Great Texts of the Bible
Leanness of Soul
And he gave them their request;
But sent leanness into their soul.—Psalm 106:15.
1. The history of God’s past is a record of continuous mercies, the history of man’s is one of as continuous sin. The memory of the former quickened the Psalmist into his sunny song of thankfulness in the previous psalm; that of the latter moves him to the confessions in this one. The two psalms are complements of each other, and are connected not only as being both retrospective, but by the identity of their beginnings and the difference of their points of view. The parts of the early history dealt with in the one are lightly touched or altogether omitted in the other. The key-note of Psalms 105. is, “Remember his mighty deeds”; that of Psalms 106. is, “They forgot his mighty deeds.”
2. After an introduction in some measure like that in Psalms 105., the Psalmist plunges into his theme, and draws out the long, sad story of Israel’s faithlessness, of which he recounts seven instances during the wilderness sojourn. One is the lusting for flesh food—an evil traced to forgetfulness of God’s doings, to which is added impatient disinclination to wait the unfolding of His counsel or plan. These evils cropped up with strange celerity. The memory of benefits was transient, as if they had been written on the blown sands of the desert. “They hasted; they forgot his works.” Of how many of us that has to be said! We remember pain and sorrow longer than joy and pleasure. It is always difficult to bridle desires and be still until God discloses His purposes. We are all apt to try to force His hand open, and to impose our wishes on Him, rather than to let His will mould us. So, on forgetfulness and impatience there followed then, as there follow still, eager longings after material good and a tempting of God, who is “tempted” when unbelief demands proofs of His power, instead of waiting patiently for Him. In Numbers 11:33 Jehovah is said to have smitten the people “with a very great plague.” The psalm specifies more particularly the nature of the stroke by calling it “leanness” or “wasting sickness,” which invaded the life of the sinners. The words are true in a deeper sense, though not so meant. For whoever sets his hot desires in self-willed fashion on material good, and succeeds in securing their gratification, gains with the satiety of his lower sense the loss of a shrivelled spiritual nature. Full-fed flesh makes starved souls.
Desire and its Gratification
1. The words of the text have a wider scope than as a reference to an incident in Israelitish history. They tell a sad story indeed, written in the annals of God’s ancient people, but they call up stories innumerable in the lives of men for whose example the story was written, but who have failed to profit by it, and to whose lives there may be appended the same legend, “He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.” And if we are like the Israelites, if we forget all that God has done for the promotion of our happiness here, all that He has done to fit us for a higher state of being hereafter; if we will not wait for His counsel, wait for a time when we shall no longer see His dealings darkly reflected to us in an imperfect mirror, but clear before us in the pure atmosphere of heaven; and if, instead of patiently bearing with the conditions of our pilgrim life, we murmur because we cannot have all our wishes gratified, and are dissatisfied with the restraints under which we may be placed, is it incredible that God should punish us, as He did them, by granting us the things upon which we have set our hearts?
2. It is certain that God does not always interfere to keep us from sin, for that would frustrate His purpose in wishing us to grow good by experience, to grow good by first hating evil and then loving the good so that we may follow and do the good from a free choice. He will help us if we earnestly desire it, but not otherwise; for that would be forcing instead of drawing and winning our wills to His. By the discipline of experience God often lets us have our own way, permits us to gain what we desire, sometimes honourably, at other times dishonourably, through the mazes of meanness and even of crime. Some desires are in themselves perfectly innocent and lawful, others vicious and unlawful. But under the discipline of God the gratification of desires quite lawful in themselves sometimes leads to our moral and spiritual injury.
God recognizes and respects, at all times, His gift to man of freewill. God does not, for example, force grace upon the soul. He does not even, in some cases, reveal Himself except to those who seek Him. He points out to us indeed the right way. “Walk in this way,” He says, “and it shall be your glory and your joy.” But He does not say, “Walk in it, you shall and must.” And, in like manner, if God sees that our hearts are set upon something which we have said we must have, at all costs, He says, “You shall have it—but the consequences of your choice be upon your own head!” There is much insight and teaching in the old fable of Midas, King of Phrygia, who prayed that everything he touched might turn to gold. But his wish, when it was granted, proved a fatal one, for his very food turned into gold also, and soon he was starving.1 [Note: J. B. C. Murphy, The Service of the Master, 165.]
It is well to pray that God should put into our minds good desires, and that we should use our wills to keep ourselves from dwelling too much upon small and pitiful desires, for the fear is that they will be abundantly gratified. And thus when the time comes for recollection, it is a very wonderful thing to look back over life, and see how eagerly gracious God has been to us. He knows very well that we cannot learn the paltry value of the things we desire, if they are withheld from us, but only if they are granted to us; and thus we have no reason to doubt His fatherly intention, because He does so much dispose life to please us. And we need not take it for granted that He will lead us by harsh and provocative discipline, though when He grants our desire, He sometimes sends leanness withal into our soul.2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Joyous Gard (1913), 91.]
