MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm for the sons of Korah. How amiable are thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts!
Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.Psalms
SPARROWS AND ALTARS
The well-known saying of the saintly Rutherford, when he was silenced and exiled from his parish, echoes and expounds these words. ‘When I think,’ said he, ‘upon the sparrows and swallows that build their nests in the kirk of Anwoth, and of my dumb Sabbaths, my sorrowful, bleared eyes look asquint upon Christ, and present Him as angry.’ So sighed the Presbyterian minister in his compelled idleness in a prosaic seventeenth-century Scotch town, answering his heart’s-brother away back in the far-off time, and in such different circumstances. The Psalmist was probably a member of the Levitical family of the Sons of Korah, who were ‘doorkeepers in the house of the Lord.’ He knew what he was saying when he preferred his humble office to all honours among the godless. He was shut out by some unknown circumstances from external participation in the Temple rites, and longs to be even as one of the swallows or sparrows that twitter and flit round the sacred courts. No doubt to him faith was much more inseparably attached to form than it should be for us. No doubt place and ritual were more to him than they can permissibly be to those who have heard and understood the great charter of spiritual worship spoken first to an outcast Samaritan of questionable character: ‘Neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem shall men worship the Father.’ But equally it is true that what he wanted was what the outward worship brought him, rather than the worship itself. And the psalm, which begins with ‘longing’ and ‘fainting’ for the courts of the Lord, and pronouncing benedictions on ‘those that dwell in Thy house,’ works itself clear, if I might so say, and ends with ‘O Lord of Hosts! Blessed is the man that trusteth in Thee’-for he shall ‘dwell in Thy house,’ wherever he is. So this flight of imagination in the words of my text may suggest to us two or three lessons.
I. I take it first as pointing a bitter and significant contrast.
‘The sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself,’ while I! We do not know what the Psalmist’s circumstances were, but if we accept the conjecture that he may have accompanied David in his flight during Absalom’s rebellion, we may fancy him as wandering on the uplands across Jordan, and sharing the agitations, fears, and sorrows of those dark hours, and in the midst of all, as the little company hurried hither and thither for safety, thinking, with a touch of bitter envy, of the calm restfulness and serene services of the peaceful Temple.
But, pathetic as is the complaint, when regarded as the sigh of a minister of the sanctuary exiled from the shrine which was as his home, and from the worship which was his occupation and delight, it sounds a deeper note and one which awakens echoes in our hearts, when we hear in it, as we may, the complaint of humanity contrasting its unrest with the happier lot of lower creatures. Do you remember who it was that said-and on what occasion He said it-’Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have roosting-places, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head’? That saying, like our text, has a narrower and a wider application. In the former it pathetically paints the homeless Christ, a wanderer in a land peculiarly ‘His own,’ and warns His enthusiastic would-be follower of the lot which he was so light-heartedly undertaking to share. But when Jesus calls Himself ‘Son of Man,’ He claims to be the realised ideal of humanity, and when, as in that saying, He contrasts the condition of ‘the Son of Man’ with that of the animal creation, we can scarcely avoid giving to the words their wider application to the same contrast between man’s homelessness and the creatures’ repose which we have found in the Psalmist’s sigh.
Yes! There is only one being in this world that does not fit the world that he is in, and that is man, chief and foremost of all. Other beings perfectly correspond to what we now call their ‘environment.’ Just as the soft mollusc fits every convolution of its shell, and the hard shell fits every curve of the soft mollusc, so every living thing corresponds to its place and its place to it, and with them all things go smoothly. But man, the crown of creation, is an exception to this else universal complete adaptation. ‘The earth, O Lord! is full of Thy mercy,’ but the only creature who sees and says that is the only one who has further to say, ‘I am a stranger on the earth.’ He and he alone is stung with restlessness and conscious of longings and needs which find no satisfaction here. That sense of homelessness may be an agony or a joy, a curse or a blessing, according to our interpretation of its meaning, and our way of stilling it. It is not a sign of inferiority, but of a higher destiny, that we alone should bear in our spirits the ‘blank misgivings’ of those who, amid unsatisfying surroundings, have blind feelings after ‘worlds not realised,’ which elude our grasp. It is no advantage over us that every fly dancing in the treacherous gleams of an April sun, and every other creature on the earth except ourselves, on whom the crown is set, is perfectly proportioned to its place, and has desire and possessions absolutely conterminous.
