on the throne of the universe. And what is the consequence? All the stern teachings of Scripture men recoil from, and try to explain away. The ill desert of sin, and the necessary iron nexus between sin and suffering—and as a consequence the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ, and the supreme glory of His mission in that He is the Redeemer of mankind—are all become unfashionable to preach and unfashionable to believe. God is Love. We cannot make too much of His love, unless by reason of it we make too little of His righteousness.
The Psalmist, in his childlike faith, saw deeper and more truly than many would-be theologians and thinkers of this day, when he proclaimed in one breath 'Good and upright is the Lord.' Let us not forget that the Apostle, whose great message to the world was, as the last utterance completing the process of revelation, 'God is Love,' had it also in charge to 'declare unto us that God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.'
II. And so, secondly, mark the calm confidence builded on this conception of the divine character.
What a wonderful 'therefore' that is!—the logic of faith and not of sense. 'Good and upright is the Lord; therefore will He teach sinners in the way.' The coexistence of these two aspects in the perfect divine character is for us a guarantee that He cannot leave men, however guilty they may be, to grope in the dark, or keep His lips locked in silence. The Psalmist does not mean guidance as to practical advantages and worldly prosperity. That may also be looked for, in a modified degree. But what he means is guidance as to the one important thing, the sovereign conception of duty, the eternal law of right and wrong. God will not leave a man without adequate teaching as to that, just because He is loving and righteous.
For what is love, in its loftiest, purest, and therefore in its divine aspect? What is it except an infinite desire to impart, and that the object on which it falls shall be blessed. So because 'the Lord is good, and His tender mercies are over all His works,' certainly He must desire, if one may so say, as His deepest desire, the blessedness of His creatures. He is a God whose nature and property it is to love, and His love is the infinite and ceaseless welling out of Himself, in all forms of beauty and blessedness, according to the capacity and contents of His recipient creatures. He is 'the giving God,' as James in his epistle eloquently and wonderfully calls Him, whose very nature it is to give. And that is only to say, in other words, 'good is the Lord.'
But then 'good and upright'—that combination determines the form which His blessings shall assume, the channel in which by preference they will flow. If we had only to say, 'good is the Lord,' then our happiness, as we call it, the satisfaction of our physical needs and of lower cravings, might be the adequate expression of His love. But if God be righteous, then because Himself is so, it must be His deepest desire for us that we should be like Him. Not our happiness but our rectitude is God's end in all that He does with us. It is worth His while to make us, in the lower sense of the word, 'happy,' but the purpose of joy as of sorrow is to make us pure and righteous. We shall never come to understand the meaning of our own lives, and will always be blindly puzzling over the mysteries of the providences that beset us, until we learn that not enjoyment and not sorrow is His ultimate end concerning us, but that we may be partakers of His holiness. Since He is righteous, the dearest desire of His loving heart, and that to which all His dealings with us are directed; and that, therefore, to which all our desires and efforts should be directed likewise, is to make us righteous also.
'Therefore will He teach sinners in the way.' If the righteousness existed without the love it must 'come with a rod,' and the sinners who are out of the way must incontinently be crushed where they have wandered. But since righteousness is blended with love, therefore He comes, and must desire to bring all wanderers back into the paths which are His own.
I need not do more than in a word remind you how strong a presumption there lies in this combination of aspects of the divine nature, in favour of an actual revelation. It seems to me that, notwithstanding all the objections that are made to a supernatural and objective revelation, there is nothing half so monstrous as it would be to believe, with the pure deist or theist, that God, being what He is, righteous and loving, had never rent His heavens to say one word to man to lead him in the paths of righteousness. I can understand Atheism, and I can understand a revealing God, but not a God that dwells in the thick darkness, and is yet Love and Righteousness, and looks down upon this world and never puts out a finger to point the path of duty. A silent God seems to me no God but an Almighty Devil. Revelation is the plain conclusion from the premisses that 'good and upright is the Lord!'
I speak not, for there is no time to do so, of the various manners in which this divine desire to bring sinners into the way fulfils itself. There are our consciences; there are His providences; there is the objective revelation of His word; there are the whispers of His Spirit in men's hearts. I do not know what you believe, but I believe that God can find His way to my heart and infuse there illumination, and move affections, and make my eye clear to discern what is right. 'He that formed the eye, shall He not see?' He that formed the eye, shall He not send light to it? Are we to shut out God, in obedience to the dictates of an arbitrary psychology, from access to His own creature; and to say, 'Thou hast made me, and Thou canst not speak to me. My soul is Thine by creation, but its doors are close barred against Thee; and Thou canst not lay Thy hand upon it?' 'Good and upright is the Lord, therefore will He teach sinners in the way.'
III. Now notice, again, the condition on which the fulfilment of this confidence depends.
'The meek will He guide in judgment, and the meek will He teach His way.' The fact of our being sinful only makes it the more imperative that God should speak to us. But the condition of our hearing and profiting by the guidance is meekness. By meekness the Psalmist means, I suppose, little else than what we might call docility, of which the prime element is the submission of my own will to God's. The reason why we go wrong about our duties is mainly that we do not supremely want to go right, but rather to gratify inclinations, tastes, or passions. God is speaking to us, but if we make such a riot with the yelpings of our own kennelled desires and lusts, and listen to the rattle and noise of the street and the babble of tongues, He
'Can but listen at the gate, And hear the household jar within.'
'The meek will He guide in judgment; the meek will He teach His way.' Some of us put our heads down like bulls charging a gate. Some of us drive on full speed, and will not shut off steam though the signals are against us, and the end of that can only be one thing. Some of us do not wish to know what God wishes us to do. Some of us cannot bear suspense of judgment, or of decision, and are always in a hurry to be in action, and think the time lost that is spent in waiting to know what God the Lord will speak. If you do not clearly see what to do, then clearly you may see that you are to do nothing.
