Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
Maschil of Asaph. Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.Psalm 78:7
In its original application this verse is simply a statement of God's purpose in giving to Israel the Law, and such a history of deliverance. So, then, the words may permissibly bear the application which I purpose to make of them in this sermon, re-echoing only the thoughts which the season has already, I suppose, more or less, suggested to most of us. Though every day be a New Year's Day, still the alteration in our dates and our calendars should set us all thinking of that continued lapse of the mysterious thing—the creature of our own minds—which we call time.
I. Let us associate God with memory by thankful remembrance. I suppose that there are very few of the faculties of our nature which we more seldom try to regulate by Christian principles than that great power which we have or looking backwards. The one thing that all parts of our nature need is God, and that is as true about our power of remembrance as it is about any other part of our being. The past is then hallowed, noble, and yields its highest results and most blessed fruits for us when we link it closely with Him. The past should be regarded by each of us as it is, in deed and in truth, one long record of what God has done for us. Such an exercise of grateful God-recognizing remembrance will deliver us from the abuses of that great power by which so many of us turn our memories into a cause of weakness, if not of sin.
(a) There are people, and we are all tempted to be of the number, who look back upon the past and see nothing there but themselves, their own cleverness, their own success; burning incense to their own net, and sacrificing to their own drag.
(b) Another mood leads us to look back into the past dolefully and disappointedly, to say, 'I have broken down so often. I may as well give it all up.' Never! If only we will look back to God we shall be able to look forward to a perfect self.
(c) There are others to whom remembrance is mainly a gloating over old sins. Alas! for the man whose memory is but the paler portraiture of past sins. You may find a refuge from that curse of remembrance in remembering God.
(d) Some of us unwisely, and ungratefully, live in the light of departed blessings, so as to have no hearts either for present mercies or for present duties—for all these the remedy is that we should not forget the works of God, but see Him everywhere filling the past.
II. Let us live in the future by hope in Him, our remembrances and our hopes are closely connected. Hope owes to memory the pigments with which it paints, the canvas on which it paints, and the objects which it portrays there. But in all our earthly hopes there is a feeling of uncertainty which brings alarm as well as expectation. But if, according to my text, we set our hopes in God, then we shall have a certainty absolute.
III. Let us live in the present by strenuous obedience. After all memory and hope are meant to fit us for work in the flying moment. Both should impel us to this keeping of the commandments of God; for both yield motives which should incline us thereto. If my memory weakens me for present work, either because it depresses my hope of success, or because it saddens me with the remembrance of departed blessings, then it is a curse and not a good. And if I dream myself away in any future, and forget the exigencies of the imperative and swiftly passing moment, then the faculty of hope, too, is a curse and a weakening.
—A. Maclaren, Christ's Musts, p. 118.
References.—LXXVIII. 9.—S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for a Year, vol. i. p. 9. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xii. No. 696. LXXVIII. 10. —J. Baines, Sermons, p. 113.
Drink From the Depths
The Psalmist is here reviewing the providence of God that sustained the children of Israel in the desert. That providence had made a deep impression on him, and he delights to dwell upon its wonders. Take, for example, the water from the rock of which the Psalmist is speaking in our text. It comes to him in a flash as the great wonder of it that God gave them drink out of the great depths. What the people came for is a draught of water, and God in His mercy gives them their desire. On that thought I wish to dwell—carrying it through some of the activities of God.
I. Think then for a moment of the world of nature as it unfolds itself in all its beauty round us. There is not a bird or beast, there is not a tree or flower, but is ministered to in the way our text describes. I take the tiniest weed that roots among the stones, the flower in the crannied wall of which the poet speaks, and I ask what does it need to live? It needs a little warmth; it needs an occasional moistening with rain. Now in a certain measure this is true, but you can never stop there in this mysterious universe. Try to explain the light that a rose needs, and you are canned into the depths of solar energy.
II. Again, think of our senses for a moment, think of our sight and hearing for examples. To one man, as to the Peter Bell of Wordsworth, a primrose is just a primrose and no more. To another in the meanest flower that blows there are thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. Or two men listen to a piece of music and one as he listens is profoundly stirred by it; yet play that piece before another, and it is sound and fury, signifying nothing. So at the back of every sense we have there is a deep that you can never fathom.
III. Again let us think of God's ways in providence in the ordering and discipline of our lives. One of the lessons we learn as we grow older is that our discipline is not exceptional. It is not by exceptional providences that we live. It is not by exceptional joys we are enriched. It is by sorrows that are as old as man, by joys that are common, as the wind is common that breathes on the meanest street.