‘The son of man hath not where to lay his head.’ Why must he alone wander homeless on the bleak moorland, whilst the sparrows and the swallows have their nests and their houses? Why? Because they are sparrows and swallows, and he is man, and ‘better than many sparrows.’ So let us lay to heart the sure promises, the blessed hopes, the stimulating exhortations, which come from that which, at first sight, seems to be a mystery and half an arraignment of the divine wisdom, in the contrast between the restlessness of humanity and the reposeful contentment of those whom we call the lower creatures. Be true to the unrest, brother! and do not mistake its meaning, nor seek to still it, until it drives you to God.
II. These words bring to us a plea which we may use, and a pledge on which we may rest.
‘Thine altars, O Lord of hosts! my King and my God.’ The Psalmist pleads with God, and lays hold for his own confidence upon the fact that creatures which do not understand what the altar means, may build beside it, and those which have no notion of who the God is to whom the house is sacred, are yet cared for by Him. And he thinks to himself, ‘If I can say “My King and my God,” surely He that takes care of them will not leave me uncared for.’ The unrest of the soul that is capable of appropriating God is an unrest which has in it, if we understand it aright, the assurance that it shall be stilled and satisfied. He that is capable of entering into the close personal relationship with God which is expressed by that eloquent little pronoun and its reduplication with the two words, ‘King’ and ‘God’-such a creature cannot cry for rest in vain, nor in vain grope, as a homeless wanderer, for the door of the Father’s house.
‘Doth God care for oxen; or saith He it altogether for our sakes?’ ‘Consider the fowls of the air; your heavenly Father feedeth them.’ And the same argument which the Apostle used in the one of these sayings, and our Lord in the other, is valid and full of encouragement when applied to this matter. He that ‘satisfies the desires of every living thing,’ and fills full the maw of the lowest creature; and puts the worms into the gaping beak of the young ravens when they cry, is not the King to turn a deaf ear, or the back of His hand, to the man who can appeal to Him with this word on his lips, ‘My King and my God!’ We grasp God when we say that; and all that we see of provident recognition and supply of wants in dealings with these lower creatures should encourage us to cherish calm unshakable confidence that every true desire of our souls after Him is as certain to be satisfied.
And so the glancing swallows around the eaves of the Temple and the twittering sparrows on its pinnacles may proclaim to us, not only a contrast which is bitter, but a confidence which is sweet. We may be sure that we shall not be left uncared for amongst the many pensioners at His table, and that the deeper our wants the surer we are of their supply. Our bodies may hunger in vain-bodily hunger has no tendency to bring meat; but our spirits cannot hunger in vain if they hunger after God; for that hunger is the sure precursor and infallible prophet of the coming satisfaction.
These words not only may hearten us with confidence that our desires will be satisfied if they are set upon Him, but they point us to the one way by which they are so. Say ‘My King and my God!’ in the deepest recesses of a spirit conscious of His presence, of a will submitting to His authority, of emptiness expectant of His fulness; say that, and you are in the house of the Lord. For it is not a question of place, it is a question of disposition and desire. This Psalmist, though, when he began his song, he was far away from the Temple, and though he finished it sitting on the same hillside on which he began it, when he had ended it was within the curtains of the sanctuary and wrapt about with the presence of his God. He had regained as he sang what for a moment he had lost the consciousness of when he began-viz. the presence of God with him on the lone, dreary expanse of alien soil as truly as amidst the sanctities of what was called His House.
So, brethren! if we want rest, let us clasp God as ours; if we desire a home warm, safe, sheltered from every wind that blows, and inaccessible to enemies, let us, like the swallows, nestle under the eaves of the Temple. Let us take God for our Hope. They that hold communion with Him-and we can all do that wherever we are and whatever we may be doing-these, and only these, ‘dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of their lives.’ Therefore, with deepest simplicity of expression, our psalm goes on to describe, as equally recipients of blessedness, ‘those that dwell in the house of the Lord,’ and those in ‘whose heart are the ways’ that lead to it, and to explain at last, as I have already pointed out, that both the dwellers in, and the pilgrims towards, that intimacy of abiding with God are included in the benediction showered on those who cling to Him, ‘Blessed is the man that trusteth in Thee!’
