Great Texts of the Bible
The Perfect Law
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul:
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart:
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever:
The judgements of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
1. This Psalm consists of two parts—so distinct that some have held that their union was an afterthought, and that they must originally have belonged to different hymns. The supposition is scarcely necessary, for surely the transition is not an unnatural or a violent one—from the thought of God in nature to that of God in revelation. And very instructive is it to note how the Psalmist suggests a contrast between the two by the different names for God which he employs in the two parts of the Psalm. The Hebrew tongue has many names for God, but there are two principal ones, and it is often interesting to see which is employed. There is first the ordinary name for God, “Elohim,” or “El,” a name which simply speaks of the Supreme Being, the Maker and Creator of all things visible and invisible, but tells us nothing of His nature and character. But there is also the name by which God specially revealed Himself as entering into covenant with man, which spoke of His personal relations to His own people, His manifestation to them, and His unchanging love for them. This is what we might reverently call the “proper name” of God. It is sometimes represented in our Bibles as Jehovah, more often simply as the Lord, the translators having followed Jewish custom, which shrank, from motives of reverence, from pronouncing the word Jehovah because of its sacredness, and ordinarily substituted for it another word meaning Lord. Now when we turn to the Psalm before us, what do we find? In the first part, consisting of verses 1 to 6, of which the subject is Nature, we are told that the heavens declare the glory of God. It is God—El, the strong, the mighty—whom the world around reveals. Of God as Power you can learn from Nature. Would you know Him as Love, as entering into personal relations with man—for this, the Psalmist seems to say, you must go to Revelation. And therefore, in the second part of the Psalm, from verse 7 onwards, where he describes the glory of the revealed law, the name of Him who gives it is changed. He no longer speaks of Him simply as God. It is the law of the Lord that is perfect. The Lord—that is, Jehovah, the covenant name under which the Almighty revealed Himself to Moses at the bush, the name which spoke to every Jew of One who had set His love upon man, who was mindful of him, and entered into closest personal relations with him.1 [Note: 1 E. C. S. Gibson, The Old Testament and its Messages, 128.]
2. The Psalm may perhaps have been written in the first flush of an Eastern sunrise, when the sun was seen “as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoicing as a strong man to run his course.” The song breathes all the life and freshness, all the gladness and glory of the morning. The devout singer looks out, first, on the works of God’s fingers, and sees all creation bearing its constant though silent testimony to its Maker; and then he turns himself with a feeling of deep satisfaction to that yet clearer and better witness concerning Him to be found in the moral law. Thus he begins the day; thus he prepares himself for the duties that await him, for the temptations that may assail, and the sorrows that may gather as a cloud about him. He has made trial of the preciousness of that word. He knows its deep, hallowing, soul-sustaining power. He knows that it is full of life and healing. But he knows also that it is a word that searches and tries the heart, that reveals the holiness of God, and the sinfulness of man; and therefore he bows himself in prayer, saying, “As for errors,—who can understand them? Cleanse thou me from secret faults.”2 [Note: J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Psalms, i. 86.]
The twofold subject of this Psalm is one which in all ages has served (with variations according to the nature of the religion of the thinker) as the theme of pious meditation. Those eternal “Lieder ohne Worte,” the music of the spheres, have ever sung to the thoughtful heart the glory of the Creator. Plato declares that the wondrous order of the heavens is a proof of God’s existence. Hafiz enlarges on the same topic, telling us how even the sweet scent and beauteous hue of the tiniest floweret that decks the field is but an efflux of the perfections of the Divinity. St. Paul shows how the heathen were not left without a witness of God, either in the external world or in their own conscience. Kant is said to have remarked that the two things which most forcibly impressed him with a feeling of the sublime were the starry heavens above him and the moral sense within him. And Lord Bacon, in the very spirit of this Psalm, writes, “I have delighted in the brightness of Thy temple. Thy creatures have been my books; but Thy Scriptures much more. I have sought Thee in the courts, fields, and gardens; I have found Thee in Thy temples.”1 [Note: Jennings and Lowe, The Psalms , 76.]
The Scope of God’s Law
1. The Psalmist opens his eyes and sees in all nature the manifestation of law, of regularity, of reason. His eyesight, turning its native simplicity upon the scene before him, is quite enough to reveal to him this rude secret which it is the whole duty of science to elucidate, this august rhythm, so firm and so tireless, in which the endless succession of day and night proceeds. This it is that overpowers him, “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge”—each arrives at its turn without disorder, without accident, or chance, or perplexity. There is about it all, as the mighty drama discloses itself, the calmness, the majesty, of rational knowledge. As far as imagination can go, still the same reasonable law holds good, still those ordained successions proceed, still all move along allotted pathways, still the evidence of conscious thought meets the searching gaze, still it is as if the round earth everywhere were trembling on the verge of speech. This language of theirs which is heard in the silence reaches unto the very ends of the world. And so, too, with this leaping sun, this bridegroom, which travels with such steady precision, with such unfaltering certainty, along the course set before him. He also never comes to the close of his mission, he also is universal in his range. His going forth is from the uttermost part of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it, and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof—universal law acting in silence, with absolute security of rhythm.
