Thus, dear brethren! these two keys—joy in God, and trust in His guidance—open for us the double doors of 'the secret place of the Most High'; where all the roar of the busy world dies upon the ear, and the still small voice of the present God deepens the silence, and hushes the heart. Be quiet, and you will hear Him speak—delight in Him, that you may be quiet. Let the affections feed on Him, the will wait mute before Him, till His command inclines it to decision, and quickens it into action; let the desires fix upon His all-sufficiency; and then the wilderness will be no more trackless, but the ruddy blaze of the guiding pillar will brighten on the sand a path which men's hands have never made, nor human feet trodden into a road. He will 'guide us with His eye,' if our eyes be fixed on Him, and be swift to discern and eager to obey the lightest glance that love can interpret. Shall we be 'like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding,' and need to be pulled with bridles and beaten with whips before they know how to go; or shall we be like some trained creature that is guided by the unseen cord of docile submission, and has learned to read the duty, which is its joy, in the glance of its master's eye, or the wave of his hand? 'Delight thyself in the Lord: commit thy way unto Him.'
III. Our text takes one more step. The secret of tranquillity is found, thirdly, in freedom from the anxiety of an unknown future. 'Best in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.'
Such an addition to these previous counsels is needful, if all the sources of our disquiet are to be dealt with. The future is dim, after all our straining to see into its depths. The future is threatening, after all our efforts to prepare for its coming storms. A rolling vapour veils it all; here and there a mountain peak seems to stand out; but in a moment another swirl of the fog hides it from us. We know so little, and what we do know is so sad, that the ignorance of what may be, and the certainty of what must be, equally disturb us with hopes which melt into fears, and forebodings which consolidate into certainties. We are sure that in that future are losses, and sorrows, and death; thank God! we are sure too, that He is in it. That certainty alone, and what comes of it, makes it possible for a thoughtful man to face to-morrow without fear or tumult. The only rest from apprehensions which are but too reasonable is 'rest in the Lord.' If we are sure that He will be there, and if we delight in Him, then we can afford to say, 'As for all the rest, let it be as He wills, it will be well.' That thought alone, dear friends! will give calmness. What else is there, brethren! for a man fronting that vague future, from whose weltering sea such black, sharp-toothed rocks protrude? Shall we bow before some stern Fate, as its lord, and try to be as stern as It? Shall we think of some frivolous Chance, as tossing its unguided waves, and try to be as frivolous as It? Shall we try to be content with an animal limitation to the present, and heighten the bright colour of the little to-day by the black background that surrounds it, saying, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die'? Is it not better, happier, nobler, every way truer, to look into that perilous uncertain future, or rather to look past it to the loving Father who is its Lord and ours, and to wait patiently for Him? Confidence that the future will but evolve God's purposes, and that all these are enlisted on our side, will give peace and power. Without it all is chaos, and we flying atoms in the anarchic mass; or else all is coldblooded impersonal law, and we crushed beneath its chariot-wheels. Here, and here alone, is the secret of tranquillity.
But remember, brethren! that the peaceful confidence of this final counsel is legitimate only when we have obeyed the other two. I have no business, for instance, to expect God to save me from the natural consequences of my own worldliness or folly. If I have taken up a course from eager desires for earthly good, or from obedience to any inclination of my own without due regard to His will, I have no right, when things begin to go awry, to turn round to God and say, 'Lord! I wait upon Thee to save me.' And though repentance, and forsaking of our evil ways at any point in a man's course, do ensure, through Jesus Christ, God's loving forgiveness, yet the evil consequences of past folly are often mercifully suffered to remain with us all our days. He who has delighted in the Lord, and committed his way unto Him, can venture to front whatever may be coming; and though not without much consciousness of sin and weakness, can yet cast upon God the burden of taking care of him, and claim from his faithful Father the protection and the peace which He has bound Himself to give.
And O dear friends! what a calm will enter our souls then, solid, substantial, 'the peace of God,' gift and effluence from the 'God of peace'! How blessed then to leave all the possible to-morrow with a very quiet heart in His hands! How easy then to bear the ignorance, how possible then to face the certainties, of that solemn future! Change and death can only thin away and finally remove the film that separates us from our delight. Whatever comes here or yonder can but bring us blessing; for we must be glad if we have God, and if our wills are parallel with His, whose Will all things serve. Our way is traced by Him, and runs alongside of His. It leads to Himself. Then rest in the Lord, and 'judge nothing before the time.' We cannot criticise the Great Artist when we stand before His unfinished masterpiece, and see dim outlines here, a patch of crude colour there. But wait patiently for Him, and so, in calm expectation of a blessed future and a finished work, which will explain the past, in honest submission of our way to God, in supreme delight in Him who is the gladness of our joy, the secret of tranquillity will be ours.
THE BITTERNESS AND BLESSEDNESS OF THE BREVITY OF LIFE
'Surely every man walketh in a vain shew.... 12. I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.' —PSALM xxxix. 6, 12.
These two sayings are two different ways of putting the same thing. There is a common thought underlying both, but the associations with which that common thought is connected in these two verses are distinctly different. The one is bitter and sad—a gloomy half truth. The other, out of the very same fact, draws blessedness and hope. The one may come from no higher point of view than the level of worldly experience; the other is a truth of faith. The former is at best partial, and without the other may be harmful; the latter completes, explains, and hallows it.
And that this progress and variety in the thought is the key to the whole psalm is, I think, obvious to any one who will examine it with care. I cannot here enter on that task but in the hastiest fashion, by way of vindicating the connection which I trace between the two verses of our text. The Psalmist begins, then, with telling how at some time recently passed—in consequence of personal calamity not very clearly defined, but apparently some bodily sickness aggravated by mental sorrow and anxiety—he was struck dumb with silence, so that he 'held his peace even from good.' In that state there rose within him many sad and miserable thoughts, which at last forced their way through his locked lips. They shape themselves into a prayer, which is more complaint than petition—and which is absorbed in the contemplation of the manifest melancholy facts of human life—'Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before Thee.' And then, as that thought dilates and sinks deeper into his soul, he looks out upon the whole race of man—and in tones of bitterness and hopelessness, affirms that all are vanity, shadows, disquieted in vain. The blank hopelessness of such a view brings him to a standstill. It is true—but taken alone is too dreadful to think of. 'That way madness lies,'—so he breaks short off his almost despairing thoughts, and with a swift turning away of his mind from the downward gaze into blackness that was beginning to make him reel, he fixes his eyes on the throne above—'And now, Lord! what wait I for? my hope is in Thee.' These words form the turning-point of the psalm. After them, the former thoughts are repeated, but with what a difference—made by looking at all the blackness and sorrow, both personal and universal, in the bright light of that hope which streams upon the most lurid masses of opaque cloud, till their gloom begins to glow with an inward lustre, and softens into solemn purples and reds. He had said, 'I was dumb with silence—even from good.' But when his hope is in God, the silence changes its character and becomes resignation and submission. 'I opened not my mouth; because Thou didst it.' The variety of human life and its transiency is not less plainly seen than before; but in the light of that hope it is regarded in relation to God's paternal correction, and is seen to be the consequence, not of a defect in His creative wisdom or love, but of man's sin. 'Thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity.' That, to him who waits on the Lord, is the reason and the alleviation of the reiterated conviction, 'Every man is vanity.' Not any more does he say every man 'at his best state,' or, as it might be more accurately expressed, 'even when most firmly established,'—for the man who is established in the Lord is not vanity, but only the man who founds his being on the fleeting present. Then, things being so, life being thus in itself and apart from God so fleeting and so sad, and yet with a hope that brightens it like sunshine through an April shower—the Psalmist rises to prayer, in which that formerly expressed conviction of the brevity of life is reiterated, with the addition of two words which changes its whole aspect, 'I am a stranger with Thee.' He is God's guest in his transient life. It is short, like the stay of a foreigner in a strange land; but he is under the care of the King of the Land—therefore he need not fear nor sorrow. Past generations, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—whose names God 'is not ashamed' to appeal to in His own solemn designation of Himself—have held the same relation, and their experience has sealed His faithful care of those who dwell with Him. Therefore, the sadness is soothed, and the vain and fleeting life of earth assumes a new appearance, and the most blessed and wisest issue of our consciousness of frailty and insufficiency is the fixing of our desires and hopes on Him in whose house we may dwell even while we wander to and fro, and in whom our life being rooted and established shall not be vain, howsoever it may be brief.
If, then, we follow the course of contemplation thus traced in the psalm, we have these three points brought before us—first, the thought of life common to both clauses; second, the gloomy, aimless hollowness which that thought breathes into life apart from God; third, the blessedness which springs from the same thought when we look at it in connection with our Father in heaven.
