Great Texts of the Bible
The Vision of God Here and Hereafter
As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness:
I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.
1. The investigations as to the authorship and the date of this Psalm yield the usual conflicting results. Davidic, says one school; undoubedly post-exilic, says another, without venturing on closer definition; late in the Persian period, says Cheyne. Perhaps we may content ourselves with the judgment of Baethgen: “The date of composition cannot be decided by internal indications.” The background is the familiar one of causeless foes round an innocent sufferer, who flings himself into God’s arms for safety, and in prayer enters into peace and hope. The psalm is called a “prayer,” a title given to only four other psalms, none of which is in the First Book. It has three movements, marked by the repetition of the name of God, which does not appear elsewhere, except in the doubtful verse 14. These three are vv. 1–5, in which the cry for help is founded on a strong profession of innocence; vv. 6–12, in which it is based on a vivid description of the enemies; and vv. 13–15, in which it soars into the pure air of mystic devotion, and thence looks down on the transient prosperity of the foe and upwards, in a rapture of hope, to the face of God.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
2. “As for me, in righteousness let me behold Thy face: Let me be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness.” With the low desires of worldly men the Psalmist contrasts his own spiritual aspirations. He does not complain of their prosperity; it does not present itself to him as a trial of patience and a moral enigma, as it does to the authors of Psalms 37, 73. Their blessings are not for an instant to be compared with his. “To behold Jehovah’s face” is to enjoy communion with Him and all the blessings that flow from it; it is the inward reality which corresponds to “appearing before Him” in the sanctuary. “Righteousness” is the condition of that “beholding”; for it is sin that separates from God. He concludes with a yet bolder prayer, that he may be admitted to that highest degree of privilege which Moses enjoyed, and be satisfied with the likeness or form of Jehovah. Worldly men are satisfied if they see themselves reflected in their sons: nothing less than the sight of the form of God will satisfy the Psalmist.
Likeness to God is not a far-off hope, a light that gleams upon us through the mists of time, a prize to be won only when revolving years have passed. It is a present and immediate experience, or rather it is a thing which does not belong to the sphere of time and cannot be spoken of in forms of expression that belong to it. In religion the spirit passes out of the realm of time, rises above the passing shows of things, the vain fears and vainer hopes that pertain to the things seen and temporal. The outward life may be still in some measure a life of effort, struggle, conflict; but in that inner sphere in which the true life lies, the strife is over, the victory already achieved; hope has passed into fruition, struggle into conquest, restless effort and endeavour into perfect peace—“the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”1 [Note: John Caird.]
3. What is meant by “when I awake”? Not “when the night of calamity is at an end”—a sense which the word will not bear. What the writer desires is the daily renewal of this communion; and, as the passage in Exodus suggests, a waking sight of God, as distinguished from a dream or vision. These words are commonly explained of awaking from the sleep of death to behold the face of God in the world beyond, and to be transfigured into His likeness. Here, however, this reference is excluded by the context. The Psalmist does not anticipate death, but prays to be delivered from it. The contrast present to his mind is not between “this world” and “another world,” the “present life” and the “future life,” but between the false life and the true life in this present world, between “the flesh” and “the spirit,” between the “natural man” with his sensuous desires, and the “spiritual man” with his Godward desires. Here, as in Psalm 16:9-11, death fades from the Psalmist’s view. He is absorbed with the thought of the blessedness of fellowship with God. But the doctrine of life eternal is implicitly contained in the words. For it is inconceivable that communion with God, thus begun and daily renewed, should be abruptly terminated by death. It is possible that the Psalmist and those for whom he sang may have had some glimmering of this larger hope, though how or when it was to be realized was not yet revealed. But whether they drew the inference must remain doubtful. In the economy of revelation, “heaven is first a temper and then a place.”1 [Note: A. F. Kirkpatrick.]
Our heaven must be within ourselves,
Our home and heaven the work of faith
All thro’ this race of life which shelves
Downward to death.
So faith shall build the boundary wall,
And hope shall plant the secret bower,
That both may show magnifical
With gem and flower.
