Great Texts of the Bible
God Who is our Home
The eternal God is thy dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.—Deuteronomy 33:27.
These words, while almost the last, are also among the most memorable, in the psalm so fitly described as “the blessing, wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.” They express one of the sublimest truths of faith—a truth Moses himself had realized in the court of Pharaoh, on the peak of Sinai, in the hurry of flight, and in the calm and glory of the Divine Face. He had finished his work, the law was given, the wilderness traversed, the goodly land in sight, and now he had but to be led by the hand of God to the top of Nebo, and thence into great eternity. The voice he knew and loved so well had said to him, “Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim unto Mount Nebo, and die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people.” That was a very sweet and soothing command to the weary soul of the old man. His had been a long day; and now, travel-sick, toil-worn, in its mellow autumn twilight, he was to set—
As sets the morning star, which goes not down
Behind the darkened west, nor hides obscured
Among the tempests of the sky, but melts away
Into the light of heaven.
But before he goes to the point of evanishment into the everlasting light, he pauses to bless the people; and as he stands on the border-land between time and eternity, feeling his soul in the hands of God, he utters this truth of highest, holiest import, “The eternal God is thy dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
The two lines of the text are not identical. The second line is not a mere repetition of the first. It is the usual manner of Hebrew poetry to run in couplets, but the second line of the couplet usually carries the thought a stage further than the first, or gives it a closer application. The thought of the first line is that God is the dwelling-place of His people, their home—with all that the word “home” carries or can carry to our hearts and minds. Then the second line arrests a possible doubt. Is there no danger that we may slip away from the Divine shelter? We need not fear; “underneath are the everlasting arms.”
The Eternal God is thy Dwelling-place
The children of Israel had need to be reminded of the eternal refuge and support when they were about to lose the presence and guidance of the man who had been their leader and companion in their toilsome and troubled march through the wilderness for forty years. Moses was leaving them, but leaving them with God. They were homeless, and their national future was uncertain and hidden; but to-morrow, as to-day, from generation to generation, they would be in the presence and care of the Eternal, in the arms of the everlasting power and peace.
i. The Eternal God
“I feel that if I can believe in God I believe in all that I need,” wrote an eminent Presbyterian divine in the record of his private reflections. To believe truly and fully in God may be all that we really need to inspire and sustain our hearts, but this most necessary thing is the most difficult thing in the world. It is the hardest and rarest attainment of life. Oh blessed soul! that has reached and realized through its own experience this ancient and sublime trust: “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
“The eternal God” is the God of old, literally aforetime. The word denotes what is ancient rather than what is eternal. It is often used of the Mosaic age, or other distant periods of Israel’s past (Psalm 44:1; Psalm 74:2; Psalm 74:12; Isaiah 51:9; Micah 7:20), and even of a former period of a single lifetime (Job 29:2). It is used also of mountains (Deuteronomy 33:15), of the heavens (Psalm 68:33). Besides the present text it is used of God in Habakkuk 1:12; Psalm 55:19 (where the R.V. is “he that abideth of old”).
1. What does a man mean when he says, “I believe in God”? “God” is a most elastic term, capable of narrowing to suit the meanest capacity, of expanding to fill the largest. It seems to have a sense intelligible to the simplest mind, while to the profoundest it becomes the symbol of thoughts too high to be spoken, too immense to be comprehended. But though it may signify very different things to different minds, what it signifies does not thereby become unreal. It stands as the symbol of the best and highest Being man can conceive, his idea of the Being rising with his thought of the good and the high.
2. The notions of the men who first called the Being they worshipped God do not bind the latest; the word may remain while its contents are transfigured, as it were changed from one degree of glory to another. But while later ages may outgrow the ideas earlier ages expressed by the term “God,” they do not outgrow the idea which the term represents. The symbol widens to their thought as the firmament has widened to the telescope, telling, as it widens, secrets before undreamed of, showing such infinite reaches of space, such multitudes and varieties of star clusters, of worlds beyond worlds, as to awe the imagination in its loftiest mood.
