EXPOSITIONS OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
ALEXANDER MACLAREN, D. D., Litt. D.
VOLUME I: PSALMS I to XLIX
BLESSEDNESS AND PRAISE (Psalm i. 1, 2; cl. 6)
A STAIRCASE OF THREE STEPS (Psalm v. 11, 12)
ONE SAYING FROM THREE MEN (Psalm x. 6; xvi. 8; xxx. 6)
MAN'S TRUE TREASURE IN GOD (Psalm xvi. 5, 6)
GOD WITH US, AND WE WITH GOD (Psalm xvi. 8, 11)
THE TWO AWAKINGS (Psalm xvii. 15; lxxiii. 20)
SECRET FAULTS (Psalm xix. 12)
OPEN SINS (Psalm xix. 13)
FEASTING ON THE SACRIFICE (Psalm xxii. 26)
THE SHEPHERD KING OF ISRAEL (Psalm xxiii. 1-6)
A GREAT QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER (Psalm xxiv. 3)
THE GOD WHO DWELLS WITH MEN (Psalm xxiv. 7-10)
GUIDANCE IN JUDGMENT (Psalm xxv. 8, 9)
A PRAYER FOR PARDON AND ITS PLEA (Psalm xxv. 11)
GOD'S GUESTS (Psalm xxvii. 4)
'SEEK YE'—'I WILL SEEK' (Psalm xxvii. 8, 9)
THE TWO GUESTS (Psalm xxx. 5)
'BE ... FOR THOU ART' (Psalm xxxi. 2, 3, R.V.)
'INTO THY HANDS' (Psalm xxxi. 5)
GOODNESS WROUGHT AND GOODNESS LAID UP (Psalm xxxi. 19)
HID IN LIGHT (Psalm xxxi. 20)
A THREEFOLD THOUGHT OF SIN AND FORGIVENESS (Psalm xxxii. 1, 2)
THE ENCAMPING ANGEL (Psalm xxxiv. 7)
STRUGGLING AND SEEKING (Psalm xxxiv. 10)
NO CONDEMNATION (Psalm xxxiv. 22)
SKY, EARTH, AND SEA: A PARABLE OF GOD (Psalm xxxvi. 5-7)
WHAT MEN FIND BENEATH THE WINGS OF GOD (Psalm xxxvi. 8, 9)
THE SECRET OF TRANQUILLITY (Psalm xxxvii. 4, 5, 7)
THE BITTERNESS AND BLESSEDNESS OF THE BREVITY OF LIFE (Psalm xxxix. 6, 12)
TWO INNUMERABLE SERIES (Psalm xl. 5, 12)
THIRSTING FOR GOD (Psalm xlii. 2)
THE PSALMIST'S REMONSTRANCE WITH HIS SOUL (Psalm xliii. 5)
THE KING IN HIS BEAUTY (Psalm xlv. 2-7, R.V.)
THE PORTRAIT OF THE BRIDE (Psalm xlv. 10-15, R.V.)
THE CITY AND RIVER OF GOD (Psalm xlvi. 4-7)
THE LORD OF HOSTS, THE GOD OF JACOB (Psalm xlvi. 11)
A SONG OF DELIVERANCE (Psalm xlviii. 1-14)
TWO SHEPHERDS AND TWO FLOCKS (Psalm xlix. 14; Rev. vii. 17)
BLESSEDNESS AND PRAISE
'Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2. But his delight is in the law of the Lord.' —PSALM i. 1, 2.
'Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.'—PSALM cl. 6.
The Psalter is the echo in devout hearts of the other portions of divine revelation. There are in it, indeed, further disclosures of God's mind and purposes, but its especial characteristic is—the reflection of the light of God from brightened faces and believing hearts. As we hold it to be inspired, we cannot simply say that it is man's response to God's voice. But if the rest of Scripture may be called the speech of the Spirit of God to men, this book is the answer of the Spirit of God in men.
These two verses which I venture to lay side by side present in a very remarkable way this characteristic. It is not by accident that they stand where they do, the first and last verses of the whole collection, enclosing all, as it were, within a golden ring, and bending round to meet each other. They are the summing up of the whole purpose and issue of God's revelation to men.
The first and second psalms echo the two main portions of the old revelation—the Law and the Prophets. The first of them is taken up with the celebration of the blessedness and fruitful, stable being of the man who loves the Law of the Lord, as contrasted with the rootless and barren life of the ungodly, who is like the chaff. The second is occupied with the contemplation of the divine 'decree' by which the coming King is set in God's 'holy hill of Zion,' and of the blessedness of 'all they who put their trust in Him,' as contrasted with the swift destruction that shall fall on the vain imaginations of the rebellious heathen and banded kings of earth.
The words of our first text, then, may well stand at the beginning of the Psalter. They express the great purpose for which God has given His Law. They are the witness of human experience to the substantial, though partial, accomplishment of that purpose. They rise in buoyant triumph over that which is painful and apparently opposed to it; and in spite of sorrow and sin, proclaim the blessedness of the life which is rooted in the Law of the Lord.
The last words of the book are as significant as its first. The closing psalms are one long call to praise—they probably date from the time of the restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah, when, as we know, 'the service of song' was carefully re-established, and the harps which had hung silent upon the willows by the rivers of Babylon woke again their ancient melodies. These psalms climb higher and higher in their rapturous call to all creatures, animate and inanimate, on earth and in heaven, to praise Him. The golden waves of music and song pour out ever faster and fuller. At last we hear this invocation to every instrument of music to praise Him, responded to, as we may suppose, by each, in turn as summoned, adding its tributary notes to the broadening river of harmony—until all, with gathered might of glad sound blended with the crash of many voices, unite in the final words, 'Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.'
I. We have here a twofold declaration of God's great purpose in all His self-revelation, and especially in the Gospel of His Son.
Our first text may be translated as a joyful exclamation, 'Oh! the blessedness of the man—whose delight is in the law of the Lord.' Our second is an invocation or a command. The one then expresses the purpose which God secures by His gift of the Law; the other the purpose which He summons us to fulfil by the tribute of our hearts and songs—man's happiness and God's glory.
His purpose is Man's blessedness.
That is but another way of saying, God is love. For love, as we know it, is eminently the desire for the happiness of the person on whom it is fixed. And unless the love of God be like ours, however it may transcend it, there is no revelation of Him to our hearts at all. If He be love, then He 'delights in the prosperity' of His children.
And that purpose runs through all His acts. For perfect love is all-pervasive, and even with us men, it rules the whole being; nor does he love at all who seeks the welfare of the heart he clings to by fits and starts, by some of his acts and not by others. When God comes forth from the unvisioned light, which is thick darkness, of His own eternal, self-adequate Being, and flashes into energy in Creation, Providence, or Grace, the Law of His Working and His Purpose are one, in all regions. The unity of the divine acts depends on this—that all flow from one deep source, and all move to one mighty end. Standing on the height to which His own declarations of His own nature lift our feebleness, we can see how the 'river of God that waters the garden' and 'parts' into many 'heads,' gushes from one fountain. One of the psalms puts what people call the 'philosophy' of creation and of providence very clearly, in accordance with this thought—that the love of God is the source, and the blessedness of man the end, of all His work: 'To Him that made great lights; for His mercy endureth for ever. To Him that slew mighty kings; for His mercy endureth for ever.'
Creation, then, is the effluence of the loving heart of God. Though the sacred characters be but partially legible to us now, what He wrote, on stars and flowers, on the infinitely great and the infinitely small, on the infinitely near and the infinitely far off, with His creating hand, was the one inscription—God is love. And as in nature, so in providence. The origination, and the support, and the direction of all things, are the works and the heralds of the same love. It is printed in starry letters on the sky. It is graven on the rocks, and breathed by the flowers. It is spoken as a dark saying even by sorrow and pain. The mysteries of destructive and crushing providences have come from the same source. And he who can see with the Psalmist the ever-during mercy of the Lord, as the reason of creation and of judgments, has in his hands the golden key which opens all the locks in the palace chambers of the great King. He only hath penetrated to the secret of things material, and stands in the light at the centre, who understands that all comes from the one source—God's endless desire for the blessedness of His creatures.
But while all God's works do thus praise Him by testifying that He seeks to bless His creatures, the loftiest example of that desire is, of course, found in His revelation of Himself to men's hearts and consciences, to men's spirits and wills. That mightiest act of love, beginning in the long-past generations, has culminated in Him in whom 'dwelleth the whole fulness of the Godhead bodily,' and in whose work is all the love—the perfect, inconceivable, patient, omnipotent love of our redeeming God.
And then, remember that this is not inconsistent with or contradicted by the sterner aspects of that revelation, which cannot be denied, and ought not to be minimised or softened. Here, on the right hand, are the flowery slopes of the Mount of Blessing; there, on the left, the barren, stern, thunder-riven, lightning-splintered pinnacles of the Mount of Cursing. Every clear note of benediction hath its low minor of imprecation from the other side. Between the two, overhung by the hopes of the one, and frowned upon and dominated by the threatenings of the other, is pitched the little camp of our human life, and the path of our pilgrimage runs in the trough of the valley between. And yet—might we not go a step farther, and say that above the parted summits stretches the one overarching blue, uniting them both, and their roots deep down below the surface interlace and twine together? That is to say, the threatenings and rebukes, the acts of retributive judgment, which are contained in the revelation of God, are no limitation nor disturbance of the clear and happy faith that all which we behold is full of blessing, and that all comes from the Father's hand. They are the garb in which His Love needs to array itself when it comes in contact with man's sin and man's evil. The love of God appears no less when it teaches us in grave sad tones that 'the wages of sin is death,' than when it proclaims that 'the gift of God is eternal life.'
