The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
To the chief Musician upon Muthlabben, A Psalm of David. I will praise thee, O LORD, with my whole heart; I will shew forth all thy marvellous works.Psalms 9
[Note.—In the Septuagint and the Vulgate, Psalms 9 and Psalms 10 are combined into one. It is supposed that Psalms 33 had apparently by mistake been joined to Psalms 32 before the collection was made, but Psalms 9 and Psalms 10. had not then been separated. From a literary point of view the psalm was originally alphabetical, partaking of the nature of an acrostic. The title is "Muth-Labben," the most perplexing of all titles. No conjecture of the meaning of the Hebrew as it stands has been deemed satisfactory. The alphabetical arrangement is begun in its completest form; every clause of the first stanza begins with Aleph.]
David's Conception of God
The Psalms must be something more than merely personal in their utterance and in their meaning. Many of them must be regarded as moral, and therefore general, rather than personal, and therefore limited. We propose to treat this psalm according to that idea, and. mark how noble it becomes, and how entirely and loftily it expresses the thought and feeling of all ages. Regard the author of this psalm, not so much as one person, as an incarnation of the Spirit of Righteousness—then the psalm becomes ineffable in its comforting thought. Imagine the Spirit of Righteousness misunderstood, ill-treated, yet patient, long-suffering, waiting for the final evolution of God's purpose; and then gladdening, singing, rejoicing, magnifying God's providence in a loud song, and calling upon the nations to witness how wondrous is the working of the divine thought in all human ages.
Has not Righteousness often been in great danger? This would seem to be impossible. How can that which is right ever be in peril? The answer is in facts, not in reasoning. Right has never been out of danger, virtue has never had a secure dwelling-place upon this earth,—that is, a dwelling-place removed from the possibility of violation or unholy trespass. One would say that men would know music when they hear it, and would respond to its tender appeals and sacred persuasion; but that imagining is false,—that is to say, it is contradicted by facts innumerable and stubborn. Men have been deaf even to music; men have become as adders for deafness even when sweet gospels have been preached by lips anointed from heaven. It is no marvel, then, that Righteousness should be in trouble, in perplexity, suffering loss, mourning under many a painful stroke, baffled by many a providence which seems to reflect upon itself. Such is the history of the world:—Righteousness in trouble, in danger, embarrassed, perplexed, disheartened.
But Righteousness is not a limited force, something measurable in itself and calculable as to its immediate effects. Anything of that quality or degree which appears to be righteousness is but a speculation, an attempt, an attitude. The true righteousness is associated with the infinite power of God. When Righteousness is in trouble, God himself may be said, by an allowable accommodation of language, to be in distress: it is not a little human cause that is embarrassed, or that has lost its way in some maze of difficulty; it is the living God who is opposed, defied, contemned. But does it lie within the scope of the finite to mock and defy the Infinite? The question is of great importance in speculation, but how can the question be put by any one who has studied his own nature and is familiar with all the marvels of his own moral constitution? This little life is a continual battle with the Eternal; this part-life wishes to become the Whole-Life, and is prepared to eat of any tree the fruit of which will make it as God. On the other hand, how comforting is the thought, how infinite in its support, that whenever right is opposed it is God who is defied! Whenever goodness is affronted it is the Spirit of goodness that is insulted: the offence does not lie as between man and man, and as between one human thought and another human thought; where goodness is hindered, perverted, or injured, the blow of injury is dealt, as it were, upon the very face of God.
