Great Texts of the Bible
Songs in the Night
But none saith, Where is God my Maker,
Who giveth songs in the night?
1. Some men are always disposed to look at the bright side of life, and others at the dark. The tempers and feelings of some are so cheerful and elastic that it is hardly within the power of ordinary circumstances to depress them; while others are of so gloomy a temperament that the least adversity serves to confound them. But if we can divide men into these classes, when reference is had simply to their private affairs, we doubt whether the same division will hold, we are sure it will not in the same proportion, when the reference is generally to God’s dealings with our race. In regard to these dealings, there is an almost universal disposition to look on the dark side, and not on the bright; as though there were cause for nothing but wonder that a God of infinite love should permit so much misery in any section of His intelligent Creation. Few are ready to observe what provision has been made for human happiness, and what capacities there are yet in the world of ministering to the satisfaction of such as prefer righteousness to wickedness.
Here are two men, who both seem to have deserved success; both have worked hard, and one to-day is rich and the other is poor. All the chances came to the one, and all the hindrances to the other. There is something obviously unfair and unjust in all this. So the world thinks. O world, so swift to judge, so slow to understand! I know that some get that which they never worked for, and some work for that which they never get; and if money were the real end of existence and the real standard of success, then your plaint about inequality would be a true one. But it is not. You say all the chances came to one. Not so. There were some chances that came to them both, the chance to be honest and meek and merciful and pure in heart, and these are the things that fit men to enter into and possess the true success, the kingdom of heaven; and finding that is finding happiness. So, then, human happiness depends on our relation to God.1 [Note: 1 P. C. Ainsworth, The Blessed Life, 54.]
2. No one can deny that, if we look upon the earth merely as it is, the exhibition is one whose darkness it is scarcely possible to exaggerate. But when we seek to gather from the condition of the world the character of its Governor, we are bound to consider, not what the world is, but what it would be if all that that Governor has done on its behalf were allowed to produce its legitimate effect. And when we set ourselves to compute the amount of what may be called unavoidable misery—that misery which must still remain even if Christianity possessed unlimited sway—we should find no cause for wonder that God has left the earth burdened with so great a weight of sorrow, but only of praise that He has provided so amply for men’s happiness.
Elihu, in seeking to justify God’s ways with man, pressed his argument unduly in the context, and made it appear that God is so high and great that the guilt or innocence of a petty human being is of no moment to Him. So now he proceeds to alter his course, and to feel his way to some higher explanation of the unredressed miseries of life. His words deserve full attention. “True,” he says, “a voice of wailing goes up from earth, a groan of suffering under injustice and oppression. But it is a mere cry of pain, not a turning to God, man’s Maker, to Him who giveth songs in the night, brings, i.e., a joyful sense of sudden deliverance in the very darkest hour of tribulation. God would have men cry to Him with something more worthy of those whom He has made in His own image than the mere inarticulate cries of the beast of the earth, the fowls of heaven. He has taught us more than the one, He has made us wiser than the other. Empty moans, empty cries, will not reach His ear. Thy passionate words give thee no claim, Job,” he seems to say, “on God; and thy prayers to Him, have not risen above mere childish brute-like cries of pain.”2 [Note: G. G. Bradley, The Book of Job, 296.]
3. Though for wise ends a certain portion of suffering has been made unavoidable, the Divine dealings with man are, in the largest sense, those of tenderness and love, so that, if the great majority of our race were not determined to be wretched, enough has been done to ensure their being happy. And when we come to give the reasons why so much wretchedness is found in the world, we cannot assign it to the will of God; we must charge the whole of it on man’s forgetfulness of God, on his contempt or neglect of remedies divinely provided; in short, we must offer in explanation the words of our text, “None saith, Where is God my Maker, who giveth songs in the night?”
The note of praise once reached, its office is, even humanly speaking, no less serviceable than that of prayer. It is the attitude of mind that gives courage for the attack of things difficult. The healthy soul cannot accept the view, taken by many of the devout, that our mortal state is so sunk and wretched that, should we look closely into it, we must remain for ever inconsolable. By no man have such as these been reproached more than by Dante, who had had himself much cause for sadness. To the sorrowful he assigns the shades of the fourth circle of hell, and out of their darkness they cry unto him—
Nel aer dolce che dal sol s’allegra,
Portando dentro accidioso fummo;
Or ci attristiam nella belletta negra.