III. Lastly, we may take this picture of the Psalmist’s as a warning.
Sparrows and swallows have very small brains. They build their nests, and they do not know whose altars they are flitting around. They pursue the insects on the wing, and they twitter their little songs; and they do not understand how all their busy, glancing, brief, trivial life is being lived beneath the shadow of the cherubim, and all but in the presence of the veiled God of the Shekinah.
There are too many people who live like that. We are all tempted to build our nests where we may lay our young, or dispose of ourselves or our treasures in the very sanctuary of God, with blind, crass indifference to the Presence in which we move. The Father’s house has many mansions, and wherever we go we are in God’s Temple. Alas! some of us have no more sense of the sanctities around us, and no more consciousness of the divine Eye that looks down upon us, than if we were so many feathered sparrows flitting about the altar.
Let us take care, brethren! that we give our hearts to be influenced, and awed, and ennobled, and tranquillised by the sense of ever more being in the house of the Lord. Let us see to it that we keep in that house by continual aspiration, cherishing in our hearts the ways that lead to it; and so making all life worship, and every place what the pilgrim found the stone of Bethel to be, a house of God and a gate of heaven. For everywhere, to the eye that sees the things that are, and not only the things that seem-and to the heart that feels the unseen presence of the One Reality, God Himself-all places are temples, and all work may be beholding His beauty and inquiring in His sanctuary; and everywhere, though our heads rest upon a stone, and there be night and solitude around us, and doubt and darkness in front of us, and danger and terror behind us, and weakness within us, as was the case with Jacob, there will be the ladder with its foot at our side and its top in the heavens; and above the top of it His face, which when we see it look down upon us, makes all places and circumstances good and sweet.
Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them.Psalms
Psalm 84:5 - Psalm 84:7.
Rightly rendered, the first words of these verses are not a calm, prosaic statement, but an emotional exclamation. The Psalmist’s tone would be more truly represented if we read, ‘How blessed is the man,’ or ‘Oh, the blessednesses!’ for that is the literal rendering of the Hebrew words, ‘of the man whose strength is Thee.’
There are three such exclamations in this psalm, the consideration of which leads us far into the understanding of its deepest meaning. The first of them is this, ‘How blessed are they that dwell in Thy house!’ Of course the direct allusion is to actual presence in the actual Temple at Jerusalem. But these old psalmists, though they attached more importance to external forms than we do, were not so bound by them, even at their stage of development of the religious life, as that they conceived that no communion with God was possible apart from the form, or that the form itself was communion with God. We can see gleaming through all their words, though only gleaming through them, the same truth which Jesus Christ couched in the immortal phrase-the charter of the Church’s emancipation from all externalisms-’neither in this mountain, nor yet in Jerusalem, shall men worship the Father.’ To ‘dwell in the house of the Lord’ is not only to be present in bodily form in the Temple-the Psalmist did not think that it was only that-but to possess communion with Him, of which the external presence is but the symbol, the shadow, and the means.
But there is another blessing. To be there is blessing, to wish to be there is no less so.-’Blessed are the men in whose heart are the ways.’ The joyous company that went up from every corner of the land to the feasts in Jerusalem made the paths ring with their songs as they travelled, and as the prophet says about another matter, ‘they went up to Zion with songs and joy upon their heads,’ and so the search after is only a shade less blessed-if it be even that-than the possession of communion with God.
But there is a third blessedness in our psalm. ‘Oh! the blessedness of the man that trusteth in Thee.’ That includes and explains both the others. It confirms what I have said, that we do great injustice to the beauty and the spirituality of the Old Testament religion, if we conceive of it as slavishly tied to external forms. And it suggests the thought that in trust there lie both the previous elements, for he that trusts possesses, and he that trustingly possesses is thereby impelled as trustingly to seek for, larger gifts.
So, then, I turn to this outline sketch of the happy pilgrims on the road, and desire to gather from it, as simply as may be, the stimulating thoughts which it suggests to us.
I. Let me ask you, then, following the words which I have read to you, to look with me, first at the blessedness of the pilgrims’ spirit.
‘Blessed are the men in whose heart are the ways.’ A singular expression, and yet a very eloquent and significant one! ‘The ways’ are, of course, the various roads which, from every corner of the land, lead to the Temple, and the thought suggested is that the men whom the Psalmist pronounces blessed, and in whose blessednesses his longing heart desires to share, are the men who are restless till they are on the path, whose eyes are ever travelling to the goal, who have a ‘divine discontent’ with distance from God, and who know the impulse and the sting that sends them ever travelling on the path that leads to Him.