3. It does not follow that all pleasure or attainment of desire is highly dangerous, if not pernicious, and that the welfare of the soul is incompatible with physical enjoyment. All these conclusions are false. The mischief arising from gratification is caused only by the undue importance which is attached to it, and not by the gratification itself, so long as it is lawful. The righteous and loving God, we may be sure, does not grudge us any one of our pleasures, is not moved with malignity or envy, that He should seek to revenge Himself for our pleasure by smiting our souls with the curse of leanness. But He knows the infinite value of the soul and the necessity for its being properly nourished and in full vigour, and He must teach us by experience how immensely more valuable the soul is and how far more needful it is for us to have our souls in health than to have any earthly desires satisfied. He did so teach those poets of old who said “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.” “I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.” “Thou art my God, my bliss. My welfare is nothing without thee.” It is to bring us into this state that, whenever we set our hearts too much upon our own gratification, our souls are made to suffer for it.
A man may have before him only the attainment of a perfectly honourable and legitimate ambition. Let such an one, in the Name of God, go on, and prosper. But if it so be that God is banished from that man’s life because of his ambition—if he begin to say that he has “no time “for prayer, for the reading of God’s Word, for meditation upon holy things, no time for preparation for Holy Communion—then let him tremble also. He will get his desire, it may be, but what will that avail him if, when he has won the prize, it suddenly lose all its value in his eyes and bring him no real satisfaction; if there shall spring up within him the consciousness of a never-dying, ever-increasing hunger—a hunger of the soul—a gnawing, a restlessness, a craving, which God, and God alone, can satisfy and soothe? And what is all this but fulness of body and leanness of soul?1 [Note: J. B. C. Murphy, The Service of the Master, 167.]
4. Mark where the judgment of God falls. It falls on the highest nature—it falls on the soul! The man on whom God’s disapprobation rests, withers at his very root. His mental power declines, his moral nature shrivels; he goes down in the volume and quality of his being. Think of a lean soul! No compass, no grandeur, no tenderness of manhood! A lean soul, narrow, stunted, withered, sapless, blind, deaf, idiotic! The man would have his prize; he would set up his own wisdom; he would be as God unto himself; and now look at him, and see how hunger-bitten and ghastly is his dishonoured soul. We know the horror, the ghastliness, of external emaciation brought about by illness, when man or woman becomes literally skin and bone. What a suggestion such a sight conveys of the possibilities of inward emaciation! Beneath the sleek, prosperous, well-fed, comfortable appearance, what if there be, hidden from men but open before God, a horrible emaciation in a man’s real self-leanness of soul!
You have heard of the white ant that commits such terrible devastations in wooden buildings in some portions of the globe. That little insect will insert itself into the largest wooden structure that men can put up, and in course of time it will eat away the whole of it, leaving nothing but the thinnest outer shell; the building will look as if nothing had befallen it; the shape will be unaltered; but put your finger upon it, or bring the slightest pressure to bear upon it, and you will find that it is no longer solid, but a hollow and useless outline. Is there not a more terrible power that enters into the inner nature of man, and utterly consumes all that is strong and noble and beautiful in his soul?1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]
The Lower Satisfaction
1. Of how many is it true that the attainment of wealth and the gratification of ambition have not satisfied an ever-increasing longing for more, and that the happiness which they were expected to secure is ever marred by a leanness that enters into the soul. Moral and spiritual decline often follows the too eager pursuit of earthly things. “They that will be rich,” says the Apostle, “fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.” How must it be in this money-loving age with the many whose whole souls are filled with this fatal desire, and how terrible is the spiritual leanness of a soul from which the love of money has wholly driven out the love of God! So far as our outward circumstances are concerned, our fullest request may have been granted. We may have estates, titles, honours; men may wait for our word, and follow our guidance in all secular speculations and engagements; and yet it may be said of us, “In thy lifetime thou receivedst thy good things”—so, with the request on the one hand answered to the utmost, we have on the other a soul that has been dwarfed almost up to the point of extinction.