Love threatens that it may never have to execute its threats. Love warns that we may be wise in time. Love prophesies that its sad forebodings may not be fulfilled. And love smites with lighter strokes of premonitory chastisements, that we may never need to feel the whips of scorpions.
Remember, too, that these sterner aspects both of Law and of Gospel point this lesson—that we shall very much misunderstand God's purpose if we suppose it to be blessedness for us men anyhow, irrespective altogether of character. Some people seem to think that God loves us so much, as they would say—so little, so ignobly, as I would say—as that He only desires us to be happy. They seem to think that the divine love is tarnished unless it provides for men's felicity, whether they are God-loving and God-like or no. Thus the solemn and majestic love of the Father in heaven is to be brought down to a weak good nature, which only desires that the child shall cease crying and be happy, and does not mind by what means that end is reached. God's purpose is blessedness; but, as this very text tells us, not blessedness anyhow, but one which will not and cannot be given by God to those who walk in the way of sinners. His love desires that we should be holy, and 'followers of God as dear children'—and the blessedness which it bestows comes from pardon and growing fellowship with Him. It can no more fall on rebellious hearts than the pure crystals of the snow can lie and sparkle on the hot, black cone of a volcano.
The other text that I have read sets forth another view of God's purpose. God seeks our praise. The glory of God is the end of all the divine actions. Now, that is a statement which no doubt is irrefragable, and a plain deduction from the very conception of an infinite Being. But it may be held in such connections, and spoken with such erroneous application, and so divorced from other truths, that instead of being what it is in the Bible, good news, it shall become a curse and a lie. It may be so understood as to describe not our Father in heaven, but an almighty devil! But, when the thought that God's purpose in all His acts is His own glory, is firmly united with that other, that His purpose in all His acts is our blessing, then we begin to understand how full of joy it may be for us. His glory is sought by Him in the manifestation of His loving heart, mirrored in our illuminated and gladdened hearts. Such a glory is not unworthy of infinite love. It has nothing in common with the ambitious and hungry greed of men for reputation or self-display. That desire is altogether ignoble and selfish when it is found in human hearts; and it would be none the less ignoble and selfish if it were magnified into infinitude, and transferred to the divine. But to say that God's glory is His great end, is surely but another way of saying that He is love. The love that seeks to bless us desires, as all love does, that it should be known for what it is, that it should be recognised in our glad hearts, and smiled back again from our brightened faces. God desires that we should know Him, and so have Eternal Life; He desires that knowing Him, we should love Him, and loving should praise, and so should glorify Him. He desires that there should be an interchange of love bestowing and love receiving, of gifts showered down and of praise ascending, of fire falling from the heavens and sweet incense, from grateful hearts, going up in fragrant clouds acceptable unto God. It is a sign of a Fatherly heart that He 'seeketh such to worship Him'. He desires to be glorified by our praise, because He loves us so much. He commences with an offer, He advances to a command. He gives first, and then (not till then) He comes seeking fruit from the 'trees' which are 'the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.' His plea is not 'the vineyard belongs to Me, and I have a right to its fruits,' but 'what could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done in it?—judge between Me and My vineyard.' First, He showers down blessings; then, He looks for the revenue of praise!
II. We may also take these passages as giving us a twofold expression of the actual effects of God's revelation, especially in the Gospel, even here upon earth.
The one text is the joyful exclamation built upon experience and observation. The other is a call which is answered in some measure even by voices that are often dumb in unthankfulness, often broken by sobs, often murmuring in penitence.
God does actually, though not completely, make men blessed here. Our text sums up the experience of all the devout hearts and lives whose emotions are expressed in the Psalms. He who wrote this psalm would preface the whole book by words into which the spirit of the book is distilled. It will have much to say of sorrow and pain. It will touch many a low note of wailing and of grief. There will be complaints and penitence, and sighs almost of despair before it closes. But this which he puts first is the note of the whole. So it is in our histories. They will run through many a dark and desert place. We shall have bitterness and trials in abundance, there will be many an hour of sadness caused by my own evil, and many a hard struggle with it. But high above all these mists and clouds will rise the hope that seeks the skies, and deep beneath all the surface agitations of storms and currents there will be the unmoved stillness of the central ocean of peace in our hearts. In the 'valley of weeping' we may still be 'blessed' if 'the ways' are in our hearts, and if we make of the very tears 'a well,' drawing refreshment from the very trials. With all its sorrows and pains, its fightings and fears, its tribulations in the world, and its chastenings from a Father's hand, the life of a Christian is a happy life, and 'the joy of the Lord' remains with His servants.
More than twenty centuries have passed since that psalm was written. As many stretched dim behind the Psalmist as he sang. He was gathering up in one sentence the spirit of the past, and confirming it by his own life's history. And has any one that has lived since then stood up and said—'Behold! I have found it otherwise. I have waited on God, and He has not heard my cry. I have served Him, and that for nought. I have trusted in Him, and been disappointed. I have sought His face—in vain. And I say, from my own experience, that the man who trusts in Him is not blessed'? Not one, thank God! The history of the past, so far as this matter is concerned, may be put in one sentence 'They looked unto Him and were lightened, and their faces were not ashamed,' and as for the present, are there not some of us who can say, 'This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles'?
Brethren! make the experiment for yourselves. Test this experience by your own simple affiance and living trust in Jesus Christ. We have the experience of all generations to encourage us. What has blessed them is enough for you and me. Like the meal and the oil, which were the Prophet's resource in famine, yesterday's supply does not diminish to-morrow's store. We, too, may have all that gladdened the hearts and stayed the spirits of the saints of old. 'Oh! taste and see that God is good.' 'Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.'
So, too, God's gift produces man's praise.
What is it that He desires from us? Nothing but our thankful recognition and reception of His benefits. We honour God by taking the full cup of salvation which He commends to our lips, and by calling, while we drink, upon the name of the Lord. Our true response to His Word, which is essentially a proffer of blessing to us, is to open our hearts to receive, and, receiving, to render grateful acknowledgment. The echo of love which gives and forgives, is love which accepts and thanks. We have but to lift up our empty and impure hands, opened wide to receive the gift which He lays in them—and though they be empty and impure, yet 'the lifting up of our hands' is 'as the evening sacrifice'; our sense of need stands in the place of all offerings. The stained thankfulness of our poor hearts is accepted by Him who inhabits the praises of eternity, and yet delights in the praises of Israel. He bends from heaven to give, and all He asks is that we should take. He only seeks our thankfulness—but He does seek it. And wherever His grace is discerned, and His love is welcomed, there praise breaks forth, as surely as streams pour from the cave of the glacier when the sun of summer melts it, or earth answers the touch of spring with flowers.
And that effect is produced, notwithstanding all the complaints and sighs and tears which sometimes choke our praise. It is produced even while these last; the psalms of thanksgiving are not all reserved for the end of the book. But even in those which read like the very sobs of a broken heart, there is ever present some tone of grateful acknowledgment of God's mercy. He sends us sorrow, and He wills that we should weep—but they should be tears like David's, who, at the lowest point of his fortunes, when he plaintively besought God, 'Put Thou my tears into Thy bottle'—could say in the same breath, 'Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto Thee.' God works on our souls that we may have the consciousness of sin, and He wills that we should come with broken and contrite hearts, and like the king of Israel wail out our confessions and supplications—'Have mercy upon me, O God! according to Thy loving-kindness.' But, like him, we should even in our lowliest abasement, when our hearts are bruised, be able to say along with our contrition, 'Open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.' Our sorrows are never so great that they hide our mercies. The sky is never so covered with clouds that neither sun nor stars appear for many days. And in every Christian heart the low tones of lamentation and confession are blended with grateful praise. So it is even in the darkest moments, whilst the blast of misfortune and misery is as a storm against the wall.
But a brighter hope even for our life here rises from these words, if we think of the place which they hold in the whole book. They are the last words. Whatever other notes have been sounded in its course, all ends in this. The winter's day has had its melancholy grey sky, with many a bitter dash of snow and rain—but it has stormed itself out, and at eventide, a rent in the clouds reveals the sun, and it closes in peaceful clearness of light.
The note of gladness heard at the beginning, 'Oh! the blessedness of the man that delights in the law of the Lord,' holds on persistently, like a subdued and almost bewildered undercurrent of sweet sound amid all the movements of some colossal symphony, through tears and sobs, confession and complaint, and it springs up at the close triumphant, like the ruddy spires of a flame long smothered, and swells and broadens, and draws all the intricate harmonies into its own rushing tide. Some of you remember the great musical work which has these very words for its theme. It begins with the call, 'All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord,' and although the gladness saddens into the plaintive cry of a soul sick with hope deferred, 'Will the night soon pass?' yet, ere the close, all discords are reconciled, and at last, with assurance firmer for the experience of passing sorrows, loud as the voice of many waters and sweet as harpers harping with their harps, the joyful invocation peals forth again, and all ends, as it does in a Christian man's life, and as it does in this book, with 'Praise ye the Lord.'
III. We have here also a twofold prophecy of the perfection of Heaven.
Whilst it is true that both of these purposes are accomplished here and now, it is also true that their accomplishment is but partial, and that therefore for their fulfilment we have to lift our eyes beyond this world of imperfect faith, of incomplete blessedness, of interrupted praise. Whether the Psalmist looked forward thus we do not know. But for us, the very shortcomings of our joys and of our songs are prophetic of the perfect and perpetual rapture of the one, and the perfect and perpetual music of the other. We know that He who has given us so much will not stay His hand until He has perfected that which concerns us. We know that He who has taught our dumb hearts to magnify His name will not cease till 'out of the lips of babes and sucklings, He has perfected praise.' We know that the pilgrims in whose hearts are the ways are blessed, and we are sure that a fuller blessedness must belong to those who have reached the journey's end.
