Great Texts of the Bible
The Father’s Pity
Like as a father pitieth his children,
So the Lord pitieth them that fear him.
For he knoweth our frame;
He remembereth that we are dust.—Psalm 103:13-14.
1. “Like as a father.” The history of religion shows that it has not been easy for men to think of God in that extremely simple and human fashion; and yet, to Christians, no other way of thinking appears so obvious or so natural. It met us in our childhood, grew into the thinking of our youth, and has swayed the conceptions we have formed of that august and invincible power that works for righteousness and peace for evermore. We lisped it in our earliest hymns. It had a place in the first prayers we offered at our mother’s knee. It was set out in many winsome forms in the Sunday school; and when we realized something of the joy of the Divine pardon, we felt more deeply than ever the entire appropriateness and unsurpassed charm of the poet’s words. God is like a father. It saturates the Christian atmosphere. It is shaping the thought and the life of the world.
And yet it is a matter of historic fact that men were thinking and inquiring for ages before they were able to interpret God in the terms of human fatherhood. Groping after God, if haply they might find Him, they sought their symbols first of all in the many-leaved picture book of nature, and said, God is like the sun, shining in its strength, and filling the world with its radiance. The moon is His symbol as it casts its light on the path of the pilgrim in the night. “God is like the rock,” they exclaimed; “His work is perfect.” He abides amid the storms and stress of life, stable as the everlasting hills.
Quite late in history did men come to the human in their quest for the terms in which they might express God; and when they reached this point, they seized at first only upon the more arresting qualities of the animal in man, and said, “God is like Hercules” in the invincible strength with which He crushes the evils in the world, and makes an end of them. Later still, Plato advanced to the suggestion that God was like a “geometer,” a thinker and fashioner, full of ideas and ideals; and, latest of all, in one of the youngest portions of the Old Testament, not in Genesis, not in any part of the Pentateuch, but in this wonderful and most gracious lyric, the 103rd Psalm, possibly one of the last contributions of Hebrew Psalmody, the seer surpasses all the great historical religions, and pictures God to us as a pitiful, compassionate, sin-forgiving, and soul-healing Father, and thus supplies the basis for the most true, most worthy, and most inspiring conception of God.
There was once a group of friends standing at the house door, gazing in wonder at an eclipse. It was a cloudless night; and, as they saw the shadow of the earth gliding so punctually over the face of the brilliant moon, a solemn emotion of awe fell upon every mind, and in absolute silence they watched the magnificent phenomenon. Everything connected with their daily lives seemed for a season to be forgotten; they were citizens of infinitude; all their thoughts were swept into the regions of immensity. But suddenly the silence was broken by a cry from the nursery where a child had been laid to sleep. In that company, how soon you could tell who was the mother; in a moment she had left the scene, had rushed upstairs, and was clasping the baby in her embrace! What were the wonders of nature compared to the needs of a suffering child? More sacred than the music of the spheres was that feeble appeal for pity; more powerful than the sweet influence of the Pleiades was the attraction of love which at once absorbed that woman’s soul. Then was she most like God, not when she was exalted into amazement at the marvels of the sky, but when she was soothing pain and chasing fear by tenderness and pity.1 [Note: F. Walters.]
2. In depicting the milder and kindlier aspect of God’s character the Old Testament writers make pity the ground quality on which everything is based. With the Psalm writers it is a standing description of God on this side of His nature that He is “gracious and full of compassion.” His compassion for the perishable life and oppressed state of Israel is expressly assigned by the prophets as His reason for “redeeming” His people and forgiving their rebellions with long-suffering mercy. When He withdraws locusts from the wasted fields of Palestine, it is because He pities His people’s sufferings. The repentant city of Nineveh is spared because its helpless myriads touched in God’s great heart such ruth as Jonah had for his withering gourd. And after Jerusalem’s fall, the patriot-poet who mourned so exquisitely over its ruin finds the explanation of all disaster in these plaintive, half-reproachful words, “Thou hast not pitied.” It reads as if the Almighty’s long-suffering patience with men, His gracious kindness to His people, His relenting, even His mercy in pardoning sin, were all felt by these old Hebrews to root themselves in that beautiful sentiment of compassion with which a Being so immense and self-contained in blessedness must look down on the fragile and sorrowful creatures whose origin, whose habitation, and whose end are all of them in the dust.