There is a deep lesson to be read in a strange picture by Burne Jones, called “The Depths of the Sea.” A mermaid, beautiful in face, but hideously repellent in her scaly train, has flung her arms around a youth, and is dragging him down through the green waters to her cave. In her face is the intense malignity of cruel triumph and cruel scorn; in the youth’s face is the agony of frustration and of death. And the motto below is, “Habes totâ quod mente petisti, Infelix!”—“Thou hast what thou soughtest with all thy soul, unhappy one.” Oh that it were in my power to preach to all young men a sermon of meaning so intense as that picture! The mermaid, like the Siren of mythology, like the strange woman of the Proverbs, is the harlot Sense. She is the type of carnal temptation, ending in disillusion, shame, anguish, death. It is the meaning of the saying of the rabbis, “The demons come to us smiling and beautiful: when they have done their work, they drop their mask.” It is the meaning of Solomon: “But he knoweth not that the dead are there, and that her guests are in the depths of hell.” God has granted to that youth his heart’s desire, and sent leanness withal into his bones. He has got what he passionately longed for, and it is—death!1 [Note: F. W. Farrar, Social and Present Day Questions, 174.]
“But sent leanness into their soul.” Ah, that “but”! It embittered all. The meat was poison to them when it came without a blessing: whatever it might do in fattening the body, it was poor stuff when it made the soul lean. If we must know scantiness, may God grant it may not be scantiness of soul: yet this is a common attendant upon worldly prosperity. When wealth grows with many a man his worldly estate is fatter, but his soul’s state is leaner. To gain silver and lose gold is a poor increase; but to win for the body and lose for the soul is far worse. How earnestly might Israel have unprayed her prayers had she known what would come with their answer! The prayers of lust will have to be wept over. We fret and fume till we have our desire, and then we have to fret still more because the attainment of it ends in bitter disappointment.2 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
2. We must guard against the mistake—into which we may so easily fall—of applying the text and the lessons to be drawn from it only to the rich and prosperous, whereas it applies to them in exactly the same sense as it applies to every one, whether he be rich or poor, who is in the state of earnest desire for some earthly good or who is in the state of satisfied desire, a contentment wholly derived from possession or gratification. And this experience is to be met with in all classes, among all sorts and conditions of men. The Israelites, of whom the words of the text were spoken, were certainly not among the rich, but at the time were poor and afflicted—or thought themselves so—and were therefore all the more in danger of the ill effects of full gratification.
There are business men in our city to-day who have schemed for a future which, if analysed, would disclose nothing but a careful regard for personal and domestic comfort. I can give you the brief programme of such men: it runs after this fashion—country, garden, quietness, out-door amusements. They are at perfect liberty to leave the city, to abandon the poor, to get away from all that is fœtid, noisome, and otherwise offensive; but let them beware lest, in reaching this supposed heaven, they find that they have gone in the wrong direction, and that where they expected heaven to begin they find that they have only reached the outward edge of earth.1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]
There is a German folk story of a very poor charcoal burner who had a kind heart and was always doing good turns to people. He often wished that he were rich that he might help still more. One day in the forest a wicked-looking gnome appeared and told him he would make him rich on one condition. He must exchange his heart of flesh for a wonderful mechanical stone heart that the gnome had made and kept in his workshop in a cave underneath the forest. The poor man did not like the condition, but was tempted and consented to the bargain. He was cast into a deep sleep and when he awoke the exchange had been effected and he felt the stone heart working within him with perfect regularity, but it was cold, very cold. When he got back to the village everybody noticed the change. He was harsh, overbearing, a changed man; riches came to him; everything he touched turned to gold, but the richer he grew, the colder seemed the heart, and when old age crept upon him he longed to be poor again and have back his warm human heart. That is a modern way of saying that the man got his request, but leanness came to his soul.2 [Note: H. Jeffs.]
The Higher Satisfaction
1. How are we to avoid the creeping over us of this insidious disease—leanness of soul? The Apostle shall answer:—“Set your affections on things above.” We conquer by the force and direction of desire. Desire is, in the moral world, like the law of gravitation in the natural world—it determines man’s relations to beings and objects around him. Desire is the raw material of goodness or wickedness, and thus it has everything to do with the formation of character. There is no power like it. Hence the importance attached in the Bible to strong wishes: “Ask, and ye shall have”; “Seek, and ye shall find”; “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Wishes are in truth prayers. We do not pray only when we utter conscious prayers. Every time we wish for anything, our Father understands our wishes.
