Great Texts of the Bible
The Deeps of God
Canst thou by searching find out God?
Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?—Job 11:7.
1. These words occur in the first speech of Zophar the Naamathite. What is Zophar’s creed? It is that wherever there is suffering, there is sin, real and tangible sin, proportional to that suffering. God governs this world by rewards and punishments, and those rewards and punishments are distributed here below with unerring justice. It follows therefore that Job, this seeming saint, is really a man of heinous sin.
And having said this to his brother in his pain, and discharged that which, he honestly believes, Job’s words had made the duty of others (Job 5:3), by speaking sharply where sharp words were needed, he points Job to the high and mysterious nature of the God against whom he is in rebellion. “High,” he tells him, “that nature as Heaven, deep as the deep underworld; it stretches beyond the bounds of earth, and is broader than the broad sea. His power, too, is irresistible, and His eye sees at a glance concealed iniquity. How small before Him the wisdom, or rather the ass-like folly and petulance of man.”1 [Note: Dean Bradley.]
2. The words of the text are sometimes read as a question whether God be discoverable by the efforts of the natural mind. The margin, “Canst thou find out the deep things of God?” suggests that the question is not whether God be discoverable at all, but whether He be wholly discoverable; not whether He can be found, but whether He can be comprehended. No Hebrew writer would have thought of putting the question whether God could be found or was knowable; the question, however, whether He could be wholly known, whether there were not deeps in His nature unfathomable by the mind of man, was a question which, with a view to right conduct under trying providences, many felt themselves compelled to put.
More literally rendered it would read—“Hast thou arrived at the inner deeps of God, or arrived at the outermost bounds of Shaddai.” Zophar challenges Job, and asks whether he has reached either the centre or the circumference of Deity? Had he either arrived at the inner thought or purpose, or scanned the unlimited range of the operations, of God? The one presents the microscopic, and the other the telescopic, aspect of investigation. Zophar asks whether in either direction Job had found out God. The question is not whether Job had found God, but whether he had found out, that is, comprehended, God. Then by a series of graphic images he seeks to impress upon Job the fact that, compared with God’s omniscience, his very knowledge was utter ignorance. His perceptions at best were dull and very limited. Poor ignorant man, how could he comprehend Him who was infinite, or judge Him who was far beyond the scope of his investigation?
“Canst thou by searching find out God?” No; and why? Because I never begin to search for Him until I have found Him; God alone can create the search for God. That is the great difference between things material and things spiritual. In material things the search precedes the finding; in spiritual things the finding precedes the search. When a man goes out to seek for gold you may infer that he is materially poor, but when a man goes out to seek for God you may conclude that he is spiritually rich. In the case of the gold we see the shadow before we touch the substance; in our experience of God we first touch the substance and then see the shadow. When a child stretches out its hand and cries for the moon it is seeking something which it will never find; but when a man stretches out his hand and cries for holiness, he is seeking something which he has found already. No man can pray for the Divine Spirit except by the voice of that Spirit. Why is our Father so eager that we should pray for the Kingdom? Is it because our prayer for goodness will make us good? No, it is because our prayer for goodness proves us to be good already. When did Abraham begin to search for the land of Canaan? When he got into it. He wandered up and down seeking the promised country; and he was there all the time, folded in her bosom. So is it with us. We long for Canaan when we stand in Canaan. We cry for love when we have learned love. We pray for purity when we have tasted purity. We feel our distance from God when God is at the door.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Times of Retirement, 235.]
The Deeps of God
Literally the verse reads: Canst thou find the deeps of (or, that which has to be searched out in) God; canst thou reach to the perfection (the outmost, the ground of the nature) of the Almighty? The word is the same as that translated in Job 38:16 “recesses” of the sea.