Fretful were we in the sweet air which is gladdened by the sun, bearing within us a smoke of Accidie; now we are fretting ourselves in the black mire.1 [Note: Lady Dilke, The Book of the Spiritual Life, 180.]
My son, the world is dark with griefs and graves,
So dark that men cry out against the Heavens.
Who knows but that the darkness is in man?
The doors of Night may be the gates of Light;
For wert thou born or blind or deaf, and then
Suddenly heal’d, how would’st thou glory in all
The splendours and the voices of the world!
And we, the poor earth’s dying race, and yet
No phantoms, watching from a phantom shore
Await the last and largest sense to make
The phantom walls of this illusion fade,
And show us that the world is wholly fair.2 [Note: Tennyson, The Ancient Sage.]
1. Shakespeare says that music is “the concord of sweet sounds.” But it is more, just as poetry consists of something more than harmonious words. Music is the language of the unseen and eternal; and song is the accord of the heart with this, the utterance of eternity. Of course there are evil songs, which show that the heart of the singer is in accord with the dark nether world of evil; but good and holy songs show that the heart of the singer has caught the strains and chords of the bright, blessed world of God and the holy angels.
All deep things are Song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls! The primal element of us; of us, and of all things.1 [Note: Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship.]
You must have the right moral state first, or you cannot have the art. But when the art is once obtained, its reflected action enhances and completes the moral state out of which it arose, and, above all, communicates the exultation to other minds which are already morally capable of the like.
For instance, take the art of singing, and the simplest perfect master of it (up to the limits of his nature) whom you can find—a skylark. From him you may learn what it is to “sing for joy.” You must get the moral state first, the pure gladness, then give it finished expression; and it is perfected in itself, and made communicable to other creatures capable of such joy. But it is incommunicable to those who are not prepared to receive it.2 [Note: Ruskin, Lectures on Art, § 66 (Works, xx. 73).]
Music, heard by my inner ear, accompanied me at all times and during all my walks, and I created for myself a singular test by which to know if a piece of music was beautiful or not. There was a spot, a bench under a tree by the side of a very small waterfall, where I loved to sit and “think music.” Then, going in my mind through a piece of music such as Beethoven’s “Adelaide,” or the Cavatina from “Der Freyschütz,” I could imagine that I heard it in the air surrounding me, that the whole of nature sang it, and then I knew that it was beautiful. Many pieces would not stand that test, however hard I tried, and those I rejected as indifferent.3 [Note: Life and Letters of Sir Charles Hallé, 10.]
2. Love is the inspirer of the highest song. When our heart is enlarged we can run in the way of God’s commandments. Life breaks out into music and light. The obedience which the law demands, which at first promised only to bring constraint and a gloomy darkening of life’s joy, is the spring of happiness and peace. In the joy of reconcilement we are in accord with God’s will for us, and are in tune with the whole universe. We know the service which is perfect freedom. The house of our pilgrimage is made glad with music. Life laughs back its radiance in the sunshine of God’s smile.
Fix this in your mind as the guiding principle of all right practical labour, and source of all healthful life energy, that your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may be only the praise of a shell or a stone; it may be the praise of a hero; it may be the praise of God. Your rank, as a living creature, is determined by the height and breadth of your love; but, be you small or great, what healthy art is possible to you must be the expression of your true delight in a real thing better than the art.1 [Note: Ruskin.]
3. God is the giver of the song. No man can make a song in the night himself; he may attempt it, but he will find how difficult it is. It is not natural to sing in trouble, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name”; for that is a daylight song. But it was a Divine song which Habakkuk sang when in the night he said, “Although the fig-tree shall not blossom,” and so on, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” Methinks, on the margin of the Red Sea, any man could have made a song like that of Moses, “The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea”; the difficulty would have been to compose a song before the Red Sea had been divided, and to sing it before Pharaoh’s hosts had been drowned, while yet the darkness of doubt and fear was resting on Israel’s hosts. Songs in the night come only from God; they are not in the power of man.