On any lower level it is perfectly true that the very salt of life is aspiration after an unattained ideal; that there is nothing that so keeps a man young, strong, buoyant, and fits him for nobilities of action, as that there shall be gleaming for ever before him in the beckoning distance a horizon that moves ever as he moves. When we cease to be the slaves of unattained ideals in any department, it is time for us to die; indeed, we are dead already. There are men in every civilised country, with the gipsy strain in their blood, who never can be at rest until they are in motion, to whom a settled abode is irksome, and to whom the notion of blessedness is that they shall be out in the free plains. ‘Amplius,’ the dying Xavier’s word, ‘further afield,’ is the motto of all noble life-scientist, scholar, artist, man of letters, man of affairs; all come under the same law, that unless there is something before them which has dominated their hearts, and draws their whole being towards it, their lives want salt, want nobility, want freshness, and a green scum comes over the pool. We all know that. To live is to aspire; to cease to aspire is to die.
Well then, looking all round our horizon there stands out one path for aspiration which is clearly blessed to tread-one path, and one path alone. For, oh brethren! there are needs in all our hearts, deep longings, terrible wounds, dreary solitudes, which can only be appeased and healed and companioned when we are pressing nearer and nearer God, that infinite and divine Source of all blessedness, of all peace and good. To possess God is life; to feel after God is life, too. For that aim is sure, as we shall see, to be satisfied. That aim gives, and it is the only one which does give, adequate occupation for every power of a man’s soul; that aim brings, simultaneously with its being entertained, its being satisfied; for, as I have already said, in the one act of faith there lie both these elements of blessedness-the possession of, and the seeking after, God. The religious life is distinguished from all others in two respects; one is the contemporaneousness and co-existence of desire and fruition, and the other is the impossibility that fruition shall ever be so complete and perfect as that desire shall die. And because thus all my nature may reach out its yearnings to Him, and in reaching out may find that after which it feels, and yet, finding it, must feel after it all the more; therefore, high above all other delights of search, high above all other blessednesses of pilgrimage, high above all the buoyancy and concentration of aim and contempt of hindrances which pour into a soul, before which the unattained ideal burns beckoning and inviting, there stands the blessedness of the man ‘in whose heart are the ways’ which lead to God in Zion.
II. And now notice the blessedness of the pilgrims’ experience.
If you use the Revised Version you will see the changes upon the Authorised which it makes, following the stream of modern critics and commentators, and which may thus be reproduced: ‘Passing through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs, the rain also covereth it with blessings.’ No doubt the poet is referring here to the actual facts of the pilgrimage to Zion, No doubt, on some one of the roads, there lay a gloomy gorge, the name of which was the Valley of Weeping; either because it dimly commemorated some half-forgotten tragedy long ago, or, more probably, because it was arid and frowning and full of difficulty for the travellers on the march. The Psalmist uses that name with a lofty imaginative freedom, which itself confirms the view that I have taken, that there is something deeper in the psalm than the mere external circumstances of the pilgrimages to the Holy City. For, he says, ‘passing through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs.’ They, as it were, pour their tears into the wells, and they become sources of refreshment and fertility.
But there are other kinds of moisture than tears and fountains. And so he goes on: ‘the rain also’ from above ‘covereth it with blessings’; the blessings being, I suppose, the waving crops which the poet’s imagination conceives of as springing up all over the else arid ground. Irrigated thus by the pilgrims’ labour, and rained upon thus by God’s gift from heaven, ‘the wilderness rejoices and blossoms as the rose.’