1. God is not to be fully comprehended in His Being.—Our knowledge of God, in this life, must be a constant “moving forward in the twilight”; fragmentary, and perhaps unequal; but by His grace increasing, as we “follow on to know”; starting from a venture, demanding an effort; and to the end of this life a knowledge only in part. But after this life, if we have endured and persevered unto the end, there will be a change. “Then shall I know even as also I have been known.” When the things which keep us back have loosed their hold on us; when sin and indolence and doubt are done with; when all the anxieties that we have allowed to fret us and divide our hearts here are put away for ever; when, through whatsoever discipline, in this world or beyond it, God has wrought His perfect work in us; then will the broken and faltering effort pass into an unhindered energy, and we shall know Him even as also we are known. Even as from the first He has known us; as, when He made us His, when He called us to Himself, when He gave us our work to do, He knew us; as now, in all the discipline of life, in all His dealings with us, His gaze penetrates at once the inmost depths of our being; so shall we be ever moving forward, with intensity then undivided and unwearied, in the realization of His infinite truth and goodness.
Some measure of the knowledge of God is within the reach of all who really desire it and will really strive for it. Through many ways He is waiting to reveal Himself more clearly to every one of us—through conscience, through nature, through the Bible, through the lives of the poor and of those who suffer patiently, through all moral beauty, and above all in the life and teaching of our Lord. Through all these ways, it may be, hints and glances of His glory have already come to us; through all these ways we may know in part, and follow on to know continually more. But, undoubtedly, there is need of venture—the venture of faith, to commit ourselves to Him; to trust the light we see, even though we see it faintly and unsteadily. Knowledge will never grow in that cold and sceptical mind which Dr. Newman has described so well; the mind “which has no desire to approach its God, but sits at home waiting for the fearful clearness of His visible coming, whom it might seek and find in due measure amid the twilight of the present world.”
How my mind and will, which are not God, can yet cognize and leap to meet Him, how I ever came to be so separate from Him, and how God Himself came to be at all, are problems that for the theist can remain unsolved and insoluble for ever. It is sufficient for him to know that he himself simply is, and needs God; and that behind this universe God simply is and will be for ever, and will in some way hear his call. In the practical assurance of these empirical facts, without “Erkentnisstheorie” or philosophical ontology, without metaphysics of emanation or creation to justify or make them more intelligible, in the blessedness of their mere acknowledgment as given, lie all the peace and power he craves. The floodgates of the religious life are opened, and the full currents can pour through.
It is this empirical and practical side of the theistic position, its theoretic chastity and modesty, that I wish to accentuate. The highest flights of theistic mysticism, far from pretending to penetrate the secrets of the me and the thou in worship, and to transcend the dualism by an act of intelligence, simply turn their backs on such attempts. The problem for them has simply vanished—vanished from the sight of an attitude which refuses to notice such futile theoretic difficulties. Get but that “peace of God which passeth understanding,” and the questions of the understanding will cease from puzzling and pedantic scruples be at rest.1 [Note: W. James, The Will to Believe, 135.]
It is neither what we seem to understand about God that feeds our love, nor the fact that He is infinitely beyond our understanding, but the fact that we can ever progress in knowledge and love, and always with a sense of an infinite “beyond.” It is at the margin where the conquering light meets the receding darkness that love finds its inspirations. If we are forced to conceive Him human-wise, we know that the conception is but an idol or picture; that if He is all that, He is also infinitely more. To the savage He is but the biggest and strongest of men; to the rationalist He is but the most intelligent and moral; to faith He is the hidden Infinite, of which these are but the finite symbols.1 [Note: George Tyrrell.]
The splendours of the Summer sunset-glow
Shot blood-red through the intercepting trees:
And, fretful that my vision could not seize
Unblurred, the hues beyond, or fully know
The gorgeous scene that was obstructed so,
In haste my discontentment to appease
I climbed my tower, when lo! I missed the trees!
Too dazzling was the sight! The charm did go!
I must not seek all things to understand:
If ’mid the tangled mystery of my days,
And cares that mar delights on every hand,
I catch but gleams of glory through the maze,
I’ll wait till in the All-revealing Land
The full effulgence meets my tutored gaze!2 [Note: Thomas Crawford, Horae Serenae, 65.]
(1) The intellect by itself is utterly at fault in the search for God.
Jacob begged that he might know his Benefactor’s name, but it was not conceded to him. God wraps Himself in mystery. He partly reveals and partly conceals Himself. His purpose is to keep man, not in ignorance, but in lowly reverence. Wonder is an element of worship. God is not angry with man for his reverent curiosity; He rather stimulates it to the utmost; but there are limits which He will not let us overstep. He says, “Thus far shalt thou come, and no farther.” We have no line with which to measure the Infinite. “Who can by searching find out God? who can find out the Almighty unto perfection?”
