The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
To the chief Musician upon Shoshannim, A Psalm of David. Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.Provocation and Imprecation
Nobody knows who wrote this poem. All the little headings and ascriptions are of purely human origin, and therefore no reliance is to be put upon them except they be corroborated by historical proofs. Otherwise we read at the head of this psalm, "A Psalm of David;" but who wrote that heading is probably as little known as who wrote the psalm itself. It does not apply to David, because there are some things here that never occurred in his lifetime; it does not apply to Christ wholly, because there are some things here which he never could have said, notably, "O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee." Who, then, wrote the psalm? I think we can tell. It has a large authorship. Everybody who has known anything of the deeper experiences of human life wrote this psalm. We wrote it, though it be thousands of years old, if we have passed through experiences such as it describes: and we have done so in some degree. Every soul that has seen life in anything like its proper scope and its true reality has been exactly where this man describes himself to have been. All his prayers, sufferings, aspirations, imprecations, are ours.
How often we think of water and billow and wave and sea when we are in trouble! Not, the wolves have pursued me; not, the lions have opened their mouths and roared upon me; though these figures are not wanting when we seek to describe some aspects of human experience: but, "the waters are come in unto my soul.... I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me." We never know what water is going to do. We know what the wolf is about: there is no pity in the wolfs eye; but "water"—is that water which is rolling in the leaf of the flower? is that water which is made into pearly dew? Yes, that is water. Is that water which is shaped into a rainbow, acted upon by the transfiguring sun? Yes, that is water. Is that water which is like a mirror in the valley, redoubling the sky and redoubling the hills, and taking the roughness out of the shaggy forest, and making it a thing of still rarer beauty? Yes, that is water. Can it ever be angry? What can be so angry as water? It sweeps away whole cities and towns as it roars and plunges in terrific floods down the narrow valleys. Is that the dew? Yes, in another form, that is the dew. Trouble may begin like dew, and then may trickle in upon us, and then may greatly increase its volume, it may become a river, a torrent, a cataract, and may go on even to become a great sea. Beware of beginnings. That which is very simple at first may become very awful at last. We talk of a "sea of trouble": the poet was right when he formed and expressed that daring and tumultuous image.
"I sink." What feeling is equal to that? The man cannot fight, for he has no standing-ground; he cannot run away, for the earth will not afford him a place to run upon: he goes down more and more; presently he will be engulfed. The man can do nothing. Here is an image of helplessness, of direst despair. So long as a man can run or walk or defend himself in any degree, his dejection is saved from despair; but the process of sinking—that is a doctor's word. The doctor says, "The patient is sinking." We know the meaning of that expression; there is no longer any sphere of combat or collision or defence; the motion is downward.
In all this trouble we come upon the puzzle of all ages:—"They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head: they that would destroy me, being mine enemies wrongfully, are mighty." If that were a whole view we might well close the book of revelation and say we must look otherwhere for interpretation and for comfort. Yet when men are sinking they cannot be philosophers; expressions are driven out of them which will not bear to be analysed and balanced and estimated by cold and sober reason. It is well to have momentary expressions; it is instructive sometimes to have our sentences cut off in the middle. When our eloquence is guillotined we are often surprised at our own insanity. Imagination gives up life's battle too soon: piercing, burning agony is not a calm, tranquil reasoner, saying, I will follow out this analysis, and see to what rich conclusion it leads. When the soul is aflame, as it were with the fire of hell, it will commit itself to bold and broad and indefensible statement. In that condition we over-estimate the might of the enemy; we think the clouds are armies, we suppose all the firm trees on the hillside to be moving down upon us in great hosts; whereas, when we recover ourselves, and stand at the centre of things, and look round about us with the eyes of true piety, we see that the flowers were not against us, that the forests were no foes of ours, and that we multiplied the strength of the enemy because our imagination was inspired by fear. In our sober moments, when we can pray with our whole heart, and hold God in intercourse with our whole voice, we know perfectly well that there are no enemies any man can have that are worthy of a moment's attention. No man can harm you; the devil cannot stain your character: it is for the man himself to say what shall be the issue of trial, discipline, collision, combat. God has given each man the power, not the right, of suicide.
