Great Texts of the Bible
The Encompassing God
Thou hast beset me behind and before,
And laid thine hand upon me.—Psalm 139:51. That God besets us behind and before and has laid His hand on us is the crowning glory, as it is also the perpetual mystery, of human life. In the light of this truth nothing seems small or negligible. Every incident and every association of our lot takes on a new meaning. The stars have a fresh message for us; the flowers look up to us with intelligent faces; God walks in His garden still, and His voice calls for our recognition. Nothing becomes impossible for us; our strength is sufficient for our day, and new ideals press upon us for acceptance as soon as we have faithfully done the work of the immediate present.
2. We speak of God as a Person, for want of a better term to express the thought that He is self-conscious and freely acting, of a kind with ourselves in all that makes for the difference between the realm of the Personal and that of the Impersonal, though infinitely higher, not only than we are, but even than we can conceive. But we reach an even greater truth when we say that God is an all-encompassing Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our being, a Presence everywhere and in all things, a Source of boundless energy and influence, the Cause and Sustainer and Hope of all that is. There is nothing inconsistent in these propositions. It is the same God who, being a pervasive Spirit and having created us in His own image, maintains relations of tender watchfulness over His children.
Two great ideas underlie this beautiful text:
God’s Intimate Knowledge of Man.
God’s Individual Care of Man.
God’s Intimate Knowledge of Man
1. God accurately and exhaustively knows all that a man knows of himself. Every man who lives amid Christian influences has an intimate knowledge of himself. He thinks of the moral quality of some of his own feelings. He considers the ultimate tendency of some of his own actions. In other words, there is a part of his inward and his outward life with which he is well acquainted; of which he has a distinct apprehension. There are some thoughts of his mind at which he blushes at the very time of their origin, because he is vividly aware what they are, and what they mean. There are some emotions of his heart at which he trembles and recoils at the very moment of their uprising, because he perceives clearly that they involve a very malignant depravity. There are some actings of his will of whose wickedness he is painfully conscious at the very instant of their rush and movement.
Now, in reference to all this intimate self-knowledge, man is not superior to God. He may be certain that in no respect does he know more of himself than the Searcher of hearts knows. He may be an uncommonly thoughtful person, and little of what is done within his soul may escape his notice; let us make the extreme supposition that he arrests every thought as it rises, and looks at it; that he analyzes every sentiment as it swells his heart; that he scrutinizes every purpose as it determines his will—even if he should have such a thorough and profound self-knowledge as this, God knows him equally profoundly and equally thoroughly. This process of self-inspection may even go on indefinitely, and the man grow more and more thoughtful, and obtain an everlastingly augmenting knowledge of what he is and what he does, so that it seems to him that he is going down so far on that path which “the vulture’s eye hath not seen,” is penetrating so deeply into those dim and shadowy regions of consciousness where the external life takes its very first start, as to be beyond the reach of any eye and the ken of any intelligence but his own; and then he may be sure that God understands the thought that is afar off, and deep down, and that at this lowest range and plane in his experience He besets him behind and before.
Let us adore God for the streams of bounty which flow unceasingly from the fountains of His life, to all His countless creatures. But, on the other hand, beware lest in thus enlarging your view of the Infinite One, you lose your hold of the correlative truth—that though all beings of all worlds are His care, though His mind thus embraces the universe, He is yet as mindful of you, as if that universe were blotted out, and you alone survived to receive the plenitude of His care.1 [Note: W. E. Channing.]
2. Although the Creator designed that man should thoroughly understand himself, and gave him the power of self-inspection that he might use it faithfully and apply it constantly, yet man is exceedingly ignorant of himself. Men, says an old writer, are nowhere less at home than at home. Very few persons practise serious self-examination at all, and none employ the power of self-inspection with that carefulness and diligence with which they ought. Hence men generally are unacquainted with much that goes on within their own minds and hearts.
But God knows perfectly all that man might but does not know of himself. Though the transgressor is ignorant of much of his sin, because, at the time of its commission he sins blindly as well as wilfully, and unreflectingly as well as freely; and though the transgressor has forgotten much of that small amount of sin of which he was conscious, and by which he was pained, at the time of its perpetration; though on the side of man the powers of Self-inspection and memory have accomplished so little towards this preservation of man’s sin, yet God knows it all, and remembers it all. “He compasseth man’s path, and his lying down, and is acquainted with all his ways.” “There is nothing covered, therefore, that shall not be revealed; neither hid that shall not be known. Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness, shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets, shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops.” The Creator of the human mind has control over its powers of self-inspection and of memory, and when the proper time comes, He will compel these endowments to perform their legitimate functions, and do their appointed work.