That is the vision which overawes the Psalmist; and is not that the very essence of our scientific presentation of Nature? Law acting in silence, that is Nature as science discloses it. Silently, in dumb show, world within world of intricate law work out their allotted transformations. We look upon the strange and busy process, as in and out, with sure accuracy, all ply their business. Most amazing! But it is dumb, some say, as they gaze; it tells nothing, it works, works in a silence that is as death; there is no voice, neither any to answer; it offers no interpretation of itself, it suggests no language and responds to no thought; it is dumb mechanism beating out an aimless task. No, we cry with the Psalmist, silent it may be, but this perfect law, this undeviating order, this calm precision, this infinite regularity of succession, this steady certainty of movement, this unbroken universality, these disciplined forces, this rhythmic harmony, this balance, this precaution, this response of day to day and night to night, that is intelligence, that is reason, that is consciousness, that is speech! No one can face it in its wholeness, part answering to part, and each to all, without becoming aware of its mystic eloquence. It all speaks, speaks as it works, speaks without a language, speaks without a sound. Reason answers to reason as deep to deep. There may be no speech or language in these dumb motions, but for all that, voices are heard among them, their sound goes out unto all the lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.
It is noticeable that the very period in which science has given svich astounding development to our astronomical knowledge should also have been marked by a poetical development which, through the genius of Wordsworth, restored to us that primitive vision of nature with a purity, an austerity, and a vitality which has never been paralleled since the Psalms were written. Through him we see again the earth and sky as the Psalmist saw them. We see them not as under the conceits of a rhetorical emotion which can afford to disregard science only because its purpose is so superficial and trifling. That is precisely the conception of poetry which Wordsworth overthrew. He renewed its seriousness; he stripped it of poetic fiction; he made us see nature as men who are being disciplined for eternity, who can allow themselves no idle dreams, being far too much in earnest to take the beauty of nature as the plaything of a passing hour—men who abhor shows and outward vanities, and who press through by strenuous patience into the deep heart of things. It was no rhetorician, no emotional sentimentalist, who found, in that primeval outlook over the things of the earth, the solidity of a revelation. It was in the service, in the solemn service, of modern duty that he sang in words that breathed the innermost spirit of the text—
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong!
And the most ancient heavens, through Thee, are fresh and strong.1 [Note: H. Scott Holland.]
I remember well my first visit to Chamounix. I had read of it, I had heard about it, and I had imagined it; and now I can only say to you, that no vigour of imagination can paint in your mind a scene which is ineffably glorious, and which can be believed only by being seen. But before I got to Chamounix the sun went down, night came, and the shadows went stealing up the mountains till they drove the sun’s golden feet from where they lingered on the highest peak. And then we came to the place, and we heard the wind moaning among the hills, and the sounds of mighty torrents that made one shudder. Here and there a feeble light in the darkness only made the scene more desolate and awful. You threaded your way at last into the hotel, and then with a sigh you said, “What did I come here for? It was a much better place at home.” And seven hours passed by, and there came from heaven the glorious light, and the vapours and darkness vanished, and before me God’s mighty and manifold works stood in all their beauty. The eyes saw what tongue cannot tell, and what the soul can never forget. The light revealed it all, it did not create it. God’s great work was there, and the light had revealed it to me; so that my experience was that of the pilgrim at Bethel, Surely “this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”2 [Note: C. Vince, The Unchanging Saviour, 168.]
I asked the earth, and it answered me, “I am not He”; and all the things that are in it confessed the same. I asked the sea and the depths, and the moving creatures, and they answered, “We are not thy God; seek above us.” I asked the air, and the whole air, with the inhabitants thereof, answered, “Anaximenes was wrong; I am not thy God.” I asked the heavens, sun, moon, and stars. “Nor,” say they, “are we the God whom thou seekest.” And I replied unto all the things around, “Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He: tell me something of Him.” And they cried out with a loud voice, “He made us.”1 [Note: Augustine, Confessions, x. 9.]
Not only in the Book
Is found God’s word,
But in the song of every brook
And every bird.
In sun and moon and star
His message shines!
The flowers that fleck the green fields are
His fragrant lines.