A wondrous conflict is proceeding in the mind of this poet. He says, "Let not them that wait on thee, O Lord God of hosts, be ashamed for my sake: let not those that seek thee be confounded for my sake, O God of Israel." This is what we call in common society esprit de corps,—the spirit of the body, the spirit of the club, the spirit of the brotherhood or the church. This poet is afraid that if he misbehaves himself people will exalt themselves against God, and say with mocking laughter, These are thy saints! Even whilst he is sinking he would wish to do it with some grace. Extinction itself may be crowned with a species of honour. Death need not be humiliation. There are men who have so died as to have lived a thousand lives in their last combat. Have we lost esprit de corps? Do you not remember that we are involved in the way in which you bear your troubles? If you do not play the man now the enemy will laugh at the whole Church; he will gladly take you up as a specimen of God's sustaining grace, and say, This is the man who prayed: how chopfallen now! see how that once proud chin hangs on the collapsing breast: this is prayer! If I do not bear myself heroically in the storm, the enemy will have a right to laugh at this pulpit, and to put his foot of contempt upon this whole ministry. If I play the atheist in the darkness, then may men justly mock what I endeavour to say in the light. The mockery will be directed against God, not against men. Moses felt this; he said, If they go back, they will say thou thyself wert not able to take us forward; and if saints do not play the hero in the time of real combat and desperate difficulty, when everything is going down, when business is dull, when enemies are strong, when health is quaking, people will blame not them only but God, and say, This is the doing of the Lord; why, what advantage is it that we pray to him? or what profit have we in waiting upon God? the saint and the dog die in the same agony. Thus we recover ourselves, under the blessing of God, by thinking of others. Fathers should remember this. What will your sons say if they see you playing the coward? Why, it will be more than human on their part to play anything else themselves. The whole family will go up or go down in your temper: you give the keynote, you conduct the song; it is for you to say whether the music shall rise into rapture, and crown itself with triumph, or whether it shall dwindle and die and be forgotten, gladly forgotten, for it was the groan of a defeated soul. All men who lead society to any considerable extent ought to remember the action of this. For they cannot fall or fail alone. They themselves will be blamed, and their principles will be mocked, and their memory will be a trust which no man will undertake, for who would lock up a shame in his strong-box and say, Lo, I am the trustee of this cowardice?
The poet says, "The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me." He knew what he had been doing; he had taken his own temperature every day, he watched the thermometer of his soul; he had become so zealous about God that the reproaches of those who reproached God fell upon him. We might read the text with proper syntax reversely, and say, "And the reproaches of them that are fallen upon me are also fallen upon thee, O God." It is well to remember that God and his people go together. You cannot reproach a good man without reproaching God; you cannot reproach Providence without reproaching the whole Church. There are circumstances under which God will not be separated from his people. They that receive you receive me, and they that receive me, said Christ, receive him that sent me. Not only is the Church to be one, the Church is to be one in God; God and the Church are to be one, and indivisible.
A very fine feature in this poet's character comes out in the tenth and eleventh verses. He made some endeavour to conciliate men; he thought he would handle society with tact: instead of being a saint, he would be a manager; instead of being a suppliant always, he would undertake the work of manipulation. Let us see what it all came to. When a man leaves his prayer that he may begin to manage society—a trick I counsel you never to learn—it comes to this: "When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach;" they mocked me, they heard my prayers and turned them back upon me; when I cried my very eyes out because of the bitterness of my soul they mimicked my weeping, they became my echoes; "I made sackcloth also my garment; and I became a proverb to them;" they made a maxim of me, a joke, a sneer; they quoted me in their songs, and those that were most ribald were most free in their iniquitous and humiliating criticisms upon me. Never attempt to coax society; have nothing to do with mean compromises. If there is any mystery in your life, face it, wait its solution, accept it as a chastisement or an opportunity for self-refinement; but never endeavour to conciliate society by making light of any of the mysteries of God. And never show your deepest agonies to those who cannot understand them. You have no right to cry in public; you are forbidden to show your sores to those who will only mock God because of the harrowing sight; seek the prophet, cultivate fellowship with kindred spirits who know the tragedy and pain of life, and who have large experience, and who can, out of the consolations with which they themselves have been comforted, encourage and sustain your soul. As for the enemy, and the drunkards who make songs out of human misery, you do not belong to that masonry; renounce it, and never give the enemy an opportunity to mock your sorrow.