3. When we speak of God we speak of Him as a personal Being, a free and conscious Will. If God be impersonal, He can have no heart tender with love, no will moved by swift-footed mercy, regulated by the large righteousness that loves order and deals with the individual through his relations to the whole, no gracious ends for the universe, or energies active in it that may cheer the despondent and help him in his sad struggle with ill.
I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends. To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity. If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything? I would fight for my friend, but if I lost my friend I should still be there. I would fight for my country, but if I lost my country I should still exist. But if what that devil dreams were true, I should not be—I should burst like a bubble and be gone; I could not live in that imbecile universe. Shall I not fight for my own existence?1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross.]
What are the elements essential to a person? They are two—consciousness and will; or the knowledge by a being that he is, that he knows, that he acts and has reasons for his action; and the power of free or spontaneous, or, simply, rational choice. Where these are, there is a person; where they are not, there is only a thing. Personality is simply the power of ordered and reasonable conduct, whether it be in ruling a world or in regulating a life.2 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn.]
Personality expresses itself, not by eternal processes, but by individual words and deeds. If there be personality in God at all, it means that He who is behind me, and beneath me, and above me, who besets me everywhere, who is in all nature—the source of forces, the measure of law, the orderer of events—can also, can, as Person with person, stand face to face with me on the platform of His own world to speak and to be answered. But can He do it worthily? Can He do it so as to complete, without fatally perplexing, the manifestation of Himself? I point for answer to Jesus Christ.3 [Note: Life of Principal Rainy, ii. 134.]
4. Let it be noted that the text expresses no transcendental or speculative doctrine of Moses, but simply a fact of his experience. The eternal God had been his refuge. He had known better than most men the extremes of wealth and poverty, power and weakness, fulness and want. He had known solitude amid the gaieties and glories of the then most splendid court on earth. He had enjoyed Divine society on the sultry and solitary slopes of Horeb. He knew the best that Pharaoh could do for him, the worst that he could do against him, and had found both to be infinitely little. He had known, in all its anxious and bitter phases, what it was to be the loved and hated, trusted and suspected, praised and blamed, leader of a mutinous and murmuring and unstable people. The realities and semblances, the dreams and the disappointments, the actualities and the illusions of life he had alike experienced; and the grand truth which had amid all given stability, strength, and comfort was, “The eternal God my refuge, and underneath the everlasting arms.”
5. A great poet, whose words are equally dear to men of letters and to men of science, tells us “the eternal womanliness draws us ever on”; that is, the love, the beauty, the sweet and potent gentleness personified in ideal woman is a ceaseless inspiration to man, wakes him to admiration, wins him to love. But there is one term that embraces everlasting womanliness and infinitely more, the term Eternal Father, or in its simple and beautiful paraphrase, “God is love.” When we think of the eternal God, then we think of the living Source of good, active at all moments in all lives. He is righteousness, but also love; He is truth, but grace as well. His character determines His ends, His ends justify His ways. His acts become Him, are not accommodated to our deserts, but to His own character and designs. He does not deal with us after our sins, but according to His mercies and in harmony with His own ends. No man is to God an isolated individual, but a unit within a mighty whole, loved as a person, but handled as one whose being was deemed necessary to complete the universe, and judged through the ends of Him who means the universe to be complete. And the man who believes in God, believes in One who loved him from eternity, whose love called him into being, designed and prepared a place for him in the system His wisdom ordained and His will maintains. He knows that, amid all the shadows and sorrows and shame of life, underneath him and around are the everlasting arms.
The two sublimest affirmations concerning the Deity in the inspired Word are these—“God is Light,” “God is Love.” It is the latter of these two which, apparently, had so taken hold of the mind and the heart of Browning that he never wearies of reiterating the statement of the fact in numerous connexions and in various forms. In “Paracelsus” he declares unhesitatingly:
God! Thou art love! I build my faith on that.
And presently, praying for one who has erred, and for himself, he says:
Save him, dear God; it will be like Thee: bathe him
In light and life! Thou art not made like us;
We should be wroth in such a case; but Thou
Forgivest—so, forgive these passionate thoughts
Which come unsought and will not pass away!