No answer came back, not a word,
To the patriarch there by the ford;
No answer has come through the ages
To the poets, the saints, and the sages,
Who have sought in the secrets of science
The name and the nature of God
But the answer that was and shall be,
“My name! Nay, what is that to thee?”1 [Note: J. Hay, Israel.]
Yet God does reveal Himself. He is not the unknown and unknowable. His revelations come to the heart and the conscience; they come in the experiences of life; and they come really rather than verbally. When God has wrestled with Jacob and blessed him, Jacob knows God, although His name is withheld. He knows His power and His grace; knows Him as the source of blessing; knows how wonderful and adorable He is. For the rest, mystery does not repel men from God, it attracts them to Him; and in view of the infallible assurances of the soul we may reverently say even of God, “What’s in a name?” If the Hebrews could do nothing better, they could at least now call upon the “God of Jacob.” They could encourage one another by saying, “The name of the God of Jacob defend thee.” The contents of that designation, the experience which it recalled, were full of inspiration. “Therefore, to whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name?”2 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, ii. 67.]
It is really time for men of science to be warned off the grounds of philosophy and psychology as peremptorily as they warn religion off the territory of science. A purely materialistic student of the facts of science is simply impudent when he applies his scientific methods to things spiritual. It is as absurd as the old application of theological methods to science. Let him say what he knows about his “atoms,” but when he attempts, as Tyndall says he attempts, “to leap beyond the bounds of experiment” and guess at the cause of his “atoms” he is just in the position in which Tyndall places us—“that of a man attempting to lift himself by his waistband.” But after all what a testimony to the need of a revelation is all this! What is it all but what Job said long ago, “Who can by searching find out God?” The last word of science must be atheism, if science denies all that is not scientifically demonstrable; and just for that reason when science has said her last word, religion says her first, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” I look on Stuart Mill’s “Life” and Tyndall’s manifesto as two valuable contributions to the evidence of Christianity; the one showing man’s moral need, the other his intellectual need of a revelation ab extra.3 [Note: The Life of Archbishop Magee, ii. 11.]
(2) Our knowledge of God is a recognition by our whole personality.
God is for me that after which I strive, that the striving after which forms my life, and who, therefore, is for me; but He is necessarily such that I cannot comprehend or name Him. If I comprehend Him, I would reach Him, and there would be nothing to strive after, and no life. But, though it seems a contradiction, I cannot comprehend or name Him, and yet I know Him—know the direction toward Him, and of all my knowledge this is the most reliable.
You know God not so much by means of reason, not even by means of your heart, as by the complete dependence felt in relation to Him—something like the feeling which a suckling babe experiences in the arms of its mother. It does not know who holds it, who warms and feeds it; but it knows that there is somebody who does this, and, moreover, loves this person.1 [Note: Tolstoy, Thoughts on God (Works, xvi. 410).]
Maeterlinck’s cardinal doctrine will, I conjecture, prove to be something like this. What should be of most account for us all is not external fact, but the supra-sensuous world. “What we know is not interesting”; the really interesting things are those which we can only divine—the veiled life of the soul, the crepuscular region of sub-consciousness, our “borderland” feelings, all that lies in the strange “neutral zone” between the frontiers of consciousness and unconsciousness. The mystery of life is what makes life worth living. “’Twas a little being of mystery, like every one else,” says the old King Arkel of the dead Mélisande. We are such stuff as dreams are made of might be the “refrain” of all M. Maeterlinck’s plays, and of most of his essays. He is penetrated by the feeling of the mystery in all human creatures, whose every act is regulated by far-off influences and obscurely rooted in things unexplained. Mystery is within us and around us. Of reality we can only get now and then the merest glimpse. Our senses are too gross. Between the invisible world and our own there is doubtless an intimate concordance; but it escapes us. We grope among shadows towards the unknown. Even the new conquests of what we vainly suppose to be “exact” thought only deepen the mystery of life.2 [Note: A. B. Walkley, in Maeterlinck’s Treasure of the Humble, xii.]
I cannot find Thee! Still on restless pinion
My spirit beats the void where Thou dost dwell;
I wander lost through all Thy vast dominion,
And shrink beneath Thy light ineffable.