I. Observe the very forcible expression which is given here to the thought of life common to both verses.
'Every man walketh in a vain show.' The original is even more striking and strong. And although one does not like altering words so familiar as those of our translation, which have sacredness from association and a melancholy music in their rhythm—still it is worth while to note that the force of the expression which the Psalmist employs is correctly given in the margin, 'in an image'—or 'in a shadow.' The phrase sounds singular to us, but is an instance of a common enough Hebrew idiom, and is equivalent to saying—he walks in the character or likeness of a shadow, or, as we should say, he walks as a shadow. That is to say, the whole outward life and activity of every man is represented as fleeting and unsubstantial, like the reflection of a cloud which darkens leagues of the mountains' side in a moment, and ere a man can say, 'Behold!' is gone again for ever.
Then, look at the other image employed in the other clause of our text to express the same idea, 'I am a stranger and a sojourner, as all my fathers.' The phrase has a history. In that most pathetic narrative of an old-world sorrow long since calmed and consoled, when 'Abraham stood up from before his dead,' and craved a burying-place for his Sarah from the sons of Heth, his first plea was, 'I am a stranger and a sojourner with you.' In his lips it was no metaphor. He was a stranger, a visitor for a brief time to an alien land; he was a sojourner, having no rights of inheritance, but settled among them for a while, and though dwelling among them, not adopted into their community. He was a foreigner, not naturalised. And such is our relation to all this visible frame of things in which we dwell. It is alien to us; though we be in it, our true affinities are elsewhere; though we be in it, our stay is brief, as that of 'a wayfaring man that turns aside to tarry for a night.'
And there is given in the context still another metaphor setting forth the same fact in that dreary generalisation which precedes my text, 'Every man at his best state'—or as the word means, 'established,'— with his roots most firmly struck in the material and visible—'is only a breath.' It appears for a moment, curling from lip and nostril into the cold morning air, and vanishes away, so thus vaporous, filmy, is the seeming solid fact of the most stable life.
These have been the commonplaces of poets and rhetoricians and moralists in all time. But threadbare as the thought is, I may venture to dwell on it for a moment. I know I am only repeating what we all believe—and all forget. It is never too late to preach commonplaces, until everybody acts on them as well as admits them—and this old familiar truth has not yet got so wrought into the structure of our lives that we can afford to say no more about it.
'Surely every man walketh in a shadow.' Did you ever stand upon the shore on some day of that 'uncertain weather, when gloom and glory meet together,' and notice how swiftly there went, racing over miles of billows, a darkening that quenched all the play of colour in the waves, as if all suddenly the angel of the waters had spread his broad wings between sun and sea, and then how in another moment as swiftly it flits away, and with a burst the light blazes out again, and leagues of ocean flash into green and violet and blue. So fleeting, so utterly perishable are our lives for all their seeming solid permanency. 'Shadows in a career, as George Herbert has it—breath going out of the nostrils. We think of ourselves as ever to continue in our present posture. We are deceived by illusions. Mental indolence, a secret dislike of the thought, and the impostures of sense, all conspire to make us blind to, or at least oblivious of, the plain fact which every beat of our pulses might preach, and the slow creeping hands of every parish clock confirm. How awful that silent, unceasing footfall of receding days is when once we begin to watch it! Inexorable, passionless—though hope and fear may pray, 'Sun! stand thou still on Gibeon; and thou moon! in the valley of Ajalon,'—the tramp of the hours goes on. The poets paint them as a linked chorus of rosy forms, garlanded, and clasping hands as they dance onwards. So they may be to some of us at some moments. So they may seem as they approach; but those who come hold the hands of those who go, and that troop has no rosy light upon their limbs, their garlands are faded, the sunshine falls not upon the grey and shrouded shapes, as they steal ghostlike through the gloom—and ever and ever the bright and laughing sisters pass on into that funereal band which grows and moves away from us unceasing. Alas! for many of us it bears away with it our lost treasures, our shattered hopes, our joys from which all the bright petals have dropped! Alas! for many of us there is nothing but sorrow in watching how all things become 'part and parcel of the dreadful past.'
And how strangely sometimes even a material association may give new emphasis to that old threadbare truth. Some more permanent thing may help us to feel more profoundly the shadowy fleetness of man. The trifles are so much more lasting than their owners. Or, as 'the Preacher' puts it, with such wailing pathos, 'One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever.' This material is perishable—but yet how much more enduring than we are! The pavements we walk upon, the coals in our grates—how many millenniums old are they? The pebble you kick aside with your foot—how many generations will it outlast? Go into a museum and you will see hanging there, little the worse for centuries, battered shields, notched swords, and gaping helmets—aye, but what has become of the bright eyes that once flashed the light of battle through the bars, what has become of the strong hands that once gripped the hilts? 'The knights are dust,' and 'their good swords are' not 'rust.' The material lasts after its owner. Seed corn is found in a mummy case. The poor form beneath the painted lid is brown and hard, and more than half of it gone to pungent powder, and the man that once lived has faded utterly: but the handful of seed has its mysterious life in it, and when it is sown, in due time the green blade pushes above English soil, as it would have done under the shadow of the pyramids four thousand years ago—and its produce waves in a hundred harvest fields to-day. The money in your purses now, will some of it bear the head of a king that died half a century ago. It is bright and useful—where are all the people that in turn said they 'owned' it? Other men will live in our houses, will preach from this pulpit, and sit in these pews, when you and I are far away. And other June days will come, and the old rose-trees will flower round houses where unborn men will then be living, when the present possessor is gone to nourish the roots of the roses in the graveyard!
'Our days are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.' So said David on other occasions. We know, dear brethren! how true it is, whether we consider the ceaseless flux and change of things, the mystic march of the silent-footed hours, or the greater permanence which attaches to the 'things which perish,' than to our abode among them. We know it, and yet how hard it is not to yield to the inducement to act and feel as if all this painted scenery were solid rock and mountain. By our own inconsiderateness and sensuousness, we live in a lie, in a false dream of permanence, and so in a sadder sense we walk in 'a vain show,'—deluding ourselves with the conceit of durability, and refusing to see that the apparent is the shadowy, and the one enduring reality God. It is hard to get even the general conviction vivified in men's minds, hardest of all to get any man to reflect upon it as applying to himself. Do not think that you have said enough to vindicate neglect of my words now, when you call them commonplace. So they are. But did you ever take that well-worn old story, and press it on your own consciousness—as a man might press a common little plant, whose juice is healing, against his dim eye-ball—by saying to yourself, 'It is true of me. I walk as a shadow. I am gliding onwards to my doom. Through my slack hands the golden sands are flowing, and soon my hour-glass will run out, and I shall have to stop and go away.' Let me beseech you for one half-hour's meditation on that fact before this day closes. You will forget my words then, when with your own eyes you have looked upon that truth, and felt that it is not merely a toothless commonplace, but belongs to and works in thy life, as it ebbs away silently and incessantly from thee.
II. Let me point, in the second place, to the gloomy, aimless hollowness which that thought, apart from God, infuses into life.
There is, no doubt, a double idea in the metaphor which the Psalmist employs. He desires to set forth, by his image of a shadow, not only the transiency, but the unsubstantialness of life. Shadow is opposed to substance, to that which is real, as well as to that which is enduring. And we may further say that the one of these characteristics is in great part the occasion of the other. Because life is fleeting, therefore, in part, it is so hollow and unsatisfying. The fact that men are dragged away from their pursuits so inexorably makes these pursuits seem, to any one who cannot see beyond that fact, trivial and not worth the following. Why should we fret and toil and break our hearts, 'and scorn delights, and live laborious days' for purposes which will last so short a time, and things which we shall so soon have to leave? What is all our bustle and business, when the sad light of that thought falls on it, but 'labouring for the wind'? 'Were it not better to lie still?' Such thoughts have at least a partial truth in them, and are difficult to meet as long as we think only of the facts and results of man's life that we can see with our eyes, and our psalm gives emphatic utterance to them. The word rendered 'walketh' in our text is not merely a synonym for passing through life, but has a very striking meaning. It is an intensive frequentative form of the word—that is, it represents the action as being repeated over and over again. For instance, it might be used to describe the restless motion of a wild beast in a cage, raging from side to side, never still, and never getting any farther for all the racing backward and forward. So here it signifies 'walketh to and fro,' and implies hurry and bustle, continuous effort, habitual unrest. It thus comes to be parallel with the stronger words which follow,— 'Surely they are disquieted in vain'; and one reason why all this effort and agitation are purposeless and sad, is because the man who is straining his nerves and wearying his legs is but a shadow in regard to duration—'He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.'
Yes! if we have said all, when we have said that men pass as a fleeting shadow—if my life has no roots in the Eternal, nor any consciousness of a life that does not pass, and a light that never perishes, if it is derived from, directed to, 'cribbed, cabined, and confined' within this visible diurnal sphere, then it is all flat and unprofitable, an illusion while it seems to last, and all its pursuits are folly, its hopes dreams, its substances vapours, its years a lie. For, if life be thus short, I who live it am conscious of, and possess whether I be conscious of them or no, capacities and requirements which, though they were to be annihilated to-morrow, could be satisfied while they lasted by nothing short of the absolute ideal, the all-perfect, the infinite—or, to put away abstractions, 'My soul thirsteth for God, the living God!' 'He hath put eternity in their heart,' as the book of Ecclesiastes says. Longings and aspirations, weaknesses and woes, the limits of creature helps and loves, the disproportion between us and the objects around us—all these facts of familiar experience do witness, alike by blank misgivings and by bright hopes, by many disappointments and by indestructible expectations surviving them all, that nothing which has a date, a beginning, or an end, can fill our souls or give us rest. Can you fill up the swamps of the Mississippi with any cartloads of faggots you can fling in? Can you fill your souls with anything which belongs to this fleeting life? Has a flying shadow an appreciable thickness, or will a million of them pressed together occupy a space in your empty, hungry heart?