“Pity lies at the core of all the great religions.” The chapters of the Koran, all of them, begin with these words: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.” The vast religion of Buddha numbers five hundred million votaries, and pity is the keynote to it all.1 [Note: M. J. McLeod, Heavenly Harmonics for Earthly Living, 99.]
3. The sense of God’s fatherly compassion grows out of man’s deepest experience. The Psalmist is face to face with his own life, and with the life of Israel. He looks back in his history, and counts up the “benefits” he has received from the Lord: forgiveness and healing, solace and renewal, quickening and uplift. He is swayed by the spirit of praise and adoration and love; and out of his own growing affection there leaps up irresistibly this thought of God. It must be so. The God who meets his sin with such pity and pardon, bears with his errors and guilty ignorance so patiently, must have the heart of a father. These are the gifts of love. They reveal wisdom, intelligence, adaptation of means to an end, but chiefly they show the same sort of care for the soul of man as a loving father shows for his child; they disclose the Divine heart. God forgives as a father does the mistakes and follies and sins of his son. He delivers from peril, He crowns with loving-kindness and tenderness. He satisfies the soaring desires of the spirit; He renews the springs of life. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.”
But the most vital element in the Psalmist’s experience is the forgiveness of his sins. It is to that he recurs again and again. God forgives as only a father-heart in its fullest flow of pity and compassion can forgive. For it is not easy to forgive. Brothers have been known to pursue one another in a spirit of retaliation for years, and some fathers and mothers have shown hardness of heart towards their own offspring; but God forgives with a generosity and completeness which show that no father has a love so large as His.
Who is a pardoning God like Thee,
Or who has grace so rich and free!
It seems impossible to exaggerate in describing it. Listen to the singer as, with soul bursting with thankfulness, he says, God does chide—but not always; nor does He keep His anger for ever. Take your measuring-glass and look up into the heavens. Let your gaze reach out to the farthest depths of the infinite blue, soar and still soar, and still you do not reach the boundaries of His forgiving love: “He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.”
Years ago when death came to me first and took a child, the anguish was great. Watching her while she lay dying, I learnt for the first time what is meant by the words, “Like as a father pitieth his children.” Only so could I be taught the pity of God. And I learnt too, at the same time, what God must feel at the loss of His children. What are all these passionate affections but parables of Divine things? Shall God suffer and not we?1 [Note: Life of R. W. Dale of Birmingham, 21.]
My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters, and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rernemberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood,
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”1 [Note: Coventry Patmore, The Unknown Eros.]
4. The New Testament discloses the fact that the pity of God is the sympathy of One who associates Himself with us and undertakes for us. When we speak of the Incarnation we think of the Divine in the human. But there is another side to that great truth. There is the human in the Divine—what Robertson of Brighton used to call the humanity of Deity, and what the late Principal Edwards of Bala called “the humanity of God.” That is something which makes Him one with us, so that He identifies Himself with us, and, in a word, pities us. Now nobody resents that kind of pity, the pity of a genuine sympathy, which makes a man suffer because you suffer and compels him so to identify himself with you as to enter into your experience. That comes to you like balm; there is healing in it. It stands by your side; it puts its arms around you, so to speak, and in quivering tones says: “My brother, my sister, my child, this misfortune touches us both, for you are bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Because you suffer I must suffer. In the name of our common humanity, in the name of God, let us try to help each other.” That is pity. That is the pity of God; for that is the pity of love.