While over all a dome must spread,
And love shall be that dome above;
And deep foundations must be laid,
And these are love.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]
We see here into the inmost nature of the Old Testament belief. All the blessedness and glory of the future life which the New Testament unfolds is for the Old Testament faith contained in Jehovah. Jehovah is its highest good; in the possession of Him it is raised above heaven and earth, life and death; to surrender itself blindly to Him, without any explicit knowledge of a future life of blessedness, to be satisfied with Him, to rest in Him, to take refuge in Him in view of death, is characteristic of the Old Testament faith.3 [Note: Delitzsch.]
The impotence of death on the relation of the devout soul to God is a postulate of faith, whether formulated as an article of faith or not. Probably the Psalmist had no clear conception of a future life; but certainly he had a distinct assurance of it, because he felt that the very “sweetness “of present fellowship with God “yielded proof that it was born for immortality.”4 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
The Immediate Earthly Experience
The soul’s desire for a vision of God is satisfied by spiritual communion here and now.
1. The opening phrase of this verse is expressive of a noble singularity. “As for me.” The man who says that isolates himself in an attitude of moral grandeur from all that is base, carnal, and worldly. It is the utterance of moral manhood, of a soul that has the heroism to separate itself from the majority, and stand majestically aloof and alone in its superior choice. “As for me.” This is the motto of a spiritual aristocracy. Noblesse oblige. The man who utters it ranks himself with the world’s moral minorities. “As for me.” That is the language of true soul-nobility. And there are times when we too must dare to utter it, if we would be true to our higher nature and count for anything in the world.
This man has a consciousness of a religious, Divine life in him. He describes the wicked, the worldly, the men that have their portion in this life, who believe in nothing but appetite, what they can grasp and handle, the men who never call on God, who do not serve Him. But, he says, “I believe in God; I pray to God; I have communion with God. As for me, I stand separate from these men. I am not living simply for the senses, the appetites, the passions, gaining all I can get, and keeping all I gain, or spending it upon my lusts. I am not doing that; I am conscious that I am not. And I am conscious that I have within me a Divine faith; I have a communion with God; I can bare my heart to God, and say, Thou hast tried me, and hast found nothing—no insincerity.” This is not the language of the Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men; I pay tithes; I fast twice in the week.” It is not that. It is not a persuasion founded upon mere ritualism and externalism. It is a humble, thankful, moral, spiritual consciousness that this man, believing in God, loves Him, has communion with Him, and, under the influence of that Divine faith, keeps himself from the path of the destroyer, from the works and the society of the wicked.
It cannot be supposed that the bodily shape of man resembles, or resembled, any bodily shape in Deity. The likeness must therefore be, or have been, in the soul. Had it wholly passed away, and the Divine soul been altered into a soul brutal or diabolic, I suppose we should have been told of the change. But we are told nothing of the kind. The verse (Genesis 1:26—God created man in his own image) still stands as if for our use and trust. It was only death which was to be our punishment. Not change. So far as we live, the image is still there; defiled, if you will; broken, if you will; all but defaced, if you will, by death and the shadow of it. But not changed. We are not made how in any other image than God’s. There are, indeed, the two states of this image—the earthly and heavenly, but both Adamite, both human, both the same likeness; only one defiled, and one pure. So that the soul of man is still a mirror, wherein may be seen, darkly, the image of the mind of God.1 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters (Works, v. 259).]
We become like those with whom we associate. A man’s ideals mould him. Living with Jesus makes us look like Himself. We are familiar with the work that has been done in restoring old fine paintings. A painting by one of the rare old master painters is found covered with the dust of decades. Time has faded out much of the fine colouring and clearly marked outlines. With great patience and skill it is worked over and over. And something of the original beauty, coming to view again, fully repays the workman for all his pains. The original image in which we were made has been badly obscured and has faded out. But if we give our great Master a chance He will restore it through our eyes. It will take much patience and skill nothing less than Divine. But the original will surely come out more and more till we shall again be like the original, for we shall see Him as He is.2 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 19.]