His whisper in the breeze,
And His the voice
That bids the leaves upon the trees
Sing and rejoice.
Go forth, O soul! nor fear
Nor doubt, for He
Shall make the ears of faith to hear—
The eyes to see.2 [Note: F. D. Sherman.]
2. But the Psalmist turns his eyes in upon himself, and he finds another world—a world, too, of law, of certainty, of regularity, of order, no less than the world of Nature. Still here, too, the same harmonies hold good, the same successions move in appointed sequence; part answers to part, and every part to the whole. Here, too, all is sane, rational, secure, quiet, and sure, as the silent stars in the night; this great work proceeds according to allotted precautions, by rule and measure and mind, punctual and precise as the sun moving out of his chamber in the morning. This higher order of life moves along the course set before it, and its laws never flag or fail; no chance confuses it, and no unruly accident disturbs it. Man can count on these laws with the same absolute validity as that with which he counts on sunrise or on sunset. And what is this wonderful world that spreads away on every side to this ancient watcher of the skies? What are these undeviating laws which lay themselves alongside of those unbroken uniformities which govern the stars in their courses? We know it is the world of consciousness, the world of the moral law, the world of the religious spirit, the world of the fear of the Lord.
As fire burns, as water runs, so the fear of the Lord holds on its way with undeviating certitude. Look up at the strong sun moving through its unalterable successions! It cometh, we say, from the uttermost part of the earth, and runneth about unto the ends of the world, and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof. It is the very type of necessity. “Sure as the sun in the heavens, sure as the sun will rise to-morrow”—so we say. Just such is the law of the Lord, the law of the moral life. It works with the same relentless accuracy, with the same clearness, with the same persistence: nothing can hold it back or turn it aside, or hide it, or deny it, or escape it, or defy it. There is nothing hid from the heat thereof. On and on it bears down upon us, and its light pierces, and embraces, and searches, and reveals! We must stand in it! The soul is laid bare under it, wrapped round by that dread heat which burns its way in! Nothing can be hid! Oh, the severity of such a searching fire! Who can relieve the strain? Who can soften the flame? What may not we be proved to have done under such a scrutiny!1 [Note: H. Scott Holland.]
We call it the law of God. It is so in the sense in which it is your law and mine. It is greater than God’s throne, nay, His throne rests upon it. He obeys it, rules by it,—else He might be Zeus, or Jupiter, the fickle, wayward, unrighteous tyrant of classic mythology, but not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father. The law is inherent in its subject-matter, in the very nature of things, and omnipotence can no more set it aside than it can make two and two five, or a circle equal to the polygon that incloses it. A Zeus might ignore the law; but though he held in his grasp all created beings and things, he could not make the wrong right, or the right wrong.2 [Note: A. P. Peabody, The King’s Chapel Sermons, 95.]
3. The Psalmist is first attracted by the external glory. He opens his eyes upon the world of Nature, and beholds it with a gaze of childlike joy. To him it is, at a first glance, the personification of gladness. All things are messengers of the Divine glory. The heavens are telling the glory of the Lord; day communicates the message to day, and night to night. The sun is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoicing as a strong man rejoices to run his course. The message of joy is widespread and catholic, presenting a striking contrast to the limited scope of Judaism; its voice has gone forth unto all the earth, and its words unto the end of the world. And yet, with all its catholicity and with all its widespread power, the eloquence of Nature is a silent eloquence: “There is no speech, nor language; their voice cannot be heard.” The aspect of the outer universe, as it appears to the eye of the Psalmist, is that of an all-pervading, joyous, yet silently working power, uniting the lives of men in a common brotherhood; and, as we read his opening expressions of enthusiasm, we are fully prepared to find the keynote of his strain prolonged through the entire meditation.
But suddenly there is a hiatus in the song. The Singer seems to interrupt himself in the midst of his enthusiastic melody, as if a string of the harp were broken. At the very moment when he seems lost in the admiration of the world of Nature, he all at once breaks out into a strain which sounds like a revolt from the external: “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Can we account for this seeming break in the harmony? Can we explain the apparent abruptness in the transition of thought, and restore unity to the Psalmist’s theme? If we call in the aid of something more than the canons of criticism, if we fall back upon the standpoint of intellectual sympathy, we shall find no difficulty in seeing that the unity has never been broken. For is it not evident that the seeming abruptness of the transition is in reality the result of a close continuity of thought? The Psalmist has been expatiating on the wonders of Nature; he has been revelling in the declaration of God’s visible glory and in the traces of His creative power. Yet in the very midst of his exultation he feels that his mind is not filled. This calm beautiful Nature, where is “no speech nor language,” is too silent to satisfy his soul. He feels somehow that its voice is not for him, that its sympathy is not for him, that he is receiving no answer to the communings of his heart. In the momentary reaction he turns his eye inward, and there opens to his sight a new world—the world of Conscience. He finds himself in the presence of another glory of God, another manifestation of the Infinite. All at once there breaks upon his mind the conviction that the second glory is strong just where the first glory seemed weak; that the world of Conscience supplies to a human soul the very elements which it lacks in the world of Nature, and that in supplying these elements it becomes the other side of the Divine revelation, the second half of the twofold Majesty.