I know Thee, who hast kept my path, and made
Light for me in the darkness, tempering sorrow
So that it reached me like a solemn joy;
It were too strange that I should doubt thy love.1 [Note: J. Flew, Studies in Browning, 23.]
ii. A Dwelling-place
Our need of the eternal God is but too manifest. Weak and mortal, man feels himself a most helpless being. Birth and death are stronger than he; of the one he is the product, of the other the victim. He comes out of a past eternity, in which he had no conscious being; he must go into an eternal future where he is to be—he knows not what. This little conscious present is all he has, all that sense can discover or intellect disclose. Mind can see, can feel, the lonely sadness of this little life—can look out into the infinities of space and time, realize their boundlessness and its own minute personality, till it feels like a small self-conscious star twinkling solitary in an immense expanse.
In moments when the thought of these infinities, conceived only as such, has been strong in me, I have felt like one standing, and reeling while he stood, on a narrow pillar reared high in space, looking up to a starless sky, out on a boundless immensity, down into a bottomless abyss, till in the despair of utter loneliness the soul has cried, “Oh for the face of the eternal God above, and the everlasting arms below.”2 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn.]
The dearest things in this fair world must change;
Thy senses hurry on to sure decay;
Thy strength will fail, the pain seem no more strange,
While love more feebly cheers the misty way.
What then remains above the task of living?
Is there no crown where that rude cross hath pressed?
Yes, God remains, His own high glory giving
To light thy lonely path, to make it blest.
Yea, God remains, though suns are daily dying,—
A gracious God, who marks the sparrow’s fall;
He listens while thine aching heart is sighing;
He hears and answers when His children call;
His love shall fill the void when death assails,—
The one, eternal God, who never fails.3 [Note: William Ordway Partridge.]
1. What man needs is a permanent consciousness of the eternal God as a daily presence, the very atmosphere in which the soul lives, moves, and has its being. To this, two movements are necessary, one from God to man, one from man to God.
There’s heaven above, and night by night
I look right through its gorgeous roof;
No suns and moons though e’er so bright
Avail to stop me; splendour-proof
I keep the broods of stars aloof:
For I intend to get to God,
For ’tis to God I speed so fast,
For in God’s breast, my own abode,
Those shoals of dazzling glory passed,
I lay my spirit down at last.1 [Note: Browning, Johannes Agricola in Meditation.]
(1) God’s movement is one in fact and essence, though manifold in form and manifestation—Love. There is truth Divine and universal in that saying of the Psalmist—“Thy gentleness hath made me great.” All man’s greatness comes from God’s gentleness. Were He wroth, our spirits would fail before Him; but He remains merciful, and we endure. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” His heart, boundless as space, infinite as eternity, beats with mercy; and the eternal God around us means simply, Man is enveloped in eternal love.
Two little girls were playing with their dolls, and singing—
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast,
There, by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
Mother was busy writing, only stopping to listen to the little ones’ talk:
“Sister, how do you know you are safe?” asked Nellie, the younger of the two.
“Because I am holding Jesus, with both my hands, tight,” replied her sister.
“That’s not safe,” said the other. “Suppose Satan came along and cut your two hands off!”
Little sister looked troubled, dropped dolly, and thought. Suddenly her face shone with joy. “Oh, I forgot! Jesus is holding me, and Satan can’t cut off His hands; so I am safe.”1 [Note: W. Armstrong.]
The child, that to its mother clings,
Lies not all safely on her breast,
Till she her arm around it flings,
Sweetly caressing and caressed:
Ev’n so, my God, Thy mighty arms,
Not my poor Faith, shield me from harms.
I bless Thy Name for every grace,
Wherewith Thou dost enrich Thine own;
Yea, I would seek each day to trace
Myself more like my Master grown:
Yet, O my God, Thy mighty arms,
Not my faint Love, shield me from harms.2 [Note: A. B. Grosart, Songs of the Day and Night, 12.]
(2) But, on the other hand, let us not forget that the movement from man to God is as needful as the movement from God to man. The one, like the other, is a movement of love; yet with a difference. Divine pity moves down to all men; but only from filial hearts does human trust move up to God. The Fatherhood is universal; but only where the sonship is consciously realized can the spirit cry, “Abba, Father!” His loving-kindness falls on us like incense by night.