Thoreau’s regard for Emerson and Mrs. Emerson was very deep and affectionate, and it was natural that a young man, even when possessed of Thoreau’s strength of character, should be lastingly influenced by so distinctive and commanding a personality as Emerson’s. In has been remarked by several of those who knew both men, that Thoreau unconsciously caught certain of the traits of Emerson’s voice and expression—that he deliberately imitated Emerson is declared on the best authority to be an “idle and untenable” assertion. The following account of Thoreau’s receptivity in this respect is given by one of his college classmates, Rev. D. G. Haskins:—
“I happened to meet Thoreau in Mr. Emerson’s study at Concord—the first time we had come together after leaving college. I was quite startled by the transformation that had taken place in him. His short figure and general cast of countenance were of course unchanged; but in his manners, in the tones of his voice, in his modes of expression, even in the hesitations and pauses of his speech, he had become the counterpart of Mr. Emerson. Thoreau’s college voice bore no resemblance to Mr. Emerson’s, and was so familiar to my ear that I could have readily identified him by it in the dark. I was so much struck by the change that I took the opportunity, as they sat near together talking, of listening with closed eyes, and I was unable to determine with certainty which was speaking. I do not know to what subtle influences to ascribe it, but after conversing with Mr. Emerson for even a brief time, I always found myself able and inclined to adopt his voice and manner of speaking.”
The change noticed in Thoreau was not due only to the stimulating influence of Emerson’s personality, though that doubtless was the immediate means of effecting his awakening. Underneath the sluggish and torpid demeanour of his life at the University there had been developing, as his schoolmates afterwards recognized, the strong, stern qualities which were destined to make his character remarkable, and these had now been called into full play both by the natural growth of his mind, and by the opportunities afforded in the brilliant circle of which he was a member. “In later years,” says John Weiss, who knew him well at Harvard, “his chin and mouth grew firmer, as his resolute and audacious opinions developed, the eyes twinkled with the latent humour of his criticisms of society.” It was a veritable transformation—an awakening of the dormant intellectual fire—and it has been ingeniously suggested that the “transformation” of Donatello in Hawthorne’s novel may have been founded in the first place on this fact in the life of Thoreau.1 [Note: H. S. Salt, Henry David Thoreau, 56.]
2. What does spiritual communion imply?
(1) It implies spiritual nearness.—To see a face you must be near a person. Very near, to faith’s apprehension, is the Divine presence. “He is not far from each one of us.” That is the teaching of Scripture. If He seem far, it is not because He is far, but because our perceptions are impaired. Miles do not make distance. Distance is disparity. It is moral discrepancy, and not local separation. You may be very near, and feel very near to one from whom oceans sunder you. But where there is no moral sympathy, you may be very close to a person and yet very far apart. Distance is in incapacity rather than in measurement. Incapacity to perceive, and to understand, and to reciprocate. “God is a spirit,” and in proportion as our natures are spiritual is the sense of God vivid and near. To the soulless man the whole universe seems destitute of God. But to the man of spiritual sensibilities, His glance is in every sunbeam, His reflexion is in every stream, His face in every flower. To such, the face of Nature is as the face of God.
By spiritual insight, protected and cherished, not by dulness and formality, but by continual moral sensitiveness, is man enabled to look at life, and all whereby God reveals Himself, with that discrimination which alone is vision.1 [Note: Professor Oman.]
(2) It implies intimacy of fellowship.—But there must be something more than mere vicinity. There must be intimacy of fellowship, familiar interchange of thought and affection. The porter who stands at the gate, the servant who waits in the hall, knows little of the master’s mind and purpose. But to the inner circle of friends who “behold his face” he reveals himself. They know him. The sight of the face implies constant and affectionate intercourse.
(3) It implies propitiousness.—The showing of the face in Scripture is always the token of goodwill, favour, and well-pleasedness. To see the face of God is to have the strongest evidence that God loves the soul so privileged. It is to drink in without stint all that is in His heart of grace.