You will never know what the Psalmist had in mind till you come upon a young mother all alone with her laughing babe. The hours are not long. The house is not lonesome for her, though she has been left for the day. She has her babe. See, it lies all uncovered in her lap! The mother is fair, but the child is fairer. She counts its fingers, she pulls its toes, she kisses its dimples, she pats its pudgy arms, she studies its features, she sounds to their depths its eyes and matches their colour with the skies. She helps it to stand. She coaxes it to walk. She teaches it to talk. She infects it with laughter. She bathes it with love. She tells it her secrets. She cries over it for joy. She multiplies its happiness and bears its sorrow. Mother and babe—in all the world there is no other vision one-half so fair. There is no knowledge like love, no explorer like solicitude. She knows every strength, every weakness, every beauty, every mark or scar, every characteristic, every disposition, every tendency, every fault, every charm. The mother has searched her babe and knows it. A mother with her babe in her arms—that is the Psalmist’s picture of the tender care of God for men.1 [Note: N. M. Waters.]
3. Let us not forget that there is a bright as well as a dark side to this picture. For if God’s exhaustive knowledge of the human heart wakens dread in one of its aspects, it starts infinite hope in another. If that Being has gone down into these depths of human depravity, and seen it with a more abhorring glance than could ever shoot from a finite eye, and yet has returned with a cordial offer to forgive it all, and a hearty proffer to cleanse it all away, then we can lift up the eye in adoration and in hope. There has been an infinite forbearance and condescension. The worst has been seen, and that too by the holiest of beings, and yet eternal glory is offered to us! God knows from personal examination the worthlessness of human character, with a thoroughness and intensity of knowledge of which man has no conception; and yet, in the light of that knowledge, in the very flame of that intuition, He has devised a plan of mercy and redemption.
Might I follow the bent of my own mind, my pen, such as it is, should be wholly employed in setting forth the infinite love of God to mankind in Christ Jesus, and in endeavouring to draw all men to the belief and acknowledgment of it. The one great mercy of God, which makes the one, only happiness of all mankind, so justly deserves all our thoughts and meditations, so highly enlightens and improves every mind that is attentive to it, so removes all the evils of this present world, so sweetens every state of life, and so inflames the heart with the love of every Divine and human virtue, that he is no small loser whose mind is either by writing or reading detained from the view and contemplation of it.1 [Note: William Law, An Earnest and Serious Answer.]
God’s Individual Care of Man
“Thou hast beset me.” Even words may fall into bad company. Because of its association many a noble word is misjudged. “Beset” is such a word. We speak of the “besetments” of life. We pray about the “sin which doth so easily beset us.” Job was beset with calamities. A traveller from Oriental lands tells us that at Cairo he was beset with dogs and beggars. A young man goes wrong, and through his tears of shame he tells how for months he has been literally beset with temptations. “Beset” we associate with evil. That is the ordinary use of the word. But that is not the Psalmist’s use. It is the glory of the Scriptures that they are always finding gold where men see only clay. The Psalmist takes this word out of man’s vocabulary and gives it a heavenly meaning. “Beset” is a strong word and it shall not belong to evil. The writer snatches it out of its evil surroundings and makes it spell out for evermore the love of God. “Thou hast beset me behind and before.” He is talking about God. It is a startling statement. It is like the old prophet and his servant. So long we have been pursued by evil. Every day we have seen the Syrians coming up against us. Every morning we have seen them closer, having moved up in the night. We are beset by them. That is the testimony of the generations. And now on this morning our eyes are opened, and, lo! the hills are “full of horses and chariots of fire.” Like the young man we cry: “They that be with us are more than they that be with them.” “We are besieged by goodness.” God has beset us!