And so, dear brethren! I come to you with a message which may sound gloomy, and beseech you to give heed to it. No matter how you may get on in the world—though you may fulfil every dream with which you began in your youth—you will certainly find that without Christ for your Brother and Saviour, God for your Friend, and heaven for your hope, life, with all its fulness, is empty. It lasts long, too long as it sometimes seems for work, too long for hope, too long for endurance; long enough to let love die, and joys wither and fade, and companions drop away, but without God and Christ, you will find it but 'as a watch in the night.' At no moment through the long weary years will it satisfy your whole being; and when the weary years are all past, they will seem to have been but as one troubled moment breaking the eternal silence. At every point so profitless, and all the points making so thin and short a line! The crested waves seem heaped together as they recede from the eye till they reach the horizon, where miles of storm are seen but as a line of spray. So when a man looks back upon his life, if it have been a godless one, be sure of this, that he will have a dark and cheerless retrospect over a tossing waste, with a white rim of wandering barren foam vexed by tempest, and then, if not before, he will sadly learn how he has been living amidst shadows, and, with a nature that needs God, has wasted himself upon the world. 'O life! as futile then as frail'; 'surely,' in such a case, 'every man walketh in a vain show.'
III. But note, finally, how our other text in its significant words gives us the blessedness which springs from this same thought of life, when it is looked at in connection with God.
The mere conviction of the brevity and hollowness of life is not in itself a religious or a helpful thought. Its power depends upon the other ideas which are associated with it. It is susceptible of the most opposite applications, and may tend to impel conduct in exactly opposite directions. It may be the language of despair or of bright hope. It may be the bitter creed of a worn-out debauchee, who has wasted his life in hunting shadows, and is left with a cynical spirit and a barbed tongue. It may be the passionless belief of a retired student, or the fanatical faith of a religious ascetic. It may be an argument for sensuous excess, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die'; or it may be the stimulus for noble and holy living, 'I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day. The night cometh.' The other accompanying beliefs determine whether it shall be a blight or a blessing to a man.
And the one addition which is needed to incline the whole weight of that conviction to the better side, and to light up all its blackness, is that little phrase in this text, 'I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner.' There seems to be an allusion here to remarkable words connected with the singular Jewish institution of the Jubilee. You remember that by the Mosaic law, there was no absolute sale of land in Israel, but that every half century the whole returned to the descendants of the original occupiers. Important economical and social purposes were contemplated in this arrangement, as well as the preservation of the relative position of the tribes as settled at the Conquest. But the law itself assigns a purely religious purpose—the preservation of the distinct consciousness of the tenure on which the people held their territory, namely, obedience to and dependence on God. 'The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is Mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me.' Of course, there was a special sense in which that was true with regard to Israel, but David thought that the words were as true in regard to his whole relation to God, as in regard to Israel's possession of its national inheritance.
If we grasp these words as completing all that we have already said, how different this transient and unsubstantial life looks! You must have the light from both sides to stereoscope and make solid the flat surface picture. Transient! yes—but it is passed in the presence of God. Whether we know it or no, our brief days hang upon Him, and we walk, all of us, in the light of His countenance. That makes the transient eternal, the shadowy substantial, the trivial heavy with solemn meaning and awful yet vast possibilities. 'In our embers is something that doth live.' If we had said all, when we say 'We are as a shadow,' it would matter very little, though even then it would matter something, how we spent our shadowy days; but if these poor brief hours are spent 'in the great Taskmaster's eye,'—if the shadow cast on earth proclaims a light in the heavens—if from this point there hangs an unending chain of conscious being—Oh! then, with what awful solemnity is the brevity, with what tremendous magnitude is the minuteness, of our earthly days invested! 'With Thee'—then I am constantly in the presence of a sovereign Law and its Giver; 'with Thee'—then all my actions are registered and weighed yonder; 'with Thee'—then 'Thou, God, seest me.' Brethren! it is the prismatic halo and ring of eternity round this poor glass of time that gives it all its dignity, all its meaning. The lives that are lived before God cannot be trifles.
And if this relation to time be recognised and accepted and held fast by our hearts and minds, then what calm blessedness will flow into our souls!
'A stranger with Thee,'—then we are the guests of the King. The Lord of the land charges Himself with our protection and provision; we journey under His safe conduct. It is for His honour and faithfulness that no harm shall come to us travelling in His territory, and relying on His word. Like Abraham with the sons of Heth, we may claim the protection and help which a stranger needs. He recognises the bond and will fulfil it. We have eaten of His salt, and He will answer for our safety.—'He that toucheth you toucheth the apple of Mine eye.'
'A stranger with Thee,'—then we have a constant Companion and an abiding Presence. We may be solitary and necessarily remote from the polity of the land. We may feel amid all the visible things of earth as if foreigners. We may not have a foot of soil, not even a grave for our dead. Companionships may dissolve and warm hands grow cold and their close clasp relax—what then? He is with us still. He will join us as we journey, even when our hearts are sore with loss. He will walk with us by the way, and make our chill hearts glow. He will sit with us at the table—however humble the meal, and He will not leave us when we discern Him. Strangers we are indeed here—but not solitary, for we are 'strangers with Thee.' As in some ancestral home in which a family has lived for centuries—son after father has rested in its great chambers, and been safe behind its strong walls—so, age after age, they who love Him abide in God.—'Thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations.'
'Strangers with Thee,'—then we may carry our thoughts forward to the time when we shall go to our true home, nor wander any longer in a land that is not ours. If even here we come into such blessed relationships with God, that fact is in itself a prophecy of a more perfect communion and a heavenly house. They who are strangers with Him will one day be 'at home with the Lord,' and in the light of that blessed hope the transiency of this life changes its whole aspect, loses the last trace of sadness, and becomes a solemn joy. Why should we be pensive and wistful when we think how near our end is? Is the sentry sad as the hour for relieving guard comes nigh? Is the wanderer in far-off lands sad when he turns his face homewards? And why should not we rejoice at the thought that we, strangers and foreigners here, shall soon depart to the true metropolis, the mother-country of our souls? I do not know why a man should be either regretful or afraid, as he watches the hungry sea eating away this 'bank and shoal of time' upon which he stands—even though the tide has all but reached his feet—if he knows that God's strong hand will be stretched forth to him at the moment when the sand dissolves from under him, and will draw him out of many waters, and place him high above the floods in that stable land where there is 'no more sea.'
Lives rooted in God through faith in Jesus Christ are not vanity. Let us lay hold of Him with a loving grasp—and 'we shall live also' because He lives, as He lives, so long as He lives. The brief days of earth will be blessed while they last, and fruitful of what shall never pass. We shall have Him with us while we journey, and all our journeyings will lead to rest in Him. True, men walk in a vain show; true, 'the world passeth away and the lust thereof,' but, blessed be God! true, also, 'He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.'
TWO INNUMERABLE SERIES
'Many, O Lord my God, are Thy wonderful works which Thou hast done, and Thy thoughts which are to us-ward: they cannot be reckoned up in order unto Thee: if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered ... 12. Innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head; therefore my heart faileth me.'—PSALMS xl. 5, 12.
So then, there are two series of things which cannot be numbered, God's mercies, man's sins. This psalm has for its burden a cry for deliverance; but the Psalmist begins where it is very hard for a struggling man to begin, but where we always should begin, with grateful remembrance of God's mercy. His wondrous dealings seem to the Psalmist's thankful heart as numberless as the blades of grass which carpet the fields, or as the wavelets which glance in the moonlight and break in silver upon the sand. They come pouring out continuously, like the innumerable undulations of the ether which make upon the eyeballs the single sensation of light. He thinks not only of God's wonderful works, His realised purposes of mercy, but of 'His thoughts which are to us-ward,' the purposes, still more wonderful, of a yet greater mercy which wait to be realised. He thinks not only of God's lovingkindness to Him, but his contemplations embrace God's goodness to his brethren—'Thy thoughts which are to us-ward.' And as he thinks of all this 'multitude of His tender mercies,' his lips break into this rapturous exclamation of my text.
But there is a wonderful change in tone, in the two halves of the psalm. The deliverance that seems so complete in the earlier part is but partial. The triumph and the trust seem both to be clouded over. A frowning mass lifts itself up against the immense mass of God's mercies. The Psalmist sees himself ringed about by numberless evils, as a man tied to a stake might be by a circle of fire. 'Innumerable evils have compassed me about.' His conscience tells him that the evils are deserved; they are his iniquities transformed which have come back to him in another shape, and have laid their hands upon him as a constable does upon a thief. 'Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me'—they hem him in so that his vision is interrupted, the smoke from the circle of flame blinds his eyes—'I cannot see.' His roused conscience and his quivering heart conceive of them as 'more than the hairs of his head,' and so courage and confidence have ebbed away from him. 'My heart faileth me——,' and there is nothing left for him but to fling himself in his misery out of himself and on to God.