What is the meaning of Gethsemane and the cross but this, that the Son of God by virtue of His identification with us in His humanity entered sympathetically into the sin and suffering of the world? Not that He shared our sin by actual transgression, for He knew no sin; but as a father shares the sin and shame and suffering of his child, so the Lord Jesus shared our sin and shame and suffering. “Himself bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” He who knew no sin “was made sin for us.” How otherwise could He have made atonement for us? And what is the teaching of the parable of the Prodigal Son in this regard? How did the father pity his wandering boy? He yearned for him when he was away in the far country; he knew well what it all meant—the degradation, the undying stain, the suffering. And for every pang in the heart of the son there was an answering pang in the heart of the father. And how did the pity express itself? While the son was yet a great way off the father saw him, and had compassion on him, and ran to meet him. Ah! pity does not think of its dignity. The pity of some people could never get beyond a walk; it is too often on stilts. The father’s pity made him run; he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And that is the pity of God; that is how it is unfolded in the story of redemption.
A chord which has been once set in unison with another vibrates (they say) when its fellow is sharply struck. God has set His heart through human suffering into perpetual concord with human hearts. Strike them, and the heart of God quivers for fellowship. If this is compassion, it is so in a more literal sense than when we use the word as a mere synonym for pity. It is sympathy, in the Greek and New Testament sense; it is, as our version has it, being “touched” with the same feeling. It is the remembrance of His own human past which stirs within the soul of Christ, when, now, from His high seat, He sees what mortal men endure.1 [Note: J. O. Dykes.]
5. The Psalmist says that man’s weakness makes a sure appeal to the Father’s heart. “For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” Dust is a synonym for frailty. While the mountains stand fast for generations, the dust into which they are slowly worn has no abiding place. The winds toss it, carrying its unresisting particles whithersoever they will. And the stuff out of which we are fashioned is just as unstable and never at one stay. Our lives are of slenderer fibre than unspun silk, brittle as threads of fine-drawn glass, breath-breakable as the texture that holds together only in a vacuum. The Psalmist goes on to speak of death, reminding us that man is like a flower of the field which, untended by human care, unscreened by human device, unwarmed by human art, shrivels at the first sign of change and the first moan of desert wind, and dies neglected and forlorn. Through the entire round of his days he is ever matching and measuring his puny capacities against the strong. Death, which draws the curtain over his cold, inert, baffled clay, is but the last phase in that ever-recurring spectacle of impotence. And yet man draws the Almighty God down to his help; and, marvellous to say, man draws God by reason of his very frailty. Of the sum of that human life over which He bends I am but a thousand-millionth part, and yet “the Lord thinketh upon me,” who “am poor and needy”—thinketh of me the more closely for that very reason.
In his essay on “The Sublime and Beautiful,” Burke points out the fact that we always associate physical smallness with the idea of beauty, and he supports his rule by reminding us that in every known language terms of endearment are diminutives. Is not the reason for this common note in the taste and speech of mankind that the hearts of the strong and the chivalrous are captured by the very weakness which solicits defence? When we are called upon to play the part of providence to the helpless we experience a mysterious satisfaction which influences our æsthetic judgment, and the helpless grow beautiful in our eyes. And does not this peculiarity in human nature give us the clue to a mystery in the heart of God? When He made man He put Divine qualities into a slender framework, filled up with delicate clay, because to such beings the deepest secret of His tenderness could be spoken.1 [Note: T. G. Selby.]
Will you say to a mother, Why do you waste such love on that poor child? Do you not see that he is a cripple, has curvature of the spine, always will be a cripple? See the little fellow creeping on his hands and knees! The doctor says that he can never be strong; always will be a source of anxiety to you; most likely never will be able to walk. Why worry so over him? What good will he ever be? Ah, if you spoke thus, she would give you a look that would shrivel you.
My silent boy, I hold thee to my breast,
Just as I did when thou wast newly born.
It may be sinful, but I love thee best,
And kiss thy lips the longest night and morn.
Oh, thou art dear to me beyond all others,
And when I breathe my trust and bend my knee
For blessing on thy sisters and thy brothers,
God seems the nighest when I pray for thee.1 [Note: M. J. McLeod, Heavenly Harmonies for Earthly Living, 110.]
6. God’s intimate knowledge of our weakness is the sure pledge of tender parental treatment. It is certain that a very great part of the harshness of judgment which passes among men is the result of imperfect knowledge. You do not know the man you are speaking about; you do not know the natural infirmities, the bodily hindrances, the constitutional causes which affect the person whom you are blaming. You cannot take into your calculation all the circumstances, all the pressure, all the temptation. You cannot read his motives, you cannot dip into the secret processes going on in that man’s mind. If you could see all this, your feelings would be very different, and your sentiments would be reversed.