Still the poet says he will be firm; come what may he will be found at the right place:—"But as for me, my prayer is unto thee, O Lord, in an acceptable time: O God, in the multitude of thy mercy hear me, in the truth of thy salvation." Here is what may be termed proved constancy. Here is something that cannot be trifled with, or cannot be moved about by sleight of hand; here is a faith that lies beyond the line of surprise. It cannot be amazed into unbelief. There is a growing faith, struggling and feeble more or less, that sometimes is almost half-infidel; it requires time, richer experience, large opportunity for development, and then at the last it becomes stalwart, herculean, massive, immovable. We want faith that has been tested; we want men who have come up through all the cloud of doubt and by the grace of God have been enabled to lift up their heads into the cloudless sunshine. There is a way, so we have heard, of evading all doubt, and sorrow of soul, and difficulty, and getting into heaven by some unnamed road. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that statement. There are those who have never had doubt or fear or difficulty; they have always sung the same song, and the same words, in the same key, and never have been devoid of real spiritual cheerfulness; they have come into the world, and have passed through it, and have gone up into heaven singing all the time. I will not undertake to endorse that view of the case. They have made no mark in history, they have left behind them nothing that fear-stricken spirits can take hold of, saying, This is human consolation, sent for my nourishment and edification. The faith that would rule the world now is a faith that has come up through all the infidelities, and stands immeasurably above them all. We do not want some secretly gained faith that has never tested the weather; we want a faith that has encountered the enemy all the way and smitten him, and has come up to the top by the grace and goodness of God, and therefore will pray wherever the floods are, and will find a kneeling-place even in the mire. Be afraid of those persons who have never gone out into difficult circumstances, who have never encountered the enemy, who have never seen the wilderness of temptation, and who have never read anything calculated to shape their faith: have confidence in the men who have seen it all, who have spent forty days and forty nights with the devil, who have seen infidelity, unbelief, atheism, in all their varieties, postures, and possibilities, and have left them below. These are the men whose record will be living annotations upon the living gospel.
Even now the poet begins to hope. He says,—"Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters. Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me": say, Thus far shalt thou come, no farther; define the limit of trial, remember my frame, reflect that I am but dust, and have pity upon me, O God of my salvation. Whilst there is life there is hope; man's extremity is God's opportunity. The man is in the mire, and he is sinking, yet he says, Lord, so long as my mouth is above the mire there is time for thee to come and save; a moment more and all will be over, but it is into a moment thou canst condense thine own eternity. "Let not the pit shut her mouth upon me." In Eastern lands the pits were covered with stones; the stone was put there to protect the water from defilement, and to prevent travellers from plunging into unseen depths; so this man says, I am in the well, but do not let the stone be put upon the top of it, let not the pit shut its mouth upon me. The placing of the stone on the well was called shutting its mouth. So even at that last point, when the men were lifting the stone and going to put it upon the top of the well, even then, said the poet, God can come to me, and even yet can mightily deliver me.