The ark was to go half a mile in front of the camp before the foremost files lifted a foot to follow, in order that there should be no mistake as to the road. Wait till God points the path, and wish Him to point it, and hush the noises that prevent your hearing His voice, and keep your wills in absolute submission; and above all, be sure that you act out your convictions, and that you have no knowledge of duty which is not expressed in your practice, and you will get all the light which you need; sometimes being taught by errors no doubt, often being left to make mistakes as to what is expedient in regard to worldly prosperity, but being infallibly guided as to the path of duty, and the path of peace and righteousness.
And now, before I close, let me just remind you of the great fact which transcends the Psalmist's confidence whilst it warrants it.
Because God is Love, and God is Righteousness, He cannot but speak. But this Psalmist did not know how wonderfully God was going to speak by that Word who has called Himself the Light of men; and who has said, 'He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.' He 'teaches sinners in the way,' by Jesus Christ; for we have Him for our Pattern and Example. We have His love for our impelling motive. We have His Spirit to speak in our hearts, and to 'guide us into all truth.' And this Shepherd, 'when He putteth forth His own sheep, goeth before them; and the sheep follow Him and know His voice.' The Psalmist's confidence, bright as it is, is but the glow of the morning twilight. The full sunshine of the transcendent fact to which God's righteous love impelled and bound Him is Christ, who makes us know the will of the Father. But we want more than knowledge. For we all know our duty a great deal better than any of us do it. What is the use of a guide to a lame man? But our Guide says to us, 'Arise and walk,' and if we clasp His hand we receive strength, and 'the lame man leaps as a hart.'
So, dear brethren! let us all cleave to Him, the Guide, the Way, and the Life which enables us to walk in the way. If we thus cleave, then be sure that He will lead us in the paths of righteousness, which are paths of peace. He is the Way; He is the Leader of the march; He gives power to walk in the light, and His one command, 'Follow Me,' unfolds into all duty and includes all direction, companionship, perfection, and blessedness.
A PRAYER FOR PARDON AND ITS PLEA
'For Thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great.'—PSALM xxv. 11.
The context shows us that this is the prayer of a man who had long loved and served God. He says that 'on God' he 'waits all the day,' that his 'eyes are ever toward the Lord,' that he has 'integrity and uprightness' which will 'preserve him, for he waits upon God,' and yet side by side with this consciousness of devotion and service there lie the profound sense of sin and of the need of pardon. The better a man is, the more clearly he sees, and the more deeply he feels, his own badness. If a shoe is all covered with mud, a splash or two more or less will make no difference, but if it be polished and clean, one speck shows. A black feather on a swan's breast is conspicuous. And so the less sin a man has the more obvious it is, and the more he has the less he generally knows it. But whilst this consciousness of transgression and cry for pardon are inseparable and permanent accompaniments of a devout life all along its course, they are the roots and beginning of all true godliness. And as a rule, the first step which a man takes to knit himself consciously to God is through the gate of recognised and repeated and confessed sin and imploring the divine mercy.
I. Notice, first, here the cry for pardon.
'I believe in the forgiveness of sins' hundreds of thousands of Englishmen have said twice to-day. Most of us, when we pray at all, push in somewhere or other the petition, 'Forgive us our sins.' And how many of us understand what we mean when we ask for that? And how many of us feel that we need the thing which we seem to be requesting? Let me dwell for a moment or two upon the Scriptural idea of forgiveness. Of course we may say that when we ask forgiveness from God we are transferring ideas and images drawn from human relations to the divine. Be it so. That does not show that there is not a basis of reality and of truth in the ideas thus transferred. But there are two elements in forgiveness as we know it, both of which it seems to me to be very important that we should carry in our minds in interpreting the Scriptural doctrine. There is the forgiveness known to law and practised by the lawgiver. There is the forgiveness known to love and practised by the friend, or parent, or lover. The one consists in the remission of external penalties. A criminal is forgiven, or, as we say (with an unconscious restriction of the word forgiven to the deeper thing), pardoned, when, the remainder of his sentence being remitted, he is let out of gaol, and allowed to go about his business without any legal penalties. But there is a forgiveness deeper than that legal pardon. A parent and a child both of them know that parental pardon does not consist in the waiving of punishment. The averted look, the cold voice, the absence of signs of love are far harder to bear than so-called punishment. And the forgiveness, which belongs to love only, comes when the film between the two is swept away, and both the offended and the offender feel that there is no barrier to the free, unchecked flow of love from the heart of the aggrieved to the heart of the aggressor.
We must carry both of these ideas into our thoughts of God's pardon in order to see the whole fulness of it. And perhaps we may have to add yet another illustration, drawn from another region, and which is enshrined in one of the versions of the Lord's Prayer, where we read, 'Forgive us our debts.' When a debt is forgiven it is cancelled, and the payment of it no longer required. But the two elements that I have pointed out, the remission of the penalty and the uninterrupted flow of God's love, are inseparably united in the full Scriptural notion of forgiveness.
Scripture recognises as equally real and valid, in our relations to God, the judicial and the fatherly side of the relationship. And it declares as plainly that the wages of sin is death as it declares that God's love cannot come in its fulness and its sweetness, upon a heart that indulges in unconfessed and unrepented sin. They are poor friends of men who, for the sake of smoothing away the terrible side of the Gospel, minimise or hide the reality of the awful penalties which attach to every transgression and disobedience, because they thereby maim the notion of the divine forgiveness, and lull into a fatal slumber the consciences of many men.
Dear brethren! I have to stand here saying, 'Knowing, therefore, the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men.' This is sure and certain, that over and above the forcing back upon itself of the love of God by my sin, that sin by necessary consequence will work out awful results for the doer in the present and in the future. I do not wish to dwell upon that thought, only remember that God is a Judge and God is the Father, and that the divine forgiveness includes both of these elements, the sweeping away of the penal consequences of men's sin, wholly in the future, and to some extent in the present; and the unchecked flow of the love of God to a man's heart.