The day closed with heavy showers. The plants in my garden were beaten down before the pelting storm, and I saw one flower that I had admired for its beauty and loved for its fragrance exposed to the pitiless storm. The flower fell, shut up its petals, drooped its head, and I saw that all its glory was gone. “I must wait till next year,” I said, “before I see that beautiful thing again.” And the night passed, and morning came, and the sun shone again, and the morning brought strength to the flower. The light looked at it, and the flower looked at the light. There was contact and communion, and power passed into the flower. It held up its head, opened its petals, regained its glory, and seemed fairer than before. I wonder how it took place—this feeble thing coming into contact with the strong thing, and gaining strength!
By devout communion and contact a soul gains strength from Christ. I cannot tell how it is that I should be able to receive into my being a power to do and to bear by this communion, but I know that it is a fact.1 [Note: C. Vince, The Unchanging Saviour, 173.]
The Character of God’s Law
The Law is characterized by six names and nine epithets and by nine effects. The names are law, testimony, statutes, commandments, fear, judgments. To it are applied nine epithets, namely, perfect, sure, right, pure, holy, true, righteous, desirable, sweet. To it are ascribed nine effects, namely, it converts the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes, endures for ever, enriches like gold, satisfies like honey, warns against sin, rewards the obedient.
The six names here given to the word of God are the same six names that are spread through the 119th Psalm. These six names are law, testimony, statutes, commandment, fear (what produces fear), and judgments. Studied more closely, it suggests that law and testimony have a close relation, as also have statutes and commandments, and fear and judgments. There is here even a deeper and profounder suggestion than possibly has ever struck many a reader—namely, that as law has three main features or departments, first, common law,—principles or precepts upon which all specific statutes are based,—next statute law, or the commandments and precepts themselves, built up on the basis of common law,—and then legal sanctions, of reward and penalty, which sustain both common and statute law, giving the law authority, certainty of execution, and glory in the eyes of men, so these three things are distinctly referred to in this inspired poem. Law and testimony concern the common law. Law is the one word of the six, most general and covering the largest meaning. Testimony is another name very wide in its application, for it is God’s witness to men concerning His will and His character. Statutes, however, represent specific precepts; and so do commandments. But, when we come to consider that which in the law produces fear in the subject, and overawes by its judgments or irreversible decisions, we at once think of the sanctions which sustain the whole fabric of law and rule, as we have already been reminded of common law and statute law.1 [Note: A. T. Pierson, The Hopes of the Gospel, 10.]
God needs for the manifold illustration of His perfect law, and man needs for example and encouragement in keeping it, that it show its resplendent beauty and reveal its transcending loveliness alike on the throne and on the cross, in prosperous and in adverse fortunes, in buoyant strength and vigour, and in infirmity, illness, and suffering, with the praise and under the frowns of men, in honour and beneath scorn and contempt. I have never forgotten what was said many years ago by a clerical friend of mine on his death-bed, “My words are few and feeble; but the pulpit from which I utter them must give them weight and power.” Have we not, all of us, witnessed in the patience, resignation, and trust of those most severely afflicted such demonstration as no words could convey of the peace which God gives to those who love and keep His law? Thus the faithful law-keepers have numbered in their ranks equally those for whom the world has done its best, and those who have endured its severest privations and trials.2 [Note: A. P. Peabody, King’s Chapel Sermons, 100.]
1. “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.” In the world of Nature there is no provision for the restoration of the soul. It neither praises nor blames; it neither weeps nor laughs; it neither applauds nor condemns the acts of struggling humanity; and, amidst all the speech which day utters unto day and night to night, there is no evidence that one word is spoken of interest in a fallen spirit.
But when the Psalmist turns his eye inward, he finds in the revelation of Conscience that which in Nature he sought in vain: “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.” The perfection which he sees is the adaptation to a world of imperfection. He hears a voice speaking to his humility, to his nothingness, to his abasement. He is in communion with a revelation which recognizes him in his ruin, which speaks to him in his fallen majesty. True it is a rough voice uttering a stern command, speaking in an accent of strong rebuke; but it is precisely this that endears it to his soul. It is not the placid tone of the indifferent universe, which seems to pass him by on the other side; it is the stern speech of a wounded parent who, in the depth of offended love, cannot pass him by.
