Surely every man goes about like a phantom; surely he bustles in vain; he heaps up riches not knowing who will haul them away.
Psalm 39, 62, and 77, was one of a musical family entrusted with the conduct of the musical service in the time of David. The psalms having his name at the head were probably intended to be sung by his choir. It would thus seem that in the Hebrew service of sacred song the prayers and plaints of the individual believer were included, when set to music. If so, the "service of song in the house of the Lord" covered a much wider ground than is usually supposed, and was made to include not only direct address to God, whether of prayer or praise, but also the rehearsal of personal experience; and thus a holy fellowship of song would arise, anticipating long ages before, the expression of the apostle, "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;" only it should be noted that these would be musical utterances of an actual experience going on then and there. It does not follow that the like utterances would be suitable for the service of song now. Discretion and discrimination are needed in the use thereof. This is evidently an individual psalm; it is neither national, prophetic, nor Messianic; it is one of those which reflect the care and anxiety with which David was bowed down at one crisis of his life, though to which of his numerous crises it refers it is not easy to decide, Nor, indeed, is that of moment. It will profit us more to note the course taken by the psalmist at a time of crushing sorrow, and then to see how far the course which he took may be a guide for us under like circumstances.
I. LET US NOTE THE COURSE ADOPTED BY THE PSALMIST AT A TIME OF CRUSHING SORROW. There is a somewhat wide divergence among expositors in their estimate of this psalm, and of the mental revelations therein contained. But we feel bound to look at the psalmist's words tenderly rather than harshly, knowing as we do, how often, in agonies of soul, the best men may utter words which would not escape them in their calmer hours (cf. Psalm 116:11).
1. Here is a case of sore affliction. "Thy stroke" (ver. 10); "the blow of thine hand" (ver. 10). Whatever the sorrow may have been to which reference is made, it is regarded as coming directly from God. "Thou didst it" (ver. 9). It was so heavy that David was "consumed" thereby (ver. 10). And it was looked on by him as a chastisement for his transgressions (cf. vers. 8, 11).
2. It is, under such circumstances, very hard to be absolutely still. So the first verse implies. There is little indication that the disturbing trouble arose (as some suggest) from seeing the prosperity of the wicked; but evidently there is some distinctively personal trouble, probably sickness and weakness, which, with all the public demands made upon him, weighs heavily upon his soul, and he is tempted to complain and to seek sympathy from without. But:
3. He is in the midst of uncongenial souls. (Ver. 1.) "The wicked is before me." Note: Earthly men are poor companions in the distresses of spiritual men. To the natural man the sorrows of a spiritual man would be altogether unintelligible. And supposing that the troubles here referred to arose about the time of and in connection with Absalom's rebellion, the majority of those round about David would be men whose thoughts and aims moved entirely in the military or political sphere. Hence:
4. Here is a wise resolve. (Vers. 1, 2.) He will say nothing. There would be many reasons for this.
(1) No one would enter into his feelings.
(2) What he said would be misunderstood.
(3) He would consequently be misrepresented.
(4) The more he said, the worse matters would be. And
(5) if he told men what he thought and felt, he would be very likely to say something which he would afterwards regret. That I sin not with my tongue. Hence silence is his wisest course.
5. But suppressed grief consumes like a fire. (Ver. 3.) There is nothing which so wears out the soul, nor which so burns within, as woe to which no vent can be given; so David found it, and consequently:
6. The silence is broken. "Then spake I with my tongue." But, in breaking the silence, he speaks not to man, but to God. After the word "tongue," the Authorized Version has a comma, but the Revised Version a colon, indicating that what he said is about to follow. What an infinite mercy that when we cannot say a word to man, through fear of being misunderstood, we can speak to God, and tell him exactly what we feel, as we feel it, knowing that then we touch a heart infinitely tender, and address an intelligence infinitely wise!
7. In speaking to God he moans and groans. (Vers. 4-6.) Does David speak petulantly? Is he asking God to let him know how long he has to endure all this? Is he adducing the frailty and nothingness of man as an argument against his being allowed to suffer thus? So many think, and some, as Calvin, are very hard on David - very. But why? There is a vast difference between the fretfulness of an overburdened man and the waywardness of a rebellious man. And he who knows our frame, takes the difference into account. When Elijah pettishly said, "Now, O Lord, take away my life I" God did not rebuke him; he sent an angel to him, and said, "Arise and eat; the journey is too great for thee."
8. He declares that his expectation of relief is in God alone. (Ver. 7.) Just so. These are not the words of a rebellious, but of a trusting one. And from that point of view the whole psalm must be regarded (cf. Psalm 62.).