Now what I wish to do in this sermon is not so much to deal with these two verses separately as to draw some of the lessons from the very remarkable juxtaposition of these two innumerable things—God's tender mercies, and man's iniquity and evil.
I. To begin with, let me remind you how, if we keep these two things both together in our contemplations, they suggest for us very forcibly the greatest mystery in the universe, and throw a little light upon it.
The difficulty of difficulties, the one insoluble problem is——, given a good and perfect God, where does sorrow come from, and why is there any pain? Men have fumbled at that knot for all the years that there have been men in the world, and they have not untied it yet. They have tried to cut it and it has resisted all their knives and all their ingenuity. And there the question stands before us, grim, insoluble, the despair of all thinkers and often the torture of our own hearts, in the hours of our personal experience. Is it true that 'God's mercies are innumerable'? If it be, what is the meaning of all this that makes me writhe and weep? Nobody has answered that question, and nobody ever will.
Only let us beware of the temptation of blinking half of the facts by reason of the clearness of our confidence or the depth of our feeling of the other half. That is always our temptation. You must have had a singularly unruffled life if there has never come to you some moment when, in the depth of your agony, you have ground your teeth together, as you said to yourself, 'Is there a God then at all? And does He care for me at all? And can He help me at all? And if there is, why in the name of pity does He not?'
Well, my brother! when such moments come to us, and they come to us all sooner or later—and I was going to add a parenthesis, which you will think strange, and say that they come to us all sooner or later, blessed be God!—when such moments come to us, do not let the black mass hide the light one from you, but copy this Psalmist, and in the energy of your faith, even though it be the extremity of your pain, grasp and grip them both; and though you have to say and to wail: 'Innumerable evils have compassed me about,' be sure that you do not let that prevent you from saying, 'Many, O Lord my God! are Thy wonderful works which are to us-ward. They are more than can be numbered.'
I do not enter upon this as a mere matter of philosophical speculation. It is far too serious and important a matter to be so dealt with, in a pulpit at any rate, but I would also add in one sentence that the mere thinker, who looks at the question solely from an intellectual point of view, has need to take the lesson of my two texts, and to be sure that he keeps clear before him both halves of the facts—though they seem to be as unlike each other as the eclipsed and the uneclipsed silver half of the moon—with which he has to deal.
Remember, the one does not contradict the other; but let us ask ourselves if the one does not explain the other. If it be that these mercies are so innumerable as my first text says, may it not be that they go deep down beneath, and include in their number, the experience that seems most opposite to them, even the sorrow that afflicts our lives? Must it not be, that the innumerable sum of God's mercies has not to have subtracted from it, but has to have added to it, the sum which also at intervals appears to us innumerable, of our sorrows and our burdens? Perhaps the explanation does not go to the bottom of the bottomless, but it goes a long way down towards it. 'Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth' makes a bridge across the gulf which seems to part the opposing cliffs, these two sets effect, and turn the darker into a form in which the brighter reveals itself. 'All things work together for good.' And God's innumerable mercies include the whole sum total of my sorrows.
II. So, again, notice how the blending of these two thoughts together heightens the impression of each.
All artists, and all other people know the power of contrast. White never looks so white as when it is relieved against black; black never so intense as when it is relieved against white. A white flower in the twilight gleams out in spectral distinctness, paler and fairer than it looked in the blazing sunshine. So, if we take and put these two things together—the dark mass of man's miseries and the radiant brightness of God's mercies, each heightens the colour of the other.
Only, let me observe, as I have already suggested that, in the second of my two texts, whilst the Psalmist starts from the 'innumerable evils' that have compassed him about, he passes from these to the earlier evils which he had done. It is pain that says, 'Innumerable evils have compassed me about.' It is conscience that says, 'Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me.' His wrong-doing has come back to him like the boomerang that the Australian savage throws, which may strike its aim but returns to the hand that flung it. It has come back in the shape of a sorrow. And so 'Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me' is the deepening of the earliest word of my text. Therefore, I am not reading a double meaning into it, but the double meaning is in it when I see here a reference both to a man's manifold sorrows and to a man's multiplied transgressions. Taking the latter into consideration, the contrast between these two heightens both of them.
God's mercies never seem so fair, so wonderful, as when they are looked at in conjunction with man's sin. Man's sin never seems so foul and hideous as when it is looked at close against God's mercies. You cannot estimate the conduct of one of two parties to a transaction unless you have the conduct of the other before you. You cannot understand a father's love unless you take into account the prodigal son's sullen unthankfulness, or his unthankfulness without remembering his father's love. You cannot estimate the clemency of a patient monarch unless you know the blackness and persistency of the treason of his rebellious subjects, nor their treason, except when seen in connection with his clemency. You cannot estimate the long-suffering of a friend unless you know the crimes against friendship of which his friend has been guilty, nor the blackness of his treachery without the knowledge of the other's loyalty to him. So we do not see the radiant brightness of God's loving-kindness to us until we look at it from the depth of the darkness of our own sin. The stars are seen from the bottom of the well. The loving-kindness of God becomes wonderful when we think of the sort of people on whom it has been lavished. And my evil is never apprehended in its true hideousness until I have set it black and ugly, but searched through and through, and revealed in every deformed outline, and in every hideous lineament, by the light against which I see it. You must take both in order to understand either.
And not only so, but actually these two opposites, which are ever warring with one another in a duel, most merciful, patient, and long-suffering on His part—these two elements do intensify one another, not only in our estimation but in reality. For it is man's sin that has drawn out the deepest and most wonderful tenderness of the divine heart; and it is God's love partly recognised and rejected, which leads men to the darkest evil. Man's sin has heightened God's love to this climax and consummation of all tenderness, that He has sent us His Son. And God's love thus heightened has darkened and deepened man's sin. God's chiefest gift is His Son. Man's darkest sin is the rejection of Christ. The clearest light makes the blackest shadow, the tenderer the love, the more criminal the apathy and selfishness which oppose it.
My brother! let us put these two great things together, and learn how the sin heightens the love, and how the love aggravates the sin.
III. That leads me to another point, that the keeping of these two thoughts together should lead us all to conscious penitence.
The Psalmist's words are not the mere complaint of a soul in affliction, they are also the acknowledgment of a conscience repenting. The contemplation of these two numberless series should affect us all in a like manner.
Now there is a superficial kind of popular religion which has a great deal to say about the first of these texts; and very little or next to nothing about the second. It is a very defective kind of religion that says:—'Many, O Lord my God! are Thy thoughts which are to us-ward,' but has never been down on its knees with the confession 'Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me.' But defective as it is, it is all the religion which many people have, and I doubt not, some of my hearers have no more. I would press on you all this truth, that there is no deep personal religion without a deep consciousness of personal transgression. Have you got that, my brother? Have you ever had it? Have you ever known what it is so to look at God's love that it smites you into tears of repentance when you think of the way you have requited Him? If you have not, I do not think the sense of God's love has gone very deeply into you, notwithstanding all that you say; and sure I am that you have never got to the point where you can understand it most clearly and most deeply. The sense of sin, the consciousness of personal demerit, the feeling that I have gone against Him and His loving law,—that is as important and as essential an element in all deep personal religion as the clear and thankful apprehension of the love of God. Nay, more; there never has been and there never will be in a man's heart, a worthy adequate apprehension of, and response to, the wonderful love of God, except it be accompanied with a sense of sin. I, therefore, urge this upon you that, for the vigour of your own personal religion, you must keep these two things well together. Beware of such a shallow, easy-going, matter-of-course, taking for granted God's infinite love, that it makes you think very little of your own sins against that love.
And remember, on the other hand, that the only way, or at least by far the surest way, to learn the depth and the darkness of my own transgression is by bringing my heart under the influence of that great love of God in Jesus Christ. It is not preaching hell that will break a man's heart down into true repentance. It is not thundering over him with the terrors of law and trying to prick his conscience that will bring him to a deep real knowledge of his sin. These may be subordinate and auxiliary, but the real power that convinces of sin is the love of God. The one light which illuminates the dark recesses of one's own heart, and makes us feel how dark they are, and how full of creeping unclean things, is the light of the love of God that shines in Jesus Christ, the light that shines from the Cross of Calvary. Oh, dear friends! if we are ever to know the greatness of God's love we must feel our personal sin which that great love has forgiven and purged away, and if we are ever to know the depth of our own evil, we must measure it by His wonderful tenderness. We must set our 'sins in the light of His countenance,' and contrast that supreme sacrifice with our own selfish loveless lives, that the contrast may subdue us to penitence and melt us to tears.