Now, of all upon earth, a parent can best estimate these things in his own child. Has he not watched him from the first passages of his dawning life? Has he not seen the moulding of his frame? Has he not become intimate with the secret framework of his being? Can he not take a more comprehensive view of him than any other man can? And this pity flowing from parental knowledge is the shadow of that love of God. He sees what no other eye sees, and His calculations include all the extenuating circumstances—the health, the position, the conflict, the effort, the struggle, the sorrow, the penitence. “He knows” and—blessed be God for the kind word, a word very rarely known to us—” He remembers.” And so pity is the child of knowledge. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.”
Not as one blind and deaf to our beseeching,
Neither forgetful that we are but dust,
Not as from heavens too high for our upreaching.
Coldly sublime, intolerably just:—
Nay but Thou knewest us, Lord Christ Thou knowest,
Well Thou rememberest our feeble frame,
Thou canst conceive our highest and our lowest,
Pulses of nobleness and aches of shame.
Therefore have pity!—not that we accuse Thee,
Curse Thee and die and charge Thee with our woe;
Not thro’ Thy fault, O Holy One, we lose Thee,
Nay, but our own,—yet hast Thou made us so!
Then tho’ our foul and limitless transgression
Grows with our growing, with our breath began,
Raise Thou the arms of endless intercession.
Jesus, divinest when Thou most art man!1 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, Saint Paul.]
7. The Psalmist based the pity of our Heavenly Father on His special knowledge of our frame—such knowledge as only the Framer of it can possess. But to know man’s frame, to know what is in man, even to search and try with Divine inspection the heart and spirit of a man, is after all something less intimate and perfect than to be a man. To learn a child’s lessons, feel a youth’s passions, think a man’s thoughts; to be actually tempted to evil as men are tempted, and find out by trial how hard it is for them to be good; to undergo the moral probation and discipline peculiar to a human creature, impossible to the Creator; this must give—or, if we are to think about the subject at all, it must be supposed by us to have given—to the Son of God a fresh acquaintance with human experience, of quite another sort from the omniscience of the creating Father. At all events, who can help feeling this, that, if it is possible for any one to know us, understand us, and do us justice, Jesus Christ is that One; since, as our Maker, He both knows what He made us fit to be and to do and, as our Fellow-Man, has learned through what hindrances and temptations we have become what we are?
An obelisk, originally brought from Egypt, stands in the piazza of St. Peter’s at Rome. It was put into its present position in the sixteenth century. It weighs a little short of a million pounds, and required the strength of eight hundred men, one hundred and fifty horses, and forty-six cranes, to lift it on to its pedestal. The crowds who witnessed the feat were forbidden to speak under pain of death. As the ropes were tugged by hosts of workmen, and the huge obelisk slowly reared itself like a waking giant, the movement suddenly stopped and the ropes threatened to give way. The huge mass was about to fall crashing upon the pavement. An old sailor in the crowd, familiar with the humours of ropes and the methods of treating them, broke the silence and cried, “Pour water on the ropes!” The advice was quickly followed, the ropes tightened, and the obelisk slowly rose again and settled securely upon its base. In our past life how often have strain, tension, and peril come to us! The ties by which we were knit to goodness, to truth, to purity, to faith, were sorely tested, and seemed ready to snap and plunge us into ruin. Some temptation arose out of all proportion to the staying power of our trust in God, some shock fraught with impending disaster to the character, some partial alienation from right paths threatening to strand our lives in uselessness. But the eye of infinite wisdom was watching, and God remembered the weakness of the flesh. From within the unseen there came a voice that saved us, and the peril was overpast. The strain eased off, character strengthened itself to the emergency, and we were kept in the plane of our providential lot. And through this wise, watchful pity of our infirmities we come to find ourselves with a place in the living temple, monuments of the gentleness, the sympathy, and the upholding power of the God who pities the frail. In the moments which show most our weakness the Lord remembers that we are but dust, and fortifies us against the strains and hazards which belong to our earthly course.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The God of the Frail, 14.]