There are awful words in Scripture—which are not to be ruled out of it by any easy-going, optimistic, rose-water system of a mutilated Christianity—there are awful words in Scripture, concerning what you and I must come to if we live and die in our sins, and there would be no message of forgiveness worth the proclaiming to men, if it had nothing to say about the removal of that which a man's own unsophisticated conscience tells him is certain, the fatal and the damnable effects of his departure from God.
But let us not forget that these two aspects do to a large extent coincide, when we come to remember that the worst of all the penal consequences of sin is that it separates from God, and exposes to 'the wrath of God,' a terrible expression by which the Bible means the necessary disapprobation and aversion of the divine nature, being such as it is, from man's sin.
Experimentalists will sometimes cut off one or other of the triple rays of which sunlight is composed by passing the beam through some medium which intercepts the red, or the violet, or the yellow, as may chance. And my sin makes an atmosphere which cuts off the gentler rays of that divine nature, and lets the fiery ones of retribution come through. It is not that a sinful man, howsoever drenched overhead in the foul pool of his own unrepented iniquity, is shut out from the love of God, which lingers about him and woos him, and lavishes upon him all the gifts of which he is capable, but that he has made himself incapable of receiving the sweetest of these influences, and that so long as he continues thus, his life and his character cannot but be odious and hateful in the pure eyes of perfect love.
But whilst thus there are external consequences which are swept away by forgiveness, and whilst the real hell of hells and death of deaths is the separation from God, and the misery that must necessarily ensue thereupon, there are consequences of man's sin which forgiveness is not intended to remove, and will not remove, just because God loves us. He loves us too well to take away the issues in the natural sphere, in the social sphere, the issues perhaps in bodily health, reputation, position, and the like, which flow from our transgression. 'Thou wast a God that forgavest them, and Thou didst inflict retribution for their inventions.' He does leave much of these outward issues unswept away by His forgiveness, and the great law stands, 'Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.' And yet the pardon that you and I need, and which we can all have for the asking, flows to us unchecked and full—the great stream of the love of God, to whom we are reconciled, when we turn to Him in penitent dependence on the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
This consciousness of sin and cry for pardon lie at the foundation of vigorous practical religion. It seems to me that the differences between different types of Christianity, insipid elegance and fiery earnestness, between coldness and fervour, the difference between a sapless and a living ministry and between a formal and a real Christianity, are very largely due to the differences in realising the fact and the gravity of the fact of transgression. The prominence which we give to that in our thoughts will largely determine our notions of ourselves, and of Christ's work, and to a great extent settle what we think Christianity is for, and what in itself it is. If a man has no deep consciousness of sin he will be satisfied with a very superficial kind of religion. 'Every man his own redeemer' will be his motto. And not knowing the necessity for a Saviour, he will not recognise that Christianity is fundamentally and before anything else, a system of redemption. A moral agent? Yes! A large revelation of great truth? Yes! A power to make men's lives, individually and in the community, nobler and loftier? By all means. But before all these, and all these consequentially on its being a system by which sinful men, else hopeless and condemned, are delivered and set free. So, dear brethren! let me press upon you this,—unless my Christianity gives large prominence to the fact of my own transgression, and is full of a penitent cry for pardon, it lacks the one thing needful, I was going to say—it lacks, at all events, that which will make it a living power blessedly ruling my heart and life.
II. Note in the next place the plea for pardon.
'For Thy name's sake.' The Psalmist does not come with any carefully elaborated plea, grounded upon anything in himself, either on the excuses and palliations of his evil, his corrupt nature, his many temptations, and the like, or on the depth and reality of his repentance. He does not say, 'Forgive me, for I weep for my evil and loathe myself.' Nor does he say, 'Forgive me, for I could not help doing it, or because I was tempted; or because the thing that I have done is a very little thing after all.' He comes empty-handed, and says, 'For Thy name's sake, O Lord!'
That means, first, the great thought that God's mercy flows from the infinite depths of His own character. He is His own motive. The fountain of His forgiving love wells up of itself, drawn forth by nothing that we do, but propelled from within by the inmost nature of God. As surely as it is the property of light to radiate and of fire to spread, so surely is it His nature and property to have mercy. He forgives, says our text, because He is God, and cannot but do so. Therefore our mightiest plea is to lay hold of His own strength, and to grasp the fact of the unmotived, uncompelled, unpurchased, and therefore unalterable and eternal pardoning love of God.
Scientists tell us that the sun is fed and kept in splendour by the constant impact of bodies from without falling in upon it, and that if that supply were to cease, the furnace of the heavens would go out. But God, who is light in Himself, needs no accession of supplies from without to maintain His light, and no force of motives from without to sway His will. We do not need to seek to bend Him to mercy, for He is mercy in Himself. We do not need to stir His purpose into action, for it has been working from of old and 'its goings forth are from everlasting.' He is His own motive, He forgives because of what He is. So let us dig down to that deepest of all rock foundations on which to build our confidence, and be sure that, if I may use such an expression, the necessity of the divine nature compels Him to pardon iniquity, transgression, and sin.
Then there is another thought here, that the past of God is a plea with God for present forgiveness. 'Thy name' in Scripture means the whole revelation of the divine character, and thus the Psalmist looks back into the past, and sees there how God has, all through the ages, been plenteous in mercy and ready to forgive all that called upon Him; and he pleads that past as a reason for the present and for the future. Thousands of years have passed since David, if he was the Psalmist, offered this prayer; and you and I can look back to the blessed old story of his forgiveness, so swift, so absolute and free, which followed upon confession so lowly, and can remember that infinitely pathetic and wonderful word which puts the whole history of the resurrection and restoration of a soul into two clauses. 'David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord: and Nathan said unto David'—finishing the sentence—'And the Lord hath made to pass the iniquity of thy sin.' What He was He is; what He is He will be. 'For Thy name's sake, pardon mine iniquity.'