The Divine Father is not the same to all devout men; He is to some more of a daily Presence, more of a permanent Friend; and this larger sense of God rises from a larger need and conscious use of Him in the soul. Vacancies made in the heart are often only rooms in it swept and beautified for God; and His presence at once, glorifies the chamber thus prepared, sheds a mellow light back upon the past, and splendid hopes forward upon the future. Were it possible to reduce a pious soul to a consciousness of only two beings—first and pre-eminently of God, next and feebly of self—then it were possible to endow that soul with the supremest happiness possible to a creature; and the more nearly any man approaches to that consciousness the more blessed will he be. Of a truth, he is happy who can say, “As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.”3 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn.]
2. God is a dwelling-place (1) to the nation, and (2) to the individual.
(1) The words were spoken, as all the greatest utterances of the Old Testament were spoken, to a people. The hope of the Israelite was a national hope. His fathers had known God and done their work and passed to their rest. He in his turn was allowed to know God and do his share of work and be buried with his fathers, leaving children and children’s children to carry the work still further forward till at last it should reach its glorious consummation. The nation lived on and expanded and developed, blessed when it feared the Lord, punished when it forgot Him. Thousands and tens of thousands of its sons and daughters passed, but the nation still lived on, and learned to look for its perfect glory in the future, when the king Messiah should reign in righteousness over the whole earth, sitting on David’s throne in Jerusalem. This was the ideal of the great poets and prophets of the Jewish people. It was a national and not an individual hope.
In times of critical strain and trial to civilization and the State, amid great political and social troubles and changes, let us not fail to remember and realize that the eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. It is not our decrees and institutions that are upholding the world, but the everlasting laws—another name for the everlasting arms. Our refuge in times of distress is not parliaments and governments and compromising politicians, but the eternal God. Our rulers and governors may help or hinder progress, but they do not decide the supreme and final issue of things. There is another Providence in affairs than the human providence. This world is, after all, God’s world. Let us not, therefore, lose courage and hope because in the complications of disintegration and change we do not see what is to follow. In all ages, men, bewildered by the vision of great changes, have pronounced the doom of the world because they were not able to see or understand the process of its salvation. Let us not be fearful even if the worst happens. The worst that can happen is often the best for the world. Jerusalem destroyed is better than Jerusalem saved, and the fall of the Roman Empire better for the moral health of the peoples of the earth than its continuance.
The children of Israel had no other, and therefore if God were not their dwelling-place, they were houseless. Pilgrims of the weary foot, they found no city to dwell in; at eventide they pitched their tents, but they struck them again in the morning; the trumpet sounded and they were up and away; if they were in a comfortable valley for one day, yet that relentless trumpet bade them resume their wearisome march through the wilderness in the morning; and perhaps they thought they lingered longest where an encampment was least desirable. Nevertheless they always had a dwelling-place in their God. If I might use such a description without seeming to be fanciful, I would say that the great cloudy canopy which covered them all day long from the heat of the sun was their roof-tree, and that the blazing pillar which protected them by night was their family fireside.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
(2) But if the national reference of these words is their primary reference, yet we are justified in giving them a further and more personal reference in the light of the Christian revelation.
Sooner or later every son of man is taught the lesson of his own insufficiency, of his need of a strength he does not find in himself, and of a shelter and support which his fellows cannot give, and no earthly interest or object can yield. The larger and more varied his experience of the world and life, and the more deeply he feels and thinks, the more does he realize the assurance of the Divine protection and care to be the most pressing and imperious of all his practical needs. Of all substitutes for God—wealth, comfort, amusement, music, beauty, learning, friendship, love, philanthropy—he must say, at least in all his most searching and critical experiences, “Miserable comforters are ye all!” To state the fundamental facts of human life is, indeed, to affirm religion. In the generalized experience of mankind lies the real basis of religion. And all religion must somehow have its beginning and its end in God. Religion is God; God is religion.
The ancient words interpret and give immortal expression to a universal and indestructible need of humanity. They were true before they were written, and they would be true if they had not been written in the sacred book of religion. Centuries have passed away and generations have come and gone, but they still lay upon us their solemn spell, and we continue to use them, as we do all the great words of the Bible, because they find us, divine our hearts for us, and utter what in us is but faintly felt and dimly thought with the clear and certain sound of complete conviction, and with the energy of a faith that quickens and strengthens our wavering trusts and hopes.1 [Note: J. Hunter.]