I cannot find Thee! E’en when most adoring,
Before Thy throne I bend in lowliest prayer;
Beyond these bounds of thought, my thought upsoaring,
From farthest quest comes back: Thou art not there.
Yet high above the limits of my seeing,
And folded far within the inmost heart,
And deep below the deeps of conscious being,
Thy splendour shineth: there, O God! Thou art.
I cannot lose Thee! Still in Thee abiding,
The end is clear, how wide soe’er I roam;
The Hand that holds the worlds my steps is guiding,
And I must rest at last in Thee, my home.1 [Note: Eliza Scudder.]
2. God is incomprehensible in His Providence.—How small and insignificant are the mysteries of Nature in comparison with the problems of human life! Almost every month sees some fresh triumph of scientific research. It looks as if, by persistent and certain processes, man were to wrench from Nature her most precious secrets, as if in the end matter must confess itself beaten, as if all physical forces would ultimately bow before the dominion of the intellect and the mind. How different it is in the sphere of human experience! Sin remains; sorrow remains; pain remains; death remains. What more do we know about any one of them than the world knew in its infancy and childhood? They, too, like the earth and the air, the rocks and the seas, have their own secrets, but they hold them fast.
Sin—why upon this man does it swoop down with overmastering might, and hold him in its relentless clutches, and crush and lacerate his soul, till it passes out of shape and festers and dies? And why does it leave that other man alone or touch him so rarely and gently that the wound heals up almost at once?
Sorrow—here is some polished voluptuary, whose life is one stream of apparent happiness, who never feels the cankerworm of care and weariness and desolation, to whom remorse and bitterness and anguish are strangers, and there is some simple, pious, reverent soul from whose mind perplexities and griefs and distresses are never absent.
Pain—how wayward, how partial, how erratic is its empire! This man with his magnificent physique and indomitable strength has neither been chastened by its discipline nor has smarted under its sting, while that poor body, lying in uncomplaining solitude in some cheerless back-room, remembers hardly anything else.
And Death, vastest, richest, final mystery of all—look at it from which standpoint you like, on the one hand “the grisly Terror,” on the other
That golden key
That opens the palace of eternity
—need one of us travel beyond a very small and solemn circle to realize the strange scope and cruel incidence of its grim visitations?
If I could answer you—
If I could give you any light
On this dark question, true,
I should have more than human sight.
I cannot understand
The strange, sad mystery to-day,
Here in the shadowland,
Where knowledge only leads astray.
I also sometime trod
This path where hidden danger lies,
And sought to find out God
Where heights of human wisdom rise.
But now I only see,
Though all around is cold and dim,
One Light that shines on me,
And as I look away to Him—
Lo! in the Light divine—
Wherever falls its living ray—
I see that all things shine
Undimmed, and night is changed for day.1 [Note: E. H. Divall, A Believers Songs, 94.]
3. God is incomprehensible in His Grace.—Grace is more than pity with tearful eye; more than mercy with outstretched hand; it is an “arm made bare”—an omnipotent arm, bared for a mighty task. God’s love finds its supreme expression in His grace as manifest on Calvary. It is His power to save. Here is the solution of the problem, “How can God be just and yet the justifier of the ungodly?” and of that other, “How shall a man be just with God?”
To measure the heart of the Infinite, we must get the dimensions of the cross. We call it the “accursed tree.” Rather, it is the tree of life; its roots deep as hell, its crown in heaven, its branches, laden with the fruits of life, reaching out to the uttermost parts of the earth. On the cross the only-begotten Son of God tasted death for every man. From the cross He offers redemption to the uttermost, not to respectable sinners only, but to thieves, harlots, and reprobates. By the cross He saves utterly; nailing our indictment there, blotting out our sin, sinking it into the depths of an unfathomable sea, washing us, though stained as scarlet and crimson, until we are whiter than snow. This is the measure: God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son to suffer and die for it. That “so” is spelled with two letters, but it is vast enough to girdle the sin-stricken world and bind it back to God.1 [Note: D. J. Burrell, The Wondrous Cross, 162.]