And so these words give us a twofold aspect of that future on which our longing hopes may well fix.
It is the perfection of man's blessedness. Then the joyous exclamation of our first text, which we have often had to strive hard not to disbelieve, will be no more a truth of faith but a truth of experience. Here we have had to trust that it was so, even when we could scarce cleave to the confidence. There, memory will look back on our wanderings through this great wilderness, and, enlightened by the issue of them all, will speak only of Mercy and Goodness as our angel guides all our lives. The end will crown the work. Pure unmingled consciousness of bliss will fill all hearts, and break into the old exclamation, which we had sometimes to stifle sobs ere we could speak on earth. When He says, 'Come in! ye blessed of My Father,' all our tears and fears, and pains and sins, will be forgotten, and we shall but have to say, in wonder and joy, 'Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will be still praising Thee.'
It is the perfection of God's praise. We may possibly venture to see in these wonderful words of our text a dim and far-off hint of a possibility that seems to be pointed at in many parts of Scripture—that the blessings of Christ's mighty work shall, in some measure and manner, pass through man to his dwelling-place and its creatures. Dark shadows of evil—the mystery of pain and sorrow—lie over earth and all its tribes. 'We look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.' And the statements of Scripture which represent creation as suffering by man's sin, and participant in its degree in man's redemption, seem too emphatic and precise, as well as too frequent, and in too didactic connections, to be lightly brushed aside as poetic imagery. May it not be that man's transgression
'Broke the fair music that all creatures made To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed,'
and that man's restoration may, indeed, bring back all that hath life and breath to a harmonious blessedness—according to the deep and enigmatical words, which declare that 'the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God'? Be that as it may, at all events our second text opens to us the gates of the heavenly temple, and shows us there the saintly ranks and angel companies gathered in the city whose walls are salvation and its gates praise. They harmonise with that other later vision of heaven which the Seer in Patmos beheld, not only in setting before us worship as the glad work of all who are there, but in teaching the connection between the praises of men, and the answering hymns of angels. The harps of heaven are hushed to hear their praise who can sing, 'Thou hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood,' and, in answer to that hymn of thanksgiving for unexampled deliverance and resorting grace, the angels around the throne break forth into new songs to the Lamb that was slain—while still wider spread the broadening circles of harmonious praise, till at last 'every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them,' join in the mighty hymn of 'Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever.' Then the rapturous exclamation from human souls redeemed,—'Oh! the blessedness of the men whom Thou hast loved and saved,' shall be answered by choral praise from everything that hath breath.
And are you dumb, my friend, in these universal bursts of praise? Is that because you have not chosen to take the universal blessing which God gives? You have nothing to do but to receive the things that are freely given to you of God—the forgiveness, the cleansing, the life, that come from Christ by faith. Take them, and call upon the name of the Lord, And can you refuse His gifts and withhold your praise? You can be eloquent in thanks to those who do you kindnesses, and in praise of those whom you admire and love, but your best Friend receives none of your gratitude and none of your praise. Ignoble silence and dull unthankfulness—with these you requite your Saviour! 'I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out!'
A STAIRCASE OF THREE STEPS
'All those that put their trust in Thee ... them also that love Thy name ... the righteous.'—PSALM v. 11, 12.
I have ventured to isolate these three clauses from their context, because, if taken in their sequence, they are very significant of the true path by which men draw nigh to God and become righteous. They are all three designations of the same people, but regarded under different aspects and at different stages. There is a distinct order in them, and whether the Psalmist was fully conscious of it or not, he was anticipating and stating, with wonderful distinctness, the Christian sequence—faith, love, righteousness.
These three are the three flights of stairs, as it were, which lead men up to God and to perfection, or if you like to take another metaphor, meaning the same thing, they are respectively the root, the stalk, and the fruit of religion. 'They that put their trust in Thee ... them also that love Thy Name ... the righteous.'
I. So, then, the first thought here is that the foundation of all is trust.
Now, the word that is employed here is very significant. In its literal force it really means to 'flee to a refuge.' And that the literal signification has not altogether been lost in the spiritual and metaphorical use of it, as a term expressive of religious experience, is quite plain from many of the cases in which it occurs. Let me just repeat one of them to you. 'Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful to me, for my soul trusteth in Thee; yea, in the shadow of Thy wings will I make my refuge.' There the picture that is in the words is distinctly before the Psalmist's mind, and he is thinking not only of the act of mind and heart by which he casts himself in confidence upon God, but upon that which represents it in symbol, the act by which a man flees into some hiding-place. The psalm is said in the superscription to have been written when David hid in a cave from his persecutor. Though no weight be given to that statement, it suggests the impression made by the psalm. In imagination we can see the rough sides of the cavern that sheltered him arching over the fugitive, like the wings of some great bird, and just as he has fled thither with eager feet and is safely hidden from his pursuers there, so he has betaken himself to the everlasting Rock, in the cleft of which he is at rest and secure. To trust in God is neither more nor less than to flee to Him for refuge, and there to be at peace. The same presence of the original metaphor, colouring the same religious thought, is found in the beautiful words with which Boaz welcomes Ruth, when he prays for her that the God of Israel may reward her, 'under the shadow of whose wings thou hast come to trust.'
So, as a man in peril runs into a hiding-place or fortress, as the chickens beneath the outspread wing of the mother bird nestle close in the warm feathers and are safe and well, the soul that trusts takes its flight straight to God, and in Him reposes and is secure.
Now, it seems to me that such a figure as that is worth tons of theological lectures about the true nature of faith, and that it tells us, by means of a picture that says a great deal more than many a treatise, that faith is something very different from a cold-blooded act of believing in the truth of certain propositions; that it is the flight of the soul—knowing itself to be in peril, and naked, and unarmed—into the strong Fortress.
What is it that keeps a man safe when he thus has around him the walls of some citadel? Is it himself, is it the act by which he took refuge, or is it the battlements behind which he crouches? So in faith—which is more than a process of a man's understanding, and is not merely the saying, 'Yes, I believe all that is in the Bible is true; at any rate, it is not for me to contradict it,' but is the running of the man, when he knows himself to be in danger, into the very arms of God—it is not the running that makes him safe, but it is the arms to which he runs.
If we would only lay to heart that the very essence of religion lies in this 'flight of the lonely soul to the only God,' we should understand better than we do what He asks from us in order that He may defend us, and how blessed and certain His defence is. So let us clear our minds from the thought that anything is worth calling trust which is not thus taking refuge in God Himself.
Now, I need not remind you, I suppose, that all this is just as true about us as it was about David, and that the emotion or the act of his will and heart which he expresses in these words of my text is neither more nor less than the Christian act of faith. There is no difference except a difference of development; there is no difference between the road to God marked out in the Psalms, and the road to God laid down in the Gospels. The Psalmist who said, 'Trust ye in the Lord for ever,' and the Apostle who said, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,' were preaching identically the same doctrine. One of them could speak more fully than the other could of the Person on whom trust was to be rested, but the trust itself was the same, and the Person on whom it rested was the same, though His Name of old was Jehovah, and His Name to-day is 'Immanuel, God with us.'
Nor need I do more than point out how the context of the words that I have ventured to detach from their surroundings is instructive: 'Let all those that put their trust in Thee rejoice because Thou defendest them.' The word for defending there continues the metaphor that lies in the word for 'trust,' for it means literally to cover over and so to protect. Thus, when a man runs to God for His refuge, God
'Covers his defenceless head With the shadow of His wings.'
And the joy of trust is, first, that it brings round me the whole omnipotence of God for my defence, and the whole tenderness of God for my consolation, and next, that in the very exercise of trust in such defence, so fortified and vindicated by experience, there is great reward. All who thus flee into the refuge shall find refuge whither they flee, and shall be glad.
II. Then the next thought of my texts, which I do not force into them, but which results, as it seems to me, distinctly from the order in which they occur in the context, is that love follows trust.
'All those that put their trust in Thee—they also that love Thee.' If I am to love God, I must be quite sure that God loves me. My love can never be anything else than an answer to His. It can only be secondary and derived, or I would rather say reflected and flashed back from His. And so, very significantly, the Psalmist says, 'Those that love Thy Name,' meaning by 'Name,' as is always meant by it, the revealed character of God. If I am to love God, He must not hide in the darkness behind His infinity, but must come out and give me something about Him that I know. The three letters G O D mean nothing, and there is no power in them to stir a man's heart. It must be the knowledge of the acts of God that brings men to love Him. And there is no way of getting that knowledge but through the faith which, as I said, must precede love. For faith realises the fact that God loves. 'We have known and believed the love that God hath to us.' The first step is to grasp the great truth of the loving God, and through that truth to grasp the God that loves. And then, and not till then, does there spring up in a man's heart love towards Him. But it is only the faith that is set on Him who hath declared the Father unto us that gives us for our very own the grasp of the facts, which facts are the only possible fuel that can kindle love in a human heart. 'We love Him because He first loved us,' and we shall never know that He loves us unless we come to the knowledge through the road of faith. So John himself tells us when he says, in the words that I have already quoted, 'We have known and believed.' He puts the foundation last, 'We have known,' because 'we have believed' 'the love that God hath to us.'
And so faith is the only possible means by which any of us can ever experience, as well as realise, the love that kindles ours. It is the possession of the fact of redemption for my very own and of the blessings which accompany it, and that alone, that binds a man to God in the bonds of love that cannot be broken, and that subdues and unites all vagrant emotions, affections, and desires in the mighty tide of a love that ever sets towards Him. As surely as the silvery moon in the sky draws after it the heaped waters of the ocean all round the world, so God's love draws ours. They that believe contemplate, and they that believe experience the effects of that divine love, which must be experienced ere our answering love can be flashed back to heaven.