IV. Lastly, looking at these two numberless series together will bring into the deepest penitence a joyful confidence.
There are regions of experience the very opposite of that error of which I have just been speaking. There are some of us, perhaps, who have so profound a sense of their own shortcomings and sins that the mists rising from these have blurred the sky to us and shut out the sun. Some of you, perhaps, may be saying to yourselves that you cannot get hold of God's love because your sin seems to you to be so great, or may be saying to yourselves that it is impossible that you should ever get the victory over this evil of yours, because it has laid hold upon you with so tight a grasp. If there be in any heart listening to me now any inclination to doubt the infinite love of God, or the infinite possibility of cleansing from all sin, let me come with the simple word, Bind these two texts together, and never so look at your own evil as to lose sight of the infinite mercy of God. It is safe to say—ay! it is blessed to say—'Mine iniquities are more than the hairs of mine head,' when we can also say, 'Thy thoughts to me are more than can be numbered.'
There are not two innumerable series, there is only one. There is a limit and a number to my sins and to yours, but God's mercies are properly numberless. They overlap all our sins, they stretch beyond our sins in all dimensions. They go beneath them, they encompass them, and they will thin them away and cause them to disappear. My sins may be many, God's mercies are more. My sins may be inveterate, God's mercy is from everlasting. My sins may be strong, God's mercy is omnipotent. My sins may seem to 'have laid upon me,' God can rescue me from their grip. They are a film on the surface of the deep ocean of His love. My sins may be as the sand which is by the seashore, innumerable, the love of God in Jesus Christ is like the great sea which rolls over the sands and buries them. My sins may rise mountains high, but His mercies are a great deep which will cover the mountains to their very summit. Ah! my sin is enormous, God's mercy is inexhaustible. 'With Thee is plenteous redemption, and He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.'
THIRSTING FOR GOD
'My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.'—PSALM xiii. 2.
This whole psalm reads like the sob of a wounded heart. The writer of it is shut out from the Temple of his God, from the holy soil of his native land. One can see him sitting solitary yonder in the lonely wilderness (for the geographical details that occur in one part of the psalm point to his situation as being on the other side of the Jordan, in the mountains of Moab)—can see him sitting there with long wistful gaze yearning across the narrow valley and the rushing stream that lay between him and the land of God's chosen people, and his eye resting perhaps on the mountaintop that looked down upon Jerusalem. He felt shut out from the presence of God. We need not suppose that he believed all the rest of the world to be profane and God-forsaken, except only the Temple. Nor need we wonder, on the other hand, that his faith did cling to form, and that he thought the sparrows beneath the eaves of the Temple blessed birds! He was depressed, because he was shut out from the tokens of God's presence; and because he was depressed, he shut himself out from the reality of the presence. And so he cried with a cry which never is in vain, 'My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God!'
Taken, then, in its original sense, the words of our text apply only to that strange phenomenon which we call religious depression. But I have ventured to take them in a wider sense than that. It is not only Christian men who are cast down, whose souls 'thirst for God.' It is not only men upon earth whose souls thirst for God. All men, everywhere, may take this text for theirs. Every human heart may breathe it out, if it understands itself. The longing for 'the living God' belongs to all men. Thwarted, stifled, it still survives. Unconscious, it is our deepest misery. Recognised, yielded to, accepted, it is the foundation of our highest blessings. Filled to the full, it still survives unsatiated and expectant. For all men upon earth, Christian or not Christian, for Christians here below, whether in times of depression or in times of gladness, and for the blessed and calm spirits that in ecstasy of longing, full of fruition, stand around God's throne—it is equally true that their souls 'thirst for God, for the living God.' Only with this difference, that to some the desire is misery and death, and to some the desire is life and perfect blessedness. So that the first thought I would suggest to you now is, that there is an unconscious and unsatisfied longing after God, which is what we call the state of nature; secondly, that there is an imperfect longing after God, fully satisfied, which is what we call the state of grace; and lastly, that there is a perfect longing, perfectly satisfied, which is what we call the state of glory. Nature; religion upon earth; blessedness in heaven—my text is the expression, in divers senses, of them all.
I. In the first place, then, there is in every man an unconscious and unsatisfied longing after God, and that is the state of nature.
Experience is the test of that assertion. And the most superficial examination of the facts of daily life, as well as the questioning of our own souls, will tell us that this is the leading feature of them—a state of unrest. What is it that one of those deistic poets of our own land says, about 'Man never is, but always to be blest'? What is the meaning of the fact that all round about us, and we partaking of it, there is ceaseless, gigantic activity going on? The very fact that men work, the very fact of activity in the mind and life, noble as it is, and root of all that is good, and beautiful as it is, is still the testimony of nature to this fact that I by myself am full of passionate longings, of earnest desires, of unsupplied wants. 'I thirst,' is the voice of the whole world.
No man is made to be satisfied from himself. For the stilling of our own hearts, for the satisfying of our own nature, for the strengthening and joy of our being, we need to go beyond ourselves, and to fix upon something external to ourselves. We are not independent. None of us can stand by himself. No man carries within him the fountain from which he can draw. If a heart is to be blessed, it must go out of the narrow circle of its own individuality; and if a man's life is to be strong and happy, he must get the foundation of his strength somewhere else than in his own soul. And, my friends! especially you young men, all that modern doctrine of self-reliance, though it has a true side to it, has also a frightfully false side. Though it may he quite true that a man ought to be, in one sense, sufficient for himself, and that there is no real blessedness of which the root does not lie within the nature and heart of the man; though all that be quite true, yet, if the doctrine means (as on the lips of many a modern eloquent and powerful teacher of it, it does mean) that we can do without God, that we may be self-reliant and self-sufficient, and proudly neglectful of all the divine forces that come down into life to brighten and gladden it, it is a lie, false and fatal; and of all the falsehoods that are going about this world at present, I know not one that is varnished over with more apparent truth, that is smeared over with more of the honey that catches young, ardent, ingenuous hearts, than that half-truth, and therefore most deceptive error, which preaches independence, and self-reliance, and which means—a man's soul does not 'thirst for the living God.' Take care of it! We are made not to be independent.
We are made, next, to need, not things, but living beings. 'My soul thirsteth'—for what? An abstraction, a possession, riches, a thing? No! 'my soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.' Yes, hearts want hearts. The converse of Christ's saying is equally true; He said, 'God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit'; man has a spirit, and man must have Spirit to worship, to lean upon, to live by, or all will be inefficient and unsatisfactory. Oh, lay this to heart, my brother!—no things can satisfy a living soul. No accumulation of dead matter can become the life of an immortal being. The two classes are separated by the whole diameter of the universe—matter and spirit, thing and person; and you cannot feed yourself upon the dead husks that lie there round about you—wealth, position, honour. Books, thoughts, though they are nobler than these other, are still inefficient. Principles, 'causes,' emotions springing from truth, these are not enough. I want more than that, I want something to love, something to lay a hand upon, that shall return the grasp of the hand. A living man must have a living God, or his soul will perish in the midst of earthly plenty, and will thirst and die whilst the water of earthly delights is running all around him. We are made to need persons, not things.
Then again, we need one Being who shall be all-sufficient. There is no greater misery than that which may ensue from the attempt to satisfy our souls by the accumulation of objects, each of them imperfect and finite, which yet we fancy, woven together, will make an adequate whole. When a heart is diverted from its one central purpose, when a life is split up in a hundred different directions and into a hundred different emotions, it is like a beam of light passed through some broken surface where it is all refracted and shivered into fragments; there is no clear vision, there is no perfect light. If a man is to be blessed, he must have one source to which he can go. The merchantman that seeks for many goodly pearls, may find the many; but until he has bartered them all for the one, there is something lacking. Not only does the understanding require to pass through the manifold, up and up in ever higher generalisations, till it reaches the One from whom all things come; but the heart requires to soar, if it would be at rest, through all the diverse regions where its love may legitimately tarry for a while, until it reaches the sole and central throne of the universe, and there it may cease its flight, and fold its weary wings, and sleep like a bird within its nest. We want a Being, and we want one Being in whom shall be sphered all perfection, in whom shall abide all power and blessedness; beyond whom thought cannot pass, out of whose infinite circumference love does not need to wander; besides whose boundless treasures no other riches can be required; who is light for the understanding, power for the will, authority for the practical life, purpose for the efforts, motive for the doings, end and object for the feelings, home of the affections, light of our seeing, life of our life, the love of our heart, the one living God, infinite in wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth; who is all in all, and without whom everything else is misery. 'My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.'
Brother! let me ask you the question, before I pass on—the question for the sake of which I am preaching this sermon: Do you know that Father? I know this much, that every heart here now answers an 'Amen' (if it will be honest) to what I have been saying. Unrest; panting, desperate thirst, deceiving itself as to where it should go; slaking itself 'at the gilded puddles that the beasts would cough at,' instead of coming to the water of life!—that is the state of man without God. That is nature. That is irreligion. The condition in which every man is that is not trusting in Jesus Christ, is this—thirsting for God, and not knowing whom he is thirsting for, and so not getting the supply that he wants.
II. There is a conscious longing, imperfect, but answered; and that is the state of grace—the beginning of religion in a man's soul.