2. The great lesson, then, which we have to learn from this text is to say from the heart, with trembling yet earnest love, “Not my will but thine be done.” That is the lesson; but where is the school in which it can be learned? The school is called Calvary. There is no other school in which this lesson is taught. Men may try to reason themselves into it; men may try by fine philosophy to come to a point of resignation that shall yield them high advantages; but all their labour will be in vain. We must be slain on the Saviour’s cross; we must enter fully into the pain which our Saviour endured; our hands and our feet must be nailed to the accursed yet blessed tree; the very last desire of our selfishness must be extinguished, and then shall we come into the joy and the infinite peace of walking with God. Whither are our desires tending? In which direction are they bearing us, upwards or downwards? Are we letting ourselves drift towards some crisis which is the culmination of a gradual deterioration, and which may leave us with what we want (or think that we want), at the cost of everything which makes life worth living? Is desire more and more concentrated on the material, the sensuous? Is some accomplishment or some passing interest utterly possessing us, and are we becoming lean within—without faith, without sympathy, without self-respect, without generosity, letting others minister to us without giving aught in return? If so, it may be well to look on to the end. A day and hour will come when desire will be manifested; when the true, deep-seated desire of each soul will be seen. Now there are restraints that hinder its manifestation; there are all sorts of considerations and motives which are keeping us back and causing us to hide our real desires. Then every man’s true aim and object, as well as every man’s work, will be manifested; each one, freed from constraint, will turn to his own way. The lips of the Judge need not open to pronounce any sentence. He but lifts off each constraining law, each limiting infirmity, each instrument of education, and the result speaks for itself. Each soul, by its own inner tendency, seeks its own place. Father and son, brother and brother, sister and sister, wife and husband, each with the old habitual restraints lifted off them, turn to their own place—the one goes by an inner power to the right, the other to the left. It needs no angel to guide or urge them on. Each one turns to his own desire, to fulness or leanness, to heaven or hell.
“He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him.” “Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” “O rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him; and he will give thee thine heart’s desire.” It is true we have to wait; it is true that we have to find our way to rest often through many very humbling disappointments; but because the mouth of the Lord hath spoken, we may be sure that the denial of our prayers is one of the Divine blessings which fall to our lot, and that when we perish in the outward man the inward man is blessed with the renewal which will be consummated in the imperishable and unmingled bliss of heaven. Let us dare to desire, to wish, to ask for as our chief good, to be like Christ; to have reproduced within us that loveliness of character, that tenderness of sympathy, that strength of endurance, that calmness under suffering, that patient self-possession which characterized Him. We cannot see in His life anything but beauty. Let us dare to wish, to long, to pray, to struggle to be like Him, and He will give us our desire, and send fulness undreamt of—the fulness of love, and faith, and strength, and patience—into our inmost soul.
Goodness and happiness are not one yet; and their conflict oscillates through the centuries from asceticism on the one side to riot on the other, and from Puritanism to Stuart licence. This ever-recurring oscillation indicates a beautiful truth laid bare by our Lord. James Hinton devoted almost all his books to this conflict of goodness and happiness, and pointed out that our Lord had solved their conflict. The human heart desires happiness, and, at the same time, righteousness. A most wholesome thing it is to desire happiness. A heart that does not desire happiness is one with which I should be very sorry to have much to do. Happiness is a legitimate and a God-implanted desire, of which men and women need never be ashamed provided they link it to goodness. But the linking of it to goodness is only to be done by using self for others’ good. That is what Hinton points out as the sum of our Lord’s teaching for this life, and the conditions which are to be perfect conditions here we may assume to be entrance conditions of the life which is to come.1 [Note: The Life of William Denny, 319.]
The awakening swan grows tired at last
Of weltering pastures where he feeds;
With wings and feet behind him cast,
He cleaves the labyrinth of the reeds.
He arches out his sparkling plumes,
He wades and plunges, till he finds
Beneath his breast the azure glooms
Where the great river brims and winds.
Then, with white sails set to the breeze,
The current cold about his feet,
He fares to those Hesperides
Where morning and his comrades meet.
Nor—since within his kindling veins
A livelier ichor stirs at last—
Regrets the gross and juicy stains,
The saps and savours of the past;
But through the august and solemn void
Of misty waters holds his way,
By some ecstatic thirst decoyed
Towards raptures of the radiant day.
So sails the soul, and cannot rest,
Inglorious, in the marsh of peace,
But leaves the good, to seek the best,
Though all its calms and comforts cease,—
Though what it seems to hold be lost,
Though that grow far which once was nigh,—
By torturing hope in anguish tossed,
The awakened soul must sail or die.1 [Note: Edmund Gosse, In Russet and Silver.]
Banks (L. A.), David and his Friends, 212.
Dinwoodie (J.), Outline Studies, 157.
Eyton (R.), The Search for God, 88.
Holden (J. S.), Life’s Flood-Tide, 35.
Jeffs (H.), The Art of Exposition, 133.
Jellett (H.), Sermons on Special and Festival Occasions, 115.
Maclaren (A.), The Book of Psalms (Expositor’s Bible), iii. 139.
Murphy (J. B. C.), The Service of the Master, 160.
Parker (J.), The City Temple, i. 147.
Perowne (J. J. S.), The Book of Psalms, ii. 223.
Spurgeon (C. H.), The Treasury of David, v. 77, 97.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, ix. (1886), No. 47.
Wordsworth (C.), Christian Boyhood at a Public School, ii. 189.