Then comes a change of spiritual key in the twenty-second verse. There was provocation enough; the man had a good cause from a merely human standpoint; when they gave him gall for his meat, and when in his thirst they gave him vinegar to drink, he might well be excused, humanly speaking, from desiring that what they had done to him might be done to themselves. We do not know what is in our hearts until we are tried; you do not know that your best friend is a Christian until you have seen him under insult; you know nothing about any man until you have seen him opposed. Many a man there is with a nice reputation and a sleek name, and a person who is spoken of as being extremely amiable, whom you have never seen under difficulty. Let some one oppose him, disappoint him, insult him, then you will know what he is. There are saints today who if their self-love were wounded would prove themselves to be the veriest atheists upon earth. Yet they have prayed an hour in the morning, and are ready to pray another hour in the evening. What covers them is a film of piety; that film is spread over a whole body of devilry. You know what you are when you find yourselves in an unlawful passion. This man prays that God will deal very heavily and hardly with enemies. The man probably did not know what he was talking about. We do not understand the force of our own words. There are circumstances under which a man is not to be held responsible for his own statements, though the man be perfectly sane, because he does not know the atmosphere in which he is speaking, the circumstances under which he is delivering himself; he does not know the balance and force of the words he is using. In order to know what he is saying he must consult the persons who hear him. We speak of the phonograph, and think it a very wonderful instrument; so it is; there is one peculiarity about it which men of science have pointed out, namely, that the only men who do not recognise the voice are the men to whom the voice belongs. When the phonograph speaks, all a man's friends say, "That is your voice, how distinct, how wonderful, how vivid! do you not hear it?" And the man says, "That is not my voice." The only man who does not recognise the tone of the phonograph is the man whose voice it is repeating. So infidels do not recognise their own arguments. When they see men devastated by them, when they see young men rise from their knees, and say then they will pray no longer, the infidel wants to avoid all responsibility, and says, "I never said that, I never meant that." Why science is against him, the phonograph is against him; he thinks he never said it, but he said every word of it, only he did not understand what he was saying; the words meant one thing to him, and another to the person who heard them. But we shall be judged by our deeds, our effects, and not always by our purposes. Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. Say to certain persons that their words have been grievous, sharp, unkind, and they will deny that they ever uttered the words, just as the man denied that the voice emitted by the phonograph was his; but fate will avenge the injury, science will come and be a witness against the foolish person, and every man will have to give account of himself to God for the things done in the body, whether they be good, or whether they be evil. Do not bind a man, therefore, to his imprecations. He does not wholly mean that these things should be deluged or destroyed, or pursued by evil spirits, or stung by hornets; he did not mean all that: only at the time these great expressions seemed best to set forth the tumult of his agitation. Men who are in Christ never utter imprecatory prayers, they never write imprecatory psalms; when they dip their pen for the purpose of writing such poetry, a voice arrests them, saying, "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves; for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." Do not undertake to punish your enemies. Have nothing to do with dealing out penalties to men who have wronged you. God's mills grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small, and there is no coward or sneak or base man or sharp-eyed, clever-fingered thief who has done you wrong that shall not, if he do not repent, be ground to powder.
Almighty God, thou who art merciful and gracious, full of compassion and long-suffering and tenderness, thou art kind to the unthankful and to the evil! We come to thee with our offering of praise, inasmuch as thou hast crowned our life with loving-kindness and tender mercy and made it beautiful with continual love. We praise thee; we magnify thee; we offer thee the whole strength of our heart. We come to thee as those who have been mocked by the promises of the world, and who long to find satisfaction in thine infinite and unspeakable peace. We have been disappointed. The staff has been broken in our hand and pierced us. We have hewn unto ourselves cisterns; they are broken cisterns, which can hold no water. Foiled, smitten, wounded, humiliated and disgraced, we come into thy presence, knowing that in God as revealed in the person and doctrine of Jesus Christ, and made known unto us by the ministry of the Holy Ghost, we can find rest which our souls could not find elsewhere. All our springs are in thee. Thou givest us what we need. They who are in thy presence, who live in thy light, and thy love, hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither are subjected to weariness or decay. We would live in God. We would have our being in the Eternal. We would know nothing among men but Jesus and him crucified; and by the mystery of pain and the mystery of love, symbolised by Christ's Cross, we would endure the trials of the world, and discharge the whole service of life. Meet us as sinners, and pardon us! The blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin. May we know its cleansing, healing power! We have done the things we ought not to have done; we have withheld the testimony which it became us to deliver; we have often been timid and unfaithful; we have hesitated when we ought to have gone forward; our word has been untrue; our spirit has been worldly; our very prayers have been selfish. All this we say when we truly know ourselves, and we are revealed to ourselves by the indwelling, all-disclosing Spirit. God be merciful to us sinners, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Amen.