If it be true that there are, as part of the universal human experience, however overlaid and stifled, these necessities of which I have been speaking, the very existence of the necessities affords a presumption, before all evidence, that, somehow and somewhere, they shall be supplied. There can be no deeper truth—none, I think, that ought to have more power in shaping some parts of our Christian creed, than this, that God is a faithful Creator; and where He makes men with longings, it is a prophecy that those longings are going to be supplied. The same ground which avails to defend doctrines that cannot be so well defended by any other argument—the same ground on which we say that there is an immortality, because men long for it and believe in it; that there is a God because men cannot get rid of the instinctive conviction that there is; that there is a retribution, because men's consciences do ask for it, and cry out for it—the very same process which may be applied to the buttressing and defending of all the grandest truths of the Gospel, applies also in this practical matter. If I, made by God who knew what He was doing when He made me, am formed with these deep necessities, with these passionate longings—then it cannot but be that it is intended that they should be to me a means of leading me to Him, and that there they should be satisfied. For He is 'the faithful Creator,' and He remembers the conditions under which His making of us has placed us. 'He knoweth our frame,' and He remembereth what He has implanted within us. And the presumption is, of course, turned into an actual certainty when we let in the light of the Gospel upon the thing. Then we can say to every man that thus is yearning after a goodness dimly perceived, and does not know what it is that he wants, and we say to you now, Brother! betake yourself to the cross of Christ go with those wants of yours to 'the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world': He will interpret them to you. He will explain to you, as you do not now know, what they mean; and, better than that, He will supply them all. Your souls are thirsting; and you look about, here and there, and everywhere, for springs of water. There is the fountain—go to Christ. Your souls are thirsting for God. The unfathomed ocean of the Godhead lies far beyond my lip; but here is the channel through which there flows that river of water of life. Here is the manifested God, here is the granted God, here is the Godhead coming into connection and union with man, his wants and his sins—the 'living God' and His living Son, His everlasting Word. 'He that believeth upon Him shall never hunger, and he that cometh unto Him shall never thirst.' God is the divine and unfathomable ocean; Christ the Son is the stream that brings salvation to every man's lips. All wants are supplied there. Take it as a piece of the simplest prose, with no rhetorical exaggeration about it, that Christ is everything, everything that a man can want. We are made to require, and to be restless until we possess, perfect truth—there it is! We are made to want, and to be restless until we get, perfect, infinite unchangeable love—there it is! We must have, or the burden of our own self-will will be a misery to us, a hand laid upon the springs of our conduct, authoritative and purifying, and have the blessedness of some voice to say to us, 'I bid thee, and that is enough'—there it is! We must have rest, purity, hope, gladness, life in our souls—there they all are! Whatever form of human nature and character be yours, my brother!—whatever exigencies of life you may be lying under the pressure of—man or woman, adult or child, father or son, man of business or man of thought, struggling with difficulties or bright with joy—Oh! believe us, the perfecting of your character may be got in the Lamb of God, and without Him it never can be possessed. Christ is everything, and 'out of His fulness all we receive grace for grace.'
Not only in Christ is there the perfect supply of all these necessities, but also that fulness becomes ours on the simple condition of desiring it. The thirst for the living God in a man who has faith in Christ Jesus, is not a thirst which amounts to pain, or arises from a sense of non-possession. But in this divine region the principle of the giving is this—to desire is to have; to long for is to possess. There is no wide interval between the sense of thirst and the trickling of the stream over the parched lip; but ever it is flowing, flowing past us, and the desire is but the opening of the lips to receive the limpid and life-giving waters. No one ever desired the grace of God, really and truly desired it; but just in proportion as he desired it, he got it—just in proportion as he thirsted, he was satisfied. Therefore we have to preach that grand gospel that faith, simple, conscious longing, turned to Christ, avails to bring down the full and perfect supply.
But some Christian people here may reply, 'Ah! I wish it were so: what was that you were saying at the beginning of your sermon, about men having religious depression, about Christians longing and not possessing?' Well, I have only this to say about that matter. Wherever in a heart that really believes on God in Christ, there is a thirst that amounts to pain, and that has with it a sense of non-possession, that is not because Christ's fulness has become shrunken; that is not because there is a change in God's law, that the measure of the desire is the measure of the reception; but it is only because, for some reason or other that belongs to the man alone, the desire is not deep, genuine, simple, but is troubled and darkened. What we ask, we get. If I am a Christian, however feeble I may be, the feebleness of my faith and the feebleness of my desire may make my supplies of grace feeble; but if I am a Christian, there is no such thing as an earnest longing unsatisfied, no such thing as a thirst accompanied with a pain and sense of want, except in consequence of my own transgression.
And thus there is a longing imperfect in this life, but fully supplied according to the measure of its intensity, a longing after 'the living God'; and that is the state of a Christian man. And O my friend! that is a widely different desire from the other that I have been speaking about. It is blessed thus to say, 'My soul thirsteth for God.' It is blessed to feel the passionate wish for more light, more grace, more peace, more wisdom, more of God. That is joy, that is peace! Is that your experience in this present life?
III. Lastly, there is a perfect longing perfectly satisfied; and that is heaven.
We shall not there be independent, of course, of constant supplies from the great central Fulness, any more than we are here. One may see in one aspect, that just as the Christian life here on earth is in a very true sense a state of never thirsting any more, because we have Christ, and yet in another sense is a state of continual longing and desire—so the Christian and glorified life in heaven, in one view of it, is the removal of all that thirst which marked the condition of man upon earth, and in another is the perfecting of all those aspirations and desires. Thirst, as longing, is eternal; thirst, as aspiration after God, is the glory of heaven; thirst, as desire for more of Him, is the very condition of the celestial world, and the element of all its blessedness.
That future life gives us two elements, an infinite God, and an indefinitely expansible human spirit: an infinite God to fill, and a soul to be filled, the measure and the capacity of which has no limit set to it that we can see. What will be the consequence of the contact of these two? Why this, for the first thing, that always, at every moment of that blessed life, there shall be a perpetual fruition, a perpetual satisfaction, a deep and full fountain filling the whole soul with the refreshment of its waves and the music of its flow. And yet, and yet—though at every moment in heaven we shall be satisfied, filled full of God, full to overflowing in all our powers—yet the very fact that the God who dwells in us, and fills our whole natures with unsullied and perfect blessedness, is an infinite God; and that we in whom the infinite Father dwells, are men with souls that can grow, and can grow for ever—will result in this, that at every moment our capacities will expand; that at every moment, therefore, the desire will grow and spring afresh; that at every moment God will be seen unveiling undreamed-of beauties, and revealing hitherto unknown heights of blessedness before us; and that the sight of that transcendent, unapproached, unapproachable, and yet attracting and transforming glory, will draw us onward as by an impulse from above, and the possession of some portion of it will bear us upward as by a power from within; and so, nearer, nearer, ever nearer to the throne of light, the centre of blessedness, the growing, and glorifying, and greatening souls of the perfectly and increasingly blessed shall 'mount up with wings as eagles.' Heaven is endless longing, accompanied with an endless fruition—a longing which is blessedness, a longing which is life!
My brother! let me put two sayings of Scripture side by side, 'My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God,'—'Father Abraham! send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue.' There be two thirsts, one, the longing for God, which, satisfied, is heaven; one, the longing for quenching of self-lit fires, and for one drop of the lost delights of earth to cool the thirsty throat, which, unsatisfied, is hell. Then hearken to the final vision on the page of Scripture, 'He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.' To us it is showed, and to us the whole revelation of God converges to that last mighty call, 'Let him that is athirst come, and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely!'
THE PSALMIST'S REMONSTRANCE WITH HIS SOUL
'Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God: for I shall yet praise Him, the health of my countenance, and my God.'—PSALM xliii. 5.
This verse, which closes this psalm, occurs twice in the previous one. It is a kind of refrain. Obviously this little psalm, of which my text is a part, was originally united with the preceding one. That the two made one is clear to anybody that will read them, by reason of structure, and tone, and similarity of the singer's situation, and the recurrence of many phrases, and especially of these significant words of my text.
The Psalmist is in circumstances of trouble and sorrow. We need not enter upon them particularly, but the thing that I desire to point out is that three times does the Psalmist take himself to task and question himself as to the reasonableness of the emotions that are surging in his soul, and checks these by higher considerations. Thrice he does it; twice in vain, for the trouble and anxiety come rolling back upon him in spite of the moment's respite, but the third time he triumphs.
I. We note, then, first, that moods and emotions should be examined and governed by a higher self.
In the Psalmist's case, his gloom and despondency, which could plead good reasons for their existence, had everything their own way at first, and swept over his soul like the first rush of waters which have burst their bounds. But, presently, the ruling part of his nature wakes, and brings the feebler lower soul to its tribunal, and says, in effect, 'Now! now that I am here, what hast thou to say about these sorrows that thou hast been complaining about? Why art thou cast down, O my soul? Why art thou disquieted? ... Hope in God!'