Now, translate that-it scarcely needs translation, I suppose, to anybody who will read the psalm with the least touch of a poetic imagination-translate that, and it just comes to this. If we have in our hearts, as our chief aim, the desire to get closer to God, then our sorrows and our tears will become sources of refreshment and fertility. Ah! how different all our troubles, large and little, look when we take as our great aim in life what is God’s great purpose in giving us life-viz. that we should be moulded into His likeness and enriched by the possession of Himself. That takes the sting out of sorrow, and although it leaves us in no morbid condition of insensibility, it yet makes it possible for us to gather our tears into reservoirs which shall be to us the sources of many a blessing, and many a thankfulness. He puts them into His bottle; we have to put them into our wells. And be sure of this, that if we understood better the meaning of life, that it was all intended to be our road to God, and if we judged of things more from that point of view, we should less frequently be brought to stand by what we call the mysteries of Providence and more able to wring out of them all the rich honey which is stored in them all for us. Not the least of the blessednesses of the pilgrim heart is its power of transmitting the pilgrim’s tears into the pilgrim’s wells. Brothers! do you bring such thoughts to bear on the disappointments, anxieties, sorrows, losses that befall you, be they great or small? If you do, you will have learned, better than I can say it, how strangely grief changes its aspect when it is looked upon as the helper and servant to our progress towards God.
But that is not all. If, with the pilgrims’ hearts, we rightly use our sorrows, we shall not be left to find refreshment and fertilising power only in ourselves, but the benediction of the rain from heaven will come down, and the great Spirit of God will fall upon our hearts, not in a flood that drowns, but broken up into a beneficent mist that falls quietly upon us, and brings with itself the assurance of fertility. And so the secret of turning the desert into abundance, and tears into blessings, lies in having the pilgrim’s heart.
III. Notice the blessedness of the pilgrims’ advance.
‘They go from strength to strength.’ I do not know whether the Psalmist means to use that word ‘strength’ in the significance which it also has in old English, of a fortified place, so that the metaphor would be that from one camp of security, one fortress to another, they journey safe always, because of their protection; or whether he means to use it rather in its plain and simple sense, according to which the significance would be that these happy pilgrims do not get worn out on the journey, as is the wont of men that set out, for instance, from some far corner of India to Mecca, and come in battered and travel-stained, and half dead with their privations, but that the further they go the stronger they become; and on the road gain more vigour than they could ever have gained by ease and indulgence in their homes. But, whichever of these two meanings we may be disposed to adopt, the great thought that comes out of both of them is identical-viz. that this is one of the distinguishing joys of a Christian career of pressing forward to closer communion and conformity with our Lord and Master, in whom God is manifested-viz. that we grow day by day in strength, and that effort does not weaken, but invigorates.
And now I have to put a very plain question. Is that growing strength anything like the general characteristic of us professing Christians? I wonder how many people there are listening to me now that have been members of Christian churches for half a century almost, but are not a bit better than they were away back in the years that they have almost forgotten? I wonder in how many of our cases there has been an arrested development, like that which you will sometimes see in deformed people, the lower limbs all but atrophied? I wonder how many of us are babes of forty years old, and from how many of our minds the very conception of continual growth, as an essential of Christian life, has altogether vanished? Brother! are you any further than you were ten years ago?
I remember once, long ago, when I was on board a sailing ship, that we had baffling winds as we tried to run up the coast; and morning after morning for a week we used to come up on deck, and there were the same windmill, and the same church-tower that we had seen last night, and the night before and the night before that. That is the sort of voyage that a great many of you Christian people are making. There may be motion; there is no progress. Round and round and round you go. That is not the way to get to Zion. ‘They go from strength to strength,’ and unless you are doing that, you know little about the blessedness of the pilgrim heart.
IV. Lastly, note the blessedness of the pilgrims’ arrival.
‘Every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.’ Then there is one road on which whosoever travels is sure to reach his goal. On all others caravans get lost, overwhelmed in a sandstorm, or slain by robbers; and the bleached bones of men and camels lie there on the sand for centuries. This caravan always arrives. For no man ever wanted God who did not possess Him, and the measure of our desire is the prophecy of our possession. Surely it is worth while, even from the point of view of self-interest, to forsake all these lower aims in which success is absolutely problematical, or, while pursuing them as far as duty and necessity require, in and through them, as well as above and beyond them, to press towards the one aim in which failure is impossible. You cannot say about say other course-’Blessed is the man that enters on it, for he is sure to reach what he desires.’ Other goals are elusive; the golden circlet may never drop upon your locks. But there is one path on which all that you seek you shall have, and you are on it if ‘in your hearts are the ways.’