The infinities of space and time are like boundless deserts, silent, void, till filled with a personal God and Father; but once He lives in and through them, they become warm, vital, throbbing, like hearts pulsing with tides of infinite emotion rushing towards us and breaking into the music of multitudinous laughter and tears. The sky above is no longer space gleaming with stars; but filling it, round the stars, round and through the world, in and about each individual man, is God, daily touching us, daily loving us, giving us life and being in Himself. The Eternities behind and before us are no longer dark, empty, or, at best, a grim procession of births and deaths; they are a living, loving God, from whom man came, to whom he returns. And that Eternal God makes all things secure, restful, blessed. No moment, either here or hereafter, can ever be without God; therefore in none can the good man be otherwise than happy. What is beyond death is not beyond God. He is there as here; and so, whether we live or die, the eternal God is our refuge, and underneath us are the everlasting arms.2 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn.]
O Name, all other names above,
What art Thou not to me,
Now I have learned to trust Thy love
And cast my care on Thee!
What is our being but a cry,
A restless longing still,
Which Thou alone canst satisfy,
Alone Thy fulness fill!
Thrice blessèd be the holy souls
That lead the way to Thee,
That burn upon the martyr-rolls
And lists of prophecy.
And sweet it is to tread the ground
O’er which their faith hath trod;
But sweeter far, when Thou art found,
The soul’s own sense of God!
The thought of Thee all sorrow calms;
Our anxious burdens fall;
His crosses turn to triumph-palms,
Who finds in God his all.1 [Note: Frederick Lucian Hosmer.]
Underneath are the Everlasting Arms
God surrounds His children on all sides: they dwell in Him. The passage before us shows that the Lord is above them, for we read, “There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky.” Assuredly He is around them, for “the eternal God is thy refuge”; and He is before them, for “He shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them.” Here, according to the text, the Lord is also under His saints, for “underneath are the everlasting arms.” “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations,” and by Thee we are everywhere surrounded as the earth by the atmosphere.
Within thy circling power I stand;
On every side I find thy hand;
Awake, asleep, at home, abroad,
I am surrounded still with God.
1. The meaning is that God is our support, and our support just when we begin to sink. We want support when we are sinking, and the arms being “underneath” implies that this support is given just when we are going down. At certain seasons the Christian sinks very low in humiliation. He has a deep sense of his own sin; he is humbled before God, till he scarce knows how to lift up his face and pray, because he appears, in his own sight, so abject, so mean, so base, so worthless. Well, let him remember that when he is at his worst “underneath are the everlasting arms.” Sin may sink him ever so low, but the great atonement is still under all. Here is a text which proves it: “He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him.” You may have gone very low, but you can never have gone so low as “the uttermost.” Here is another: “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men.” Have you plunged into nearly every kind of sin; have you gone into “all manner of blasphemy”? Even if you have, it may be forgiven, so that this promise goes underneath you. The love of God, the power of the blood, and the prevalence of the intercession, are deeper down than sin with all its hell-born vileness can ever sink the sinner, while breath is in his nostrils.
I dare approach that Heaven
Which has not bade a living thing despair,
Which needs no code to keep its grace from stain,
But bids the vilest worm that turns on it
Desist and be forgiven.1 [Note: Browning, A Blot in the ’Scutchcon.]
“Underneath are the everlasting arms.” That means Personality. That means an all-enfolding, all-embracing love. That means power, the power of the right arm of the Most High. That means redemption, an arm that is not shortened that it cannot save; not “shortened” by any material limitations or physical obstacles. It is not shortened that it cannot save. It can reach down through all defects of being, through all taints of blood, through all grossness of the flesh, through all warpings of the will, and corruptions of the mind and heart; it can get within, to the mysterious soul and core of all character, the springs of all conduct—“underneath are the everlasting arms.”2 [Note: C. S. Horne.]
