Great Texts of the Bible
Pursuit and Permanence
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.—Psalm 23:6.
1. The phrase of the poet, that “this wise world is mainly right,” has no better illustration than the use it makes of this 23rd Psalm. There is no other form of words which it holds so dear, except perhaps the Lord’s Prayer; but if that has a superior majesty, this has a deeper tenderness; if one is Divine, the other is perfectly human, and its “touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
2. It was probably written by David, not while he was a shepherd-boy, but after an experience of life, and perhaps during the very stress of it. For a shepherd-boy does not sing of flocks and pastures, even if he be a true poet, but of things that he has dreamed yet not seen, imagined but not realized. Hence youthful poetry is of things afar off, while the poetry of men is of things near at hand and close to their life—the daisies under their feet, and the hills that rise from their doors. The young, when they express themselves, are full of sentimentality; that is, feeling not yet turned into reality under experience; but there is no sentimentality here—only solid wisdom, won by experience and poured out as feeling. The shepherd-boy becomes a warrior and king; life presses hard on him; he covers it in its widest extremes, tastes all its joy and bitterness; his heart is full and empty; he loves and loves; he is hunted like a partridge and he rules over nations; he digs deep pits for himself into which he falls, but rises out of them and soars to heaven. David’s nature was broad and apparently contradictory, and every phase of his character, every impulse of his heart, had its outward history. Into but few lives was so much life crowded; few have touched it at so many points, for he not only passed through vast changes of fortune, but he had a life of the heart and of the spirit correspondingly vast and various; and so his experience of life may be said to be universal, which cannot be said of Cæsar or Napoleon—men whose lives outwardly correspond to his. Hence, when some stress of circumstance was heavy upon him and faith rose superior to it, or perchance when the whole lesson of life had been gone over and he grasped its full meaning, he sang this hymn of faith and content.
This Psalm of reminiscence is not simply a leap over intervening years into the first of them, but, starting thence with a metaphor, it is a review of life and an estimate of it; it is an interpretation of life. On looking it over and summing it up, the author states his view of life; his life, indeed, but what man ever had a better right to pronounce on life in general? If life is evil, he certainly ought to have known it. If life is good, he had abundant chance to prove it by tasting it in all its widest variety. We are not to read these words of flowing sweetness as we listen to soothing music, a lullaby in infancy and a death-song in age, but as a judgment on human life. It is Oriental, but it is logical; it is objective, but it goes to the centre; it is simple, but it is universal; it is one life, but it may be all lives. It is not the picture of life as allotted and necessary, but as achieved. Live your life aright and interpret it aright, and see if it is not what you find here.1 [Note: T. T. Munger, The Appeal to Life, 69.]
3. The Psalm now passes from faith and gratitude forward to hope. The preceding part of it contemplates the past mainly; this closing verse contemplates only the future. We see a man going through life with goodness and mercy, like angel-guardians, following him, and home full in view. It supplies an illustration of the way in which “experience worketh hope.” David has reposed his trust in the Lord, and surrendered himself to His holy and loving will; he has had proof of His faithfulness and mercy and all-sufficiency in the ever-varying circumstances of many years, and so he hopes in Him for the days or years to come; and as a bird sings forth its pleasant song even in the faint noontide from the coolness and greenness of sheltering leaves, his soul sings forth its joyful hope in God. “Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice.”
This verse coming at the end of the Psalm is full of blessing. It is like the great “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” After the falls of the third verse, after the fears of the fourth, after the temptations of the fifth, still it is “goodness and mercy” that he has to think of. “My song shall be alway of the lovingkindness of the Lord: with my mouth will I ever be shewing thy truth from one generation to another.”1 [Note: W. C. E. Newbolt, Penitence and Peace, 142.]
Thou Heart! why dost thou lift thy voice?
The birds are mute; the skies are dark;
Nor doth a living thing rejoice;
Nor doth a living creature hark;
Yet thou art singing in the dark.