If the mountain would have come to Mahomet, Mahomet would not have gone to the mountain. If we could twist and bend the law at pleasure, we could convert it, instead of its converting us. In our sins, great or small, we virtually try to evade the law, to get round it, to violate it and shirk its penalty, to make for ourselves a law independent of it—but in vain. When we will not keep the law, the law executes itself upon and in us, body, mind, and soul, all three, it may be. To find this true is our unspeakable blessedness; for when we learn that we cannot escape the law, we embrace it, take it to our hearts, incarnate it in our lives; and then it becomes our light and our joy, and we experience the full meaning of those good words of the early time, “Great peace have they who love thy law.” It becomes, too, not our restraint, but our freedom; for when the finite range of things forbidden by it is cut off for us, we emerge into unbounded liberty of choice in the infinite scope of things excellent, Divine, eternal.1 [Note: A. P. Peabody, King’s Chapel Sermons, 96.]
2. “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” It is a definite voice, a voice addressed to the child in the man, and therefore capable of being understood by all men. It speaks to the conscience in the prohibitory form in which law speaks to the child: “Thou shalt; thou shalt not.” It gives no reason for its command beyond the fact that it has commanded; it is what Kant grandly calls “the categorical imperative”; it speaks as the ultimate authority from which there can be no appeal. It is this that makes its testimony so sure, and that renders it so powerful in “making wise the simple.” It realizes the fine image of the poet Cowper when he says that the words “Believe and live” are legible only by the light which radiates from them. The child-life is not perplexed by an effort to find the reason of the thing; this thing is itself the reason; it shines by its own light.
A well-informed writer in the Kilmarnock Standard states that Thomas Carlyle, not long before his death, was in conversation with the late Dr. John Brown, and expressed himself to the following effect: “I am now an old man, and done with the world. Looking around me, before and behind, and weighing all as wisely as I can, it seems to me there is nothing solid to rest on but the faith which I learned in my old home, and from my mother’s lips.”1 [Note: The Treasury of Religious Thought, Oct. 1903, p. 487.]
Sometime when all life’s lessons have been learned,
And sun and stars for evermore have set;
The things which our weak judgment here has spurned,
The things o’er which we grieved with lashes wet,
Will flash before us out of life’s dark night,
As stars shine most in deeper tints of blue;
And we shall see how all God’s plans were right,
And how what seemed reproof was love most true.
3. “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” Nature is a revelation of many things which are very nearly allied to morality: it is a revelation of the beautiful; it is a revelation of the useful; it is, in some sense, a revelation of the true. But while beauty, utility, and truth are all included in the conception of the moral consciousness, neither any of them singly nor all of them united would suffice to give that consciousness. A moral action is more than beautiful, more than useful, more than intellectually true; it is right. The difference between right and wrong is fundamentally distinct from the difference between beauty and deformity, expediency and inexpediency, intellectual truth and intellectual error. It cannot be ascribed to any other sense than the moral consciousness, just as light cannot be ascribed to any other sense than the eye. The physical universe cannot implant the moral idea in one who is not already in possession of that idea. Therefore it is that, according to the implication of the Psalmist, the physical universe cannot “rejoice the heart.” If a heart is already joyful it can minister to that joy; but it cannot put joy into a sad heart; it has no power to make glad. And it has no power for this reason, that it cannot say to the soul of its own sadness, “It is right”; it cannot tell a man in the season of his calamity that his calamity is a moral ordinance designed to make him spiritually strong. It can tell him that the calamities of life are forces of Nature; it may even promise him that they will be found to be in harmony with the symmetry of the universe: but it cannot say to him the one thing which alone can give him peace, that they are the will of God for his salvation.
In Conscience he finds that personal comfort in calamity which he lacked in the voice of Nature—something which tells him to be still and know that the Judge of all the earth does right. It is not the mere testimony to a future symmetry of all things; it is not the mere prophecy of a completed harmony which shall vindicate the minor chords of the universe: such testimonies speak beautifully in favour of the universe, but they say little in favour of man. If my individual life is to be begun, continued, and ended in sorrow, it is small comfort to me that the completed harmony of creation will make use of my discord. But when in the hour of my calamity I hear a voice saying, “This is right for you: this is good for you as an individual man,” I hear something which can rejoice the heart. I am no longer forced to come out of my private sorrow to contemplate the eternal harmonies to which my groans are an unconscious and an unwilling contribution. I am allowed to look into my private sorrow itself and to see in it a Divine statute given to my soul, a species of sacramental bread administered to my spiritual being which is bitter in its appropriation, but certain in its promise of nourishment; and I am able with some appreciation to echo the Psalmist’s words, “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.”