Students of acoustics tell us that if you have two stringed instruments in adjacent apartments, tuned to the same pitch, a note sounded on one of them will be feebly vibrated upon the other as soon as the waves of sound have reached the sensitive string. In like manner a man's heart gives off a faint, but musical, little tinkle of answering love to God when the deep note of God's love to him, struck on the chords of heaven up yonder, reaches his poor heart.
Love follows trust. So, brethren, if we desire to be warmed, let us get into the sunshine and abide there. If we desire to have our hearts filled with love to God, do not let us waste our time in trying to pump up artificial emotions or to persuade ourselves that we love Him better than we do, but let us fix our thoughts and fasten our refuge-seeking trust on Him, and then that shall kindle ours.
III. Lastly, righteousness follows trust and love.
The last description here of the man who begins as a believer and then advances to being a lover is righteous. That is the evangelical order. That is the great blessing and beauty of Christianity, that it goes an altogether different way to work to make men good from that which any other system has ever dreamed of. It says, first of all, trust, and that will create love and that will ensure obedience. Faith leads to righteousness because, in the very act of trusting God, I come out of myself, and going out of myself and ceasing from all self-admiration and self-dependence and self-centred life is the beginning of all good and has in it the germ of all righteousness, even as to live for self is the mother tincture out of which we can make all sins.
And faith leads to righteousness in another way. Open the heart and Christ comes in. Trust Him and He fills our poor nature with 'the law of the Spirit of life that was in Christ Jesus,' and that 'makes me free from the law of sin and death.' Righteousness, meaning thereby just what irreligious men mean by it—viz. good living, plain obedience to the ordinary recognised dictates of morality, going straight—that is most surely attained when we cease from our own works and say to Jesus Christ, 'Lord, I cannot walk in the narrow path. Do Thou Thyself come to me and fill my heart and keep my feet.' They that trust and love are 'found in Him, not having their own righteousness, but that which is of God by faith.'
And love leads to righteousness because it brings the one motive into play in our hearts which turns duty into delight, toil into joy, and makes us love better to do what will please our beloved Lover than anything besides. Why did Jesus Christ say,'My yoke is easy and My burden is light'? Was it because He diminished the weight of duties or laid down an easier slipshod morality than had been enjoined before? No! He intensified it all, and His Commandment is far harder to flesh and blood than any commandments that were ever given. But for all that, the yoke that He lays upon our necks is, if I may so say, padded with velvet; and the burden that we have to draw behind us is laid upon wheels that will turn so easily that the load is diminished, inasmuch as for Duty He substitutes Himself and says to us, 'If ye love Me, keep My Commandments.'
So, dear brethren! here is a very easily applied, and a very far-reaching test for us who call ourselves Christians: Does our love and does our trust culminate in practical righteousness? We are all tempted to make too much of the emotions of the religious life, and too little of its persistent, dogged obedience. We are all too apt to think that a Christian is a man that believes in Jesus Christ. 'Justification by faith alone without the works of the law' used to be the watchword of the Evangelical Church. It might be so held as to be either a blessed truth or a great error, and many of us make it an error instead of a blessing.
On the other hand, there is only one way by which righteousness can be attained, and that is: first by faith and then by love. Here are three steps: 'we have known and believed the love that God hath to us'; that is the broad, bottom step. And above it 'we love Him because He first loved us,' that is the central one. And on the top of all, 'herein is our love made perfect that we keep His Commandments.' They that trust are they also who love Thy Name, and they who trust through love are, and only they are, the righteous.
ONE SAYING FROM THREE MEN
'The wicked hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved.' —PSALM x. 6.
'Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.' —PSALM xvi. 8.
'And in my prosperity I said, I shall never be moved.' —PSALM xxx. 6.
How differently the same things sound when said by different men! Here are three people giving utterance to almost the same sentiment of confidence. A wicked man says it, and it is insane presumption and defiance. A good man says it, having been lulled into false security by easy times, and it is a mistake that needs chastisement. A humble believing soul says it, and it is the expression of a certain and blessed truth. 'The wicked saith in his heart, I shall not be moved.' A good man, led astray by his prosperity, said, 'I shall not be moved,' and the last of the three put a little clause in which makes all the difference, 'because He is at my right hand, I shall never be moved.' So, then, we have the mad arrogance of godless confidence, the mistake of a good man that needs correction, and the warranted confidence of a believing soul.
I. The mad arrogance of godless confidence.
The 'wicked' man, in the psalm from which our first text comes, said a good many wrong things 'in his heart.' The tacit assumptions on which a life is based, though they may never come to consciousness, and still less to utterance, are the really important things. I dare say this 'wicked man' was a good Jew with his lips, and said his prayers all properly, but in his heart he had two working beliefs. One is thus expressed: 'As for all his enemies, he puffeth at them. He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved.' The other is put into words thus: 'He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten, He hideth His face. He will never see it.'
That is to say, the only explanation of a godless life, unless the man is an idiot, is that there lie beneath it, as formative principles and unspoken assumptions, guiding and shaping it, one or both of these two thoughts: either 'There is no God,' or 'He does not care what I do, and I am safe to go on for evermore in the present fashion.' It might seem as if a man with the facts of human life before him, could not, even in the insanest arrogance, say, 'I shall not be moved, for I shall never be in adversity.' But we have an awful power—and the fact that we exercise, and choose to exercise, it is one of the strange riddles of our enigmatical existence and characters—of ignoring unwelcome facts, and going cheerily on as though we had annihilated them, because we do not reflect upon them. So this man, in the midst of a world in which there is no stay, and whilst he saw all round him the most startling and tragical instances of sudden change and complete collapse, stands quietly and says, 'Ah! I shall never be moved'; 'God doth not require it.'
That absurdity is the basis of every life that is not a life of consecration and devotion—so far as it has a basis of conviction at all. The 'wicked' man's true faith is this, absurd as it may sound when you drag it out into clear, distinct utterance, whatever may be his professions. I wonder if there are any of us whose life can only be acquitted of being utterly unreasonable and ridiculous by the assumption, 'I shall never be moved'?
Have you a lease of your goods? Do you think you are tenants at will or owners? Which? Is there any reason why any of us should escape, as some of us live as if we believed we should escape, the certain fate of all others? If there is not, what about the sanity of the man whose whole life is built upon a blunder? He is convicted of the grossest folly, unless he be assured that either there is no God, or that He does not care one rush about what we do, and that consequently we are certain of a continuance in our present state.
Do you say in your heart, 'I shall never be moved'? Then you must be strong enough to resist every tempest that beats against you. Is that so? 'I shall never be moved'—then nothing that contributes to your well-being will ever slip from your grasp, but you will be able to hold it tight. Is that so? 'I shall never be moved'—then there is no grave waiting for you. Is that so? Unless these three assumptions be warranted, every godless man is making a hideous blunder, and his character is the sentence pronounced by the loving lips of Incarnate Truth on the rich man who thought that he had 'much goods laid up for many years,' and had only to be merry—'Thou fool! Thou fool!'
If an engineer builds a bridge across a river without due calculation of the force of the winds that blow down the gorge, the bridge will be at the bottom of the stream some stormy night, and the train piled on the fragments of it in hideous ruin. And with equal certainty the end of the first utterer of this speech can be calculated, and is foretold in the psalm, 'The Lord is King for ever and ever.... The godless are perished out of the land.'
II. We have in our second text the mistake of a good man who has been lulled into false confidence.
The Psalmist admits his error by the acknowledgment that he spoke 'in my prosperity'; or, as the word might be rendered, 'in my security.' This suggests to us the mistake into which even good men, lulled by the quiet continuance of peaceful days, are certain to fall, unless there be continual watchfulness exercised by them.
It is a very significant fact that the word which is translated in our Authorised Version 'prosperity' is often rendered 'security,' meaning thereby, not safety, but a belief that I am safe. A man who is prosperous, or at ease, is sure to drop into the notion that 'to-morrow will be as this day, and much more abundant,' unless he keeps up unslumbering watchfulness against the insidious illusion of permanence. If he yields to the temptation, in his foolish security, forgetting how fragile are its foundations, and what a host of enemies surround him threatening it, then there is nothing for it but that the merciful discipline, which this Psalmist goes on to tell us he had to pass through by reason of his fall, shall be brought to bear upon him. The writer gives us a page of his own autobiography. 'In my security I said, I shall never be moved.' 'Lord! by Thy favour Thou hast made my mountain to stand strong. Thou didst hide Thy face.' What about the security then? What about 'I shall never be moved' then? 'I was troubled. I cried to Thee, O Lord!'—and then it was all right, his prayer was heard, and he was in 'security'—that is, safety—far more really when he was 'troubled' and sore beset than when he had been, as he fancied, sure of not being moved.
Long peace rusts the cannon, and is apt to make it unfit for war. Our lack of imagination, and our present sense of comfort and well-being, tend to make us fancy that we shall go on for ever in the quiet jog-trot of settled life without any very great calamities or changes. But there was once a village at the bottom of the crater of Vesuvius, and great trees, that had grown undisturbed there for a hundred years, and green pastures, and happy homes and flocks. And then, one day, a rumble and a rush, and what became of the village? It went up in smoke-clouds. The quiescence of the volcano is no sign of its extinction. And as surely as we live, so sure is it that there will come a 'to-morrow' to us all which shall not be as this day. No man has any right to calculate upon anything beyond the present moment, and there is no basis whatever, either for the philosophical assertion that the order of nature is fixed, and that therefore there are no miracles, or for the practical translation of the assertion into our daily lives, that we may reasonably expect to go on as we are without changes or calamities. There is no reason capable of being put into logical shape for believing that, because the sun has risen ever since the beginning of things, it will rise to-morrow, for there will come a to-morrow when it will not rise. In like manner, the longest possession of our mercies is no reason for forgetting the precarious tenure on which we hold them all.