What does the outworking of this truth come to? It comes to this effect: that Righteousness rejoices not in merely personal victories but in the triumph of truth. The first part of the fourth verse seems to be merely personal, but the second clause of the verse is universal. Read: "For thou hast maintained my right and my cause;" there we may put so much emphasis upon the personal pronoun as to make this a merely individual instance, as if God had specialised one man as against many men, without inquiring into the merits of the case. The second clause reads:—"Thou satest in the throne judging right." That is the universal tone. Not—God sitting in the throne selecting favourites, distributing prizes and rewards according to some arbitrary law; but God sitting in the throne judging right, whoever was upon one side or the other of the controversy. The whole encounter is delivered from the narrow limitation of personal misunderstanding and individual combat, and is made one of rectitude, and God is indicated as taking part with the right. This is comfort; this, in fact, is the only true and lasting solace. If there were anything narrow, in the merely personal sense, in the government and providence of God, we should be thrown into unrest and faithlessness, or the most humiliating fear; but make the providence of God turn upon right, and then every man who does right, or who wishes to be right and to do right, may lift up his eyes to heaven and say: My help cometh from the everlasting hills; I will bear all difficulties bravely, with a really manful and sweet patience, because in the end right will be vindicated and crowned. Right is not with any one set of persons; right is not a possession guaranteed to any one kind of office in the Church; it is a universal term; it rises like a universal altar, within whose shadow poor men and needy men, as well as rich and mighty men, may be gathered in the security of prayer and in the gladness of assured hope.
Look at the revelation of God which this psalm discloses. Let us ask the question, What was the Old Testament view of God? This psalm may be taken as supplying a pertinent and noble reply. Not only is there a human condition outlined here—a condition of great distress, humiliation, and fear—but in the nighttime of the soul's woe the Psalmist vindicates the altar at which he worships, by a delineation of God, grand in conception and sublime in language.
In what God is the Psalmist trusting? In a God associated with marvels, wonders, surprises of power and of love: "I will show forth all thy marvellous works" (Psalm 9:1). The universe did not appear to be little to the Psalmist. There is nothing contemptuous in the tone of this man as he reviews the course of providence and marks the ordinances of nature. His reverence is touched, his veneration exalts him in worship. No man who retains his reverence in all its integrity and nobleness ever really goes down in moral power: his religion is his force. The moment he takes an unworthy view of God every pulse dies out of him; there is no more pith left in the muscle: but veneration sustains the noblest strength. This is the kind of sentiment which is full of nourishing ministry and influence. God is marvellous in works; therefore he must be marvellous in personality: about him there is nothing little in the sense of the mean, contemptible, or the worthless: everywhere, in blade of grass, in bird's wing, in great stars and planets, there is wonder, there is wonder upon wonder, a continuity of marvellousness, a very infinity of wisdom and power. Let a man seize that idea and walk in the light of that thought, and even in the nighttime he will have songs, and in the hour of affliction he will have comfort, and when the fig-tree does not blossom he will have a store of fruit laid up which no hand can take away.
Then the Psalmist's conception of God brings with it an inspiring and subduing awe. By what name is the Lord called in this psalm? In the second verse he is described as "thou Most High." Language can go no higher. It formulates its little superlative, and then falls back like a weary bird that can fly no higher in the direction of God's majesty. The sense of height ennobles men: hence it does the soul good to look steadily up into the firmament—the arch immeasurable, the sphere boundless, in which the very idea of height becomes itself a kind of natural religion. Both ideas are correct—namely, the idea that brings God down into the region of human language, wherein we find endearing words; hence he is Father, Shepherd, Friend, Companion: and the other idea, which appears to be in direct contrast, is equally right—the idea which represents him as the "Most High," the Eternal, the Unknowable, the infinitely glorious Lord God,—the idea that baffles language, that pours contempt on noblest poetry, and enthrones itself on the right hand of the Majesty on high. These ideas ought never to be vitally dissociated. We must not live too much on the side of God's revelation which is narrowed by images and names of a merely human, social, and pastoral kind; nor must we live too exclusively on the side of God's nature which is represented by exalted terms, lofty and unutterable language, expressive of attributes incomprehensible. We must unite the two sides: now we must be reverently familiar with God, coming nigh unto him and speaking with him as friend to friend; and yet all the while we must be stirred by the feeling that this is a privilege accorded to us: a miracle of love, that we should, so to say, touch the Infinite and yet live, speak to God and yet be but men. But this experience is not to be defined in words; the heart must grow up into this joyous consciousness. There is no irreverence in the familiarity which calls God Father; and there is no servility in the homage which prostrates itself before him, unable to look at the lustre of his majesty.