How small thou art; how poor and frail;
Thy prime is past; thy friends are chill;
Yet as thou hadst not any ail
Throughout the storm thou liftest still
A praise that winter cannot chill.
Then sang that happy Heart reply:
“God lives, God loves, and hears me sing.
How warm, how safe, how glad am I,
In shelter ’neath His spreading wing,
And there I cannot choose but sing.”2 [Note: D. C. Dandridge, Rose Brake.]
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
1. Goodness and mercy.—At once these words, “goodness and mercy,” attract our attention. It was “goodness and mercy” that led us first out of the fold, with an aim and object in life. There was “goodness and mercy” in that shelter from the noontide heat. But now it is “goodness and mercy” all the days of my life. And we think of grace, which is not only preventing and accompanying, but also subsequent. We owe a great deal to the grace that comes after, the grace that follows us; not only the grace that gives us the wish to do what is right, not only the grace that starts us and helps us in what is right, but also the grace that helps us to finish.
Here is that striking characteristic of the love of God Almighty which comes out in all His dealings with us, namely, its completeness. “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.” Creative love, which placed man in the world, did not exhaust the goodness of God towards him: redemptive love met him when he fell. And as if redemptive love itself were not sufficient, sanctifying love came in to fill up where redemptive love seemed to lack. So it is with each single soul. God completes His work.
Perfect the day shall be, when it is of all men understood that the beauty of Holiness must be in labour as well as in rest. Nay! more, if it may be, in labour; in our strength, rather than in our weakness; and in the choice of what we shall work for through the six days, and may know to be good at their evening time, than in the choice of what we pray for on the seventh, of reward or repose. With the multitude that keep holiday, we may perhaps sometimes vainly have gone up to the house of the Lord, and vainly there asked for what we fancied would be mercy; but for the few who labour as their Lord would have them, the mercy needs no seeking, and their wide home no hallowing. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow them, all the days of their life; and they shall dwell in the house of the Lord—for ever.1 [Note: Ruskin, Lectures on Art, § 96 (Works, xx. 94).]
Ought not we who bear the name of Jesus to ask ourselves whether we are keeping pace in new purposes and answering with devotion God’s summoning gifts and challenging mercies? When the year is old or the year is young, and we think of the passing of life, it is a good thing to ask whether our trees justify the room they take and the nourishment they get in the Master’s vineyard. Is your tree standing because “it brings forth more fruit”? or is it because of the mercy, the hope, the patience, of the Lord who intercedes,—“Spare it yet another year; it may be it will bear fruit”? Let the goodness of God lead us to repentance and a better return in fruitfulness and fidelity for His loving care.2 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 36.]
No gloomy foreboding as to a dark and unknown future—no dread of the King of Terrors—no doubts as to his acceptance in Christ, obscured the radiance of his setting sun. In the same letter, written within six weeks of his death, when he was in good health, James Haldane thus affectionately addresses his eldest son in London, as if anticipating that his years (now eighty-three) were numbered: “This is the last day of the year, and the last letter I shall write this year. My life has been wonderfully preserved, much beyond the usual course of nature. Goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life, and, without the shadow of boasting, I can add, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. May the blessing of God Almighty rest on you and yours!”1 [Note: A. Haldane, The Lives of Robert and James Haldane, 640.]
Enough that blessings undeserved
Have marked my erring track;—
That wheresoe’er my feet have swerved,
His chastening turned me back;—
That more and more a Providence
Of love is understood,
Making the springs of time and sense
Sweet with eternal good;
That death seems but a covered way
Which opens into light,
Wherein no blinded child can stray
Beyond the Father’s sight;—
That care and trial seem at last,
Through Memory’s sunset air,
Like mountain-ranges overpast;
In purple distance fair—
That all the jarring notes of life
Seem blending in a psalm,
And all the angles of its strife
Slow rounding into calm.