So, Christian men and women! let us try to keep vivid that consciousness which is so apt to get dull, that nothing continueth in one stay, and that we shall be moved, as far as the outward life and its circumstances are concerned. If we forget it, we shall need, and we shall get, the loving Fatherly discipline, which my second text tells us followed the false security of this good man. The sea is kept from putrefying by storms. Wine poured from vessel to vessel is purified thereby. It is an old truth and a wholesome one, to be always remembered, 'because they have no changes therefore they fear not God .'
III. Lastly, we have the same thing said by another man in another key. 'Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.' The prelude to the assertion makes all the difference. Here is the warranted confidence of a simple faith.
The man who clasps God's hand, and has Him standing by his side, as his Ally, his Companion, his Guide, his Defence—that man does not need to fear change. For all the things which convict the arrogant or mistaken confidences of the other men as being insanity or a lapse from faith prove the confidence of the trustful soul to be the very perfection of reason and common sense.
We may be confident of our power to resist anything that can come against us, if He be at our side. The man that stands with his back against an oak-tree is held firm, not because of his own strength, but because of that on which he leans. There is a beautiful story of some heathen convert who said to a missionary's wife, who had felt faint and asked that she might lean for a space on her stronger arm, 'If you love me, lean hard.' That is what God says to us, 'If you love Me, lean hard.' And if you do, because He is at your right hand, you will not be moved. It is not insanity; it is not arrogance; it is simple faith, to look our enemies in the eyes, and to feel sure that they cannot touch us, 'Trust in Jehovah; so shall ye be established.' Rest on the Lord, and ye shall rest indeed.
In like manner the man who has God at his right hand may be sure of the unalterable continuance of all his proper good. Outward things may come or go, as it pleases Him, but that which makes the life of our life will never depart from us as long as He stands there. And whilst He is there, if only our hearts are knit to Him, we can say, 'My heart and my flesh faileth, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever. I shall not be moved. Though all that can go goes, He abides; and in Him I have all riches.' Trust not in the uncertainty of outward good, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.
The wicked man was defiantly arrogant, and the forgetful good man was criminally self-confident, when they each said, 'I shall not be moved.' We are only taking up the privileges that belong to us if, exercising faith in Him, we venture to say, 'Take what Thou wilt; leave me Thyself; I have enough.' And the man who says, 'Because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,' has the right to anticipate an unbroken continuance of personal being, and an unchanged continuance of the very life of his life. That which breaks off all other lives abruptly is no breach in the continuity, either of the consciousness or of the avocations of a devout man. For, on the other side of the flood, he does what he does on this side, only more perfectly and more continually. 'He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever,' and it makes comparatively little difference to him whether his place be on this or on the other side of Jordan. We 'shall not be moved,' even when we change our station from earth to heaven, and the sublime fulfilment of the warranted confidence of the trustful soul comes when the 'to-morrow' of the skies is as the 'to-day' of earth, only 'much more abundant.'
MAN'S TRUE TREASURE IN GOD
'The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup; Thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.'—PSALM xvi. 5, 6.
We read, in the law which created the priesthood in Israel, that 'the Lord spake unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them. I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel' (Numbers xvii. 20). Now there is an evident allusion to that remarkable provision in this text. The Psalmist feels that in the deepest sense he has no possession amongst the men who have only possessions upon earth, but that God is the treasure which he grasps in a rapture of devotion and self-abandonment. The priest's duty is his choice. He will 'walk by faith and not by sight.'
Are not all Christians priests? and is not the very essence and innermost secret of the religious life this—that the heart turns away from earthly things and deliberately accepts God as its supreme good, and its only portion? These first words of my text contain the essence of all true religion.
The connection between the first clause and the others is closer than many readers perceive. The 'lot' which 'Thou maintainest,' the 'pleasant places,' the 'goodly heritage,' all carry on the metaphor, and all refer to God as Himself the portion of the heart that chooses and trusts Him. 'Thou maintainest my lot'—He who is our inheritance also guards our inheritance, and whosoever has taken God for his possession has a possession as sure as God can make it. 'The lines are fallen to me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage'—the heritage that is goodly is God Himself. When a man chooses God for his portion, then, and then only, is he satisfied—'satisfied with favour, and full of the goodness of the Lord.' Let me try to expand and enforce these thoughts, with the hope that we may catch something of their fervour and their glow.
I. The first thought, then, that comes out of the words before us is this: all true religion has its very heart in deliberately choosing God as my supreme good.
'The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup.' The two words which are translated in our version 'portion' and 'inheritance' are substantially synonymous. The latter of them is used continually in reference to the share of each individual, or family, or tribe in the partition of the land of Canaan. There is a distinct allusion, therefore, to that partition in the language of our text; and the two expressions, part or 'portion,' and 'inheritance,' are substantially identical, and really mean just the same as if the single expression had stood—'The Lord is my Portion.'
I may just notice in passing that these words are evidently alluded to in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Colossians, where Paul speaks of God 'having made us meet for our portion of the inheritance of the saints in light.'
And then the 'portion of my cup' is a somewhat strange expression. It is found in one of the other Psalms, with the meaning 'fortune,' or 'destiny,' or 'sum of circumstances which make up a man's life.' There may be, of course, an allusion to the metaphor of a feast here, and God may be set forth as 'the portion of my cup,' in the sense of being the refreshment and sustenance of a man's soul. But I should rather be disposed to consider that there is merely a prolongation of the earlier metaphor, and that the same thought as is contained in the figure of the 'inheritance' is expressed here (as in common conversation it is often expressed) by the word 'cup,' namely, 'that which makes up a man's portion in this life.' It is used with such a meaning in the well-known words, 'My cup runneth over,' and in another shape in 'The cup which My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?' It is the sum of circumstances which make up a man's 'fortune.' So the double metaphor presents the one thought of God as the true possession of the devout soul.
Now, how do we possess God? We possess things in one fashion and persons in another. The lowest and most imperfect form of possession is that by which a man simply keeps other people off material good, and asserts the right of disposal of it as he thinks proper. A blind man may have the finest picture that ever was painted; he may call it his, that is to say, nobody else can sell it, but what good is it to him? A lunatic may own a library as big as the Bodleian, but what use is it to him? Does the man who collects the rents of a mountain-side, or the poet or painter to whom its cliffs and heather speak far-reaching thoughts, most truly possess it? The highest form of possession, even of things, is when they minister to our thought, to our emotion, to our moral and intellectual growth. We possess even them really, according as we know them and hold communion with them. But when we get up into the region of persons, we possess them in the measure in which we understand them, and sympathise with them, and love them. Knowledge, intercourse, sympathy, affection—these are the ways by which men can possess men, and spirits, spirits. A disciple who gets the thoughts of a great teacher into his mind, and has his whole being saturated by them, may be said to have made the teacher his own. A friend or a lover owns the heart that he or she loves, and which loves back again; and not otherwise do we possess God.
Such ownership must be, from its very nature, reciprocal. There must be the two sides to it. And so we read in the Bible, with equal frequency: the Lord is the inheritance of His people, and His people are the inheritance of the Lord. He possesses me, and I possess Him—with reverence be it spoken—by the very same tenure; for whoso loves God has Him, and whom He loves He owns. There is deep and blessed mystery involved in this wonderful prerogative, that the loving, believing heart has God for its possession and indwelling Guest; and people are apt to brush such thoughts aside as mystical. But, like all true Christian mysticism, it is intensely practical.
We have God for ours, first, in the measure in which our minds are actively occupied with thoughts of Him. We have no merely mystical or emotional possession of God to preach. There is a real, adequate knowledge of Him in Jesus Christ. We know God, His character, His heart, His relations to us, His thoughts of good concerning us, sufficiently for all intellectual and for all practical purposes.
I wish to ask you a plain question: Do you ever think about Him? There is only one way of getting God for yours, and that is by bringing Him into your life by frequent meditation upon His sweetness, and upon the truths that you know about Him. There is no other way by which a spirit can possess a spirit, that is not cognisable by sense, except only by the way of thinking about him, to begin with. All else follows that. That is how you hold your dear ones when they go to the other side of the world. That is how you hold God, who dwells on the other side of the stars. There is no way to 'have' Him, but through the understanding accepting Him, and keeping firm hold of Him. Men and women that from Monday morning to Saturday night never think of His name—how do they possess God? And professing Christians that never remember Him all the day long—what absurd hypocrisy it is for them to say that God is theirs!
Yours, and never in your mind! When your husband, or your wife, or your child, goes away from home for a week, do you forget them as utterly as you forget God? Do you have them in any sense if they never dwell in the 'study of your imagination,' and never fill your thoughts with sweetness and with light?
And so again when the heart turns to Him, and when all the faculties of our being, will, hope, and imagination, and all our affections and all our practical powers, when they all touch Him, each in its proper fashion, then and then only can we in any reasonable and true sense be said to possess God.
Thought, communion, sympathy, affection, moral likeness, practical obedience, these are the way—and not by mystical raptures only—by which, in simple prose fact, it is possible for the finite to grasp the infinite, and for a man to be the owner of God.