8. Who are they that experience this pity of God? What does the text say? “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” The same expression occurs in the eleventh verse: “As the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.” And again in the seventeenth verse: “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him.” Now, let us not imagine for a moment that God does not yearn with compassion over men who are utterly reckless, men who are breaking through God’s law, and treading the path that leadeth to destruction. God pities them; but, then, observe, they are indifferent to Him; and if we are indifferent to any one, we do not care for that one’s pity, we have no wish for his compassion. God’s compassion goes forth upon all men, but all men cannot receive it, and do not receive it. It is not the idea of terror that is conveyed by this word “fear.” We do not crave mercy from a tyrant; we demand justice from him. If one might translate this word “fear” one should do so by two words—“reverential love.” We can receive real sympathy only from those we love with reverence. When we are bearing a great trial, when we are going through our testing time, when we are bowing under a heavy sorrow, who are the men and women from whom we seek sympathy or pity? It may be we seek for the companionship of but one—only one—for whom our love is deep and reverent.
Bunyan in his long treatise On the Fear of God deals with the matter of “right fear” very fully. “Take heed,” he says in that treatise, “of hardening thy heart at any time against convictions of judgments. I bid you before to beware of a hard heart, now I bid you beware of hardening your soft heart. The fear of the Lord is the pulse of the soul. Pulses that beat are the best sighs of life; but the worst show that life is present. Intermitting pulses are dangerous. David and Peter had an intermitting pulse in reference to this fear.” Christian is no coward, and the adjective right is emphatic when he speaks of right fear. The word fear has two senses, according as it relates to dangerous or to sublime things. In the one connexion it is a sense of danger; in the other it is the faculty of reverence, the habit of wonder, the continued power of awe and admiration. Christian’s analysis of it includes both these senses. (1) It rises in the conviction of sin—not (it will be observed) in the approach of punishment, but in the horror of sin itself, as a thing to be abhorred apart from its consequences. (2) It leads to a laying hold on Christ for salvation—in which the sense of danger and the faculty of reverence are combined. (3) It begets in the soul a great reverence for God.1 [Note: John Kelman, The Road, ii. 162.]
Among the children of God, while there is always that fearful and bowed apprehension of His majesty, and that sacred dread of all offence to Him, which is called the Fear of God, yet of real and essential fear there is not any, but clinging of confidence to Him as their Rock, Fortress, and Deliverer; and perfect love, and casting out of fear; so that it is not possible that, while the mind is rightly bent on Him, there should be dread of anything either earthly or supernatural; and the more dreadful seems the height of His majesty, the less fear they feel that dwell in the shadow of it (“Of whom shall I be afraid”), so that they are as David was, “devoted to His fear”; whereas, on the other hand, those who, if they may help it, never conceive of God, but thrust away all thought and memory of Him, and in His real terribleness and omnipresence fear Him not nor know Him, yet are by real, acute, piercing, and ignoble fear, haunted for evermore.2 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters, ii. ch. xiv. (Works, iv. 199).]
Buckland (A. R.), Text Studies for a Year, 143.
Clifford (J.), The Gospel of Gladness, 17.
Conn (J.), The Fulness of Time, 1.
Dykea (J. O.), Sermons, 138.
Fleming (A. G.), Silver Wings, 26.
McLeod (M. J.), Heavenly Harmonies, 99.
Murray (W. H.), The Fruits of the Spirit, 397.
Pierce (C. C.), The Hunger of the Heart for Faith, 59.
Selby (T. G.), The God of the Frail, 2.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xvi. (1870), No. 941.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), vii. (1868), No. 678.
Walters (F.), in Sermons by Unitarian Ministers, 53.
Christian World Pulpit, xxx. 230 (J. Baillie); xxxii. 376 (F. Ferguson); xxxviii. 188 (D. Hobbs); lx. 376 (E. Griffith-Jones); lxi. 251 (J. Ritson).
Church Pulpit Year Book, 1909, p. 153.