For when God has all that He should have of thy heart, when thou art wholly given up to the obedience of the light and spirit of God within thee, to will only in His will, to love only in His love, to be wise only in His wisdom, then it is that everything thou dost is as a song of praise, and the common business of thy life is a conforming to God’s will on earth as angels do in heaven.1 [Note: William Law.]
I never awake in the middle of the night without feeling induced to commune with God. One feels brought more into contact with Him. The whole world around us, we think, is asleep. God the Shepherd of Israel slumbers not, nor sleeps. He is awake, and so are we! We feel, in the solemn and silent night, as if alone with God. And then there is everything in the circumstances around you to lead you to pray. The past is often vividly recalled. The voices of the dead are heard, and their forms crowd around you. No sleep can bind them. The night seems the time in which they should hold spiritual commune with man. The future too throws its dark shadow over you—the night of the grave, the certain death-bed, the night in which no man can work. And then everything makes such an impression on the mind at night, when the brain is nervous and susceptible; the low sough of the wind among the trees, the roaring, or eerie whish, of some neighbouring stream, the bark or low howl of a dog, a general impressive silence, all tend to sober, to solemnize the mind, and to force it from the world and its vanities, which then seem asleep, to God, who alone can uphold and defend.2 [Note: Dr. Norman Macleod, in Memoir by his brother, i. 151.]
4. And what God gives He looks to us to render to Him again. The slightest vision of God begets in our hearts the desire to praise Him. Prayer is for ourselves, praise is for God. When we pray we really contemplate ourselves, and our own needs; when we praise we are gazing at God and at God only, and it is the sense of His infinite greatness, of His majesty, of His dominion, of His power, that compels us to burst into songs of praise and gratitude. Praise suggests melody, for this simple reason—that the contemplation of the greatness, and the glory, and the majesty of God fills our hearts with thoughts which are much too deep to be uttered in words. It is useless that we should enumerate God’s perfections with our lips; it is useless that we should try to express simply what we can understand, simply what we perceive. We naturally wish to express feelings which soar far beyond our power of expressing them in words. Thus it follows that the only mode of giving expression to such feelings is by music, is by the power of sound; for remember, music is at once the most intimate and the most sublime of all the arts. It has a power of expression which is peculiarly its own, and which goes beyond that of any other form of expression.
Why does man have recourse to music to express these fine thoughts of his heart? He does so because it seems to him so free and unfettered. My lips, they stumble when I speak, I catch after words and I cannot find them; but let me betake myself to song and the notes well forth, and the melody tells its own tale, and I am in a freer atmosphere, and I can soar aloft untrammelled by sordid considerations which perforce bind me down so long as I am merely trying to speak.
On Saturday I had a good bout at Beethoven’s Quartetts—which I used to play with poor Blanco White—and thought them more exquisite than ever—so that I was obliged to lay down the instrument and literally cry out with delight. I really think it will add to my power of working, and the length of my life. I never wrote more than when I played the fiddle. I always sleep better after music. There must be some electric current passing from the strings through the fingers into the brain and down the spinal marrow. Perhaps thought is music.1 [Note: Cardinal Newman, in Life by W. Ward, ii. 76.]
In almost his earliest poem, Browning wrote the wise advice:
Respect all such as sing when all alone.
Let us sing with the understanding, and then there is scarcely any experience so uplifting as to offer a hymn to God; to say in the soul, “My God and Father, here is my little offering of sweet and humble adoration.” Public praise and secret praise are both powerful to bring the spirit into closer touch with God. On the wings of music we can soar into the vast region where
Time and sense seem all no more.
Some years ago I found a special method very profitable in private devotion. Beginning with the section of an old hymn-book that dealt with “believers praying,” I set off two hymns for each day of the month. During the first month I marked the verses of special appealing power, and month after month I used to sing these selected verses. That, I found, was a strong method of obtaining a direct answer to the prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” In such singing the right spirit is renewed.2 [Note: J. A. Clapperton, Culture of the Christian Heart, 142.]
Why should I always pray,
Although I always lack?
It were a better way
Some praise to render back:
The earth that drinks the plenteous rain
Returns the grateful cloud again.