Now there is another consideration very necessary to be remembered, and that is that this possession of God involves, and is possible only by, a deliberate act of renunciation. The Levite's example, that is glanced at in my text, is always our law. You must have no part or inheritance amongst the sons of earth if God is to be your inheritance. Or, to put it into plain words, there must be a giving up of the material and the created if there is to be a possession of the divine and the heavenly. There cannot be two supreme, any more than there can be two pole-stars, one in the north and the other in the south, to both of which a man can be steering. You cannot stand with
'One foot on land, and one on sea, To one thing constant never.'
If you are to have God as your supreme good, you must empty your heart of earth and worldly things, or your possession of Him will be all words, and imagination, and hypocrisy. Brethren! I wish to bring that message to your consciences to-day.
And what is this renunciation? There must be, first of all, a fixed, deliberate, intelligent conviction lying at the foundation of my life that God is best, and that He and He only is my true delight and desire. Then there must be built upon that intelligent conviction that God is best, the deliberate turning away of the heart from these material treasures. Then there must be the willingness to abandon the outward possession of them, if they come in between us and Him. Just as travellers in old days, that went out looking for treasures in the western hemisphere, were glad to empty their ships of their less precious cargo in order to load them with gold, you must get rid of the trifles, and fling these away if ever they so take up your heart that God has no room there. Or rather, perhaps, if the love of God in any real measure, howsoever imperfectly, once gets into a man's soul, it will work there to expel and edge out the love and regard for earthly things. Just as when the chemist collects oxygen in a vessel filled with water, as it passes into the jar it drives out the water before it; the love of God, if it come into a man's heart in any real sense, in the measure in which it comes, will deliver him from the love of the world. But between the two there is warfare so internecine and endless that they cannot co-exist: and here, to-day, it is as true as ever it was that if you want to have God for your portion and your inheritance you must be content to have no inheritance amongst your brethren, nor part amongst the sons of earth.
Men and women! are you ready for that renunciation? Are you prepared to say, 'I know that the sweetness of Thy presence is the truest sweetness that I can taste; and lo! I give up all besides and my own self'?
'O God of good, the unfathomed Sea! Who would not yield himself to Thee?'
And remember, that nothing less than these is Christianity—the conviction that the world is second and not first; that God is best, love is best, truth is best, knowledge of Him is best, likeness to Him is best, the willingness to surrender all if it come in contest with His supreme sweetness. He that turns his back upon earth by reason of the drawing power of the glory that excelleth, is a Christian. The Christianity that only trusts to Christ for deliverance from the punishment of sin, and so makes religion a kind of fire insurance, is a very poor affair. We need the lesson pealed into our ears as much as any generation has ever done, 'Ye cannot serve God and mammon.' A man's real working religion consists in his loving God most and counting His love the sweetest of all things.
II. Now let me turn to the next point that is here, viz. that this possession is as sure as God can make it. 'Thou maintainest my lot.' Thou art Thyself both my heritage and the guardian of my heritage. He that possesses God, says the text, by implication, is lifted above all fear and chance of change.
The land, the partition of which amongst the tribes lies at the bottom of the allusive metaphor of my text, was given to them under the sanction of a supernatural defence; and the law of their continuance in it was that they should trust and serve the unseen King. It was He, according to the theocratic theory of the Old Testament, and not chariots and horses, their own arm and their own sword, that kept them safe, though the enemies on the north and the enemies on the south were big enough to swallow up the little kingdom at a mouthful.
And so, says the Psalmist allusively, in a similar manner, the Divine Power surrounds the man who chooses God for his heritage, and nothing shall take that heritage from him.
The lower forms of possession, by which men are called the owners of material goods, are imperfect, because they are all precarious and temporary. Nothing really belongs to a man if it can be taken from him. What we may lose we can scarcely be said to have. They are mine, they were yours, they will be somebody else's to-morrow. Whilst we have them we do not have them in any deep sense; we cannot retain them, they are not really ours at all. The only thing that is worth calling mine is something that so passes into and saturates the very substance of my soul that, like a piece of cloth dyed in the grain, as long as two threads hold together the tint will be there. That is how God gives us Himself, and nothing can take Him out of a man's soul. He, in the sweetness of His grace, bestows Himself upon man, and guards His own gift in the heart, which is Himself. He who dwells in God and God in him lives as in the inmost keep and citadel. The noise of battle may roar around the walls, but deep silence and peace are within. The storm may rage upon the coasts, but he who has God for his portion dwells in a quiet inland valley where tempests never come. No outer changes can touch our possession of God. They belong to another region altogether. Other goods may go, but this is held by a different tenure. The life of a Christian is lived in two regions: in the one his life has its roots, and its branches extend to the other. In the one there may be whirling storms and branches may toss and snap, whilst in the other, to which the roots go down, may be peace. Root yourselves in God, making Him your truest treasure, and nothing can rob you of your wealth.
We here in this commercial community see many examples of great fortunes and great businesses melting away like yesterday's snow. And surely the certain alternations of 'booms' and bad times might preach to some of you this lesson: Set not your hearts on that which can pass, but make your treasure that which no man can take from you.
Then, too, there is the other thought. God will help us so that no temptations shall have power to make us rob ourselves of our treasure. None can take it from us but ourselves, but we are so weak and surrounded by temptations so strong that we need Him to aid us if we are not to be beguiled by our own treacherous hearts into parting with our highest good. A handful of feeble Jews were nothing against the gigantic might of Assyria, or against the compacted strength of civilised Egypt; but there they stood, on their rocky mountains, defended, not by their own strength, but by the might of a present God. And so, unfit to cope with the temptations round us as we are, if we cast ourselves upon His power and make Him our supreme delight, nothing shall be able to rob us of that possession and that sweetness.
And there is just one last point that I would refer to here on this matter of our stable possession of God. It is very beautiful to observe that this psalm, which, in the language of my text, rises to the very height of spiritual and, in a good sense, mystical devotion, recognising God as the One Good for souls, is also one of the psalms which has the clearest utterance of the faith in immortality. Just after the words of my text we read these others, in which the Old Testament confidence in a life beyond the grave reaches its very climax: 'Thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol, neither wilt Thou suffer Thine holy one to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life; in Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.'
That connection teaches us that the measure in which a man feels his true possession of God here and now, is the measure in which his faith rises triumphant over the darkness of the grave, and grasps, with unfaltering confidence, the conviction of an immortal life. The more we know that God is our portion and our treasure, the more sure, and calmly sure, we shall be that a thing like death cannot touch a thing like that, that the mere physical fact is far too small and insignificant a fact to have any power in such a region as that; that death can no more affect a man's relation to God, whom he has learned to love and trust, than you can cut thought or feeling with a knife. The two belong to two different regions. Thus we have here the Old Testament faith in immortality shaping itself out of the Old Testament enjoyment of communion with God, with a present God. And you will find the very same process of thought in that seventy-third psalm, which stands in some respects side by side with this one as attaining the height of mystical devotion, joined with a very clear utterance of the faith in immortality: 'Whom have I in heaven but Thee, and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee! Thou wilt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory.'
So Death himself cannot touch the heritage of the man whose heritage is the Lord. And his ministry is not to rob us of our treasures as he robs men of all treasures besides (for 'their glory shall not descend after them'), but to give us instead of the 'earnest of the inheritance'—the bit of turf by which we take possession of the estate—the broad land in all the amplitude of its sweep, into our perpetual possession. 'Thou maintainest my lot.' Neither death nor life 'shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'
III. And then the last thought here is that he who thus elects to find his treasure and delight in God is satisfied with his choice. 'The lines'—the measuring-cord by which the estate was parted off and determined—'are fallen in pleasant places; yea!'—not as our Bible has it, merely 'I have a goodly heritage,' putting emphasis on the fact of possession, but—'the heritage is goodly to me,' putting emphasis on the fact of subjective satisfaction with it.
I have no time to dwell upon the thoughts that spring from these words. Take them in the barest outline. No man that makes the worse choice of earth instead of God, ever, in the retrospect, said: 'I have a goodly heritage.' One of the later Roman Emperors, who was among the best of them, said, when he was dying: 'I have been everything, and it profits me nothing.' No creature can satisfy your whole nature. Portions of it may be fed with their appropriate satisfaction, but as long as we feed on the things of earth there will always be part of our being like an unfed tiger in a menagerie, growling for its prey, whilst its fellows are satisfied for the moment. You can no more give your heart rest and blessedness by pitching worldly things into it, than they could fill up Chat Moss, when they made the first Liverpool and Manchester Railway, by throwing in cartloads of earth. The bog swallowed them and was none the nearer being filled.
No man who takes the world for his portion ever said, 'The lines are fallen to me in pleasant places.' For the make of your soul as plainly cries out 'God!' as a fish's fins declare that the sea is its element, or a bird's wings mark it out as meant to soar. Man and God fit each other like the two halves of a tally. You will never get rest nor satisfaction, and you will never be able to look at the past with thankfulness, nor at the present with repose, nor into the future with hope, unless you can say, 'God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.' But oh! if you do, then you have a goodly heritage, a heritage of still satisfaction, a heritage which suits, and gratifies, and expands all the powers of a man's nature, and makes him ever capable of larger and larger possession of a God who ever gives more than we can receive, that the overplus may draw us to further desire, and the further desire may more fully be satisfied.
The one true, pure, abiding joy is to hold fellowship with God and to live in His love. The secret of all our unrest is the going out of our desires after earthly things. They fly forth from our hearts like Noah's raven, and nowhere amid all the weltering flood can find a resting-place. The secret of satisfied repose is to set our affections thoroughly on God. Then our wearied hearts, like Noah's dove returning to its rest, will fold their wings and nestle fast by the throne of God. 'All the happiness of this life,' said William Law, 'is but trying to quench thirst out of golden empty cups.' But if we will take the Lord for 'the portion of our cup,' we shall never thirst.