When I was a very little boy I knew my father loved me. I took it as a matter of course; but I did not see that he had me in mind very much. When I was very little I thought houses and clothes and food and money were a matter of course, and I did not know anybody worked very hard to provide them for me. It takes a child quite a while to know that these ever-present necessaries are not free for the using like air for breathing, but that they cost somebody a great deal of sweat and anxiety. When I grew older I knew of course that father did it all—the home and food and clothes and money; but I did not know how much he did it for me. I saw but little of him. I heard him talk only a little. He was away and so busy and all wrapped up in his farm and mill and cattle and horses. That was his business and care. I was just incidental. Then I grew up to adult life and I saw it all as it was. He did not think about anything but his children. His mind was only a little on his farm. It was on his home. He did not care for his business except as it ministered to his family. His business was fatherhood; his farm was only the incident. He was laying his plans ahead. If the children were hungry, there was bread. If winter came, there were clothes. When they were old enough, there was a teacher ready for them. When temptation came to do wrong, there was also close at hand an enticement to do good. Once he was sick, and he thought, and we all thought, he was going to die. I heard him talking to mother and grandfather, laying out all his business plans, and I heard him say over and over: “That money is not to be touched beforehand. It is there to take Nancy to college.” He even spoke of the after years and said: “When the girls marry, I want them to have so and so.” Child that I was, I began to realize that father carried us all on his heart, and that in his plans he thought not only of the present, but took in all the future years. He really with his care and foresight “beset me behind and before.”1 [Note: N. M. Waters.]
1. “Thou hast beset me behind.” God stands between us and our enemies in the rear. He defends us from the hostility of our own past. He does not cut us away from our yesterdays. Consequences are not annihilated; their operations are changed. They are transformed from destructives into constructives. The sword becomes a ploughshare; the implement of destruction becomes an agent of moral and spiritual culture. The Lord “besets me behind,” and the sins of yesterday no longer send their poisoned swords into my life. They are changed into the ministers of a finer culture, nourishing godly sorrow, and humility, and meekness and self-mistrust. The failures and indiscretions of yesterday are no longer creatures of moral impoverishment and despair. He “besets me behind,” and they become the teachers of a quiet wisdom and well-proportioned thought.
When you reflect that your evil thoughts and dispositions as well as acts all lie naked and open before the Eye of God, even though they may have escaped the view of man, is this a subject of satisfaction, or of dissatisfaction? Would you have it otherwise if you could, and hide them from Him also? The Christian hates sin, and finding that neither his own nor any other human eye can effectually track it out in him, while he knows it to be the true and only curse and pest of the universe, must rejoice to think that there is One from whom it cannot lie hid—One who will weigh his own case, which he may feel to be to him unfathomable, in the scales of perfect justice and boundless mercy.1 [Note: Letters on Church and Religion of W. E. Gladstone, ii. 159.]
2. “And before.” God comes between us and the enemy that troubles us from to-morrow, the foe that lies ambushed in futurity and disturbs the peace of to-day. And so He deals with our fears and anxieties, and repeats the miracle of transformation, and changes them from swords into ploughshares. He changes destructive anxiety into a constructive thoughtfulness. He converts a lacerating fretfulness into an energetic contentment. He transforms an abject fear into a holy reverence. He takes the terror out of to-morrow, and enables us to live and labour in a fruitful calm.
When thunders roll
And lightnings slash the sky,
God of the Elements
When warring worlds
Make men in thousands die,
God of the Battle-field
When terrors lurk
And hearts in anguish cry,
God of humanity
When storm blasts rage
And lives in peril lie,
God of the Universe
When life ebbs low
And death is drawing nigh,
God of Eternity
Stand by.1 [Note: L. Leigh, The White Gate and Other Poems, 40.]
3. “And laid thine hand upon me.” When God lays His hand upon us, it means manifold blessing.
(1) His hand is a restraining hand.—One of the hardest tasks of parental love is to correct, to restrain. For is it not strange that a child who comes into life so pure from God should hold within it the possible germ of future wrong! The father, watching with proper pride the wonderful growth of thought and passion and will, is fearful of the day when first his child will follow evil. So long as that day is a day delayed, laughter and joy fill the home. But, in a moment, the germ of evil starts into life. It grows from less to more, until one day rebellion oversweeps the prentice soul, and the glamour of heaven is gone. A passion of anger shakes the child to the very foundation of its being. It is the first good-bye to innocence. Then come correction and punishment and restraint. A father’s strong arms hold the little body in check, as in the grip of an iron vice. The very touch of love in such a moment irritates. For anger maddens every soul. But there the father sits, in stern silence, holding his child in restraint, until he has gained the mastery. And when the passion has spent itself, then come floods of tears from the poor little penitent soul as he lays his conquered head upon his father’s breast.