2. The word “underneath” has never been used in the Bible before, and it is never used again. It is of its own order; a word big with meaning and suggestiveness. It is the index to a whole system of thought, philosophical and theological. No solitary word, perhaps, could imply more than this. It opens to us the attitude of wonder and reverent faith in which the deepest minds have pondered what we call to-day the phenomenal; the things that are seen, that strike upon the senses of touch and taste, sight and sound. Such deep minds, brooding over phenomena, have never been satisfied with merely registering those properties and qualities of the material world which they can test and know. They have divided and subdivided matter till they have reduced it to its tiniest possible elements, and then have been conscious that their world and thought end in a note of interrogation after all. It is all summed up, let us say, in this word “underneath.”
It has been said that “the great contribution of science to the sum of modern belief has been that underneath phenomena is that which is everlasting.” During “the wonderful century” the men of science cleaved the rocks, penetrated the skies, scanned the hidden depths, looked into the secrets of nature, brought to light strange knowledge, and set much wisdom in order; and the strangest and most wonderful discovery of all is that the temporal rests on the eternal, that every commonest thing we see, and every commonest thing we handle, has beneath it the everlasting which becomes clear to patient thinking.
I heard my father say he understood it was
A building, people built as soon as earth was made
Almost, because they might forget (they were afraid)
Earth did not make itself, but came of Somebody.
They laboured that their work might last, and show thereby
He stays, while we and earth, and all things come and go.
Come whence? Go whither? That, when come and gone, we know
Perhaps, but not while earth and all things need our best
Attention: we must wait and die to know the rest.
Ask, if that’s true, what use in setting up the pile?
To make one fear and hope: remind us, all the while
We come and go, outside there’s Somebody that stays.1 [Note: Browning, Fifine at the Fair.]
3. When do we most need to know that underneath are the everlasting arms?
(1) When we have reached a state of special joy and exaltation in our religious life.—Sometimes God takes His servants and puts them on the pinnacle of the temple. Satan does it sometimes: God does it too—puts His servants up on the very pinnacle, where they are so full of joy that they scarce know how to contain themselves, whether in the body or out of the body they cannot tell. Well, now, suppose they should fall! for it is so easy for a man, when full of ecstasy and ravishment, to make a false step and slip. They are safe enough, as safe as though they were in the Valley of Humiliation, for underneath are the arms of God.
Suffering has been long acknowledged as an indispensable factor in the building up of souls; the place of love and happiness is less secure. It is at least possible that there are stunted souls who cannot converse fully with the Divine Father till they have had ampler draughts from the breasts of natural joy.1 [Note: Anna Bunston, The Porch of Paradise, xi.]
It’s O my heart, my heart,
To be out in the sun and sing!
To sing and shout in the fields about,
In the balm and the blossoming.
Sing loud, O bird in the tree;
O bird, sing loud in the sky,
And honey-bees blacken the clover seas:
There are none of you glad as I.
The leaves laugh low in the wind,
Laugh low with the wind at play;
And the odorous call of the flowers all
Entices my soul away!
For O but the world is fair, is fair:
And O but the world is sweet!
I will out in the gold of the blossoming mould,
And sit at the Master’s feet.
And the love my heart would speak,
I would fold in the lily’s rim,
That the lips of the blossom, more pure and meek,
May offer it up to Him.
Then sing in the hedgerow green, O thrush,
O skylark, sing in the blue;
Sing loud, sing clear, that the King may hear,
And my soul shall sing with you!2 [Note: Ina Donna Coolbrith.]
(2) When we are specially depressed and in fear.—There are times when the burdens of life’s unintelligible secret rest upon us with a weight almost too heavy to be borne. There are so many things which it seems to us infinitely important that we should know, but about which we yet know almost nothing. Mystery circumscribes our little lives as with a wall of adamant; we can hardly advance one single step in thought without dashing ourselves against it; we know not what we are came, we know not whither we came, we know not whither we are going, and none can tell us. We cry aloud for surer knowledge, and while to the forward and presumptuous there comes back no answer except the echo of their own voice, even for humble and faithful questioners there is only the whisper, “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” There is silence and there is darkness. Our vaunted science cannot break that silence and cannot dissipate that gloom.