Let me beseech you to choose God in Christ for your supreme good and highest portion; and having chosen, to cleave to your choice. So shall you enter on possession of good that truly shall be yours, even 'that good part, which shall not be taken away from' you.
And, lastly, remember that if you would have God, you must take Christ. He is the true Joshua, who puts us in possession of the inheritance. He brings God to you—to your knowledge, to your love, to your will. He brings you to God, making it possible for your poor sinful souls to enter His presence by His blood; and for your spirits to possess that divine Guest. 'He that hath the Son, hath the Father'; and if you trust your souls to Him who died for you, and cling to Him as your delight and your joy, you will find that both the Father and the Son come to you and make their home in you. Through Christ the Son you will receive power to become sons of God, and 'if children, then heirs, heirs of God,' because 'joint heirs with Christ.'
GOD WITH US, AND WE WITH GOD
'I have set the Lord always before me: because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.... 11. In Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.' —PSALM xvi. 8, 11.
There are, unquestionably, large tracts of the Old Testament in which the anticipation of immortality does not appear, and there are others in which its presence may be doubtful. But here there can be no hesitation, I think, as to the meaning of these words. If we regard them carefully, we shall not only see clearly the Psalmist's hope of immortal life, but shall discern the process by which he came to it, and almost his very act of grasping at it; for the first verse of our text is manifestly the foundation of the second; and the facts of the one are the basis of the hopes of the other. That is made plain by the 'therefore' which, in one of the intervening verses, links the concluding rapturous anticipations with the previous expressions.
If, then, we observe that here, in these two verses which I have read, there is a very remarkable parallelism, we shall get still more strikingly the connection between the devout life here and the perfecting of the same hereafter. Note how, even in our translation, the latter verse is largely an echo of the former, and how much more distinctly that is the case if we make a little variation in the rendering, which brings it closer to the original. 'I have set the Lord always before me,' says the one,—that is the present. 'In Thy presence is fulness of joy,' says the other,—that is the consequent future. And the two words, which are rendered in the one case 'before me' and in the other case 'in Thy presence,' are, though not identical, so precisely synonymous that we may take them as meaning the same thing. So we might render 'I have set the Lord always before my face': 'Before Thy face is fulness of joy.' The other clause is, to an English reader, more obviously parallel: 'Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved'—shall be steadied here. 'At Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore'—the steadfastness here merges into eternal delights hereafter.
So then, we have two conditions set before us, and the link between them made very plain. And I gather all that I have to say about these words into two statements. First, life here may be God's presence with us, to make us steadfast. And secondly, if so, life hereafter will be our presence with God to make us glad. That is the Psalmist's teaching, and I will try to enforce it.
I. First, then, life here may be God's presence with us, to make us steadfast.
Mark the Psalmist's language. 'I have set the Lord always in front of me—before my face.' Emphasis is placed on 'set' and 'always.' God is ever by our sides, but we may be very far away from Him, 'though He be not far off from every one of us,' and if we are to have Him blazing, clear and unobscured above and beyond all the mists and hubbub of earth, we shall need continual effort in order to keep Him in our sight. 'I have set the Lord'—He permits me to put out my hand, as it were, and station Him where I want Him, that I may always have Him in my sight, and be able to look at Him and be calm and blessed.
You cannot do that, if you let the world, and wealth, and business, and anxieties, and ambitions, and cares, and sorrows, and duties, and family responsibilities, jostle and hustle Him out of your minds and hearts. You cannot do it if, like John Bunyan's man with the muckrake, you keep your eyes always down on the straw at your feet, and never lift them to the crown above. How many men in Manchester walk its streets from year's end to year's end, and never look up to the sky except to see whether they must take their umbrellas with them or not? And so all the magnificence and beauty of the daily heavens, and the nightly gemming of the empty places with perpetually burning stars, are lost to them! So, God is blazing there in front of us, but unless we set ourselves to it, we shall never see Him. You have to look, by a conscious effort, over and away from the things that are 'seen and temporal' if you want to see the things that are 'unseen and eternal.'
But if you disturb the whole tenor of your being by agitations and distractions and petty cares, or if you defile it by sensual and fleshly lusts, and animal propensities gratified, and poor, miserable, worldly ambitions and longings filling up your souls, then God can no more be visible before your face than the blessed sun can mirror himself in a storm-tossed sea or in a muddy puddle. The heart must be pure, and the heart must be still, and the mind must be detached from earth, and glued to Heaven, and the glasses of the telescope must be sedulously cleansed from dust, if we are to be blessed with the vision of God continuously before our face.
Then note, still further, that if thus we have made God present with us, by realising the fact of His presence, when He comes, He comes with His hands full. 'I have set the Lord always before me,' says the Psalmist. And then he goes on to say, 'Because He is at my right hand.' Not only in front of you, then, David, to be looked at, but at your side! What for? What do we summon some one to come and stand beside us for? In order that from his presence there may come help and succour and courage and confidence. And so God comes to the right hand of the man who honestly endeavours through all the confusions and bustles of life to realise His sweet and calming presence. Where He comes He comes to help; not to be a spectator, but an ally in the warfare; and whoever sets the Lord before him will have the Lord at his right hand.
And then, note, still further, the steadfastness which God brings. I have spoken of the effort which brings God. I speak now of the steadfastness which He brings by His coming. The Psalmist's anticipation is a singularly modest one. 'Because He is at my right hand I shall'—What? Be triumphant? No! Escape sorrows? No! Have my life filled with serenity? No! 'I shall not be moved.' That is the best I can hope for. To be able to stand on the spot, with steadfast convictions, with steadfast purposes, with steadfast actions—continuously in one direction; 'having overcome all, to stand'—that is as much as the best of us can desire or expect, in this poor struggling life of ours.
What a profound consciousness of inward weakness and of outward antagonism there breathes in that humble and modest hope, as being the loftiest result of the presence of Omnipotence for our aid: 'I shall not be moved'! When we think of our inner weakness, when we remember the fluctuations of our feelings and emotions, when we compare the ups and downs of our daily life, or when we think of the larger changes covering years, which affect all our outlooks, our thoughts, our plans; and how
'We all are changed by still degrees, All but the basis of the soul,'
it is much to say, 'I shall not be moved.' And when we think of the obstacles that surround us, of the storms that dash against us, how we are swept by surges of emotion that wash away everything before their imperious onrush, or swayed by blasts of temptation that break down the strongest defences, or smitten by the shocks of change and sorrow that crush the firmest hearts, it is much to say, in the face of a world pressing upon us with the force of the wind in a cyclone, that our poor, feeble reed shall stand upright and 'not be moved' in the fiercest blast. 'What went ye out for to see?' 'A reed shaken with the wind'—that is humanity. 'Behold! I have made thee an iron pillar and brazen walls, and they shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail'—that is weak man, stiffened into uprightness, and rooted in steadfastness by the touch of the hand of a present God.
And, brother! there is nothing else that will stay a man's soul. The holdfast cannot be a part of the chain. It must be fastened to a fixed point. The anchor that is to keep the ship of your life from dragging and finding itself, when the morning breaks, a ghastly wreck upon the reef, must be outside of yourself, and the cable of it must be wrapped round the throne of God. The anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast, which will neither break nor drag, can only be firm when it 'enters into that within the veil.' God, and God only, can thus make us strong! So, dear friends, let us see to it that we fasten our aims and purposes, our faith and love, our submission and obedience, upon that mighty Helper who will be with us and make us strong, that we may 'stand fast in the Lord and in the power of His might.'
II. Now, secondly, notice how, if so, life hereafter will be our presence with God, to make us glad.
I have already pointed out briefly the connection between these two portions of my text, and I need only remark here that the link which holds them together is very obvious. If a man loves God, and trusts Him, and 'walks with Him,' after the fashion described in our former verse, then there will spring up, irrepressible and unconquerable, a conviction in that man's soul that this sweet and strong communion, which makes so much of the blessedness of life, must last after death. Anything is conceivable rather than that a man who walks with God shall cease to be! Rather, when he 'is not' any more 'found' among men, it is only because 'God took him.' Thus the emotions and experiences of a truly devout soul are (apart from the great revelation in Jesus Christ which hath brought 'life and immortality to light') the best evidence and confirmation of the anticipation of immortal life. It cannot be, unless our whole intellectual faculties are to be put into utter confusion, that such an experience as that of the man who loves God, and tries to trust Him, and walk before Him, is destined to be brought to nothingness with the mere dissolution of this earthly frame. The greatness and the smallness, the achievements and the failures, of the religious life as we see it here, all bear upon their front the mark of imperfection, and in their imperfection prophesy and proclaim a future completion. Because it is so great in itself, and because, being so great, its developments and influence are so strangely and sadly checked, the faith that knits a man to Christ demands eternity for its duration, and infinitude for its perfection. Thus, he that says 'I have set the Lord always before me,' goes on to say, with an undeniable accuracy of inference, 'Therefore Thou wilt not leave my soul in the under world.' God is not going to forget the soul that clave to Him, and anything is believable sooner than that.
Our texts not only assert this connection and base the confidence of immortality on the present experiences of the spirit that trusts in God, but also give the outline, at least, of the correspondences between the imperfections of the present and the perfectnesses of the future. And I cast this into two or three words before I close.