I need not say a word about the ultimate fulfilment of this great promise of our text; how that there is not only in our psalm, gleaming through it, a reference to the communion of earth rather than to the external Presence in the sanctuary, but there is also hinted, though less consciously, to the Psalmist himself, yet necessarily from the nature of the case the perfecting of that earthly communion in the higher house of the Lord in the heavenly Zion. Are all these desires, these longings, these efforts after God which make the nobleness and the blessedness of a life on earth, and which are always satisfied, and yet never satiated, to be crushed into nothingness by the accident of bodily dissolution? Then, then, the darkest of all clouds is drawn over the face of God, and we are brought into a state of absolute intellectual bewilderment as to what life, futile and frail, has been for at all. No, brother! God never gives mouths but He sends meat to fill them; and He has not suffered His children to long after Him, to press after Him, only in order that the partial fulfilment of their desires and yearnings which is possible upon earth should be all their experience.
‘He thinks he was not made to die,
And Thou hast made him; Thou art just.’
Be sure that ‘every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.’
So, brethren! let us take the pilgrim scrip and staff; and be sure of this, that the old blessed word will be fulfilled, that we shall not be lost in the wilderness, where there is no way, nor grope and search after elusive and fleeting good; but that ‘the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.’
O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.Psalms
In my last sermon from the central portion of this psalm I pointed out that the Psalmist thrice celebrates the blessedness of certain types of character, and that these threefold benedictions constitute, as it were, the keynotes of the portions of the psalm in which they respectively occur. They are these: ‘Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house’; ‘Blessed is the man in whose heart are the ways’; and this final one, ‘Blessed is the man that trusteth in Thee.’
Now, this last benediction includes, as I then remarked, both of the others; both the blessedness belonging to dwelling in, and that realised by journeying towards, the House of the Lord. For trust is both fruition and longing; both aspiration and possession. But it not only includes the other two: it explains and surpasses them. For they bear, deeply stamped upon them, the impression of the imperfect stage of revelation to which the psalm belongs, and are tied to form in a manner which we ought not to be. But here the Psalmist gets behind all the externals of ceremonial worship, and goes straight to the heart of spiritual religion when, for dwelling in, and journeying towards, any house of the Lord, he substitutes that plain expression, ‘the man that trusteth in Thee.’
Now, the other two benedictions of which I have spoken do respectively form the centre of the first and second portions of this psalm; in each case the remainder of the section being an explanation of that central utterance. And here the case is the same; for the verses which precede this final exclamation are various phases of the experience of a man who trusts in God, and are the ground upon which his faith is pronounced ‘blessed.’
So I desire now to view these three preceding verses together, as being illustrations of the various blessednesses of the life of trust in God. They are not exhaustive. There are other tints and flashes of glory sleeping in the jewel which need the rays of light to impinge upon it at other angles, in order to wake them into scintillation and lustre. But there is enough in the context to warrant the Psalmist’s outburst into this final rapturous exclamation, and ought to be enough to make us seek to possess that life as our own.
I. First, then, note here how the heart of religion always has been, and is, trust in God.
This Psalmist, nourished amidst the externalisms of an elaborate ceremonial, and compelled, by the stage of revelation at which he stood, to localise worship in an external Temple, in a fashion that we need not do, had yet attained to the conviction that, in the desert or in the Temple, God was near; that no weary pilgrimage was needed to reach His house, but that with one movement of a trusting heart the man clasped God wherever he was. And that is the living centre of all religion. I do not mean merely that our way to be sure of God is not through the understanding only, but through the outgoing of confidence in Him-but I mean that the kernel of a devout life is trust in God. The bond that underlies all the blessedness of human society, the thing that makes the sweetness of the sweetest ties that can knit men together, the secret of all the happy loves of husband and wife, friend and friend, parent and child, is simple confidence. And the more utter the confidence the more tranquilly blessed is the union and the life that flow from it. Transfer this, then-which is the bond of perfectness between man and man-to our relation to God, and you get to the very heart of the mystery. Not by externalisms of any kind, not by the clear dry light of the understanding, but by the outgoing of the heart’s confidence to God, do we come within the clasp of His arms and become recipients of His grace. Trust knits to the unseen, and trust alone.