The eternal God is our refuge from the unsearchable mystery of life. We cannot escape from mystery. It grows with our growing knowledge. What a world this is in which we live, and how awful in some of its aspects is our life in it! Does it not require something more than our little systems and schemes to keep the mind and soul in strength and peace in the midst of this troubled world and troubled life? Where else can we find the sense of shelter and security than where Moses found it long ago? “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Let us yield nothing to our fears. That the Unknown and the Unknowable may be trusted is the message of religion. Our discipleship to Jesus Christ inspires this lofty confidence in the beneficence of the universe, in a universe essentially good and making for goodness—a confidence which is the anticipation of much that modern knowledge is now slowly declaring. In the companionship and fellowship of the Son of God we know that where His trust was in Gethsemane and on Calvary ours can ever rest. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Often as a child I have trembled to cross at night the courtyard of a lonely country mill. Every little object that moonlight or starlight revealed in other than natural proportions was a source of fear—seemed to hide shapes terrible to childish flesh and blood. But if my little hand was laid in the large hand of my father, I could cross the courtyard as gleefully and carelessly at night as at noonday. So, with our spirits held in the hands of the eternal God, who is above, around, and before, the dark places of Life, Death, and the great for Ever become light; and, trusting where we cannot see, our steps are firm, when otherwise they would falter and fail.1 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn.]
I suppose some brethren have neither much elevation nor much depression. I could almost wish to share their peaceful life, for I am much tossed up and down, and although my joy is greater than that of most men, my depression of spirit is such as few can have any idea of. This week has been in some respects the crowning week of my life, but it closed with a horror of great darkness, of which I will say no more than this—I bless God that at my worst, underneath me I found the everlasting arms.2 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
Till last night I never knew what depression was. I had no illness; one or two things had happened to grieve me, but still they were comparatively slight; but I never felt so thoroughly downcast about myself and all the world, or so bitter and serious a struggle within me. It tore me through and through, yet it was a great mercy and a special answer to prayer; for having previously felt my own indifference and want of real sense of danger, I had entreated to be bruised and brought low to feel the burthen, that I might appreciate what deliverance might be, and it was granted; consequently this morning I felt such as I had never felt before at the whole service and communion. I never till then had an adequate notion of the power and beauty of our Liturgy, and, on the other hand, of its inferiority to the Word of God. I gained some faint idea of what the Bible was; I felt the glorious depth of the declaration, “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept,” a passage which I had merely understood before.3 [Note: F. J. A. Hort, Life and Letters, i. 36]
Dark and sad the hours have been
In the valley and shade of Death,
Where no light mine eyes have seen
But the far, cold stars of faith.
And my heart with haunting fears
Almost sank into despair;
Yet the harvest of my years
Mostly has been gathered there.
(3) When sorrow has come in upon us like a flood.—By a strange and stern law of compensation, which equalizes the distribution of pain, where the material loss is the less felt the heart’s loss is often the greater. No hunger, no cold, no nakedness enters this house by reason of the new record in the registry of death. Externally, maternally, all is as before. But there is the more room and scope for the agony of bereavement; there is the less possibility of assuagement by the good offices of others. Gifts can do nothing here to help; and words, we know, are often less kind than silence. The stranger cannot intermeddle; no anxious effort we can make can mitigate the bitterness.
A king once planted in his garden a beautiful rose-tree, and bade his gardener so tend and train it as to make its flowers the richest and loveliest possible. The tree grew and flourished, and year by year blushed into blossoms of manifold beauty. But it sent out so many shoots, formed so many buds, that its very fertility threatened to injure the quality of its flowers. So the gardener removed the shoots, pruned away the buds, till the tree seemed to bleed all over in loss and pain; but the wounds healed, the sap and strength ran up to those buds that were spared, and when the season of ripeness was come, the roses were lovelier and sweeter than ever—most meet of all in the garden to be carried into the palace of the great king, to fill its galleries and chambers with delicious and grateful fragrance.
God gives us love. Something to love
He lends us; but, when love is grown
To ripeness, that on which it throve
Falls off, and love is left alone.
But it is left alone that it may be the one perfect bond between the human and the Divine, the fragrant sacrifice that rejoices God, the glorious beauty that makes man a source and seat of joy for ever.