This is the first of them. If you will turn your faces to God, amidst all the flaunting splendours and vain shows and fleeting possessions of this present, His face will dawn on you yonder. We can say but little of what is meant by such a hope as that. But only this we can say, that there will be, as yet unimaginable, new wealths of revelation of the Father, and to match them, as yet unimaginable new inlets of apprehension and perception upon our parts, so that the sweetest, clearest, closest, most satisfying vision of God that has ever dawned on sad souls here, shall be but 'as in a glass darkly' compared with that face to face sight. We live away out on the far-off outskirts of the system where those great planets plough along their slow orbits, and turn their languid rotations at distances that imagination faints in contemplating, and the light and the heat and the life that reach them are infinitesimally small. We shall be shifted into the orb that is nearest the sun; and oh! what a rapture of light and life and heat will come to our amazed spirits: 'I have set the Lord always before me.' Twilight though the light has been, I have tried to keep it. I shall be of the sons of light close to the Throne and shall see Thy face. I shall be satisfied when I wake out of this sleep of life into Thy likeness.
Then, again, if you will keep God at your right hand here, He will set you on His hereafter. Keep Him here for your Companion, for your Ally, for your Advocate, to breathe strength into you by the touch of His hand, as some feeble man, leaning upon a stronger arm, may be upheld. If you will do that, then the place where the favoured servants stand will be yours; the place where trusted counsellors stand will be yours; the place where the sheep stand will be yours; the place where the Shepherd sits will be yours; for He to whom it is said, 'Sit Thou at My right hand till I make Thine enemies Thy footstool,' says to us, 'Where I am there shall also My servant be.' Keep God by your sides, and you will be lifted to Christ's place at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
Lastly, if we let ourselves be stayed by God amidst the struggle and difficulty, we shall be gladdened by Him with perpetual joys. The emphasis of the last words of my text is rather on the adjectives than on the nouns—full joy, eternal pleasure. And how both characteristics contradict the experiences of earth, even the gladdest, which we fain would make permanent! For I suppose that no earthly joy is either central, reaching the deepest self, or circumferential, embracing the whole being of a man, but that only God can so go into the depths of my soul as that from His throne there He can flood the whole of my nature with felicity and peace. In all other gladnesses there is always in the landscape one bit of sullen shadow somewhere or other, unparticipant of the light, while all around is blazing. And we need that He should come to make us blessed.
Joys here are no more lasting than they are complete. As one who only too sadly proved the truth of his own words, burning out his life before he was six-and-thirty, has said—
'Pleasures are like poppies spread, You seize the flower, its bloom is shed! Or like the snowflake in the river. A moment white—then gone for ever.'
Oh! my friend, 'why do ye spend your money for that which is not bread?' The life of faith on earth is the beginning, and only the beginning, of that life of calm and complete felicity in the heavenly places.
I have shown you the ladder's foot, 'I have set the Lord always before me.' The top round reaches the throne of God, and whoever begins at the bottom, and holds fast the beginning of his confidence firm unto the end, for him the great promise of the Master will come true, and Christ's 'joy will remain in him and his joy shall be full.'
THE TWO AWAKINGS
'I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness.' —PSALM xvii. 15.
'As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when Thou awakest, Thou shalt despise their image.'—PSALM lxxiii. 20.
Both of these Psalms are occupied with that standing puzzle to Old Testament worthies—the good fortune of bad men, and the bad fortune of good ones. The former recounts the personal calamities of David, its author. The latter gives us the picture of the perplexity of Asaph its writer, when he 'saw the prosperity of the wicked.'
And as the problem in both is substantially the same, the solution also is the same. David and Asaph both point onwards to a period when this confusing distribution of earthly good shall have ceased, though the one regards that period chiefly in its bearing upon himself as the time when he shall see God and be at rest, while the other thinks of it rather with reference to the godless rich as the time of their destruction.
In the details of this common expectation, also, there is a remarkable parallelism. Both describe the future to which they look as an awaking, and both connect with it, though in different ways and using different words, the metaphor of an image or likeness. In the one case, the future is conceived as the Psalmist's awaking, and losing all the vain show of this dreamland of life, while he is at rest in beholding the appearance, and perhaps in receiving the likeness, of the one enduring Substance, God. In the other, it is thought of as God's awaking, and putting to shame the fleeting shadow of well-being with which godless men befool themselves.
What this period of twofold awaking may be is a question on which good men and thoughtful students of Scripture differ. Without entering on the wide subject of the Jewish knowledge of a future state, it may be enough for the present purpose to say that the language of both these Psalms seems much too emphatic and high-pitched, to be fully satisfied by a reference to anything in this life. It certainly looks as if the great awaking which David puts in immediate contrast with the death of 'men of this world,' and which solaced his heart with the confident expectation of beholding God, of full satisfaction of all his being, and possibly even of wearing the divine likeness, pointed onwards, however dimly, to that 'within the veil.' And as for the other psalm, though the awaking of God is, no doubt, a Scriptural phrase for His ending of any period of probation and indulgence by an act of judgment, yet the strong words in which the context describes this awaking, as the 'destruction' and the 'end' of the godless, make it most natural to take it as here referring to the final close of the probation of life. That conclusion appears to be strengthened by the contrast which in subsequent verses is drawn between this 'end' of the worldling, and the poet's hopes for himself of divine guidance in life, and afterwards of being taken (the same word as is used in the account of Enoch's translation) by God into His presence and glory—hopes whose exuberance it is hard to confine within the limits of any changes possible for earth.
The doctrine of a future state never assumed the same prominence, nor possessed the same clearness in Israel as with us. There are great tracts of the Old Testament where it does not appear at all. This very difficulty, about the strange disproportion between character and circumstances, shows that the belief had not the same place with them as with us. But it gradually emerged into comparative distinctness. Revelation is progressive, and the appropriation of revelation is progressive too. There is a history of God's self-manifestation, and there is a history of man's reception of the manifestation. It seems to me that in these two psalms, as in other places of Old Testament Scripture, we see inspired men in the very course of being taught by God, on occasion of their earthly sorrows, the clearer hopes which alone could sustain them. They stood not where we stand, to whom Christ has 'brought life and immortality to light'; but to their devout and perplexed souls, the dim regions beyond were partially opened, and though they beheld there a great darkness, they also 'saw a great light.' They saw all this solid world fade and melt, and behind its vanishing splendours they saw the glory of the God whom they loved, in the midst of which they felt that there must be a place for them, where eternal realities should fill their vision, and a stable inheritance satisfy their hearts.
The period, then, to which both David and Asaph look, in these two verses, is the end of life. The words of both, taken in combination, open out a series of aspects of that period which carry weighty lessons, and to which we turn now.
I. The first of these is that to all men the end of Life is an awaking.
The representation of death most widely diffused among all nations is that it is a sleep. The reasons for that emblem are easily found. We always try to veil the terror and deformity of the ugly thing by the thin robe of language. As with reverential awe, so with fear and disgust, the tendency is to wrap their objects in the folds of metaphor. Men prefer not to name plainly their god or their dread, but find roundabout phrases for the one, and coaxing, flattering titles for the other. The furies and the fates of heathenism, the supernatural beings of modern superstition, must not be spoken of by their own appellations. The recoil of men's hearts from the thing is testified by the aversion of their languages to the bald name—death. And the employment of this special euphemism of sleep is a wonderful witness to our weariness of life, and to its endless toil and trouble. Everywhere that has seemed to be a comforting and almost an attractive name, which has promised full rest from all the agitations of this changeful scene. The prosperous and the wretched alike have owned the fatigue of living, and been conscious of a soothing expectance which became almost a hope, as they thought of lying still at last with folded hands and shut eyes. The wearied workers have bent over their dead, and felt that they are blest in this at all events, that they rest from their labours; and as they saw them absolved from all their tasks, have sought to propitiate the power that had made this ease for them, as well as to express their sense of its merciful aspect, by calling it not death, but sleep.
But that emblem, true and sweet as it is, is but half the truth. Taken as the whole, as indeed men are ever tempted to take it, it is a cheerless lie. It is truth for the senses—'the foolish senses,' who 'crown' Death, as 'Omega,' the last, 'the Lord,' because 'they find no motion in the dead.' Rest, cessation of consciousness of the outer world, and of action upon it, are set forth by the figure. But even the figure might teach us that the consciousness of life, and the vivid exercise of thought and feeling, are not denied by it. Death is sleep. Be it so. But does not that suggest the doubt—'in that sleep, what dreams may come?' Do we not all know that, when the chains of slumber bind sense, and the disturbance of the outer world is hushed, there are faculties of our souls which work more strongly than in our waking hours? We are all poets, 'makers' in our sleep. Memory and imagination open their eyes when flesh closes it. We can live through years in the dreams of a night; so swiftly can spirit move when even partially freed from 'this muddy vesture of decay.' That very phrase, then, which at first sight seems the opposite of the representation of our text, in reality is preparatory to and confirmatory of it. That very representation which has lent itself to cheerless and heathenish thoughts of death as the cessation not only of toil but of activity, is the basis of the deeper and truer representation, the truth for the spirit, that death is an awaking. If, on the one hand, we have to say, as we anticipate the approaching end of life, 'The night cometh, when no man can work'; on the other the converse is true, 'The night is far spent; the day is at hand.'
We shall sleep. Yes; but we shall wake too. We shall wake just because we sleep. For flesh and all its weakness, and all its disturbing strength, and craving importunities—for the outer world, and all its dissipating garish shows, and all its sullen resistance to our hand—for weariness, and fevered activity and toil against the grain of our tastes, too great for our strength, disappointing in its results, the end is blessed, calm sleep. And precisely because it is so, therefore for our true selves, for heart and mind, for powers that lie dormant in the lowest, and are not stirred into full action in the highest, souls; for all that universe of realities which encompass us undisclosed, and known only by faint murmurs which pierce through the opiate sleep of life, the end shall be an awaking.