The Psalmist's God was everlasting:—"The Lord shall endure for ever" (Psalm 9:7). We cannot do without that element of duration. Somehow it appeals to us with a force unique. Anything that can wither, die, or undergo vital change brings with it more or less of suspicion when it offers us solace and inspiration and strength in all the course of our life; the soul says, This may be a broken reed, this may not be the same to-morrow it is today; who can tell what transitions this offered love may pass through: what security is there as to its duration? The Bible supplies the element of everlastingness. The Bible, indeed, makes a good deal of that argument:—"Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever;" "I am the Lord, I change not." Heavens change, great firmaments may be rolled together like a scroll; but God is the same: his years fail not. When faithful men die, and virtuous causes are troubled, we will look unto the years of the Most High. Into this thought, too, we must grow. As age comes on we feel the value of durability, continuity, or everlastingness,—the quantity that never changes, the abiding force: and to have the idea that that abiding force is associated with right, and always with right, is the supreme comfort of religious faith or sanctified hope.
But here we could not stop. This would be like living amidst rocks of incalculable height, but so stern and inhospitable as to weary us by the very monotony of their greatness. Such scenes must be visited but occasionally; it is well to know that they are accessible; but taking the year all round, with its varieties of experience and service, we need something other and quite different. This other element is supplied by this very psalm. The flowers are none the less lovely because of the mountains. Read the ninth verse in explanation of the thought:—
"The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble." (Psalm 9:9)
Now the psalm becomes most human, now the charioteer alights, and we are able to join the king and speak a common tongue. It is not given to every man to enter into great moods of exultation, or to follow the language of majestic poetry; it is not every wing that can keep company with the flying few; but every now and then the great Bible poets come down to the earth to gather us all up into a holy brotherhood, to speak some word that children can understand, that mothers can apply, that patient heroes can comprehend and utilise. The ninth verse will live and be quoted when many a grander utterance will be but distantly and solemnly referred to. We might write these words, and keep them as a physician in the sick-room,—a silent, compassionate, divine physician. These words could be carried to the bed of sickness:—"The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in limes of trouble." That motto will bear carrying away in our hearts whenever we have a worthy battle to fight; that motto will bear to be quoted and relied upon in times of great distress and desolation and loss. How wonderfully tender is the Old Testament! Who can gather together all the loving words in the first Testament? We are ready to quote the pensively tender and compassionate words of the New Testament: we think of Jesus and his being a revelation of the Father: there we are perfectly right; but we must not forget that the Old Testament had its tender side. What wondrous words of love have been breathed heavenward by the oldest saints! "Love" is not exclusively a New Testament word. When a man stood up to tempt Christ and ask the first commandment of the law, or what he was to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked him to quote the Old Testament, and in quoting the Old Testament the man was obliged to say—"Thou shalt love." And again the second commandment is like the first:—"Thou shalt love." Now, whatever these terms of sentiment may be, here is the grand historical fact, that the Old Testament men in all trouble, difficulty, perplexity, and sorrow represented God as tender, approachable, long-suffering, marked by loving-kindness and tender mercy.
"For the needy shall not alway be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever" (Psalm 9:18).