9. He will not utter a word of complaint. (Ver. 9.) Render, "I am dumb; I open not my mouth, because thou hast done it" ('Variorum Bible'). "Thyself hast done it." On this fact faith fastens; and when this is the case, not a word of murmuring will escape the lips. The cry of a trusting soul is, "Here am I; let him do with me as seemeth him good" (2 Samuel 15:26).
10. Yet he supplicates. (Vers. 8, 10, 13.) First, he desires deliverance from sin, then a mitigation of the suffering; such is the order, and the order which only a saint would name. The last verse is, in our versions, obscure. The word "spare ' should not be read in the sense intended when we say, "If I am spared," etc., but in the sense of "O spare me this sorrow!" It is a repetition of ver. 10, "Remove this stroke away from me." It asks not for prolongation of life, but for mitigation of pain. The Revised Version margin gives a more correct translation of the phrase, "that I may recover strength;" rather, "that I may brighten up." No conclusion can be drawn from the end of the thirteenth verse, as to the psalmist's view of another life. The Prayer-book Version, "and be no more seen," gives the sense.
11. The supplication is accompanied by a tender plea. (Ver. 12.) "I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were." Archbishop Leighton beautifully expresses the force of this plea, "In this world, wherein thou hast appointed me to sojourn a few days, and I betake myself to thy protection in this strange country. I seek shelter under the shadow of thy wings, therefore have compassion upon me."
II. HOW FAR IS THE COURSE TAKEN BY DAVID, IN HIS AFFLICTION, A GUIDE FOR US?
1. In some respects we may well imitate him. In restraining our words before man, and in telling all our cares and woes to God exactly as we feel them, and in such a way as will best relieve an overburdened heart.
2. In other respects we should go far beyond him. Believers ought not to confine themselves now within the limits of such a prayer as this; they should always transcend it. We know more of God's Fatherly love; we know of our great High Priest; we know the fellowship of the Spirit; we know of "the unsearchable riches of Christ;" and hence our prayers should rise above those of David as much as the prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21 is above the level of this psalm. Note: The best preventive of sins of the tongue is the fuller and more frequent outpouring of the heart to God. - C.
I. DAVID RECORDS HIS VIEW OF HUMAN LIFE.
Surely every man walketh in a vain show.
I. THE THOUGHT OF LIFE COMMON TO BOTH VERSES OF THE TEXT. "Every man walketh in a vain show," and "in an image" or "shadow" — he walks as a shadow. That is to say, the whole outward life and activity of every man is represented as fleeting and unsubstantial, like the reflection of a cloud which darkens leagues of the mountain's side in a moment, and "ere a man can say, behold," is gone again for ever. Then look at the other image employed in the other clause of our text, to express the same idea, "I am a stranger and a sojourner as all my fathers." The phrase has a history. In that most pathetic narrative of an old-world sorrow long since calmed and consoled, when "Abraham stood up from before his dead" and craved a burying-place for Sarah from the sons of Heth, he pleaded, "I am a stranger and a sojourner with you." He was so. And such is man's relation to this world.
II. THE GLOOMY HOLLOWNESS WHICH THAT THOUGHT APART FROM GOD INFUSES INTO LIFE, Because life is fleeting, therefore in part, it is so hollow and unsatisfying. Why should we fret and break our hearts, "and scorn delights, and live laborious days "for purposes which will last so short a time, and things which we shall so soon have to leave?" Were it not better to lie still?" Such thoughts have at least a partial truth in them, and are difficult to meet as long as we think only of the facts and results of man's life that we can see with our eyes. Yes I if we have said all, when we have said — men pass as a fleeting shadow, if my life has no roots in the eternal, nor any consciousness of a life that does not fade, when it is all flat and unprofitable, an illusion, a folly, a dream. For all the while I yearn for something higher, "My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God." God "hath put eternity in man's heart," as Ecclesiastes says. And all these longings and aspirations witness that such limited life as was can never fill our souls or give us rest. Can you fill up the swamps of the Mississippi with any cartloads of faggots that you can fling in? Can you fill your souls with anything which belongs to this fleeting life? Has a flying shadow an appreciable thickness, or will a million of them pressed together occupy a space in your empty hungry heart? But note how our other text in its significant words gives us —