There is yet another thought that may be suggested. The divine forgiveness is in order that men may know Him better. That is represented in Scripture as being the great motive of the divine actions—'for the glory of Thine own name.' That may be so put as to be positively atrocious, or so as to be perfectly divine and lovely. It has often been put, by hard and narrow dogmatists, in such a way as to make God simply an Almighty selfishness, but it ought to be put as the Bible puts it, so as to show Him as an Almighty love. For why does He desire that His name should be known by us but for our sakes, that the light of that great Name may come to us, 'sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death,' and that, knowing Him for what He is, we may have peace, and rest, and joy, and love, and purity? It is pure benevolence that makes Him act, 'for the glory of His great name'; sweeping away the clouds that a darkened earth may expand and rejoice, and all the leaves unfold themselves, and every bird sing, in the restored sunshine.
And there is nothing that reveals the inmost hived sweetness and honey of the name of God like the assurance of His pardon. 'There is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared.' Oh, dear brethren! unless you know God as the God that has forgiven you, your knowledge of Him is but shallow and incomplete, and you know not the deepest blessings that flow to them who find that this is life eternal to know the only true God as the all-forgiving Father.
Note the connection between the Psalmist's plea and the New Testament plea. David said, 'For Thy name's sake, pardon,' we say, 'For Christ's sake, forgive.' Are the two diverse? Is the fruit diverse from the bud? Is the complete noonday diverse from the blessed morning twilight? Christ is the Name of God, the Revealer of the divine heart and mind. When Christian men pray 'For the sake of Christ,' they are not bringing a motive, which is to move the divine love which else lies passive and inert, because God's love was the cause of Christ's work not Christ's work the cause of God's love, but they are expressing their own dependence on the Great Mediator and His work, and solemnly offering, as the ground of all their hope, that perfect sacrifice which is the medium by which forgiveness reaches men, and without which it is impossible that the government of the righteous God could exist with pardon. Christ has died; Christ, in dying, has borne the sins of the world; that is, yours and mine. And therefore the pardon of God comes to us through that channel, without, in the slightest degree, trenching on the awfulness of the divine holiness or weakening the sanctities of God's righteous retributive law. 'For Christ's sake hath forgiven us' is the daylight which the Psalmist saw as morning dawn when he cried, 'For Thy name's sake, pardon mine iniquity.'
III. Lastly, note the reason for the earnest cry, 'For it is great.'
That may be a reason for the pardon; more probably it is a reason for the prayer. The fact is true in regard to us all. There is no need to suppose any special heinous sin in the Psalmist's mind. I would fain press upon all consciences that listen to me now that these lowly words of confession are true about every one of us, whether we know it or not. For if you consider how much of self-will, how much of indifference, of alienation from, if not of antagonism against, the law of God, go to every trifling transgression, you will think twice before you call it small. And if it be small, a microscopic viper, the length of a cutting from your finger nail, has got the viper's nature in it, and its poison, and its sting, and it will grow. A very little quantity of mud held in solution in a continuously flowing river will make a tremendous delta at the mouth of it in the course of years. And however small may have been the amount of evil and deflection from God's law in that flowing river of my past life, what a filthy, foul bank of slime must be piled up down yonder at the mouth!
If the fact be so, then is not that a reason for our all going to the only One who can dredge it away, and get rid of it? 'Pardon me; for it is great.' That is to say, 'There is no one else who can deal with it but Thyself, O Lord! It is too large for me to cart away; it is too great for any inferior hand to deal with. I am so bad that I can come only to Thyself to be made better.' It is blessed and wise when the consciousness of our deep transgression drives us to the only Hand that can heal, to the only Heart that can forgive.
So, dear friends! in a blessed desperation of otherwise being unable to get rid of this burden which has grown on our backs ounce by ounce for long years, let us go to Him. He and He alone can deal with it. 'Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned,' and to Thee, Thee only, will I come.
Only remember that, before you ask, God has given. He is 'like the dew upon the grass, that waiteth not for man.' Instead of praying for pardon which is already bestowed, do you see to it that you take the pardon which God is praying you to receive. Swallow the bitter pill of acknowledging your own transgression; and then one look at the crucified Christ and one motion of believing desire towards Him; 'and the Lord hath made to pass the iniquity of thy sin.'
'One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.' —PSALM xxvii. 4.
We shall do great injustice to this mystical aspiration of the Psalmist, if we degrade it to be the mere expression of a desire for unbroken residence in a material Temple. He was no sickly, sentimental seeker after cloistered seclusion. He knew the necessities and duties of life far better than in a cowardly way to wish to shirk them, in order that he might loiter in the temple, idle under the pretence of worship. Nor would the saying fit into the facts of the case if we gave it that low meaning, for no person had his residence in the temple. And what follows in the next verse would, on that hypothesis, be entirely inappropriate. 'In the secret of His tabernacle shall He hide me.' No one went into the secret place of the Most High, in the visible, material structure, except the high priest once a year. But this singer expects that his abode will be there always; and that, in the time of trouble, he can find refuge there.
Apart altogether from any wider considerations as to the relation between form and spirit under the Old Covenant, I think that such observations compel us to see in these words a desire a great deal nobler and deeper than any such wish.
I. Let us, then, note the true meaning of this aspiration of the Psalmist.
Its fulfilment depends not on where we are, but on what we think and feel; for every place is God's house, and what the Psalmist desires is that he should be able to keep up unbroken consciousness of being in God's presence and should be always in touch with Him.
That seems hard, and people say, 'Impossible! how can I get above my daily work, and be perpetually thinking of God and His will, and consciously realising communion with Him?' But there is such a thing as having an undercurrent of consciousness running all through a man's life and mind; such a thing as having a melody sounding in our ears perpetually, 'so sweet we know not we are listening to it' until it stops, and then, by the poverty of the naked and silent atmosphere, we know how musical were the sounds that we scarcely knew that we heard, and yet did hear so well high above all the din of earth's noises.