3. The suggestion of the true sight of God coming to us through sympathy with the Divine purpose and nature is emphasized in the expression, “I shall behold thy face in righteousness.” This is the medium through which the character and disposition of God become manifest to us. It is only the heart which is one with God that attains the vision of God. A righteous God can be seen only in an atmosphere of righteousness. Sin distorts the medium, so that we can have no perfect vision. Moral alienation from God paralyses the optic nerve of the soul. Or change the figure. You have looked upon the calm surface of a mountain tarn, lying like a lustrous jewel in its rocky hollow, and you have seen the sun and clouds reflected from that surface as though there were another firmament at your feet; or, when you have stood upon its margin you have even seen given back, feature for feature, your own face. But suddenly a breeze has swept across its bosom and ruffled its glassy smoothness, and then of the sun and heavens you could see nothing but broken lights and scattered images, and of your own face nought that was recognizable. Just so the gusts of passion sweep over the soul, and the image of God that was mirrored there becomes blurred and broken. The vision of the Face is no more seen. Only the righteous heart can see the Eighteous God. It is only the heart which is at peace with Him that can have the true revelation of God. So long as we are selfish and sinful, “we see through a glass darkly”; but, once we have grown Christlike, “then face to face.” “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.”1 [Note: J. Halsey.]
4. That which satisfies us must be suited to our nature. You might as well try to fill a chest with wisdom as a soul with wealth. That which satisfies us must be large as our capacity; earthly good comes drop by drop, a little at most, and a little at a time; but we need a good that shall furnish for an ever-enlarging capacity an ever-enlarging supply. That which satisfies us must satisfy the hunger of every faculty; some things meet one faculty and some another; not one meets all, and, in the fullest sense, not one meets one. “The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing.” That which satisfies us must be holy; for, sooner or later, men find that the sin to which they have looked for their earthly heaven is the very element of hell. That which satisfies us must be immortal as our being. That which satisfies us must have infinite power to engage and delight our highest love; for “desire is love in motion, delight is love in rest.”
“Oh, blessed vision!” was the apostrophe of an ancient confessor; “oh, blessed vision! to which all others are penal and despicable! Let me go into the mint house and see heaps of gold, and I am never the richer; let me go to the pictures and see goodly faces, I am never the fairer; let me go to the court, where I see state and magnificence, and I am never the greater; but, oh, Saviour! I cannot see Thee and not be blessed. I can see Thee here through symbols: if the eye of my faith be dim, yet it is sure. Oh, let me be unquiet till I shall see Thee as I am seen!”1 [Note: C. Stanford, Symbols of Christ, 344.]
There comes a time in the life of every one who follows the truth with full sincerity when God reveals to the sensitive soul the fact that He and He alone can satisfy those longings, the satisfaction of which she has hitherto been tempted to seek elsewhere. Then follows a series of experiences which constitute the “sure mercies of David.” … The sensitive nature is, from day to day, refreshed with a sweetness that makes the flesh-pots of Egypt insipid; and the soul cries, “Cor meum et caro mea exultaverunt in Deum vivum.”2 [Note: Coventry Patmore.]
One class-night, John Smalley, the chapel-keeper, was Mr. Harrison’s substitute as leader. He was an original thinker, plain and somewhat dogmatic, but thoroughly good. When he spoke to me, he said something of this sort: “Thomas, the Bible says, ‘Ye shall find me, when ye seek me with your whole heart.’ ” It was a hard saying, but it did me good, for it made me pray more than ever. Gradually, however, the truth came to me. Very slowly I saw that my sins had been punished, but so gradually did the darkness pass I never could say exactly when I found peace. It might have been said that it was like a train coming out of a tunnel, very slowly; so much so that one could not tell when it began to be light; but the light came, and there has been no tunnel in my experience ever since! It was twilight for some weeks, though not the twilight of evening, but of the morning! One day it came into my mind that I would go and see John M‘Lean, the young local preacher who took me to class, and who tried to help me many a time. It was in my heart to ask him if he thought I might rejoice a bit, as the darkness was not so great. When I reached his house he saw me coining, and when we met he said, “Tom, you need not tell me what you have come for! You have found peace, for I see it in your face!”3 [Note: The Life-Story of Thomas Champness, 29.]