If all my years were summer, could I know
What my Lord means by His “made white as snow”?
If all my days were sunny, could I say,
“In His fair land He wipes all tears away”?
If I were never weary could I keep
Close to my heart, “He gives His lovèd sleep”?
Were no graves mine, might I not come to deem
The life eternal but a baseless dream?
My winter, yea, my tears, my weariness,
Even my graves may be His way to bless;
I call them ills, yet that can surely be
Nothing but good that shows my Lord to me.
(4) In the fear of death.—When, at last, each of us is laid on the bed of death, and the moment has come when we must enter into the presence of God and see our souls, with every mask of hypocrisy, conscious or unconscious, torn away, see our souls as they are and as God sees them; when we are sinking naked and possessionless into the grave; when we feel the mist in our eyes, the fog in our throats, and the voices of our friends no longer reach us, or if they do we have no strength even to sigh back an answer or to return the pressure of the hand—what can help us then? Alone we must enter that dark valley—no troops of friends can accompany us there; alone must our souls seem to sink downwards as through unfathomable seas of gloom. Which of us can tell how soon that awful hour may be awaiting us? And when it comes, how will every one of the things which we have desired on earth seem to shrink into utter insignificance in comparison with “the one thing needful,” which, perhaps, we may have altogether neglected. When the solid earth itself seems to be crumbling under our feet, when we lie helpless in the grasp of that inexorable force, there is one thing which gives to the Christian not only hope, but “peace which passeth all understanding”; it is when we feel that for us death can have no sting, and the grave no victory, because the eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.
Mr. B., an eager business man in middle life, declared that, till he found a way of escape, to go to bed was to go to hell. Just as he was about to lose consciousness there had been almost always presented to his mind the idea and sensation of himself falling through boundless space. The perspiration stood on his face as he avowed that the phrase “bottomless pit” was to him overwhelming in its suggestiveness. This torture he had begun to experience while he was yet a schoolboy. At the school prayers on Sunday night the boys had always sung Ken’s evening hymn. The lines—
Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed
had seemed terrible in their irony to one who dreaded nothing so much as his bed. Relief had not come to him until he was well on in manhood. Strolling one evening in a country churchyard, his eyes were arrested by the words on a gravestone “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms,” and in a flash of inspiration he saw his safety. That very night, as the solid platform of the earth was falling away from him, “he rested on the promise”—for so he described his mental attitude—and he affirmed that since that time he had always at his command a sense of physical comfort and safety upon which he could sleep as on a pillow.1 [Note: The Spectator, July 2, 1910.]
The embers of the day are red
Beyond the murky hill.
The kitchen smokes: the bed
In the darkling house is spread:
The great sky darkens overhead,
And the great woods are shrill.
So far have I been led,
Lord, by Thy will:
So far I have followed, Lord, and wondered still.
The breeze from the embalmèd land
Blows sudden toward the shore,
And claps my cottage door.
I hear the signal, Lord—I understand.
The night at Thy command
Comes. I will eat and sleep and will not question more.2 [Note: R. L. Stevenson, Songs of Travel.]
Armstrong (W.), Five-Minute Sermons to Children, 46.
Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 154.
Fairbairn (A. M.), The City of God, 190.
Fairbairn (R. B.), College Sermons, 302.
Horan (F. S.), A Call to Seamen, 131.
Hunter (J.), De Profundis Clamavi, 310.
Hutton (J. A.), The Fear of Things, 1.
Parks (L.), The Winning of the Soul, 201.
Robinson (J. A.), Unity in Christ, 123, 137.
Robinson (J. A.), Holy Ground, 7, 15.
Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 345.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xi. (1865), No. 624; xiv. (1868), No. 803; xxiv. (1878), No. 1413.
Wardell (R. J.), Studies in Homiletics, 94.
Christian Age, xxx. 66 (Farrar).
Christian World Pulpit, xxix. 209 (Farrar); Leviticus 4 (Horne); lxviii. 401 (Hunter).
Churchman’s Pulpit: The Old and New Year, ii. 412 (Hunter); Sermons to the Young, xvi. 288 (Ross); Harvest Thanksgiving, 31 (Fairbairn).