IV. Then think again for a moment of the Bible. Now there is one thing that always arrests me in the Bible. It is that the Bible is such an ancient book and yet is so intensely modern and practical. There is not a problem you are called to face, there is not a burden you are forced to bear, but your strength for it all shall be as the strength of ten if you make a daily companion of your Bible. It gives us a drink out of the great depths.
V. Then, lastly, think for a moment upon Jesus—of Jesus in relation to His words. If ever words were as water to a thirsty world, surely it was the words that Jesus spake. That is why the words of Christ will live even when heaven and earth have passed away. You can exhaust the cup, or drain the goblet dry, but you cannot exhaust the spring fed from the depths.
—G. H. Morrison, The Wings of the Morning, p. 198.
Mistrust That Destroys
I. Unbelief is malignant when it is a product of the flesh and its tyrannous appetites. Of that we have an instructive example in the text. That was not a guiding angel, a ministering presence, a guardian providence altogether to their minds, which brought them through the depths of the sea and forgot coupons for the banquets that should have been arranged for them at different stages of their journey. In the midst of their toils and privations the fretful descendants of Abraham were having the best possible training for prowess, sovereignty, full salvation.
II. There are men who are unbelievers because their vanity has been vexed and their ambition thwarted, and in the scheme of things which would win them faith and approval, others must needs be found bowing at their feet. God's programme of life and salvation differs from ours, and this tempts us to be unbelieving. Some of us make it a condition of the trust God asks from us that we shall first get all we want.
III. Another sign of malignant unbelief is that it thwarted men in working out the appointed problems of life and salvation. The mind trained to methods of historical research is exasperated to contempt by the uncritical methods of pietists who do not grasp the human part in revelation, and the Bible is despised because of the narrowness and illiteracy of some good Christians who honour it. The man needs our richest pity over whom, for any of these reasons, the Bible has lost its authority. Very often it happens that the unbelief we have cultivated so far afield, we bring back into the circle of our common duties, and find ourselves torn, disheartened, disabled in the presence of providential tasks which lie ready to our hands. That is where the condemnation begins. The unbelief which is malignant, kindling a fire against Jacob and wrath against Israel, is that which reduces men to the level of the brute before the lofty calls and solemn problems of daily life.
IV. The unbelief is malignant which impeaches a God who is in the very act of proving His covenant friendship with us and leading us forth into freedom, privilege, blessedness. The unbelief which affronts God is that which denies His personal sovereignty over us and impugns His gracious ministry in our lives. We are not dealing merely with the history of effete religions, and our mistrust is not the epitaph penned by a distempered soul for the tomb of a departed God. Our vaunted doubt is an affront to a living Benefactor, a stab at the warm love that is ever brooding over us, a gross filial impiety; for the signs that our lives are under constant guidance are as indisputable as those vouchsafed to Israel of old, however much they may differ in form.
V. Unbelief is malignant when the most memorable experiences of our history furnish sufficient warrant for the faith we are required to exercise. God never asks from men an arbitrary and impossible faith, and it will always be found that He has prepared us by the lessons of our previous history for the next heroic act of trust that is required. The demand for faith is culminative, and the longer our experience of His guiding and saving ministry, the greater the obligation that rests on us. The faith God seeks must be achieved first of all in connexion with the problems of our personal life, and when it is achieved there, the stupendous histories and pronouncements of the Bible will no longer cause us to stumble.
—T. G. Selby, The Unheeding God, p. 42.
What do you live upon? How many lives have you? Who is the sustainer of your life? In what direction do you look for daily sustenance? Surely here in these two texts, which are in reality one text, we find exactly what man needs at his best estate—'corn of heaven, angels' food'. Is such sustenance available? Yes. Are there any invitations to partake of this food? Certainly; invitations given as with the blast of trumpets to come and eat, to come buy wine and milk without money and without price.
I. What do we live upon? Here is com from heaven, here is angels' food, and we may perhaps never touch it. Let it not be supposed that God is responsible for our self-impoverishment; He never meant us to impoverish ourselves, He never meant us to attempt to satisfy our hunger with the husks that the swine do eat.
II. This wonderful Psalm shows the absolute futility of mere miracles. God seems to have worked all His miracles in this 78th Psalm; it is as full of miracles as the Lord's sermons were full of parables. Yet all ended in a deeper atheism; not an atheism as we understand the word, a term emptied of God, but a term so filled with gods as to dethrone God.
These people in the wilderness tempted God to do another miracle, and then another, and at last miracles became commonplaces to them, ceasing to be miracles and sinking below mere anecdotes or transient circumstances. Let us get back to the idea that God is the sustainer of man, God is the bread-giver; let us go back to our little child-prayer, Give us this day our daily bread. That prayer will do more for the world than atheism has ever done; that prayer will keep the world sweet when many a vain intellectual theory will pervert its imagination and destroy its conscience.