We should not get the less
That we remembered more
The truth and righteousness
Thou keep’st for us in store:
In heaven they do not pray—they sing,
And they have wealth of every thing.
And it would be more meet
To compass Thee with song
Than to have at Thy feet
Only a begging throng
Who take Thy gifts, and then forget
Alike Thy goodness, and their debt.
So give me joyous Psalms,
And Hymns of grateful praise:
Instead of seeking alms,
A song to Thee I’ll raise:
Yet still I must a beggar be,
When lauding Thy great charity.
But where shall I begin?
With health and daily bread?
Or cleansing of my sin?
Or light around me shed?
Till I would praise, I did not see
How rich Thy gifts have been to me.1 [Note: Walter C. Smith, Thoughts and Fancies for Sunday Evenings, 1.]
The Song in the Night
1. It is evident that “night” is here used as a symbol of affliction and suffering; and there is a beautiful appropriateness in the symbol which commends itself at once to our minds; for the shades of night, though a relief to some from toil and labour, bring to many an increase of trial and suffering. There is an untold relief in light. Whilst suffering and sorrow continue just the same, light seems to reanimate hope and endurance. Darkness has the opposite effect. The greatest inward conflicts take place during its long hours—sickness is doubly weary, and full of uneasiness. The unclosed eye, the unsubdued pain, the voice of sympathy hushed—all these tax often to the uttermost the patience of a Christian. These make many a man recoil from the night season. And so it must be felt at once to be a fit symbol of trial. When, then, our text speaks of God, “who giveth songs in the night,” it evidently means that it belongs to Him to put songs of praise and joy into the Christian’s heart in seasons of sorrow and trial. It belongs to God, and to God alone, to give such songs. A thoughtless world seeks its happiness in that which is outward—in worldly pleasure, in earthly aims, and in the creature. So long as the outward path is smooth, pleasures succeeding each other, and keeping the mind in a perpetual state of excitement—so long as success crowns those earthly aims, and either money or fame increases—so long the world has its songs. But let a change come over the scene. Let these pleasures fail, its schemes end in disappointment, and its all is gone. The world may sing in its day—its short and uncertain day. But it knows not, and can never learn, songs in the night. It cannot even understand them. The most it can do is to keep silence. But the Christian’s noblest and most elevated songs are not those which he sings in the day, but those which rise up in the night-season of sorrow—songs sung with tearful eyes and a heaving heart.
Butterflies are said to be so sensitive to want of light that they are not only stupid at night, but are also affected in the daytime by the shadow of every passing cloud. It is a common practice of butterfly-hunters to keep their eye on an insect without pursuing it, waiting till a cloud comes, when it is nearly certain to settle down and become more or less torpid. Thus is the human soul sensitive to sorrow: the shadow of every passing cloud chills it, the deeper eclipses of life paralyse it, and these morbid hours prove not rarely the tempter’s opportunity.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Education of the Heart, 141.]
Read the lives of the great souls, and you will find almost always that their inner career begins with a period of night and darkness. With some, as with Paul, Bunyan, Tolstoy, it is a despair of themselves and their world. With others, it is a crash of the creed in which they were brought up, and a dreary scepticism when all their stars go out and there seems naught left but chaos and old night. It is singular that we have read so many of these experiences, and perhaps have gone through them in our turn, without asking the reason of all this. Are we not here in contact with a psychological law; the law that, in a lower order, we perceive in the germination of the plant, in all the vital processes? The spiritual life, like all other life, requires darkness and the deep for its starting-point! A man must dive into his inmost recesses in order that he may find himself.1 [Note: J. Brierley, The Secret of Living, 218.]
2. What we need most is certainty of God, that we may hold fast our faith in Him. We shall still be beset by mystery, and the world’s sorrow and our own pain will still remain a terrible problem, but we shall see enough to make us willing to believe and wait. We shall let every experience of trial and sorrow bring some lessons to withdraw our hearts from the love of the material. We shall learn to look upon the whole discipline of life as a means of sanctification, and in our highest moments we shall see it to be a terror to be left of God, and shall pray that the beautiful promise may be true for us: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.” When we do, the last word to us is not tribulation, but joy. Even suffering only sets a seal on faith, like the kiss of God upon the brow. Faith sees far enough into the meaning of tribulation to see in it the sign of love; for it sees in it the Father’s hand.