The great American orator Daniel Webster, being asked what was his greatest thought, replied, “The greatest thought that ever entered my mind was that of my personal responsibility to a personal God.” In a famous speech he expanded the thought: “There is no evil that we cannot either face or flee from, but the consciousness of duty disregarded. A sense of duty pursues us ever. It is omnipresent, like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, duty performed or duty violated is still with us, for our happiness or our misery. If we say that darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us. We cannot escape their power nor fly from their presence. They are with us in this life, will be with us at its close, and, in that sense of inconceivable solemnity which lies yet farther onward, we shall still find ourselves surrounded by the consciousness of duty to pain us wherever it has been violated, and to console us so far as God has given us grace to perform it.”
If you would see the same principle in life, open your Shakespeare; imagine yourself on Bosworth field, before the tents of Richard and of Richmond; hear the ghosts as they rise and speak. At the door of Richard’s tent—
Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!
Think, how thou stab’dst me in my prime of youth
At Tewksbury: despair, therefore, and die!
At Richmond’s tent—
Be cheerful, Richmond; for the wronged souls
Of butcher’d princes fight in thy behalf:
King Henry’s issue, Richmond, comforts thee.
On Richard’s own confession—
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!…
Methought the souls of all that I had murder’d
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
Tomorrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.
Ghosts all, yet speaking in the voice of reality. Conscience wears the form of a haunting fiend as well as of a guiding friend. Yet it is no haunting fiend. “Thou hast beset me … and laid thine hand upon me.” “I will not leave thee, nor forsake thee.”
The promise is fulfilled as truly in the condemning voice of conscience as in our conviction of God’s power and peace.1 [Note: F. Ealand, The Spirit of Life, 55.]
(2) The hand suggests the ministry of guidance.—That is a most suggestive word, constantly in the book of the prophet Isaiah: “And the Lord said unto me with a strong hand.” Speech by strong graspings! Suggestion by grips! Guidance by the creation of a mighty impulse! The Lord declared His will unto the prophet Isaiah by implanting in his life the sense of a tremendous imperative, a terrific “must,” a consciousness which the prophet expressed under the symbol of the grasp of a “strong hand.” “Thy right hand shall guide me.”
There is surely nothing remote or obscure in the theme of God’s guidance. It is relevant and immediate to everybody. We differ in many things and in many ways; we differ in age and in calling, in physical fitness and in mental equipment; we differ in knowledge and accomplishments; we are greatly different in temperament, and therefore in the character of our daily strife. But in one thing we are all alike—we are pilgrims travelling between life and death, on an unknown road, not knowing how or when the road may turn; not knowing how or when it may end; and we are in urgent need of a Greatheart who is acquainted with every step of the way. We are all in need of a leader who will be our guide by the “waters of rest,” and also in the perilous ways of the heights.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Things that Matter Most, 111.]
(3) The hand suggests the ministry of soothing and comfort.—The nurse lays her cool hand upon the burning brow of her patient, and he exclaims, “How lovely that is!” And when we come into a sudden crisis in life, and are tempted to become feverish, and “heated hot with burning fears,” the Lord lays His cooling hand upon us, and we grow calm again. “And Jesus touched her, and the fever left her.”
Dr. Miller never forgot the universal need of comfort. “We forget how much sorrow there is in the world,” he one day remarked. “Why, there are hearts breaking all about us. I have made it a rule of my ministry never to preach a sermon without giving some word of comfort to the sorrowing. In every congregation there is sure to be some soul hungering for consolation. I spent the afternoon of Wednesday with two or three sore sufferers. In conversation with them I spoke freely of their trials and their comforts.… Comfort is one of life’s best blessings. Even the comfort of earthly friends is soothing and sweet. But the real comfort which the Holy Spirit brings to the heart of the Christian mourner is infinitely better.… It is better to go into the furnace and get the image of Christ out of the fire, than to be saved from the fire and fail of the blessed likeness.”2 [Note: J. T. Faris, Jesus and I are Friends: Life of Dr. J. R. Miller, 102.]
Barnett (T. R.), The Blessed Ministry of Childhood, 51.
Ealand (F.), The Spirit of Life, 55.
Jowett (J. H.), Brooks by the Traveller’s Way, 22.
Martineau (J.), Endeavours after the Christian Life, 13
Street (C. J.), in Sermons by Unitarian Ministers, i. 13.
Christian Age, xxxiv. 386 (H. P. Liddon).
Homiletic Review, xlix. 371 (N. M. Waters).
National Preacher, xxxvi. 191 (W. G. T. Shedd).
Preachers’ Monthly, v. 73 (C. S. Robinson).