I shall have a word or two to say presently about the details of this remonstrance, but the main point that I make, to begin with, is just this, that however strong and reasonably occasioned by circumstances a man's emotions and feelings, either of the bright or the dark kind, may be, they are not to be indulged, unless they have passed muster and examination by that higher and better self. It is necessary to keep a very tight hand upon all our feelings, whether they be the natural desires of the sensuous part of our nature, or whether they be the sentiments of sadness, or doubt, or anxiety, or perplexity, which are the natural results of outward circumstances of trial; or whether, on the contrary, they be the bright and buoyant ones which come, like angels, along with prosperous hours. But that necessity, commonplace as it is of all morals and all religion, is yet a thing which, day by day, we so forget that we need to be ever and anon reminded of it.
There are hosts of people who, making profession of being Christians, do not habitually put the brake on their moods and tempers, and who seem to think that it is a sufficient vindication of gloom and sadness to say that things are going badly with them in the outer world, and who act as if they supposed that no joy can be too exuberant and no elation too lofty if, on the other hand, things are going rightly. It is a miserable travesty of the Christian faith to suppose that its prime purpose is anything else than to put into our hands the power of ruling ourselves because we let Christ rule us.
And so, dear brethren! though it be the A B C of Christian teaching, suffer this word of exhortation. It is only 'milk for babes,' but it is milk that the babes are very unwilling to take. Learn from this verse before us the solemn duty of rigid control, by the higher self, of the tremulous, emotional lower self which responds so completely to every change of temperature or circumstances in the world without. And remember that there should be a central heat which keeps the temperature substantially the same, whatever be the weather outside. As the wheel-house, and the steering gear, and the rudder of the ship proclaim their purpose of guidance and direction, so eloquently and unmistakably does the make of our inward selves tell us that emotions and moods and tempers are meant to be governed, often to be crushed, always to be moderated, by sovereign will and reason. In the Psalmist's language, 'My soul' has to give account of its tremors and flutterings to 'Me,' the ruling Self, who should be Lord of temperament, and control the fluctuations of feeling.
II. Note that there are two ways of looking at causes of dejection and disquiet.
The whole preceding parts of both the psalms, before this refrain, are an answer to the question which my text puts. 'Why art thou cast down, O my soul?' 'My soul' has been talking two whole psalms, to explain why it is cast down. And after all the eloquent torrent of words to vindicate and explain its reasons for sadness—separation from the sanctuary, bitter remembrances of bright days, which the poet tells us are 'a sorrow's crown of sorrow,' taunts of enemies and the like—after all these have been said over and over again, the Psalmist says to himself: 'Come now, let us hear it all once more. Why art thou cast down? Why art thou disquieted within me? Thou hast been telling the reasons abundantly. Speak them once again, and let us have a look at them.'
There is a court of appeal in each man, which tests and tries his reasons for his moods; and these, which look very sufficient to the flesh, turn out to be very insufficient when investigated and tested by the higher spirit or self. We should 'appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober.' And if a man will be honest with himself, and tell himself why he is in such a pucker of terror, or why he is in such a rapture of joy, nine times out of ten the attempt to tell the reasons will be the condemnation of the mood which they are supposed to justify. If men would only bring the causes or occasions of the tempers and feelings which they allow to direct them, to the bar of common sense, to say nothing of religious faith, half the furious boilings in their hearts would stop their ebullition. It would be like pouring cold water into a kettle on the fire. It would end its bubbling. Everything has two handles. The aspect of any event depends largely on the beholder's point of view. 'There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' 'Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?' The answer is often very hard to give; the question is always very salutary to ask.
III. Note that no reasons for being cast down are so strong as those for elation and calm hope.
'Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance and my God.' I need not deal here with the fact that the first of the three occurrences of this refrain is, in our Bible, a little different from the other two. That is probably a mistake in the text. In all three cases the words ought to stand the same.
Try to realise what God is to yourselves—'My God' and 'the health of my countenance.' That will stimulate sluggish feeling; that will calm disturbed emotion. He that can say 'My God!' and in that possession can repose, will not be easily moved, by the trivialities and transitorinesses of this life, to excessive disquiet, whether of the exuberant or of the woful sort. There is a wonderful calming power in realising our possession of God as our portion—not stagnating, but quieting. I am quite sure that the troubles of our lives, and the gladnesses of our lives, which often distract, would be far less operative in disturbing, if we felt more that God was ours and that we were God's.
Brethren! 'there is no joy but calm.' To be at rest is better than rapture. And there is no way of getting and keeping a fixed temper of still tranquillity unless we go into that deep and hidden chamber, in the secret place of the Most High, where we cannot 'hear the loud winds when they call,' but dwell in security, whatever storms harass the land. 'Why art thou cast down,' or lifted 'up,' and, in either case, 'disquieted'? 'Hope in God,' and be at rest.
IV. Note that the effort to lay hold on the truth which calms is to be repeated in spite of failures.
The words of our text are thrice repeated in these two psalms. In the two former instances they are followed by a fresh burst of pained feeling. A moment of tranquillity interrupts the agitation of the Psalmist's soul, but is soon followed by the recurrence of 'the horrible storm' that 'begins afresh.' A tiny island of blue appears in his sky, and then the pale, ugly, grey rack drives across it once more. But the guiding self keeps the hand firm on the tiller, notwithstanding the wash of the water and the rolling of the ship, and the dominant will conquers at last, and at the third time the yielding soul obeys and is quiet, because the Psalmist's will resolved that it should be quiet, and it hopes in God because He, by a dead lift of effort, lifts it up to hope.
No effort at tranquillising our hearts is wholly lost; and no attempt to lay hold upon God is wholly in vain. Men build a dam to keep out the sea, and the winter storms make a breach in it, but it is not washed away altogether, and next season they will not need to begin to build from quite so low down; but there will be a bit of the former left, to put the new structure upon, and so by degrees it will rise above the tide, and at last will keep it out.
Did you ever see a child upon a swing, or a gymnast upon a trapeze? Each oscillation goes a little higher; each starts from the same lowest point, but the elevation on either side increases with each renewed effort, until at last the destined height is reached and the daring athlete leaps on to a solid platform. So we may, if I might say so, by degrees, by reiterated efforts, swing ourselves up to that steadfast floor on which we may stand high above all that breeds agitation and gloom. It is possible, in the midst of change and circumstances that excite sad emotions, anxieties, and fears—it is possible to have this calmness of hope in God. The rainbow that spans the cataract rises steadfast above the white, tortured water beneath, and persists whilst all is hurrying change below, and there are flowers on the grim black rocks by the side of the fall, whose verdure is made greener and whose brightness is made brighter, by the freshening of the spray of the waterfall. So we may be 'as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,' and may bid dejected and disquieted souls to hope in God and be still.
THE KING IN HIS BEAUTY
'Thou art fairer than the children of men; grace is poured into Thy lips: therefore God hath blessed Thee forever. 3. Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O mighty one, Thy glory and Thy majesty. 4. And in Thy majesty ride on prosperously, because of truth and meekness and righteousness: and Thy right hand shall teach Thee terrible things. 5. Thine arrows are sharp; the peoples fall under Thee; they are in the heart of the King's enemies. 6. Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of equity is the sceptre of Thy kingdom. 7. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated wickedness: therefore God, Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.' —PSALM xlv. 2-7 (R.V.).
There is no doubt that this psalm was originally the marriage hymn of some Jewish king. All attempts to settle who that was have failed, for the very obvious reason that neither the history nor the character of any of them correspond to the psalm. Its language is a world too wide for the diminutive stature and stained virtues of the greatest and best of them, and it is almost ludicrous to attempt to fit its glowing sentences even to a Solomon. They all look like little David in Saul's armour. So, then, we must admit one of two things. Either we have here a piece of poetical exaggeration far beyond the limits of poetic license, or 'a greater than Solomon is here.' Every Jewish king, by virtue of his descent and of his office, was a living prophecy of the greatest of the sons of David, the future King of Israel. And the Psalmist sees the ideal Person who, as he knew, was one day to be real, shining through the shadowy form of the earthly king, whose very limitations and defects, no less than his excellences and his glories, forced the devout Israelite to think of the coming King in whom 'the sure mercies' promised to David should be facts at last. In plainer words, the psalm celebrates Christ, not only although, but because, it had its origin and partial application in a forgotten festival at the marriage of some unknown king. It sees Him in the light of the Messianic hope, and so it prophesies of Christ. My object is to study the features of this portrait of the King, partly in order that we may better understand the psalm, and partly in order that we may with the more reverence crown Him as Lord of all.
I. The Person of the King.
The old-world ideal of a monarch put special emphasis upon two things—personal beauty and courtesy of address and speech. The psalm ascribes both of these to the King of Israel, and from both of them draws the conclusion that one so richly endowed with the most eminent of royal graces is the object of the special favour of God. 'Thou art fairer than the children of men, grace is poured into Thy lips: therefore God hath blessed Thee for ever.'
Here, at the very outset, we have the keynote struck of superhuman excellence; and though the reference is, on the surface, only to physical perfection, yet beneath that there lies the deeper reference to a character which spoke through the eloquent frame, and in which all possible beauties and sovereign graces were united in fullest development, in most harmonious co-operation and unstained purity.