To the growing soul, there are, with maturing life, deeps of joy and an ever-increasing capacity for delight. Ever grander are the chords of happiness struck by experience—provided we keep near the Author and Giver of all, who has more yet to bestow. “Experience worketh hope.” It is simple fact, absolute truth, verifiable science, that delighting oneself in the Lord means constant joy. As surely as Huyghens demonstrated the wave theory, of which Marconi’s wireless was but practical proof, so have the prophets, martyrs and common saints shown in their lives the truth of the psalm of delights. They have fulfilled the joy of Jesus. Even the Son of God in humanity did not disdain the motive of happiness. He “for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.” Surely, this is a challenge to us to do the same. So ought we to learn that the daily cultivation of joy is both a duty and the best strengthener for life’s burdens. It prepares us for whatever mortal existence may, and the eternities certainly will, bring us. Life is short, and affliction light. Joy is for ever. He who is “made after the power of an endless life” teaches this.1 [Note: W. Elliot Griffis, The Call of Jesus to Joy, 9.]
4. “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” The metaphor is perhaps that of pure water, in whose uninterrupted medium a man can see himself reflected. It suggests that the revealing medium of Nature is not uninterrupted. Nature does not convey the impression of an unmixed revelation of love. It has its storms as well as its calms, its clouds as well as its sunshine, its thunders and earthquakes and fires as well as its still small voices. To-day it is all gentle, serene, placid; tomorrow its brow may be furrowed with wrath and its accents hoarse with anger. The Psalmist cannot see in Nature a pure reflexion of his human wants. It adapts itself to his wants chiefly in those points in which he is allied to the beast of the field; meets him rather as a creature than as a human creature; fails to supply his needs the moment his needs rise above the level of the irrational creation. But when he enters the secret places of his own soul, he looks upon a pure water of life in which he sees himself reflected at full length. It is true there are storms here also; indeed, we are not sure that Schenkel is not right when he says that the very idea of Conscience implies a disturbance in the moral nature. But here lies the difference between the storms of Nature and the storms of Conscience: in the former my destiny is obscured, in the latter it is made manifest. In the moral tempest of the heart I see myself more clearly. I recognize in the very sense of struggle an adaptation to my deepest wants as a human being; for I find in the sense of struggle the prophetic intimation that this is not my rest, and I hear the ever-repeated command which was heard by the ancient patriarch, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred.” The struggles of Conscience are the soul’s premonitions of an unfulfilled destiny; and the human portraiture bulks larger when reflected through the troubled waters. “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.”
Another abstract theme which Watts has impersonated is “Conscience,” or the Dweller in the Innermost. A female figure with stern gesture and eyes like a flame of fire, is seen in the centre of a luminous mist that ripples round it to the edge. There is a radiant star in the middle of her forehead, and on either side are doves with soft plumage and half-outstretched wings. The breast is covered with a downy, loosely-fitting mantle, out of which at regular intervals protrude large dark feathers, which form a strange kind of halo around the face and neck. One arm is laid across her bosom, and the other supports her head in an attitude of meditation. In her lap are the arrows with which she pricks the hearts of men into conviction, and the trumpet which shall ultimately summon to the judgment-seat all mankind, there to be tried for the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad. The star on the brow may mean the eternal light of truth, of which conscience is the presentment; the doves that surround the head, the innocence and purity that characterize all her thoughts and ways; and the feathers in the mantle may remind us of the rapid flight and the keen vision of birds, with which the quick decisions, and the all-discerning, all-penetrating insight of conscience may be suitably compared. Conscience is thus light, is winged, dwells in the heart of life, is armed with avenging weapons, and looks into the unseen. We ask ourselves when gazing upon that mysterious Being with the fiery eyes and the sharp arrows and the trumpet of judgment, why it is that the Dweller in the Innermost has not a more complete control of our lives. Why is it that it enables us to see what is right, and yet we care little for it when we have seen it; that it gives us the knowledge of what is wrong, and yet we are not pained in doing that wrong? As conscience is constituted, it is never what it ought to be in the best of men, and it is never without some witnessing power in the worst.1 [Note: H. Macmillan, Life Work of G. F. Watts, 187.]
I was ashamed, I dared not lift my eyes,
I could not bear to look upon the skies;
What I had done! sure, everybody knew!
From everywhere hands pointed where I stood,
And scornful eyes were piercing through and through
The moody armour of my hardihood.