Our Attitude to the Deeps of God
1. Reverence.—It goes without saying that, while faith in its essence must ever be the same, the particular standpoint of our fathers is not that of their children. They dwelt upon the depravity of human nature, the horror of sin, the holiness of God, the helplessness of the soul, the sovereignty of the Divine Mercy, and the unsearchable purpose of the Divine Will, themes full of awe and majesty. Therefore they humbled themselves before God and east their souls upon His pity. They sought anxiously for a ground of pardon, and searched themselves for signs of the Divine calling. They dared not boast of His favour, but they walked humbly before Him and hoped for His salvation. Theirs was an inward, intense, and lowly religion. We are inclined to dwell on the possibilities of human nature, the wide hope of the Incarnation, the revelation of the Divine Fatherhood, the compass of God’s love, the full assurance of faith, the joy of the present life, and the glory of the life to come. Our religion is, therefore, more outspoken, unfettered, high-spirited. About the saint of the former day it was written, “he feared God”; but of our good man you read in his biography that he was a “bright” or a “happy” Christian.
It is futile to recall days which are gone, or to reproduce their moods; for the time spirit bloweth where it listeth, and, rightly used, it is the spirit of God. We have cause to be thankful, because we have learned not to despair of our race, to think of our fellow-men as brethren, and to remember that a man has more to do in this world than save his own soul. Our religion is less morbid, gloomy, introspective, and selfish; but there are times when, looking out through the palms upon this expanse of blue, one wearies for the strong salt air of the Atlantic and the grandeur of the hills when the sun shines through the mist. One is haunted with the conviction that if in our day we have gained joy and charity, we have lost in devoutness and humility, and that we have almost bidden good-bye to reverence.
Reverence is the eyelash that lets us endure the sun, which lost, we must make up our minds to darkness for the rest of our lives, and give up for ever all thoughts of the vigour and health and pure richness of life which sunlight only gives.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, 52.]
2. Thankfulness.—To one who sees the spiritual order of the world and recognizes the sublime chances of spiritual fortune which it offers, there is no need of special causes of gratitude; such an one thanks God daily that he lives. Times and seasons for special thanksgiving are wise and necessary; for men need to be reminded of what they have received, and they need to have provision made for the special expression of their gratitude; but the grateful man does not depend on days and festivals for his thought of God’s goodness and care for him; these thoughts are always with him, and the song of thanksgiving is always in his heart. For all sweet and pleasant passages in the great story of life men may well thank God; for leisure and ease and health and friends may God make us truly and humbly grateful; but our chief song of thanksgiving must be always for our kinship with Him, with all that such divinity of greatness brings of peril, hardship, toil, and sacrifice.
An old man in Nottinghamshire came to me one Sabbath as we were going into church, and said: “Do you think, Sir, you could bring in that prayer about giving thanks this morning? I am eighty years old to-day, and I should like to thank God for all the mercies He has been pleased to send.” He had one small room in a poor cottage; his income was three shillings a week; he had no relatives and few friends; he was often ailing and always infirm, needing two sticks to lean on, and yet he was not only content, but happy. He was a Christian in spirit and in truth, and the last words he spoke to me, just before his death, were these: “l am not dying in darkness, I am dying in the light of life.”1 [Note: Dean Hole.]
Lord, in this dust Thy sovereign voice
First quicken’d love divine;
I am all Thine,—Thy care and choice,
My very praise is Thine.
I praise Thee, while Thy providence
In childhood frail I trace,
For blessings given, ere dawning sense
Could seek or scan Thy grace;
Blessings in boyhood’s marvelling hour,
Bright dreams, and fancyings strange;
Blessings, when reason’s awful power
Gave thought a bolder range;
Blessings of friends, which to my door
Unask’d, unhoped, have come;
And, choicer still, a countless store
Of eager smiles at home.
Yet, Lord, in memory’s fondest place
I shrine those seasons sad,
When, looking up, I saw Thy face
In kind austereness clad.
I would not miss one sigh or tear,
Heart-pang, or throbbing brow;
Sweet was the chastisement severe,
And sweet its memory now.
Yes! let the fragrant scars abide,
Love-tokens in Thy stead,
Faint shadows of the spear-pierced side
And thorn-encompass’d head.
And such Thy tender force be still,
When self would swerve or stray,
Shaping to truth the froward will
Along Thy narrow way.