I know Thee who hast kept my path, and made
Light for me in the darkness, tempering sorrow,
So that it reached me like a solemn joy.
A picture of deep pathos, carrying its own tender suggestion to the heart, appeared in the Academy of 1897. It was painted by Byam Shaw, and entitled “The Comforter.” In the interior of a room, upon a bed, there lies a form, the face of which is not seen, only a hand lying upon the silk counterpane with a weddingring upon the finger. By the side of the bed there sits a young man, his elbow leaning upon the bed, his head supported by his hand, his face drawn with grief. In his loneliness he sits there while his beloved, with slow and painful breaths, sighs out her little store of life. The picture gives the impression of stillness; the heedless world is without, ignorant and uncaring, while the pitiful tragedy is working itself out within. But the young man, as he sits there in his unutterable anguish, is not alone; the Comforter has come. Seated beside him is a white figure, unseen to him but consciously near. The pierced hands hold the hand of the young man, and in that silent room of death there is another watcher.1 [Note: J. Burns, Illustrations from Art (1912), 10.]
Night and darkness, with their uses and abuses, are, after all, of limited area. The sunlight is so much more than they. This ebon blackness, so seeming all-enveloping, is merely a result of your position on a sloping planet. The night’s dimension is a trifle compared with the light that is abroad. All around you, though you cannot see it, the pulsing beam is raying out from the centre, spreading through the immensity of the outer spaces. It is you who are in the night, not the solar system. It is not for lack of sunshine that you see nothing. That is an affair of your present position, your present need. And when the need is gone, the night will go. Your destiny is not the night, but the day. Your darkest hour is only its prelude. We see already the boundary of the night, for
On the glimmering limit far withdrawn
God makes Himself an awful rose of dawn.2 [Note: J. Brierley, The Secret Living, 221.]
These stones that make the meadow brooklet murmur
Are keys on which it plays.
O’er every shelving rock its touch grows firmer,
Resounding notes to raise.
If all the course were smooth by which it passes
Adown the pastures fair,
Then those who wander through its flowers and grasses
Would hear no music there.
These troubles sore, and griefs, and hard conditions,
Through which I pass along,
When going forth to keep my Lord’s commissions,
May all be turned to song.
What are they but sweet harp-strings for the spirit
Boldly to play upon?
If all the lot were pleasant I inherit,
These harmonies were gone!
If every path o’er which my footsteps wander,
Were smooth as ocean strand,
There were no theme for gratitude and wonder
At God’s delivering hand.
All this will plain appear when ends life’s story,
Where rivers meet the tide
That stills their murmurs in a sea of glory,
Where peace and rest abide.1 [Note: W. E. Winks.]
The Value of the Song in the Night
1. The singing of a glad song cheers and comforts the singer. Life and sunshine are native to the soul. God fashioned us as children of light, and His original thought concerning us was that we should walk in the light, move to music, and taste the sweetness of manifold felicity. We were created for glory and gladness, as certainly as the angels were. Our invincible horror of sickness, weakness, loneliness, and death tells most eloquently that we were predestinated to health, strength, fellowship, and life. We have an ineradicable genius for joy, and when plunged into gloomy spheres of trial are perplexed and dismayed. Unnatural conditions are always perilous, and the soul subjected to deep sadness is in danger of wild unbeliefs, subtle selfishness, benumbing indifference to life, profane murmuring, and defiance.
It is a fine thing to go about one’s work singing some hymn with praise in it, and with Jesus’ name in it. And if singing may not always be allowable under all circumstances, you can hum a tune. And that brings up to the memory the words connected with it. I know of a woman who was much given to worrying. She made it a rule to sing the long metre doxology whenever things seemed not right. Ofttimes she could hardly get her lips shaped up to begin the first words. But she would persist. And by the time the fourth line came it was ringing out, and her atmosphere had changed without and within.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 206.]