And so the shadows fall apart,
And so the west-winds play;
And all the windows of my heart
I open to the day.2 [Note: Whittier, My Psalm.]
2. The Psalmist’s hope is uttered in a twofold form of speech. First and in general, it is the hope of “goodness and mercy”; “goodness,” including all that contributes to our well-being, temporal and spiritual, and “satisfies” the wants of our nature,—not mere cold beneficence that chills us while it aids, but having a heart of lovingkindness; “mercy,” including all the manifestations of His favour, whether as compassion, forbearance, long-suffering, deliverance, forgiving love, help in time of need, or whatever else may be named—all that it glorifies God to bestow, and blesses us to receive.
There is a touching story of Lord Westbury which Sir William Gull told me. He was dying of a painful disease, and said to Sir William and Sir James Paget, “Surely this is, if ever there was, a case for Euthanasia, or the happy despatch.” They argued with him that their duty was to preserve life, and on the following day he said, “I suppose you are right. I have been thinking over the story of what the Roundhead said when he met the Royalist in heaven. He was surprised at his presence, and asked him how it had come about. The Royalist answered—
Between the saddle and the ground
I mercy sought and mercy found.
I suppose you think that might be my case.”1 [Note: Sir Algernon West, Recollections, i. 304.]
(1) We may compare Goodness to an angel with a radiant countenance, bright as the sun, ever beaming with smiles that shed gladness all around her. She has a light and buoyant step, and movements musical as the chiming of marriage bells. Flowers grow where she treads, and springs of living water flow to refresh the thirsty ground. She has a full and yet open hand, for while always dispensing her gifts, her store is never exhausted.
We connect her ministry with the brightest times in our history, when all is manifestly going well with us. We see it most clearly in what may be called the summer of the soul, when the sky is bright and the air balmy, and the flowers open their petals to the sun, and the grass grows upon the mountains, and the pastures are covered with flocks, and the valleys with corn. We see her presence in the home, when health and happiness are there, when she covers the table, and makes our slumbers light and refreshing, and sweetens the intercourse of brothers and sisters, and gladdens the hearts of parents with the welfare and well-doing of their children, and endows them all with health and strength.
And if sometimes Goodness veils her brightness and appears in such guise that men may not be conscious of her presence, in what may be called the wintry season of the soul, and there is less radiance on her countenance, and less music in her tread, and an apparently less liberal dispensation of her gifts; even then to the eye of faith her features are the same, and the same blessed ends are promoted by her gentle, holy ministry. There is the same kindness in her heart, although it be not so visibly manifested; the same words of blessing on her lips, although the ear hears them less distinctly; the same expression on her countenance, although it be somewhat veiled; the same benefactions bestowed by her hand, although they be not so sweet to the taste. A stronger faith would see the essential features under the dim disguise, and share in the Psalmist’s assurance that Goodness as well as Mercy follows all the good man’s steps.1 [Note: W. Landels.]
When Jacob looks at the coat of his darling son dedaubed with blood, a horror of great darkness falls upon his mind. He rends his garments. His anguish is pitiful. His hopes are crushed. The light of his life is gone out. He puts on sackcloth, and mourns for his son many days. He “refuses to be comforted.” He sees nothing before him but a set grey life, and then the dreariness of Sheol. He will follow his son into the darkness. His faith in God is not so grandly steadfast as that of Abraham, who believed that
Even the hour that darkest seemeth
Will His changeless goodness prove.
Men of stronger faith have learned to answer even such questions as, “Is this thy son’s coat?” without rending their garments and refusing to be comforted. Richard Cameron’s head and hands were carried to his old father, Allen Cameron. “Do you know them?” asked the cruel men who wished to add grief to the father’s sorrow. And he took them on his knee, and bent over them, and kissed them, and said, “I know them! I know them! They are my son’s, my dear son’s.” And then, weeping and yet praising, he went on, “It is the Lord! Good is the will of the Lord, who cannot wrong me and mine, but has made goodness and mercy to follow us all our days.”2 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, ii. 94.]