III. THE BLESSEDNESS WHICH SPRINGS FROM THIS SAME THOUGHT OF LIFE WHEN IT IS LOOKED AT IN CONNECTION WITH GOD. The mere conviction of the brevity and hollowness of life is not in itself a religious or helpful thought. It all depends upon what you associate with it. The words, "I am a stranger and a sojourner with Thee," point back to the law of the jubilee, when all lands returned to their original owners. But its religious aim was to keep alive in the minds of Israel their sense of dependence upon God. "The land shall not be sold for ever, for the laud is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me. Of course, there was a special sense in which that was true with regard to Israel, but David thought that the words were as true in regard to his whole relation of God, as in regard to Israel's possession of its national inheritance. If we grasp these words as completing all that we have already said, how different this transient and unsubstantial life looks. You must have the light from both sides to stereoscope and make solid the flat surface picture. Transient! yes — but it is passed in the presence of God. Now, if we will hold to this truth, what calm blessedness will flow into our hearts. For if "a stranger with Thee," then we are the guests of the King, the Lord of the land. We have a constant companion and an abiding presence. He is with us, will walk with us, will sit with us and make our hearts glow. Strangers we are, indeed, here — but not solitary, for we are "strangers with Thee." As in some ancestral home in which a family has lived for centuries — son after father has rested in these great chambers, and been safe behind the strong walls — so age after age, they who love Him abide in God. "Thou has been our dwelling-place in all generations." "Strangers with Thee" — then we may carry our thoughts forward to the time when we shall go to our true home, nor wander any longer in the land that is not ours. If even here He is with us, what will it be there? And why should we fear death? Is the sentry sad as the hour for relieving guard comes nigh? Is the wanderer in far-off lands sad as he turns his face homewards? And why should not we rejoice at the thought that we, strangers and foreigners here, shall soon depart to the true metropolis, the mother-country of our souls? I do not know why.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
1. He speaks of life as a walk. He seems to have had in his mind the idea of a great procession: "Surely every man walketh in a vain show." Such things were more common in Oriental countries than they are with us; but whether it is the Lord Mayor's show or any other, it is a picture of what this mortal life is. Among some classes of society, show is everything; they must "keep up appearances." Just so; and, all the world over, that is about all there is — "appearances" — a vain show. I wish we could get a hold of that idea as a practical thing, that everything we can see is shadow, but what we cannot see is the real substance.
2. He speaks of life as a worry. "Surely they are disquieted." So they are. How few people are so free from the spirit of the things of this world as to pass through this life quietly. See how they begin life, eager for its joys, its honours, its wealth. Note how they plod, and toil, and labour. How much of brain-work is done by the light of the midnight oil! Many a man agitates his mind, and wearies his spirit, till his life is lost in finding a livelihood. They are trying to live, and lo! life is gone; and they wake up, and wonder how it is that they have let it go, and have not really lived at all.
3. David passes on to speak of life as a success; and he mentions those who were supposed to have been successful in life; though, mark you, it is not success in life, after all, to accumulate riches. "He heapeth up riches." That is all. lie does not partake of them, he does not use them, he merely heaps them up. He accumulates without enjoyment. "He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them." He leaves his wealth without pleasure. I am sure that there is many a man who would turn in his grave if he knew what was being done with his hard-earned wealth.
II. DAVID EXPRESSES HIS OWN EMOTIONS IN CONTEMPLATION OF THESE THINGS.
1. He has come to a decision. "And now, Lord." I like that mode of speech; it is a great thing to come to God with a "now." Every moment is solemn if we would but make it so; but there are certain turning-points in life, when a man has had his eyes opened to see the fallacy of his former pursuits, when, stopping where the roads meet, he looks up to the signpost, and says, "And now, Lord, guide me; help me to take the right turn, to eschew the shadow, and to seek after that which is substantial. Now, Lord."
2. I also like this expression of David's emotions, because he consults with God: "Every man walketh in a vain show; but," saith he, "and now, Lord, there is no vanity with Thee, no deception, no delusion with Thee, behold, I turn away from this mirage, which just now deluded me, to Thee, my God, the Rock of my salvation, and I look to Thee. And now, Lord."
3. He is a man whose hope is in God.
III. DAVID OFFERS AN APPROPRIATE AND NEEDFUL PRAYER, "Deliver me," etc. —
1. From sins committed.
2. From the assaults of sin.
3. From peculiarly dangerous sins.
4. From deserved dishonour.
5. From undeserved defamation.
6. From spiritual disappointment.
7. From dreadful taunts at the last.
( C. H. Spurgeon.)
Surely they are disquieted in vain.
Homilist.I. BECAUSE THEY ARE UTTERLY USELESS. Most, if not all, the things that occasion them are inevitable.
1. The approach of age.
2. The advance of reformations.
3. The separation from property.
4. The advent of death.
II. BECAUSE THEY ARE REMOVABLE. Since Christianity has come, all the disquietudes of the soul may be hushed. They are kept in "perfect peace" whose minds are stayed upon God.
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