There is a great space created in the Old Testament for the poor man. The list of guests at God's table is never completed until the needy man has a line, as it were, all to himself. The Old Testament, not less than the New, is the friend of the virtuous poor, is the refuge and defence of souls whose main purpose is right, though outward circumstances may seem to indicate divine displeasure. Observe, this is not mere poverty. A man is not honoured simply because he has no money, or simply because he lives in needy circumstances; the need of his circumstances must express the poverty of his spirit. Indeed, the Revised Version reads—"The expectation of the meek shall not perish for ever." So we are not dealing with a name which refers to merely outward circumstances, but with a name which relates to a condition of soul, an attitude of spirit towards God; this will destroy a great many sophisms, and cut up by the roots a great many gourds to which men have been vainly trusting. No man is lost because he is rich, or saved because he is poor; poverty and wealth must have their counterparts in the soul as to its self-renunciation and its richness of faith and love.
Then, again, the colour changes. Wondrous in colour is this holy psalm: God so great, yet God so accessible; the heathen so mighty, yet the heathen so frail—one day lifting up their heads in pride and tyranny, another day sunk down in the pit that they made, and their feet taken in the net which they hid; now the needy are praying, and now the wicked are cursed; but "the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God" (Psalm 9:17). Read: The wicked shall be returned, or turned back to Sheol, or to punishment, or to condemnation. Read the text as if that were the right place for wickedness, the very native place of all evil. Make of this place what we may, put the thought into what variety of language may be possible, here remains the fact that wickedness is always disapproved, condemned, punished. Why, then, trouble ourselves about mere words, about the new setting of terms, or the re-colouring of language? We never can change the thought that God is against wickedness, that as to iniquity God is a consuming fire; he is never complacent with any badness, with any form of falsehood. That fact cannot be changed. If that fact could be changed, the throne of God itself would be overturned. Whilst we may be discussing the doctrine of hell, whilst we may be changing the word "hell" for terms which hardly smite us with so pitiless a severity, we must never forget that the end of wickedness is perdition; the wages of sin is death; iniquity cannot prosper; though hand join in hand, yet iniquity shall be brought to ruin. Why, then, imagine that we find comfort in the softening of mere terms, when a voice within us says: It is right that evil should be punished, that wickedness should be condemned? What we have to do is to attend to the substantial fact. We cannot escape by etymology, or by grammatical construction, or by any critical legerdemain. Written upon the face of the universe is this tremendous fact, that no man can sin against God and live, no man can be wicked and yet be justified in his wickedness; no excuse can stand as against the accusation of God.
Here, then, is a psalm which is not at all limited by mere personality, which sets forth a series of circumstances possible in every age, and which presents a delineation of God which may be retained amid all the ages as literally true, beautifully expressive, tenderly answering to every word and line of the portraiture drawn by Jesus Christ himself. The psalm is poetry. That is true; but poetry is the highest doctrine, the highest form of reality. Poetry is fact on fire. We must be poetical in the sense of wishing for terms larger than any we know, words more elastic than any we can command, to express our Christian consciousness of God's greatness, nearness, tenderness. What is God to us? Is he associated with marvels? does his name inspire awe? is he everlasting, tender, open to pathetic appeals? does he distinguish between the righteous and the wicked? Then, indeed, have we the right conception of the Most High. But let this never be forgotten concerning God: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." How he can do this we can never understand. How sin can be forgiven transcends the imagination of man to conceive or explain. Forgiveness comes to us by revelation. We cannot forgive. We cannot even forgive one another, except in some intermediate and convenient sense, not in the metaphysical, spiritual, and eternal sense; simply because any offence that we may have to forgive is either so trivial as to be but a social annoyance, or so large that it transcends the personality of the parties and touches eternal laws. How God can forgive is not a problem in philosophy; the mere metaphysician can never solve that mystery, the heart conscious of sin must receive it, act upon it, adopt it, live and die in the faith of it. When the soul does this, seeing Christ as the medium of forgiveness and the cause of pardon, opening up moral possibilities which the imagination had never discovered, then is the Cross ineffably precious, then is that saying true: "The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth from all sin." Do not ask any man to explain the words; they must be lived; they are bread eaten in secret, and they express themselves in hope, confidence, joy, and service, rather than in mere terms, which can balance controversies, or settle or silence the debates of men.