(2) Mercy is closely allied to Goodness, and closely resembles her, as twin sisters frequently resemble each other, although she exercises her ministry chiefly under different circumstances, and in slightly different ways. She is less buoyant and radiant than the other, with more gravity and tenderness of manner. Her eye is tearful, as if she were ever ready to weep with those that weep, and her lips tremulous with pity. She has a noiseless step, and a soft, gentle touch, and a voice that falls like music on the dull ear of sorrow. With whispered consolation on her lips, and a cordial in her hands, her favourite haunts are chambers of sickness, or prison cells, or closets where souls groan in secret under heavy loads of sin and woe; and there, in her mild accents, she bids the guilty be of good cheer because their sins are forgiven, and with her strong though gentle hand lifts the burden from the heavy laden, and with her fragrant ointment tenderly heals the broken in heart and binds up their wounds. She is seen more frequently in the shade than in the sunshine, and exercises her ministry most when some darkly brooding sorrow hangs over the individual or the family or the nation’s heart. When Goodness puts on her veil, and works behind her disguise so that men know her not, then is Mercy often employed most actively in furthering her gracious designs. Her ministries are more specific than those of Goodness, and confined to a more limited sphere, a preparedness of heart being necessary to fit men for receiving them. But withal they are not less spontaneously, or freely, or cheerfully exercised.
The quality of mercy is not strain d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
Unpurchased, oftentimes unsolicited, Mercy pays her visits and impart her benefactions; and those who have profited most by her ministry are sometimes those who never thought of her till they found her by their side.1 [Note: W. Landels.]
I have a very great confidence indeed in the kindness of God towards us. I do believe if we shall find ourselves mistaken on either side in Eternity, it will be in finding God more merciful than we expected.2 [Note: Life of Charles Loring Brace, 83.]
Miss R. having told Dr. Duncan that a young man had said at a meeting that “there was not mercy in God from everlasting—there could not be mercy till there was misery,” he said, “God is unchangeable; mercy is an attribute of God. The man is confounding mercy with the exercise of mercy. There could not be the exercise of mercy till there was misery; but God was always a merciful God. You might as well say that there could not be justice in God till there were creatures towards whom to exercise punitive justice.”1 [Note: Memoir of John Duncan, LL.D., 422.]
Silent, alone! The river seeks the sea,
The dewdrop on the rose desires its sun!
Oh, prisoned Soul, shalt thou alone be free?
Shalt thou escape the curse of death and birth
And merge thy sorrows in oblivion?
Thou, thou alone of all the living earth?
Silent, alone! I know when next the dawn
Shall cast its vision through the desert sea
And find me not, the sword that I have drawn
Shall flash between the twilights, and a word
Shall praise what I was not but strove to be,
Saying: “Behold the mercy of the Lord.”2 [Note: George Cabot Lodge, Poems and Dramas, i. 55.]
3. “Goodness and mercy shall follow me.” It is a strong word that the Psalmist uses, the strong fierce word pursue—the very word used of the pursuit of the enemy in battle. It is as if God’s love were so eager to find the man that it was determined to run him down. Look! there they are, two blessed and gentle figures, Love and Pity, angels twain, on the heels of every man, running and resolved to find him. And when they find him, and bring him into the quiet tent, as the guest of God, is it any wonder that he longs to dwell there “throughout the length of days”?
He pursues us with the zeal of a foe, and the love of a Father; pursues us “throughout the length of days” with a Divine impatience that is never faint and never weary. He is not content to follow us; He pursues us, because He means to find us. Behind the loneliest man is a lovely apparition; nay, no apparition, but angels twain, Goodness and Mercy, shielding and urging him on. Will he not turn round and look at them? For not to smite, but to bless, are the hands uplifted behind him. Had the powers that pursue us not been Goodness and Mercy, they would have slain us long ago, as cumberers of the ground.1 [Note: J. E. McFadyen, The Divine Pursuit, 201.]