Every man that has ever cherished such an aspiration as this knows the difficulties all too well. And yet, without entering upon thorny and unprofitable questions as to whether the absolute, unbroken continuity of consciousness of being in God's presence is possible for men here below, let us look at the question, which has a great deal more bearing upon our present condition—viz. whether a greater continuity of that consciousness is not possible than we attain to to-day. It does seem to me to be a foolish and miserable waste of time and temper and energy for good people to be quarrelling about whether they can come to the absolute realisation of this desire in this world, when there is not one of them who is not leagues below the possible realisation of it, and knows that he is. At all events, whether or not the line can be drawn without a break at all, the breaks might be a great deal shorter and a great deal less frequent than they are. An unbroken line of conscious communion with God is the ideal; and that is what this singer desired and worked for. How many of my feelings and thoughts to-day, or of the things that I have said or done since I woke this morning, would have been done and said and felt exactly the same, if there were not a God at all, or if it did not matter in the least whether I ever came into touch with Him or not? Oh, dear friends! it is no vain effort to bring our lives a little nearer that unbroken continuity of communion with Him of which this text speaks. And God knows, and we each for ourselves know, how much and how sore our need is of such a union. 'One thing have I desired, that will I seek after; that I, in my study; I, in my shop; I, in my parlour, kitchen, or nursery; I, in my studio; I, in my lecture-hall—'may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.' In our 'Father's house are many mansions.' The room that we spend most of our lives in, each of us, at our tasks or our work-tables may be in our Father's house, too; and it is only we that can secure that it shall be.
The inmost meaning of this Psalmist's desire is that the consciousness of God shall be diffused throughout the whole of a man's days, instead of being coagulated here and there at points. The Australian rivers in a drought present a picture of the Christian life of far too many of us—a stagnant, stinking pool here, a stretch of blinding gravel there; another little drop of water a mile away, then a long line of foul-smelling mud, and then another shallow pond. Why! it ought to run in a clear stream that has a scour in it and that will take all filth off the surface.
The Psalmist longed to break down the distinction between sacred and secular; to consecrate work, of whatsoever sort it was. He had learned what so many of us need to learn far more thoroughly, that if our religion does not drive the wheels of our daily business, it is of little use; and that if the field in which our religion has power to control and impel is not that of the trivialities and secularities of our ordinary life, there is no field for it at all.
'All the days of my life.' Not only on Wednesday nights, while Tuesday and Thursday are given to the world and self; not only on Sundays; not for five minutes in the morning, when I am eager to get to my daily work, and less than five minutes at night, when I am half asleep, but through the long day, doing this, that, and the other thing for God and by God and with God, and making Him the motive and the power of my course, and my Companion to heaven. And if we have, in our lives, things over which we cannot make the sign of the cross, the sooner we get rid of them the better; and if there is anything in our daily work, or in our characters, about which we are doubtful, here is a good test: does it seem to check our continual communion with God, as a ligature round the wrist might do the continual flow of the blood, or does it help us to realise His presence? If the former, let us have no more to do with it; if the latter, let us seek to increase it.
II. And now let me say a word about the Psalmist's reason for this aspiration.
The word which he employs carries with it a picture which is even more vividly given us by a synonymous word employed in the same connection in some of the other psalms. 'That I may dwell in the house of the Lord'—now, that is an allusion, not only, as I think, to the Temple, but also to the Oriental habit of giving a man who took refuge in the tent of the sheikh, guest-rites of protection and provision and friendship. The habit exists to this day, and travellers among the Bedouins tell us lovely stories of how even an enemy with the blood of the closest relative of the owner of the tent on his hands, if he can once get in there and partake of the salt of the host, is safe, and the first obligation of the owner of the tent is to watch over the life of the fugitive as over his own. So the Psalmist says, 'I desire to have guest-rites in Thy tent; to lift up its fold, and shelter there from the heat of the desert. And although I be dark and stained with many evils and transgressions against Thee, yet I come to claim the hospitality and provision and protection and friendship which the laws of the house do bestow upon a guest.' Carrying out substantially the same idea, Paul tells the Ephesians, as if it were the very highest privilege that the Gospel brought to the Gentiles: 'Ye are no more strangers, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God'; incorporated into His family, and dwelling safely in His pavilion as their home.
That is to say, the blessedness of keeping up such a continual consciousness of touch with God is, first and foremost, the certainty of infallible protection. Oh! how it minimises all trouble and brightens all joys, and calms amidst all distractions, and steadies and sobers in all circumstances, to feel ever the hand of God upon us! He who goes through life, finding that, when he has trouble to meet, it throws him back on God, and that when bright mornings of joy drive away nights of weeping, these wake morning songs of praise, and are brightest because they shine with the light of a Father's love, will never be unduly moved by any vicissitudes of fortune. Like some inland and sheltered valley, with great mountains shutting it in, that 'heareth not the loud winds when they call' beyond the barriers that enclose it, our lives may be tranquilly free from distraction, and may be full of peace, of nobleness, and of strength, on condition of our keeping in God's house all the days of our lives.
There is another blessing that will come to the dweller in God's house, and that not a small one. It is that, by the power of this one satisfied longing, driven like an iron rod through all the tortuosities of my life, there will come into it a unity which otherwise few lives are ever able to attain, and the want of which is no small cause of the misery that is great upon men. Most of us seem, to our own consciousness, to live amidst endless distractions all our days, and our lives to be a heap of links parted from each other rather than a chain. But if we have that one constant thought with us, and if we are, through all the variety of occupations, true to the one purpose of serving and keeping near God, then we have a charm against the frittering away of our lives in distractions, and the misery of multiplicity; and we enter into the blessedness of unity and singleness of purpose; and our lives become, like the starry heavens in all the variety of their motions, obedient to one impulse. For unity in a life does not depend upon the monotony of its tasks, but upon the simplicity of the motive which impels to all varieties of work. So it is possible for a man harassed by multitudinous avocations, and drawn hither and thither by sometimes apparently conflicting and always bewildering, rapidly-following duties, to say, 'This one thing I do,' if all his doings are equally acts of obedience to God.