III. 'Corn of heaven, angels' food.' Let the imagery stand for all that it really means. We cannot take out of it the idea that bread and water and honey and locusts and all the old wilderness' fare may be so accepted and utilized as to become as if it were corn of heaven and angels' food. Surely it was angels' food in the most literal sense that Adam ate when he was in the Garden of Eden.
Are we sustained by the living God? Do we live upon God? Do we understand how many kinds of food or elements of sustenance God can give to us? Jesus Christ revealed the great philosophy of living; He said, 'Man shall not live by bread alone'. The meaning is so often mistaken or perverted, as if the passage read, Man must have something more than bread, he must have something to his bread, it will not do to give him mere bread, bare bread. The passage has no such poor drivelling meaning. Here is a great philosophy of sustenance; man shall not live only by bread, as if there were only one way of living, as if there were only one method of keeping man together in his personal identity. God can feed a man on the rocks or in the air or on the sea, away from civilization wholly. When men rightly live in God the world will be at rest, and not until then. There is no way of rightly living in God but through Jesus Christ His Son.
—Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. II. p. 233.
References.—LXXVIII. 25.—H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 1497, p. 113. LXXVIII. 40.—F. E. Paget, Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, vol. i. p. 88. LXXVIII. 41.—Archdeacon Wilberforce, Sanctification by the Truth, p. 12. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. v. No. 272. LXXVIII.—International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 178.
The Gospel Palaces
All ye who take part in the building of a church know that you have been admitted to the truest symbol of God's eternity. You have built what may be destined to have no end but in Christ's coming. Cast your thoughts back on the time when our ancient buildings were first reared. Consider the churches all around us; how many generations have passed since stone was put upon stone till the whole edifice was finished! The first movers and instruments of its erection, the minds that planned it, and the limbs that wrought at it, the pious hands that contributed to it, and the holy lips that consecrated it, have long, long ago, been taken away; yet we benefit by their good deed. Does it not seem a very strange thing that we should be fed, and lodged, and clothed in spiritual things by persons we never saw or heard of, and who never saw us, or could think of us, hundreds of years ago? Does it not seem strange that men should be able, not merely by acting on others, not by a continued influence carried on through many minds in a long succession, but by one simple and direct act, to come into contact with us, and as if with their own hand to benefit us, who live centuries later? What a visible, palpable specimen this, of the communion of saints! What a privilege thus to be immediately interested in the deeds of our forefathers! And what a call upon us, in like manner, to reach out our own hands towards our posterity! Freely we have received; let us freely give.
—J. H. Newman.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:
Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.
For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children:
That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:
That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments:
And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God.
The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.
They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law;
And forgat his works, and his wonders that he had shewed them.
Marvellous things did he in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through; and he made the waters to stand as an heap.
In the daytime also he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire.
He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths.
He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers.
And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the most High in the wilderness.
And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust.
Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?
Behold, he smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed; can he give bread also? can he provide flesh for his people?
Therefore the LORD heard this, and was wroth: so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel;
Because they believed not in God, and trusted not in his salvation:
Though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven,
And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven.
Man did eat angels' food: he sent them meat to the full.
He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven: and by his power he brought in the south wind.
He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea:
And he let it fall in the midst of their camp, round about their habitations.
So they did eat, and were well filled: for he gave them their own desire;
They were not estranged from their lust. But while their meat was yet in their mouths,
The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.
For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works.
Therefore their days did he consume in vanity, and their years in trouble.
When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and inquired early after God.
And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer.
Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues.
For their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant.
But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.
For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.
How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert!
Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.
They remembered not his hand, nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy.
How he had wrought his signs in Egypt, and his wonders in the field of Zoan:
And had turned their rivers into blood; and their floods, that they could not drink.
He sent divers sorts of flies among them, which devoured them; and frogs, which destroyed them.
He gave also their increase unto the caterpiller, and their labour unto the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycomore trees with frost.
He gave up their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to hot thunderbolts.
He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them.
He made a way to his anger; he spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence;
And smote all the firstborn in Egypt; the chief of their strength in the tabernacles of Ham:
But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
And he led them on safely, so that they feared not: but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
And he brought them to the border of his sanctuary, even to this mountain, which his right hand had purchased.
He cast out the heathen also before them, and divided them an inheritance by line, and made the tribes of Israel to dwell in their tents.
Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies:
But turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow.
For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images.
When God heard this, he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel:
So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men;
And delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand.
He gave his people over also unto the sword; and was wroth with his inheritance.
The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage.
Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation.
Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.
And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts: he put them to a perpetual reproach.
Moreover he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim:
But chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved.
And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever.
He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds:
From following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.
So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.