When night came the church was packed. “Now, beloved friends,” said the preacher, “if you will turn to the third chapter of John and the sixteenth verse, you will find my text.” He preached the most extraordinary sermon from that verse. He did not divide the text into “secondly” and “thirdly” and “fourthly”; he just took the whole verse, and then went through the Bible from Genesis to Kevelation to prove that in all ages God loved the world. I never knew up to that time that God loved us so much. This heart of mine began to thaw out; I could not keep back the tears. It was like news from a far country: I just drank it in. So did the crowded congregation. I tell you there is one thing that draws above everything else in this world, and that is love.2 [Note: The Life of Dwight L. Moody, 127.]
How many unsatisfied hearts there are, tired of their own tired question, “Who will show us any good?” Nor are they only the hearts which have tried the less pure springs of earthly happiness and rest. Not long ago there died a man eminent in scientific knowledge and achievement, who towards the close of his comparatively brief life was brought back from remote mental wanderings to God in Christ. I refer to the late Mr. George Romanes. He was a man of blameless morals, exemplary in every personal duty; and he seemed constrained, to his own infinite unhappiness, to disbelieve in God. He tried, in this sad condition, to make life satisfactory without Him. He gave himself up fully to his own refined and elevated line of thought and work. He was a diligent and masterly observer and enquirer amidst the mysteries of nature, and a kindly and unselfish man besides. But was he satisfied? Listen to his own avowal: “I felt as if I were trying to feed a starving man with light confectionery.” It would not do. Nothing would do but the living God. He sought, he felt, he knelt his way back to Him, and he was satisfied at last.3 [Note: Bishop H. C. G. Moule, All in Christ, 204.]
4. The idea of goodness and mercy following a man is exceedingly beautiful and suggestive. There is a phrase in the Bible, with which we are familiar, which speaks of the “preventing mercies” of God, this word “prevent” formerly meaning not to hinder, as it does now, but simply to go before—God’s mercies outrunning our necessities, going before them to anticipate and provide for them. It is in this sense that we usually think of the goodness and mercy of God, as going before us to prepare our way and provide for our wants. But in our deeper moods we feel that we need quite as much that goodness and mercy should follow us. Our greatest troubles are ever those which belong to our past, which come from the things that are behind us, which we are striving to forget. Our march through life is like the march of an army through a hostile region. While we are conquering and possessing the present, we are leaving unsubdued enemies, and unconquered fortresses, and old inveterate habits of sin behind us, that will assuredly rise up and trouble us again. Our past is not dead and buried; it is waiting for us in some future ambush of our life.
How precious in such an experience are the words of the text, assuring us that God is following us—not as the American Indian follows upon the trail of his enemy to slay him, not as the avenger of blood follows in his awful vendetta upon the track of the manslayer, but with goodness and mercy! He cries to us as we hasten away from Him in the sullenness and unbelief which sin produces—“I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” He can cast our sins behind His back; remove them as far as east is from the west. He can follow us as Jesus followed Peter when he cut off Malchus’s ear with the sword, to heal the wounds we have inflicted, to redress the wrongs we have committed, to neutralize the consequences of our folly, ignorance, or sin. He can gather up all our woeful past in His boundless mercy, and enable us as little children to enter His kingdom again. He can separate us from the debasing associations of our sin, give us a sense of recovered freedom and enlargement of heart, and enable us to begin anew, without the disabilities of former days clinging like fetters about our feet and impeding our steps.
The Psalmist does not ask that blessings shall continue to lead him, but that goodness and mercy shall follow him. They are not to be the guides of his life, but the consequences of his life. He is to go his way as well as he can, through the pastures and valleys of experience, and after him there are to follow more goodness and more mercy. Perhaps he is still thinking of the Oriental shepherd in whose name the Psalm began. “The Lord,” he has said, “is my shepherd”; and in the East the shepherd goes before, and the sheep hear his voice and follow him. Thus the man who has been blessed of God is to go steadily on, and behind him, like a flock of sheep, will follow the good thoughts and merciful deeds of a better world.