III. So, lastly, note the method by which this desire is realised.
'One thing have I desired, ... that will I seek after' There are two points to be kept in view to that end. A great many people say, 'One thing have I desired,' and fail in persistent continuousness of the desire. No man gets rights of residence in God's house for a longer time than he continues to seek for them. The most advanced of us, and those that have longest been like Anna, who 'departed not from the Temple,' day nor night, will certainly eject ourselves unless, like the Psalmist, we use the verbs in both tenses, and say, 'One thing have I desired ... that will I seek after.' John Bunyan saw that there was a back door to the lower regions close by the gates of the Celestial City. There may be men who have long lived beneath the shadow of the sanctuary, and at the last will be found outside the gates.
But the words of the text not only suggest, by the two tenses of the verbs, the continuity of the desire which is destined to be granted, but also by the two verbs themselves—desire and seek after—the necessity of uniting prayer and work. Many desires are unsatisfied because conduct does not correspond to desires. Many a prayer remains unanswered because its pray-ers never do anything to fulfil their prayers. I do not say they are hypocrites; certainly they are not consciously so, but I do say that there is a large measure of conventionality that means nothing, in the prayers of average Christian people for more holiness and likeness to Jesus Christ.
Dear friends! if we truly wish this desire of dwelling in the house of the Lord to be fulfilled, the day's work must run in the same direction as the morning's petition, and we must, like the Psalmist, say, 'I have desired it of the Lord, so I, for my part, will seek after it.' Then, whether or not we reach absolutely to the standard, which is none the less to be aimed at, though it seems beyond reach, we shall arrive nearer and nearer to it; and, God helping our weakness and increasing our strength, quickening us to 'desire,' and upholding us to 'seek after,' we may hope that, when the days of our life are past, we shall but remove into an upper chamber, more open to the sunrise and flooded with light; and shall go no more out, but 'dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.'
'SEEK YE'—'I WILL SEEK'
'When Thou saidst, Seek ye my face; My heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek. 9. Hide not Thy face far from me.' —PSALM xxvii. 8, 9.
We have here a report of a brief dialogue between God and a devout soul. The Psalmist tells us of God's invitation and of his acceptance, and on both he builds the prayer that the face which he had been bidden to seek, and had sought, may not be hid from him. The correspondence between what God said to him and what he said to God is even more emphatically expressed in the original than in our version. In the Hebrew the sentence is dislocated, at the risk of being obscure, for the sake of bringing together the two voices. It runs thus, 'My heart said to Thee,' and then, instead of going on with his answer, the Psalmist interjects God's invitation 'Seek ye My face,' and then, side by side with that, he lays his response, 'Thy face, Lord, will I seek.' The completeness and swiftness of his answer could not be more vividly expressed. To hear was to obey: as soon as God's merciful call sounded, the Psalmist's heart responded, like a harp-string thrilled into music by the vibration of another tuned to the same note. Without hesitation, and in entire correspondence with the call, was his response. So swiftly, completely, resolutely should we respond to God's voice, and our ready 'I will' should answer His commandment, as the man at the wheel repeats the captain's orders whilst he carries them out. Upon such acceptance of such an invitation we, too, may build the prayer, 'Hide not Thy face far from me.'
Now, there are three things here that I desire to look at—God's merciful call to us all; the response of the devout soul to that call; and the prayer which is built upon both.
I. We have God's merciful call to us all.
'Thou saidst, Seek ye My face.' Now, that expression, 'the face of God,' though highly metaphorical, is perfectly clear and defined in its meaning. It corresponds substantially to what the Apostle Paul calls, in speaking of the knowledge of God beyond the limits of revelation, 'that which may be known of God'; or, in more modern language, the side of the divine nature which is turned to man; or, in plainer words still, God, in so far as He is revealed. It means substantially the same thing as the other Scriptural expression, 'the name of the Lord.' Both phrases draw a broad distinction between what God is, in the infinite fulness of His incomprehensible being, and what He is as revealed to man; and both imply that what is revealed is knowledge, real and valid, though it may be imperfect.
This, then, being the meaning of the phrase, what is the meaning of the invitation: 'Seek ye My face'? Have we to search for that, as if it were something hidden, far off, lost, and only to be recovered by our effort? No: a thousand times no! For the seeking, to which God mercifully invites us, is but the turning of the direction of our desires to Him, the recognition of the fact that His face is more than all else to men, the recognition that whilst there are many that say, 'Who will show us any good?' and put the question impatiently, despairingly, vainly, they that turn the seeking into a prayer, and ask, 'Lord! lift Thou the light of Thy countenance upon us,' will never ask in vain. To seek is to desire, to turn the direction of thought and will and affection to Him and to take heed that the ordering of our daily lives is such as that no mist rising from them shall come between us and that brightness of light, or hide from us the vision splendid. They who seek God by desire, by the direction of thought and will and love, and by the regulation of their daily lives in accordance with that desire, are they who obey this commandment.
Next we come to that great thought that God is ever sounding out to all mankind this invitation to seek His face. By the revelation of Himself He bids us all sun ourselves in the brightness of His countenance. One of the New Testament writers, in a passage which is mistranslated in our Authorised Version, says that God 'calls us by His own glory and virtue.' That is to say, the very manifestation of the divine Being is such that there lies in it a summons to behold Him, and an attraction to Himself. So fair is He, that He but needs to withdraw the veil, and men's hearts rejoice in that countenance, which is as the sun shining in his strength; 'nor know we anything more fair than is the smile upon His face.' If we see Him as He really is, we cannot choose but love. By all His works He calls us to seek Him, not only because the intellect demands that there shall be a personal Will behind all these phenomena, but because they in themselves proclaim His name, and the proclamation of His name is the summons to behold.
