Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
A Psalm of Asaph. Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.Until I Went Into the Sanctuary
The difficulty of the writer of the Psalm is a very old difficulty, and yet it seems to us to be perpetually new. Think what it was that troubled him. What was his difficulty? 'I was envious when I saw the ungodly in such prosperity. They come in no misfortune like other men, neither are they plagued like other folk.' At what period of the world's history, in what spot of the universe, are the echoes of that question not still heard? The inequality of things. Up starts the question before us, the problem of suffering, the mystery of evil, the strange impossibility of reconciling the two sides of life—here is the difficulty which perplexed him. I venture to think that there is no thoughtful person but, if he ever thinks at all about human life, this strange, tangled medley will sometimes say, and say it almost in despair, 'I thought to understand this; but it was too hard for me'.
And what is the solution? Is there any solution? The solution is this: 'It was too hard for me until I went into the sanctuary of God'. What does he mean? How did it help him, and how may it help us?
I. In the sanctuary there came to him the thought of God. The whole place was full of it. How did that help him in the perplexities that troubled him? Think for a moment what the real difficulty was. It was not a difficulty of his mind; it was a difficulty of his conscience. It was not an intellectual difficulty; it was a moral difficulty. 'Until I went into the sanctuary.' Of course, in the simplest sense, he meant he went into the place where they were accustomed to go to lay down the burdens of their lives, that which made churchgoing to those old Jews such a beautiful reality, so different from much of the formal conventional ehurchgoing today. He went into the sanctuary. It was the natural place to go to. But, I think, it meant something more than that. It was not merely the place, but that to which the whole place witnessed. It was the thought of God, the consciousness of God, and the consciousness of God meant the consciousness of purpose. Could it be otherwise? To believe in God is surely of necessity to believe in His purpose. To say the opening words of the Creed, 'I believe in God,' is to believe that there is no tangle, no puzzle, no labyrinth. It is only that we have not yet discovered the clue, God has not yet placed it in our hands. We can afford to wait if there is something to wait for.
II. In the sanctuary he discovered himself. I suppose there is no thoughtful person but has often and often echoed that question, What am I? What is that thing I call myself? What does it denote, and what does it involve? What am I? My body—is that myself? At first sight there seems to be so much to be said for it because my body is so intertwined with my soul, that if I am tired I cannot pray; if I am in pain I can hardly think. At first sight my body seems to be myself. But somebody says, 'No, your self is the changeless part of you, and your body changes'. The body of today is a very different thing from the body of twenty years ago. My mind, then—is that myself? And again the answer comes, 'No. Your thoughts, your feelings, your opinions, they are not what they were ten years ago.' But your self remains unchanged. In the sanctuary of God I discovered myself. Why? Because the whole of the sanctuary, and the worship of the sanctuary, and every detail of the worship is based upon the assumption that I am more than body and more than mind, that I am a deathless spirit, and that I cannot live by bread alone.
III. 'Until I went into the sanctuary.' Because, in the sanctuary, he discovered something else. He discovered the influence of worship. There is a strange reflex influence in all acts of devotion. When the Lord Jesus prayed, He was transfigured; so when a man prays, he is bringing a strange influence, morally and spiritually, upon his being, and he rises up from the act of prayer as the Lord rose from His prayer, a stronger, calmer, braver man. And so it is also with the influence of worship. In days like these, when life is so anxious, more especially to men; when business is so exacting; when a right judgment is so important; when a prompt, almost instantaneous, decision is so frequently demanded, it is pathetically sad that some of the very men who want the power most should cut themselves off from the calming influences of the House of God, where for aught they know they might be able to say as Asaph said: 'It was too hard for me, life was too anxious, business was too exacting, disappointments were too overwhelming, until I went into the sanctuary of God'.
IV. And lastly. 'Until I went into the sanctuary; then understood I.' Because, in the sanctuary, he discovered another truth. In the sanctuary of God he found the truth of the consecration of himself to God. The whole place spoke of consecration separated for the worship of God; every holy vessel set apart; the priest consecrated to God's service. The whole place was full of the consecration of things and of life to God. Is there a more tremendously important truth than that for us to try and write upon our hearts?
God the Sole Delight of the Elect
This Psalm gives the embodiment of the deepest, innermost, and most primary life of the soul; where thought is not, but the life is reduced to the ultimate facts of spiritual consciousness, the certain premises of spiritual thought, the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God.
I. The soul that aspires to contemplate the ways of Providence is met by a difficulty at the outset. God's ways are not as our ways, His gifts to men are not proportioned, as we should have proportioned them, to their deserts, and this difficulty, which is stated at the beginning of the Psalm, is not solved, in a final and universal way, in any part of it; it is solved only to the satisfaction of the Psalmist himself, with just the hint at the intellectual solution that God's judgment in the world to come will remedy what now seems to be defects.
II. When the question of God's just government has once been satisfactorily explained, the soul cares no more for the details of the explanation; she only desires to prostrate herself before Him and confess her weakness and His surpassing glory. In communion with Him, even such unequal communion as she feels to be the best she deserves, she is strengthened and ennobled, and rests and is comforted.
III. 'Nevertheless I am always by Thee; for Thou hast holden me by my right hand.' In this sublime selfishness, if we are to call it so, he is content to stay; he forgets all others. He can do without the glory until God's own time shall come for giving it; the guidance of God's counsel may last as long as He shall please, so that only it be not taken away. And now we shall see in what sense his religion is selfish, and in what sense not. It is selfish so far, and so far only, as all love may be said to be selfish. It seeks its own delight, but a delight that is not found in self, or in its own prize or possessions, but only in loving and being loved by Another.
IV. I am afraid that this ardent all-absorbing personal love for their Lord is not, as a matter of fact, the prevailing feeling and the keenest desire of Christians in their thoughts of the other world. What is it that people of our time most fondly think of, and exult in most, when they think that God has given them a right to expect admission into heaven? Is it not generally, not union with God, but reunion with their earthly friends, or with God's servants whom they have revered that have gone before them? And sometimes people's thoughts of heaven take a yet lower form—lower, more selfish in the evil sense; they look forward to a blessedness that consists not in realized love for another, but in mere personal enjoyment and possession; and fancy heaven only a more perfect earth, with all earth's enjoyments that are not plainly sinful or casual.
Now until we are able to have nothing and desire nothing but God, we are not fit for heaven. If we would have the happiness that we seek, we must receive it in God's form, and seek it in His way, by disinterested love for Him and our brethren, not schemes for our own personal exaltation even in things spiritual. What we have to do is to go out of ourselves, not out into the world, but into God; to leave a self-centred selfish desire for happiness, and seek His will and His kingdom; only by that the truest happiness will be found.
—W. H. Simcox, The Cessation of Prophecy, p. 178.
After the defeat of Montcontour, as they were carrying Coligny off the field, nearly suffocated by the blood of three wounds pouring into his closed visor, an old friend, who was being carried wounded beside him, repeated the first verse of this Psalm—
Si est ce que Dieu est très doux
'Truly God is good to Israel.' The historian adds: 'That great captain confessed afterwards that this short word refreshed him, and put him in the way of good thoughts and firm resolutions for the future'. If the whole Psalm is read, it will be seen to be singularly suited to such an emergency; and so well were the Psalms then known, that the first verse called up the whole.
But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped.
For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment.
Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish.
They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily.
They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth.
Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them.
And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?
Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches.
Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.
For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning.
If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children.
When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me;
Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.
Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction.
How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors.
As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image.
Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.
So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee.
Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand.
Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.
My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee.
But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works.