Such is the Psalmist’s picture of the blessed life. The man who thus goes his way up and down the hills of experience does not have to look behind him to watch for goodness and mercy; they know his voice and follow him. He meets his obstacles and reverses, and as he looks ahead, life may not appear good or merciful; but what he is concerned about is the consequence of his life, and he goes his way bravely to clear the path for goodness and mercy to follow. Says Whittier—
The blessings of his quiet life,
Fell round us like the dew,
And kind thoughts where his footsteps pressed
Like fairy blossoms grew.
It was a figure which Jesus Himself liked to use. He did not expect to get much mercy from the world: He prayed that after Him might follow a world of mercy. “For their sakes,” He said, “I sanctify myself; that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” Here is the self-respecting, rational end of any modern psalm of praise: “Thou hast led me through many blessings, among green pastures, and by still waters. I do not ask for more of this quiet peace. I ask for strength to go my way bravely along the path of duty, so that after me it shall be easier to do right and to be merciful, and goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”1 [Note: F. G. Peabody, Mornings in the College Chapel, ii. 36.]
I asked my God to go before
To light with signs the unknown shore
And lift the latch of every door;
He said, “I follow thee.”
I asked Him to prepare my way
By kindling each uncertain ray
And turning darkness into day;
He said, “I follow thee.”
He bade me linger not till light
Had touched with gold the morning height,
But to begin my course by night,
And day would follow me.
He told me when my hours were dark
To wait not the revealing spark,
But breast the flood in duty’s ark,
And peace should follow me.
Therefore, O Lord, at Thy command
I go to seek the unknown land,
Content, though barren be the sand,
If Thou shalt follow me.
I go by night, I go alone,
I sleep upon a couch of stone;
But nightly visions shall atone
If Thou shalt follow me.
I sow the seed in lowly ground,
I sow in faith and hear no sound;
Yet in full months it may be found
That Thou hast followed me.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Sacred Songs, 10.]
There is a mercy which goes before us, and there is a mercy which follows us. The one is the clearing of our own path; the other is the clearing of a path for our brother man. There is an expression, “May your path be strewn with flowers!” That may mean one or other of two things. It may be the wish that you may be called to tread a flowery way, or it may be the wish that when you tread the thorny way you may leave flowers where you have passed. The latter is the Psalmist’s aspiration, and it is the nobler aspiration. It is an aspiration which can come only from a “restored soul.” Any man can desire to be cradled in green pastures and led by quiet waters. But to desire that my life may make the pastures green, to desire that my life may make the waters quiet—that is a Divine prayer, a Christlike prayer. There is a prosperity for which every good man is bound to pray. It is finely expressed, I think, in a line of Tennyson’s “Maud”—
Her feet have touched the meadows, and have left the daisies rosy.
The daisies were not rosy in advance; they became rosy by the feet touching them. It was the footsteps themselves that exerted a transforming power; they created a flowery path for future travellers; goodness and mercy followed them.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Rests by the River, 50.]
5. The hope uttered here has no element of doubt mingling with it. This is indicated by the word “surely.” Here is not only hope, but the full assurance of it. When our hope rests on an earthly friend, it is necessarily more or less troubled, because our friend may change, his love may grow cold, his power may fail, he may forget us in his own distractions, he may die, or in some one of a thousand ways we may pass out of the sphere within which alone he can help us; but there is no such element of disturbance and unquietness in the hope we repose in God; it is, it has reason to be, assured hope. Instead of “surely,” some commentators make it “only”—“only goodness and mercy shall follow me”; just as in the 73rd Psalm they read, “God is good and only good—nothing but good—to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.” Nothing but goodness and mercy shall pursue me. What a contrast to the lot of the wicked man, pursued by the angel of judgment (Psalm 35:6), hunted by calamity (Psalm 140:11).