By the very make of our own spirits He calls us to Himself. Our restlessness, our yearnings, our movings about as aliens in the midst of things seen and visible, all these bid us turn to Him in whom alone our capacities can be satisfied, and the hunger of our souls appeased. You remember the old story of the Saracen woman who came to England seeking her lover, and passed through these foreign cities, with no word upon her tongue that could be understood of those that heard her except his name whom she sought. Ah! that is how men wander through the earth, strangers in the midst of it. They cannot translate the cry of their own hearts, but it means, 'God—my soul thirsteth for Thee'; and the thirst bids us seek His face.
He summons us by all the providences and events of our changeful lives. Our sorrows by their poignancy, our joys by their incompleteness and their transiency, alike call us to Him in whom alone the sorrows can be soothed and the joys made full and remain. Our duties, by their heaviness, call us to turn ourselves to Him, in whom alone we can find the strength to fill the role that is laid upon us, and to discharge our daily tasks.
But, most of all, He summons us to Himself by Him who is the Angel of His Face, 'the effulgence of His glory, and the express image of His person.' In the face of Jesus Christ, 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God' beams out upon us, as it never shone on this Psalmist of old. He saw but a portion of that countenance, through a thick veil which thinned as faith gazed, but was never wholly withdrawn. The voice that he heard calling him was less penetrating and less laden with love than the voice that calls us. He caught some tones of invitation sounding in providences and prophecies, in ceremonies and in law; we hear them more full and clear from the lips of a Brother. They sound to us from the cradle and the cross, and they are wafted down to us from the throne. God's merciful invitation to us poor men never has taken, nor will, nor can, take a sweeter and more attractive form than in Christ's version of it: 'Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' Friend! that summons comes to us; may we deal with it as the Psalmist did!
II. That brings me to note, secondly, the devout soul's response to the loving call from God.
I have already pointed out how beautifully and vividly the contrast between the two is expressed in our text: 'Seek ye My face'—'Thy face will I seek.' The Psalmist takes the general invitation and converts it into an individual one, to which he responds. God's 'ye' is met by his 'I.' The Psalmist makes no hesitation or delay—'When Thou saidst ... my heart said to Thee.' The Psalmist gathers himself together in a concentrated resolve of a fixed determination—'Thy face will I seek.' That is how we ought to respond.
Make the general invitation thy very own. God summons all, because He summons each. He does not cast His invitations out at random over the heads of a crowd, as some rich man might fling coins to a mob, but He addresses every one of us singly and separately, as if there were not another soul in the universe to hear His voice but our very own selves. It is for us not to lose ourselves in the crowd, since He has not lost us in it; but to appropriate, to individualise, to make our very own, the universality of His call to the world. It matters nothing to you what other men may do; it matters not to you how many others may be invited, and whether they may accept or may refuse. When that 'Seek ye' comes to my heart, life or death depends on my answering, 'Whatsoever others may do, as for me I will seek Thy face.' We preachers that have to stand and address a multitude sound out the invitation, and it loses in power, the more there are to listen to us. If I could get you one by one, the poorest words would have more weight with you than the strongest have when spoken to a crowd. Brother! God individualises us, and God speaks to Thee, 'Wilt thou behold My face?' Answer, 'As for me, I will.'
Again, the Psalmist 'made haste, and delayed not, but made haste' to respond to the merciful summons. Ah! how many of us, in how many different ways, fall into the snare 'by-and-by'! 'not now'; and all these days, that slip away whilst we hesitate, gather themselves together to be our accusers hereafter. Friend! why should you limit the blessedness that may come into your life to the fag end of it when you have got tired and satiated, or tired and disappointed with the world and its good? 'Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near.' It is poor courtesy to show to a merciful invitation from a bountiful host if I say; 'After I have looked to the oxen I have bought, and tested them, and measured the field that I have acquired; after I have drunk the sweetness of wedded life with the wife that I have married, then I will come. But, for the present, I pray thee, have me excused.' And that is what many are doing, more or less.
The Psalmist gathered himself together in a fixed resolve, and said, 'I will.' That is what we have to do. A languid seeker will not find; an earnest one will not fail to find. But if half-heartedly, now and then, when we are at leisure in the intervals of more important and pressing daily business, we spasmodically bethink ourselves, and for a little while seek for the light of God's felt presence to shine upon us, we shall not get it. But if we lay a masterful hand, as we ought to do, on these divergent desires that draw us asunder, and bind ourselves, as it were, together, by the strong cord of a resolved purpose carried out throughout our lives, then we shall certainly not seek in vain.
Alas! how strange and how sad is the reception which this merciful invitation receives from so many of us! Some of you never hear it at all. Standing in the very focus where the sounds converge, you are deaf, as if a man behind the veil of the falling water of Niagara, on that rocky shelf there, should hear nothing. From every corner of the universe that voice comes; from all the providences and events of our lives that voice comes; from the life and death of Jesus Christ that voice comes; and not a sound reaches your ears. 'Having ears, they hear not,' and some of us might take the Psalmist's answer, with one sad word added, as ours—'When Thou saidst, Seek ye My face, my heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I not seek.'
Brethren! it is heaven on earth to say, 'Thou dost call, and I answer. Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.' Yet you shut yourselves up to, and with, misery and vanity, if you so deal with God's merciful summons as some of us are dealing with it, so that He has to say, 'I called, and ye refused; I stretched out My hand, and no man regarded.'
III. Lastly, we have here a prayer built upon both the invitation and the acceptance.
'Hide not Thy face far from me.' That prayer implies that God will not contradict Himself. His promises are commandments. If He bids us seek He binds Himself to show. His veracity, His unchangeableness, are pledged to this, that no man who yields to His invitation will be balked of his desire. He does not hold out the gift in His hand, and then twitch it away when we put out encouraged and stimulated hands to grasp it. You have seen children flashing bright reflections from a mirror on to a wall, and delighting to direct them away to another spot, when a hand has been put out to touch them. That is not how God does. The light that He reveals is steady, and whosoever turns his face to it will be irradiated by its brightness.