'Thou art fairer than the children of men.' Put side by side with that, words which possibly refer to, and seem to contradict it. A later prophet, speaking of the same Person, said: 'His visage was so marred, more than any man, and His form than the sons of men.... There is no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him.' We have to think, not of the outward form, howsoever lovely with the loveliness of meekness and transfigured with the refining patience of suffering it may have been, but of the beauty of a soul that was all radiant with a lustre of loveliness that shames the fragmentary and marred virtues of the best of us, and stands before the world for ever as the supreme type and high-water mark of the grace that is possible to a human spirit. God has lodged in men's nature the apprehension of Himself, and of all that flows from Him, as true, as good, as beautiful; and to these three there correspond wisdom, morality, and art. The latter, divorced from the other two, becomes earthly and devilish. This generation needs the lesson that beauty wrenched from truth and goodness, and pursued for its own sake, by artist or by poet or by dilettante, leads by a straight descent to ugliness and to evil, and that the only true satisfying of the deep longing for 'whatsoever things are lovely' is to be found when we turn to Christ and find in Him, not only wisdom that enlightens the understanding, and righteousness that fills the conscience, but beauty that satisfies the heart. He is 'altogether lovely.' Nor let us forget that once on earth 'the fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment did shine as the light,' as indicative of the possibilities that lay slumbering in His lowly Manhood, and as prophetic of that to which we believe that the ascended Christ hath now attained—viz. the body of His glory, wherein He reigns, filled with light and undecaying loveliness on the Throne of the Heaven. Thus He is fairer in external reality now, as He is, by the confession of an admiring, though not always believing, world, fairer in inward character than the children of men.
Another personal characteristic is 'Grace is poured into Thy lips.' Kingly courtesy, and kingly graciousness of word, must be the characteristic of the Sovereign of men. The abundance of that bestowment is expressed by that word, 'poured.' We need only remember, 'All wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth,' or how even the rough instruments of authority were touched and diverted from their appointed purpose, and came back and said, 'Never man spake like this Man.' To the music of Christ's words all other eloquence is harsh, poor, shallow—like the piping of a shepherd boy upon some wretched oaten straw as compared with the full thunder of the organ. Words of unmingled graciousness came from His lips. That fountain never sent forth 'sweet waters and bitter.' He satisfies the canon of St. James: 'If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man.' Words of wisdom, of love, of pity, of gentleness, of pardon, of bestowment, and only such, came from Him. 'Daughter! be of good cheer.' 'Son! thy sins be forgiven thee.' 'Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy-laden.'
'Grace is poured into Thy lips'; and, withal, it is the grace of a King. For His language is authoritative even when it is most tender, and regal when it is most gentle. His lips, sweet as honey and the honeycomb, are the lips of an Autocrat. 'He speaks, and it is done: He commands, and it stands fast.' He says to the tempest, 'Be still!' and it is quiet; and to the demons, 'Come out of him!' and they disappear; and to the dead, 'Come forth!' and he stumbles from the tomb.
Another personal characteristic is—'God hath blessed Thee for ever.' By which we are to understand, not that the two preceding graces are the reasons for the divine benediction, but that the divine benediction is the cause of them; and therefore they are the signs of it. It is not that because He is lovely and gracious therefore God hath blessed Him; but it is that we may know that God has blessed Him, since He is lovely and gracious. These endowments are the results, not the causes; the signs or the proofs, not the reasons of the divine benediction. That is to say, the humanity so fair and unique shows by its beauty that it is the result of the continual and unique operation and benediction of a present God. We understand Him when we say, 'On Him rests the Spirit of God without measure or interruption.' The explanation of the perfect humanity is the abiding Divinity.
II. We pass from the person of the King, in the next place, to His warfare.
The Psalmist breaks out in a burst of invocation, calling upon the King to array Himself in His weapons of warfare, and then in broken clauses vividly pictures the conflict. The Invocation runs thus: 'Gird on thy sword upon thy thigh, O mighty hero! gird on thy glory and thy majesty, and ride on prosperously on behalf (or, in the cause) of truth and meekness and righteousness.' The King, then, is the perfection of warrior strength as well as of beauty and gentleness—a combination of qualities that speaks of old days when kings were kings, and reminds us of many a figure in ancient song, as well as of a Saul and a David in Jewish history.
The singer calls upon Him to bind on His side His glittering sword, and to put on, as His armour, 'glory and majesty.' These two words, in the usage of the psalms, belong to Divinity, and they are applied to the monarch here as being the earthly representative of the divine supremacy, on whom there falls some reflection of the glory and the majesty of which He is the vice-regent and representative. Thus arrayed, with His weapon by His side and glittering armour on His limbs, He is called upon to mount His chariot or His warhorse and ride forth.
But for what? 'On behalf of truth, meekness, righteousness.' If He be a warrior, these are the purposes for which the true King of men must draw His sword, and these only. No vulgar ambition or cruel lust of conquest, earth-hunger, or 'glory' actuates Him. Nothing but the spread through the world of the gracious beauties which are His own can be the end of the King's warfare. He fights for truth; He fights—strange paradox—for meekness; He fights for righteousness. And He not only fights for them, but with them, for they are His own, and by reason of them He 'rides prosperously,' as well as 'rides prosperously' in order to establish them.
In two or three swift touches the Psalmist next paints the tumult and hurry of the fight. 'Thy right hand shall teach Thee terrible things.' There are no armies or allies, none to stand beside Him. The one mighty figure of the Kingly Warrior stands forth, as in the Assyrian sculptures of conquerors, erect and solitary in His chariot, crashing through the ranks of the enemy, and owing victory to His own strong arm alone.
Then follow three short, abrupt clauses, which, in their hurry and fragmentary character, reflect the confusion and swiftness of battle. 'Thine arrows are sharp.... The people fall under Thee.' ... 'In the heart of the King's enemies.' The Psalmist sees the bright arrow on the string; it flies; he looks—the plain is strewed with prostrate forms, the King's arrow in the heart of each.
Put side by side with that this picture:—A rocky road; a great city shining in the morning sunlight across a narrow valley; a crowd of shouting peasants waving palm branches in their rustic hands; in the centre the meek carpenter's Son, sitting upon the poor robes which alone draped the ass's colt, the tears upon His cheeks, and His lamenting heard above the Hosannahs, as He looked across the glen and said, 'If thou hadst known the things that belong to thy peace!' That is the fulfilment, or part of the fulfilment, of this prophecy. The slow-pacing, peaceful beast and the meek, weeping Christ are the reality of the vision which, in such strangely contrasted and yet true form, floated before the prophetic eye of this ancient singer, for Christ's humiliation is His majesty, and His sharpest weapon is His all-penetrating love, and His cross is His chariot of victory and throne of dominion.
But not only in His earthly life of meek suffering does Christ fight as a King, but all through the ages the world-wide conflict for truth and meekness and righteousness is His conflict; and wherever that is being waged, the power which wages it is His, and the help which is done upon earth He doeth it all Himself. True, He has His army, willing in the day of His power, and clad in priestly purity and armour of light, but all their strength, courage, and victory are from Him; and when they fight and conquer, it is not they, but He in them who struggles and overcomes. We have a better hope than that built on 'a stream of tendency that makes for righteousness.' We know a Christ crucified and crowned, who fights for it, and what He fights for will hold the field.
This prophecy of our psalm is not exhausted yet. I have set side by side with it one picture—the Christ on the ass's colt. Put side by side with it this other. 'I beheld the heaven opened; and lo! a white horse. And He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He doth judge and make war.' The psalm waits for its completion still, and shall be fulfilled on that day of the true marriage supper of the Lamb, when the festivities of the marriage chamber shall be preceded by the last battle and crowning victory of the King of kings, the Conqueror of the world.
III. Lastly, we have the royalty of the King.
'Thy throne, O God! is for ever and ever.' This is not the place nor time to enter on the discussion of the difficulties of these words. I must run the risk of appearing to state confident opinions without assigning reasons, when I venture to say that the translation in the Authorised Version is the natural one. I do not say that others have been adopted by reason of doctrinal prepossessions; I know nothing about that; but I do say that they are not by any means so natural a translation as that which stands before us. What it may mean is another matter; but the plain rendering of the words, I venture to assert, is what our English Bible makes it—'Thy throne, O God! is for ever and ever.'
Then it is to be remembered that, throughout the Old Testament, we have occasional instances of the use of that great and solemn designation in reference to persons in such place and authority as that they are representatives of God. So kings and judges and lawyers and the like are spoken of more than once. Therefore there is not, in the language, translated as in our English Bible, necessarily the implication of the unique divinity of the persons so addressed. But I take it that this is an instance in which the prophet was 'wiser than he knew,' and in which you and I understand him better than he understood himself, and know what God, who spoke through him, meant, whatsoever the prophet, through whom He spoke, did mean. That is to say, I take the words before us as directly referring to Jesus Christ, and as directly declaring the divinity of His person, and therefore the eternity of His kingdom.