My heart is yearning:
Behold my yearning heart,
And lean low to satisfy
Its lonely beseeching cry,
For Thou its fulness art.
Turn, as once turning
Thou didst behold Thy Saint
In deadly extremity;
Didst look, and win back to Thee
His will frighted and faint.
Kindle my burning
From Thine unkindled Fire;
Fill me with gifts and with grace
That I may behold Thy face,
For Thee I desire.
My heart is yearning,
Yearning and thrilling thro’
For Thy Love mine own of old,
For Thy Love unknown, untold,
Ever old, ever new.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]
The Higher Heavenly Experience
The soul’s desire for a vision of God will be satisfied by a full revelation hereafter.
1. Death, is not a sleep but an awaking.—The representation of death most widely diffused among all nations is that it is a sleep. The reasons for that emblem are easily found. We always try to veil the terror and deformity of the ugly thing by the thin robe of language. As with reverential awe, so with fear and disgust, the tendency is to wrap their objects in the folds of metaphor. Men prefer not to name plainly their god or their dread, but find round-about phrases for the one, and coaxing, flattering titles for the other. The furies and the fates of heathenism, the supernatural beings of modern superstition, must not be spoken of by their own appellations. The recoil of men’s hearts from the thing is testified by the aversion of their languages to the bald name—death. And the employment of this special euphemism of sleep is a wonderful witness to our weariness of life, and to its endless toil and trouble. Everywhere that has seemed to be a comforting and almost an attractive name, which has promised full rest from all the agitations of this changeful scene. The prosperous and the wretched alike have owned the fatigue of living, and been conscious of a soothing expectance which became almost a hope, as they thought of lying still at last with folded hands and shut eyes. The wearied workers have bent over their dead, and felt that they are blessed in this at all events, that they rest from their labours; and, as they saw them absolved from all their tasks, have sought to propitiate the Power that had made this ease for them, as well as to express their sense of its merciful aspect, by calling it not death, but sleep. But that emblem, true and sweet as it is, is but half the truth.
We shall sleep. Yes; but we shall wake too. We shall wake just because we sleep. For flesh and all its weakness, and all its disturbing strength, and craving importunities—for the outer world, and all its dissipating, garish shows, and all its sullen resistance to our hand—for weariness, and fevered activity and toil against the grain of our tastes, too great for our strength, disappointing in its results, the end is blessed sleep. And precisely because it is so, therefore for our true selves, for heart and mind, for powers that lie dormant in the lowest and are not stirred into full action in the highest, for all that universe of realities which encompass us undisclosed, and known only by faint murmurs which pierce through the opiate sleep of life, the end shall be an awaking. The spirit, because emancipated from the body, shall spring into greater intensity of action, shall put forth powers that have been held down here, and shall come into contact with an order of things which here it has but indirectly known. To our true selves and to God we shall awake.
Heaven will not be pure stagnation, not idleness, not any mere luxurious dreaming over the spiritual repose that has been safely and for ever won; but active, tireless, earnest work; fresh, live enthusiasm for the high labours which eternity will offer. These vivid inspirations will play through our deep repose, and make it more mighty in the service of God than any feverish and unsatisfied toil of earth has ever been. The sea of glass will be mingled with fire.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
Oft have I wakened ere the spring of day,
And from my window looking forth have found
All dim and strange the long-familiar ground;
But soon I saw the mist glide slow away,
And leave the hills in wonted green array,
While from the stream-sides and the fields around
Rose many a pensive day-entreating sound,
And the deep-breasted woodlands seemed to pray.
Will it be even so when first we wake
Beyond the Night in which are merged all nights,—
The soul sleep-heavy and forlorn will ache,
Deeming herself mid alien sounds and sights?
Then will the gradual Day with comfort break
Along the old deeps of being, the old heights?1 [Note: Edith M. Thomas.]