6. “All the days of my life.” A continuance of grace and strength is needed every hour till the close. Often is the saint surprised by severe trial even when nearing home, like a vessel which has safely weathered the storms of a voyage and seems past all danger, but is nevertheless wrecked almost in entering port. Above all such fear of failing at last the believer’s confidence triumphs in the assurance that He whom he has known and trusted will never leave his side.
Grace being an endowment above the strength of nature, what is it else, but young glory? For that the knowledge of the one will lead us by the hand unto the knowledge of the other: as glory is grace in the bloom and fullest vigour, so grace is glory in the bud and first spring-time; the one is holiness begun, the other holiness perfected; the one is the beholding of God darkly, as through a glass, the other, beholding Him face to face.2 [Note: Andrew Wellwood.]
“I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
1. Not only are Goodness and Mercy—these two white-robed messengers of God—to follow us instead of the avenger of blood, but we are to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. The manslayer who fled to one of the old cities of refuge in Palestine had not only the right of asylum there, safety from the vengeance of the friends of the murdered man, but also the right of citizenship. Though he did not by birth belong to the city to which he fled, and had no possession in it; though his crime had made him an outcast from his own city and inheritance, his very necessity constituted a title to be received as a citizen in the new dwelling-place. And by the merciful provision of the Mosaic law, his very misery and danger raised him from the condition of a stranger and a fugitive, to be an associate with the priests of God in their holiest services.
But great as were the privileges which he enjoyed in the city of refuge, they were only temporary. He was only to dwell there till his case should be investigated by the proper authorities, or at the utmost till the death of the man who happened to be high priest at the time. He must then, if pronounced guilty, be given up to the just doom connected with his crime, or, if found innocent, depart to his own home. But it is not so with the house of the Lord, to which the Psalmist refers. David knew that the sanctuary on Zion would be a secure place of refuge; and often did he long with an intense yearning for its privileges, and contrast the miserable spiritual privations of his exile in the wilderness with the means of grace which he used to enjoy. But even if he had been restored to the sanctuary, he could not have said of it, “This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it.”
At Cadiz, in Spain, above the entrance of the Casa di Misericordia, or House of Refuge, is carved the inscription in the words of the one hundred and thirty-second Psalm—“This is my rest: here will I dwell.” The ear misses the two familiar words of the Psalm “for ever.” A friend has told me that as he looked up one day at the inscription and noticed the omission, the Superior, who happened to be near, with a smile explained the reason. “This Casa,” he said, “is the rest of the poor—but not for ever.”1 [Note: H. Macmillan, The Mystery of Grace, 148.]
2. David must have looked beyond the earthly sanctuary to the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God; beyond the dark valley of the shadow of death to the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. There alone should he be everlastingly safe and blessed.
We also fled to this house of the Lord for safety in a time of sore distress; and we have found in it the true rest of life. We were driven by stress of trial and danger into it when all other refuge failed us, and we looked on our right hand and viewed, but there were none to know or help us; and now so blessed are we in it that we would not leave it if we could. No sin can accuse us there; no death can snatch us from its joy. Nothing can shake the security, nothing can mar the peace, of those who dwell thus in the house of the Lord. Goodness and mercy have wiped away all the evils of our life, and converted them into good. And “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
3. But the dwelling does not begin when the “days of our life” are ended; the two are simultaneous, and go on together. There is indeed no termination to the dwelling in God’s house, it reaches into eternity and never ceases; but it begins at present, and runs parallel with our enjoyment of God’s goodness and mercy. It is the “one thing” that David says elsewhere he desired of the Lord, and would seek after all the days of his life, and that inspired such Psalms as the Sixty-third and Eighty-fourth, which express so wonderfully the soul’s longing for conscious fellowship with God.