I heard their voices too, each word an asp
That buzz’d and stung me sudden as a flame:
And all the world was jolting on my name,
And now and then there came a wicked rasp
Of laughter, jarring me to deeper shame.
And then I looked, but there was no one nigh,
No eyes that stabbed like swords or glinted sly,
No laughter creaking on the silent air:
And then I found that I was all alone
Facing my soul, and next I was aware
That this mad mockery was all my own.2 [Note: James Stephens, The Hill of Vision, 65.]
5. “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever.” The metaphor here is probably that of the unblemished offering. Nothing which was unclean was allowed to have part in the life of the nation; nothing which had a blemish in it was suffered to ascend in sacrifice to the Fountain of Life. The unblemished sacrifice, whatever else it symbolized, was a symbol of immortality; it marked the transition of the soul into a higher life; and it implied that such a transition could be made only by a soul emancipated from its uncleanness. What, then, is the bearing of this metaphor on the Psalmist’s meditation? What does he mean by the implication that the revelation of God in physical Nature is a less clean manifestation than the revelation of God in Conscience? He clearly means to suggest that the revelation of Nature does not convey to the mind the notion of immortality. It is not that the eye, as it looks upon the face of Nature, is impressed with its frailty and its perishableness; its silence on the subject of immortality would be equally profound although we knew, as a matter of fact, that Nature would endure for ever. For the silence lies here: even if the universe were everlasting, it would still be a contingent universe; it does not convey the impression of something which must be. It would always be felt that its eternity lay in some force external to its own.
What the spirit of man wants is something whose death is inconceivable, which not only will be, but must be, which cannot even in thought be associated with the idea of annihilation. It f seeks what the Egyptians are supposed to have sought when they built those colossal pyramids—a sign of immortality, an emblem of eternity, an image of life that cannot die. This is what the Egyptians failed to find in the pyramids; this is what the Psalmist failed to find in Nature. Nature did not convey to him the idea of cleanness, did not suggest to him the thought of a necessary existence, of a life whose very essence was incorruptible, of a world which must live in the very nature of things; he missed in it the sign of immortality. But when he turned his eye inward, he was once more arrested by the very thing he wanted. In the commandment of Conscience he was confronted by the sign of immortality, and found that which even in thought he could not imagine not to be.
The great German philosopher, at the distance of three millenniums, has not been ashamed to reproduce the same experience. We can, as we have said, imagine a time when other systems shall circle other suns, and other physical forces shall obey other laws. But we can never imagine a time, go where this spirit may, when the forces of the moral universe shall cease to be what they are. We can never conceive a period when right shall be anything but right, or wrong anything but wrong. We can never figure to ourselves a world where “malice and hatred and envy and all uncharitableness” shall be other than loathsome and repulsive, where integrity, uprightness, purity of heart, benevolence, “the love of love, the scorn of scorn, and the hate of hate” shall be other than things of beauty and joys for ever. In this world of Conscience the Psalmist finds the sign of immortality; for he meets with that whose negation is inconceivable. Heaven and earth might pass away; their existence hung upon a thread of contingency; there was no reason in the nature of things why they should not cease to be: but this Divine word of Conscience, this word spoken in the inner chamber of the soul, could not pass away; once spoken, it must reverberate through all time.1 [Note: G. Matheson.]
6. “The judgements of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.” Law and love are not opposed to one another. One of the sure tokens of God’s Fatherhood is the inflexibility of His moral administration, by which alone we are turned to the right and kept in the right. The retributions of the world to come are the merciful discipline of Him who wills not that any should perish.
The Psalmist perceived that in Nature the retribution and the payment take no account of moral character; they are given simply for the special work omitted, and for the special work accomplished. The missionary may be the most pious of men, but if he goes to sea in a bad ship he will probably go to the bottom. The judgment is righteous so far as it goes; Nature exacts respect to its laws of cohesion, and if a man disregards these, she punishes him. But what of the missionary zeal, what of the fervent piety, what of the enthusiasm for humanity, which has prompted the enterprise? Has the judgment of Nature been in congruity with that? We feel instinctively that it has not; we feel that the judgment is only physically true, that the violated elements in avenging their infringement have failed to appreciate the moral grandeur of the man’s character. As long as we fix our eye exclusively on the physical universe, we are perpetually confronted by the same experience: “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good.” Nature is morally impartial. No special sunbeam follows the upright; no special cloud tracks the course of the ungodly. The lightning does not dart from the sky to paralyse the hand of the murderer, nor does the thunder roll displeasure on the deed of crime.