That has always been the way. This Psalmist is no exception to the devout souls of his time. For though, as I have said, externalisms and ritualisms filled a place then, that it is an anachronism and a retrogression that they should be supposed to fill now, still beneath all these there lay this one ancient, permanent relation, the relation of trust. From the day in which the ‘father of the faithful’ as he is significantly called Abraham, ‘believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness,’ down all through the ages of that ancient Church, every man who laid a real hold upon God clasped Him by the outstretched hand of faith. So the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews was fully warranted in claiming all these ancient heroes, sages, and saints, as having lived by faith, and as being the foremost files in the same army in which the Christians of his day marched. The prophets who cried, ‘Trust ye in the Lord for ever, for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength,’ were saying the very same thing as the Apostles who preached ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’ The contents of the faith were expanded; the faith itself was identical. Like some of those old Roman roads, where to-day the wains of commerce and the chariots of ease and the toiling pedestrians pass over the lava blocks that have been worn by the tramp of legions and rutted by the wheels of their chariots, the way to God that we travel is the way on which all the saints from the beginning of time have passed in their pilgrimage. Trust is, always has been, always will be, the bond that knits men with God.
And trust is blessed, because the very attitude of confident dependence takes the strain off a man. To feel that I am leaning hard upon a firm prop, to devolve responsibility, to put the reins into another’s hand, to give the helm into another steersman’s grasp, whilst I may lie down and rest, that is blessedness, though there be a storm. In the story of frontier warfare we read how, day by day, the battalion that had been in the post of danger, and therefore of honour, was withdrawn into the centre; and another one was placed in the position that it had occupied. So, when we trust we put Him in the front, and we march more quietly, more blessedly, when we are in the centre, and He has to bear the brunt of the assailing foe.
Christian people! have you got as far past the outsides of religion as this Psalmist had? Do you recognise as clearly as he did that all this outward worship, and a great deal of our theology, is but the scaffolding; and that the real building lies inside of that; and that it is of value only as being a means to an end? Church membership is all very well; coming to church and chapel is all right; the outsides of worship will be necessary as long as our souls have outsides-their bodies. But you do not get into the house of the Lord unless you go in through ‘the door of faith,’ which is opened to us all. The heart of the religious life, which makes it blessed, is trust in God.
II. And now, secondly, a life of faith is a blessed life, because it talks with God.
I have already said that my text is expanded in the preceding verses. And I now turn to them to catch the various flashes of the diversely coloured blessedness of this life. The first of them is that which I have just mentioned. The Psalmist has described for us the happy pilgrims passing from strength to strength, and in imagination has landed them in the Temple. And then he goes on to tell us what they did and found there.
The first thing that they did was to speak to Him who was in the Temple. ‘Behold! O God our Shield! and look upon the face of Thine anointed.’ They had, as he has just said, ‘Every one of them appeared before God in Zion.’ As they looked up to Him they asked Him to look down upon them. ‘Behold! O God our Shield!’ ‘Shield’ here is the designation of God Himself, and is an exclamation addressed to Him-’Thou who art our God and Shield, look down upon us!’ And then comes a singular clause, about which much might be said if time permitted: ‘Look upon the face of Thine anointed.’ The use of that word ‘anointed’ seems to suggest that the psalm is either the outpouring of a king, or that it is spoken by some one in the train of a king, who feels that the favour bestowed upon the king will be participated in by his followers. But whilst that, if it be the explanation, might carry with it a hint as to the great truth of the mediation of Jesus Christ, our true King, I pass that by altogether, and fix upon the thought that here one element of the blessedness of the life of faith lies in the desire that God should look upon us. For that look means love, and that look secures protection and wise distribution of gifts. And it is life to have His eye fixed upon me, and to be conscious that He is looking at me. Dear brethren! if we want a lustre to be diffused through all our days, depend upon it, the surest and the only way to secure it is that that Face shall be felt to be turned toward us, ‘as the sun shineth in his strength’; and then all the landscape will rejoice, and the birds will sing and the waters will flash. ‘Look upon me, and let me sun myself beneath Thine eye’-to have that desire is blessed; and to feel that the desire is accomplished is more blessed still.
Dear friends! it seems to me that the ordinary Christian life of this day is terribly wanting in this experience of frank, free talk with God, and that that is one reason why so many of us professing Christians know so little of the blessedness of the man that trusts in God. You have religion enough to keep you from doing certain gross acts of sin; you have religion enough to make you uncomfortable in neglected duty. You have religion enough to impel you to certain acts that you suppose to be obligatory upon you. But do you know anything about the elasticity and spring of spirit in getting near God, and pouring out all your hearts to Him? The life of faith is not blessed unless it is a life of frank speaking with God.