2. Death, is the revealer of the great reality.—“I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.” “Likeness” is properly “form,” and is the same word as is employed in reference to Moses, who saw “the similitude of the Lord.” If there be, as is most probable, an allusion to that ancient vision in these words, then the “likeness” is not that conformity to the Divine character which it is the goal of our hopes to possess, but the beholding of His self-manifestation. The parallelism of the verse also points to such an interpretation. If so, then we have here the blessed confidence that, when all the baseless fabric of the dream of life has faded from our opening eyes, we shall see the face of our ever-loving God. Here the distracting whirl of earthly things obscures Him from even the devoutest souls, and His own mighty works which reveal do also conceal. In them is the hiding as well as the showing of His power. But there the veil which draped the perfect likeness, and gave but dim hints through its heavy swathings of the outline of immortal beauty that lay beneath, shall fall away. No longer befooled by shadows, we shall possess the true substance; no longer bedazzled by shows, we shall behold the reality.
Holman Hunt wrote an affectionate letter begging Shields not to grieve at the death of their great and good old friend, Madox Brown:—
“He had done his work, and done it nobly and well, and it was evident that he could not have made much of further life in his art, and from his nature I think it is pretty clear that he had made up his mind about other matters, and would learn no more here, while elsewhere he may, with his singular honesty and consistency, rise to the highest pinnacle of wisdom. Death is a very little change, seen from the other side, and yet it must be a great clearer away of mists.”1 [Note: Life and Letters of Frederic Shields, 321.]
3. The fulness of that future satisfaction.—Seeing God we shall be satisfied. With all lesser joys the eye is not satisfied with seeing, but to look on Him will be enough. Enough for mind and heart, wearied and perplexed with partial knowledge and imperfect love; enough for eager desires, which thirst, after all draughts from other streams; enough for will, chafing against lower lords and yet longing for authoritative control; enough for all my being—to see God. Here we can rest after all wanderings, and say, “I travel no further; here will I dwell for ever.”
When I awake I shall have done with tears,
And the rough retinue of cares and fears;
No memory of shadows shall remain
That haunted all these heavy hours of pain—
Shadows of lingering doubt and old distrust,
The heritage and burden of our dust;
They shall depart as visions of the night
Are conquered by the floods of morning light.
When I awake the soul’s deep, yearning quest
Shall find in perfect love eternal rest.
Then I shall see Him, even as He is,
Who, while I wandered, knew and named me His.
When I awaken in the better land,
Divine Redeemer, like Thee I shall stand.
Not long the slumber and the dream abide—
When I awake I shall be satisfied.
Adams (J.), Sermons in Syntax, 148.
Banks (L. A.), The Great Promises of the Bible, 234.
Cottam (S. E.), New Sermons for a New Century, 61.
Jupp (W. J.), in Sermons by Unitarian Ministers, 1st Ser., 77.
Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, New Ser., i. 298.
Maclaren (A.), Sermons, ii. 1.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions; Psalms i.–xlix., 52.
Matheson (G.), Moments on the Mount, 39.
Molyneux (C.), in Penny Pulpit, New Ser., ii. 129.
Park (E. A.), Discourses, 356.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, iii. 161; v. 369.
Purves (P. C.), The Divine Cure for Heart Trouble, 310.
Raleigh (A.), The Little Sanctuary, 257.
Simeon (C.), Works, v. 82.
Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 208.
Snell (H. H.), Through Study Windows, 42.
Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, i. (1855) No. 25.
Stanford (C.), Symbols of Christ, 323.
Trumbull (H. C.), Our Misunderstood Bible, 268.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit) iv. (1865) No. 490; xi. (1874) No. 835.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, vi. (1883) No. 13.
Christian World Pulpit, i. 120 (Binney); xli. 371 (Hocking); lvi. 75 (Dawson); lviii. 40 (Sheldon), 65 (Pearse); lxvi. 360 (Horne).
Church of England Magazine, xxviii. 210 (Pearson); lxvii. 256 (Harding).