The music in Jenny Lind was ever an inspiration, which lifted her, as the lark is carried heavenward by its song—the lark, her own chosen symbol, carved over her house-door; the lark, the winged thing that “singing ever soars,” and “soaring ever sings.” “What a gift is Art,” she herself writes; “music above all—when we understand, not to make it an idol, but to place it at the foot of the Cross, laying all our longings, sufferings, joys and expectations in a light of a dying and risen Saviour! He alone—and surely nothing else—is the goal of all our intense longing, whether we know it or not.”2 [Note: Canon H. Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 28.]
2. The singing of the song has a quick effect upon the listener. When the prisoners heard Paul and Silas sing in the prison at midnight, they hearkened, they sat up on the pallets, and tried to catch the strange sounds. They rose and crept to the door of the inner dungeon and bent their heads towards it, eager to catch every word. There they stood, an awe-stricken group, listening breathlessly in the darkness. They had often heard singing in the prison before. But never before had they heard in prison strains like these. There was something holy and heavenly in them, which overawed and melted them. As they listened, strange feelings and memories stirred in them.3 [Note: J. Stalker, The New Song, 175.]
There is an exquisite sketch written by the hand which penned the immortal story of Rab and his Friends, of a quaint old character of other days, well known to Dr. Brown, because he was his father’s beadle. The sketch (entitled “Jeems the Doorkeeper”) is written with the love and humour of which the author’s heart was full; and among other traits of his humble friend he gives this touching one. He had been married in his youth, but after a year his wife and their one child died together; but always afterwards he kept up the practice of family worship, though quite alone, giving out the psalm and the chapter, as if his dear wife had been there. He lived in a high storey in the Canongate, and his voice, in the notes of “Martyrdom” or “Coleshill,” sounded morning and evening through the thickly tenanted “land”; and many a careless foot was arrested and many a heart touched by that strange sound.1 [Note: J. Stalker, The New Song, 179.]
I heard a voice in the darkness singing
(That was a valiant soul I knew),
And the joy of his song was a wild bird winging
Swift to his mate through a sky of blue.
Myself—I sang when the dawn was flinging
Wide his guerdon of fire and dew;
I heard a voice in the darkness singing
(That was a valiant soul I knew).
And his song was of love and all its bringing
And of certain day when the night was through;
I raised my eyes where the hope was springing,
And I think in His heaven God smiled, too.
I heard a voice in the darkness singing
(That was a valiant soul I knew).
3. The midnight song is a powerful witness in favour of our religion. There are times when the heart has to fill the place of the eye. We see nothing; the sky is dark; yet we are not dismayed. There is no ray of light upon our path that we can discern, no opening in the cloud, no rent in the gloom. Yet somehow the heart sings—sings in the shadow, sings in the silence. And at these times we are to take the song as the substitute for the sun. We are to impute to the heart’s singing all that is wanting to the eye’s vision. The song is itself to be our revelation. “If it were not so, I would have told you,” says the Lord—would not have suffered you to sing. The heart’s joy demands a contradiction if it be not true. If my soul says “Yea,” and God does not say “Nay,” the “Yea” is to prevail. The silence of God is vocal. If hope cries, and He answers not, hope’s cry is to be itself the answer, for He has sent me a wing instead of a star; He has given me a song in the night.
Her child is crying in the darken’d room!
The mother hears, and soon with her arms
She clasps her darling, banishing alarms,
Dispersing with her presence fear and gloom.
And does thy Heavenly Father turn aside
Unheeding, when thy cry to Him ascends
From depths of night? Nay, comfort He extends,
Thy heart is strengthened and thy tears are dried.
Thy voice can reach Him, crying in the night,
Afraid and desolate, scarce knowing why:
Lo! thou art not forsaken, He draws nigh!
Be still, sad heart, for He will give thee light.1 [Note: Una, In Life’s Garden, 92.]
Bardsley (J. W.), Illustrative Texts, 133.
Matheson (G.), Leaves for Quiet Hours, 51.
Melvill (H.), Sermons at Cambridge, 21.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 504.
Robertson (S.), The Rope of Hair, 28.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxvi. (1880), No. 1511; xliv. (1898), No. 2558.
Wagner (G.), Sermons on the Book of Job, 260.
Church of England Magazine, x. 169 (Grant).