III. The life of faith is blessed, because it has fixed its desires on the true good.
The Psalmist goes on-’A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand; I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.’ ‘A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand.’ We all know how strangely elastic time is, and have sometimes been amazed when we remembered what an infinity of joy or sorrow we had lived through in one tick of the pendulum. When men are dreaming, they pass through a long series of events in a moment’s space. When we are truly awake, we live long in a short time, for life is measured, not by the length of its moments, but by the depth of its experiences. And when some new truth is flashed upon us, or some new emotion has shaken us as with an earthquake, or when some new blessing has burst into our lives, then we know how ‘one day’ with men may be as it is with God, in a deeper sense, ‘as a thousand years,’ so great is the change that it works upon us. There is nothing that will so fill life to the utmost bounds of its elastic capacity as strong trust in Him. There is nothing that will make our lives so blessed. This Psalmist, speaking with the voice of all them that trust in the Lord, here declares his clear consciousness that the true good for the human soul is fellowship with God.
But the clearest knowledge of that fact is not enough to bring the blessedness. There must be the next step-’I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness’-the definite resolve that I, for my part, will act according to my conviction, and believing that the best thing in life is to have God in life, and that that will make life, as it were, an eternity of blessedness even while it is made up of fleeting days, will put my foot down and make my choice, and having made it, will stick to it. It is all very well to say that ‘A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand’: have I chosen to dwell in the courts; and do I, not only in estimate but in feeling and practice, set communion with God high above everything besides?
This psalm, according to the superscription attached to it, is one ‘for the sons of Korah.’ These sons of Korah were a branch of the Levitical priesthood, to whose charge was committed the keeping of the gates of the Temple, and hence this phrase is especially appropriate on their lips. But passing that, let me just ask you to lay to heart, dear friends! this one plain thought, that the effect of a real life of faith will be to make us perfectly sure that the true good is in God, and fixedly determined to pursue that. And you have no right to claim the name of a believing Christian, unless your faith has purged your eyes, so that you can see the hollowness of all besides, and has stiffened your will so that you can determine that, for your part, ‘the Lord is the Strength of your heart, and your Portion for ever.’ The secret of blessedness lies here. ‘Seek ye the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.’
IV. Lastly, a life of faith is a life of blessedness, because it draws from God all necessary good.
I must not dwell, as I had hoped to do, upon the last words preceding my text, ‘The Lord God is a Sun and Shield’-brightness and defence-’the Lord will give grace and glory’: ‘grace,’ the loving gifts which will make a man gracious and graceful; ‘glory,’ not any future lustre of the transfigured soul and glorified body, but the glory which belongs to the life of faith here on earth. Link that thought with the preceding one. ‘The Lord is a Sun . . . the Lord will give glory’; like a little bit of broken glass lying in the furrows of a ploughed field, when the sun smites down upon it, it flashes, outshining many a diamond. If a man is walking upon a road with the sun behind him, his face is dark. He wheels himself round, and it is suffused with light, as Moses’ face shone. ‘We all, with unveiled faces beholding, are changed from glory to glory.’ If we walk in the sunshine we shall shine too. If we ‘walk in the light’ we shall be ‘light in the Lord.’
‘No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly.’ Trust is inward, and the outside of trust is an upright walk; and if a man has these two, which, inasmuch as one is the root and the other is the fruit, are but one in reality, nothing that is good will be withheld from Him. For how can the sun but pour its rays upon everything that lives? ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.’ So the life is blessed that talks with God; that has fixed its desires on Him as its Supreme Good; that is irradiated by His light, glorified by the reflection of His brightness, and ministered to with all necessary appliances by His loving self-communication.
We come back to the old word, dear friends! ‘Trust in the Lord, and do good, and verily thou shalt be fed.’ We come back to the old message that nothing knits a man to God but faith with its child, righteousness. If trusting we love, and loving we obey, then in converse with Him, in fixed desires after Him, in daily and hourly reception from Him of Himself and His gifts, the life of earth will be full of a blessedness more real, more deep, more satisfying, more permanent, than can be found anywhere besides.
Who was it that said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man cometh to the Father but by Me’? Tread that path, and you will come into the house of the Lord, and will dwell there all the days of your life. ‘Believe in God, believe also in Me.’