The prayer builds itself on the assurance that, because God will not contradict Himself, therefore every heart seeking is sure to issue in a heart finding. There is only one region where that is true, brethren! there is only one tract of human experience in which the promise is always and absolutely fulfilled:—'Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find.' We hunt after all other good, and at the best we get it in part or for a time, and when possessed, it is not as bright as when it shone in the delusive colours of hope and desire. If you follow other good, and are drawn after the elusive lights that dance before you, and only show how great is the darkness, you will not reach them, but will be mired in the bog. If you follow after God's face, it will make a sunshine in the shadiest places of life here. You will be blessed because you walk all the day long in the light of His countenance, and when you pass hence it will irradiate the darkness of death, and thereafter, 'His servants shall serve Him, and shall see His face,' and, seeing, shall be made like Him, for 'His name shall be in their foreheads.'
Brethren! we have to make our choice whether we shall see His face here on earth, and so meet it hereafter as that of a long-separated and long-desired friend; or whether we shall see it first when He is on His throne, and we at His bar, and so shall have to 'call on the rocks and the hills to fall on us, and cover us from the face of Him who is our Judge.'
THE TWO GUESTS
'His anger endureth but a moment; in His favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.'—PSALM xxx. 5.
A word or two of exposition is necessary in order to bring out the force of this verse. There is an obvious antithesis in the first part of it, between 'His anger' and 'His favour.' Probably there is a similar antithesis between a 'moment' and 'life.' For, although the word rendered 'life' does not unusually mean a lifetime it may have that signification, and the evident intention of contrast seems to require it here. So, then, the meaning of the first part of my text is, 'the anger lasts for a moment; the favour lasts for a lifetime.' The perpetuity of the one, and the brevity of the other, are the Psalmist's thought.
Then, if we pass to the second part of the text, you will observe that there is there also a double antithesis. 'Weeping' is set over against 'joy'; the 'night' against the 'morning.' And the first of these two contrasts is the more striking if we observe that the word 'joy' means, literally, 'a joyful shout,' so that the voice which was lifted in weeping is conceived of as now being heard in exultant praise. Then, still further, the expression 'may endure' literally means 'may come to lodge.' So that Weeping and Joy are personified. Two guests come; one, dark-robed and approaching at the fitting season for such, 'the night.' The other bright, coming with all things fresh and sunny, in the dewy morn. The guest of the night is Weeping; the guest that takes its place in the morning is Gladness.
The two clauses, then, of my text suggest substantially the same thought, and that is the persistence of joy and the transitoriness of sorrow. The one speaks of the succession of emotions in the man; the other, of the successive aspects of the divine dealings which occasion these. The whole is a leaf out of the Psalmist's own experience. The psalm commemorates his deliverance from some affliction, probably a sickness. That is long gone past; and the tears that it caused have long since dried up. But this shout of joy of his has lasted all these centuries, and is like to be immortal. Well for us if we can read our life's story with the same cheery confidence as he did his, and have learned like him to discern what is the temporary and what the permanent element in our experience!
I. Note, first, the proportion of joy and sorrow in an ordinary life.
The Psalmist expresses, as I have said, the same idea in both clauses. In the former the 'anger' is contemplated not so much as an element in the divine mind, as in its manifestations in the divine dealings. I shall have a word or two, presently, to say about the Scriptural conception of the 'anger' of God and its relation to the 'favour' of God; but for the present I take the two clauses as being substantially equivalent.
Now is it true—is it not true?—that if a man rightly regards the proportionate duration of these two diverse elements in his life, he must come to the conclusion that the one is continuous and the other is but transitory? A thunderstorm is very short when measured against the long summer day in which it crashes; and very few days have them. It must be a bad climate where half the days are rainy. If we were to take the chart and prick out upon it the line of our sailing, we should find that the spaces in which the weather was tempestuous were brief and few indeed as compared with those in which it was sunny and calm.
But then, man looks before and after, and has the terrible gift that by anticipation and by memory he can prolong the sadness. The proportion of solid matter needed to colour the Irwell is very little in comparison with the whole of the stream. But the current carries it, and half an ounce will stain miles of the turbid stream. Memory and anticipation beat the metal thin, and make it cover an enormous space. And the misery is that, somehow, we have better memories for sad hours than for joyful ones, and it is easier to get accustomed to 'blessings,' as we call them, and to lose the poignancy of their sweetness because they become familiar, than it is to apply the same process to our sorrows, and thus to take the edge off them. The rose's prickles are felt in the flesh longer than its fragrance lives in the nostrils, or its hue in the eye. Men have long memories for their pains as compared with their remembrance of their sorrows.
So it comes to be a piece of very homely, well-worn, and yet always needful, practical counsel to try not to magnify and prolong grief, nor to minimise and abbreviate gladness. We can make our lives, to our own thinking, very much what we will. We cannot directly regulate our emotions, but we can regulate them, because it is in our own power to determine which aspect of our life we shall by preference contemplate.
Here is a room, for instance, papered with a paper with a dark background and a light pattern on it. Well, you can manoeuvre your eye about so as either to look at the black background—and then it is all black, with only a little accidental white or gilt to relieve it here and there; or you can focus your eye on the white and gold, and then that is the main thing, and the other is background. We can choose, to a large extent, what we shall conceive our lives to be; and so we can very largely modify their real character.
'There's nothing either good or bad But thinking makes it so.'
They who will can surround themselves with persistent gladness, and they who will can gather about them the thick folds of an everbrooding and enveloping sorrow. Courage, cheerfulness, thankfulness, buoyancy, resolution, are all closely connected with a sane estimate of the relative proportions of the bright and the dark in a human life.