We see the faith and feeling of the man expand and enlarge, till they embrace the great and ultimate future of the life that is to be; and he says, I feel that I have been led onwards to that. These capacities and affections of mine, the stirring of a spiritual life within me, were never made to find their perfection here. I carry within myself, in my own religious consciousness, a prophecy, an earnest of something greater than the life which now is; and I believe that “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever,” and that the goodness and the mercy that have followed me hitherto, and which, I believe, will follow me still, shall effloresce and bear fruit in the upper world, in the blessedness which is prepared for the people of God. I believe it! I believe that I shall pass away from the rich satisfactions of the spiritual life here, which, however rich, are still mingled. I am still in the presence of my enemies; and though they do not hurt me or come near me, still they suggest feelings, thoughts, that partake of fear, and occasion a necessity for watchfulness, and for the exercise of duties from which I shall one day be delivered. I shall pass away from the feast here, rich as it is, to a richer and a better; for I shall “sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Or—to change the figure, and go back to the previous picture—I believe, reasoning from the past and the present to that which is to come, that I shall pass away from this lower scene, these verdant and pleasant pastures, only to find myself, in a higher world, one of that flock of which it is said—“For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other Hope in heaven or earth or sea,
None other Hiding-place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee.
My faith burns low, my hope burns low,
Only my heart’s desire cries out in me
By the deep thunder of its want and woe,
Cries out to Thee.
Lord, Thou art Life tho’ I be dead,
Love’s Fire Thou art however cold I be:
Nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head,
Nor home, but Thee.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]
4. “For ever”—literally, “throughout the length of days”: what a wonderful phrase! To one who knows God to be the Shepherd of his life, the valley of the deep shadow will only lead from the green pastures and the quiet waters of earth to the pastures more green and the waters more quiet of heaven. For this Jesus of ours has Himself been through the valley of the deepest shadow, and He came out on the other side, and said: “Peace be unto you!” Shall we not then take heart, as we yield ourselves to the guidance of our Shepherd, who is good and wise and strong, to whom belong the pastures on this side of death and the pastures on that? And so throughout the length of days we shall praise Him—all our days in the world that now is, and then in the world everlasting.
Jesus utilizes the great parable of the Family for the last time; and as He had invested Fatherhood and Sonhood with their highest meaning so He now spiritualizes Home. What Mary’s cottage at Bethany had been to the little company during the Holy Week, with its quiet rest after the daily turmoil of Jerusalem; what some humble house on the shore of Galilee was to St. John, with its associations of Salome; what the great Temple was to the pious Jews, with its Presence of the Eternal, that on the higher scale was Heaven. Jesus availed Himself of a wealth of tender recollections and placed Heaven in the heart of humanity when He said, “My Father’s House.”
Binney (T.), in The Pulpit, lxvii. 29.
Burns (J. D.), Memoir and Remains, 308.
Culross (J.), God’s Shepherd Care, 141.
Cunningham (W.), Sermons, 1.
Duff (R. S.), The Song of the Shepherd, 157.
Freeman (J. D.), Life on the Uplands, 113, 131.
Howard (H.), The Shepherd Psalms , 91, 98, 105.
Landels (W.), Until the Day Break, 33.
McFadyen (J. E.), The Divine Pursuit, 201.
Macmillan (H.), The Mystery of Grace, 135.
Matheson (G.), Rests by the River, 50.
Melvill (H.), Fifty Sermons, 31.
Munger (T. T.), The Appeal to Life, 67.
Newbolt (W. C. E.), Penitence and Peace, 142.
Pike (J. K.), Unfailing Goodness and Mercy, 1.
Price (A. C), Fifty Sermons, vii. 169.
Stalker (J.), The Psalm of Psalms , 107.
Tipple (S. A.), Sunday Mornings at Norwood, 233.
British Weekly Pulpit, i. 597 (Macmillan).
Christian World Pulpit, xx. 123 (Hammond).