Deny me wealth; far, far remove
The lure of power or name;
Hope thrives in straits, in weakness love,
And faith in this world’s shame.1 [Note: J. H. Newman, “Occasional Verses.”]
3. Patience.—This is the question to which a man must get the answer before he can work against evil and on the side of enduring good, viz.: not, Why does evil exist? but Why has not God thrown a clear light upon the problem of its existence? That is the question which he is bound to face or he must be for ever useless—he can never understand God’s ways or know God Himself. There is a mighty and loving Being whose object is to educate us into likeness with Himself. That is the fundamental postulate. Why then has He not told us what we want to know, viz., why there is evil at all? The Christian answer is that He has given us this problem to work at for the sake of our education, in order that through thinking about it and working at it, certain powers, which we call spiritual, might be developed—powers by which we draw near to Him now, and shall come to be like Him hereafter. God did not set us this hard sum to work at merely in order to puzzle us. He set it us in order that we might in our working at it, even through our sense of despair in solving it, become what He meant us to be, that we might be trained in inmost character. When we become like Him, when the conditions of this life are changed into those of the fuller life, the fog will lift, and by means of the fuller life the question will be answered and the problem solved. In the meantime the very question which we took to be a kind of hindrance, because we could not find the answer to it, turns out to be a means of education—is calling out our strongest powers, is preparing us for finding the answer in another life. This is the Christian theory: and, starting from it, vast numbers of men and women are working for good against evil at the present day; they have their share of those difficulties with a monopoly of which frivolous critics often credit themselves; they feel those difficulties amid surrounding evil and intensified sufferings, and feel them acutely; but nevertheless they go on living their lives in a useful and a noble fashion; and they recognize that the very existence of this insoluble problem, when once they take up arms and play the man, does help them, does educate them, does call out from them nobler powers and more enduring virtue, and a more resolute patience than were otherwise possible.
Patience, thou blessed attribute! How could we get on without thee? How we would worry and fret this miserable life away but for thy benign help. It is among the ranks of the poor and lowly that we see that grace in most frequent and most beautiful operation. I never return from visiting my poor sick people without learning a lesson of thankfulness from them. They are so patient under suffering, so thankful for the least attention, so submissive to God’s sovereign will. I suspect that it still holds true that “God hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him.”1 [Note: Dr. MacGregor of St. Cuthberts, 127.]
I, and the Bird,
And the Wind together,
Sang a supplication
In the winter weather.
The Bird sang for sunshine,
And trees of winter fruit,
And for love in the springtime,
When the thickets shoot.
And I sang for patience
When the tear-drops start;
Clean hands and clear eyes,
And a faithful heart.
And the Wind thereunder,
As we faintly cried,
Breathed a bass of wonder,
Blowing deep and wide.2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Lord Vyet and Other Poems.]
Barton (G. A.), The Roots of Christian Teaching as found in the Old Testament, 103.
Bigg (C.), The Spirit of Christ in Common Life, 53.
Burrell (D. J.), The Wondrous Cross, 154.
English (W. W.), in Church Sermons, No. 29.
Eyton (R.), The Search for God, 1.
Hadden (R. H), Selected Sermons, 47.
Hutton (A. W.), Ecclesia Discens, 11.
Leach (C.), Old Yet Ever New, 290.
Macintosh (W.), Rabbi Jesus, 31.
Matheson (G.), Times of Retirement, 234.
Moffat (H. B.), in Sermons from the “Pulpit,” No. 141.
Momerie (A. W.), Defects of Modem Christianity, 337.
Ritchie (A.), St. Ignatius’ Pulpit, 150.
Russell (A.), The Light that Lighteth every Man, 149.
Simeon (C.), Works, iv. 372.
Terry (G. F.), The Old Theology in the New Age, 43.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xviii. No. 1128.
Voysey (C.), Sermons (1876), No. 9.
Cambridge Review, vi. Supplement, No. 132 (Robertson).
Christian World Pulpit, xxxix. 333 (Hocking); lxiv. 401 (Gibbon).
Church of England Magazine, xxii. 356 (Ayre); xxiii. 421 (Webster).
Church of England Pulpit, liii. 2 (Lias).