But in his own conscience a man is confronted by a direct judgment upon its right and wrong—a judgment which speaks to it only as a moral being, and refuses to deal with any other sphere than that of actions. It is a judgment invisible to every eye save that of him for whom it is intended, a sentence inaudible to every ear save that of him to whom it speaks. A man basking in the outward sunshine may be under its cloud; a man wrapt in the outward cloud may be under its illumination. But however silent and however invisible is its operation, its force to him who experiences it is terribly real. The judgment of Conscience upon goodness is the gift bequeathed by the Divine Founder of Christianity: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you.” Christianity has brought into the world a joy which the world knows not, a peace which, like its illustrious Giver, shines in an uncomprehending darkness. Into this invisible joy, into this uncomprehended peace, the pure soul enters and finds repose. He passes noiselessly into the paradise of God, and receives in the midst of the world that crown of which the world is unconscious. He obtains from the silent testimony of a reconciled Conscience that recognition of moral purity which the many voices of Nature fail to yield; and in that recognition he reaches the supply of the last remaining want in the physical revelation: “The judgements of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”
Roll back; and through a mist of tears
I see a child turn from her play,
And seek, with eager feet, the way
That led her to her father’s knee.
“If God is wise and kind,” said she,
“Why did He let my roses die?”
A moment’s pause, a smile, a sigh,
And then, “I do not know, my dear,
Some questions are not answered here.”
“But is it wrong to ask?” “Not so,
My child. That we should seek to know
Proves right to know, beyond a doubt;
And some day we shall yet find out
Why roses die.”
And then I wait,
Sure of my answer, soon or late;
Secure that love doth hold for me
The key to life’s great mystery;
And oh! so glad to leave it there!
Though my dead roses were so fair.
The Joy of Obedience
1. Law is the expression of highest love, and can be fulfilled only by love. The perfectness of this law-keeping life we have in Jesus, and of all the praises which the worship of these nineteen centuries has heaped upon His name, the superlative ground of reverence, love, loyal discipleship, thankful commemoration of Him on earth till we fall at His feet in heaven, is that in Him alone we have the living law—the law of the Lord which is perfect, incarnate in a life no less perfect.
The Psalmist saw a great deal more than most people of God’s loving spirit, as embodied in the law. By his aspirations and by his prayers, the law had become greater and dearer to him than to most men: and when in moments of deep devotion he asked God for greater delight in His law, he cried not out, “Give me more law,” but he cried, “Give me light,” “Open mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” And the answer to his devout prayer has been given to us through Jesus.1 [Note: C. Vince, The Unchanging Saviour, 170.]
2. When love is the motive, obedience becomes not only a privilege, but a delight. The moments when for duty, for righteousness’ sake, in the service of God, and of man as the child of God, we have made strenuous effort or costly sacrifice, have been the great moments of our lives,—they have given us immeasurably more than happiness,—we would have incurred what we call unhappiness in order to secure them. When, too, our lives have flowed on in an even course of faithful duty, with no breaks of supineness, negligence, waywardness, discontent, or unkindness, with no intervals on a lower plane than the table-land on which we can walk at equal pace with God and with man, it has been for us an experience immeasurably more blessed than we have derived from any fulness of enjoyment beside. Even if at such periods there has been disappointment, loss, or grief, the current of a more than earthly joy has flowed on, pure and transparent, through the turbid stream of the lower life, if sometimes beneath, much oftener above, the surface of the troubled waters. If we would only thus live always, though it were under the heaviest pressure of calamity, and with not a ray of hope as to things earthly, there would still be that in our souls which would give a most indignant negative to Satan’s question about Job, “Does he serve God for nought?”1 [Note: A. P. Peabody, King’s Chapel Sermons, 101.]
If we see law not as something external, an obligation imposed on us from without, a despotism against which we cannot rebel, and to which we can only sullenly submit; if we see law as the law of our own life, the fruit of the tenderest and highest love, the commandments are seen not to be grievous, and obedience becomes sweet and natural. We know the difference between obedience dictated by fear and obedience dictated by love. When we are brought into a personal relation to God and enter into fellowship with Him, we realize that even in the making of our own moral life, in the creating of our own character, we are fellow-workers with God. We desire the same end as He does, and it is the best end.2 [Note: H. Black, Edinburgh Sermons, 75.]
If people would but read the text of their Bible with heartier purpose of understanding it, instead of superstitiously, they would see that throughout the parts which they are intended to make most personally their own (the Psalms) it is always the law which is spoken of with chief joy. The Psalms respecting mercy are often sorrowful as in thought of what it cost; but those respecting the law are always full of delight. David cannot contain himself for joy in thinking of it—he is never weary of its praise: “How love I Thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Thy testimonies are my delight and my counsellors; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.”3 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters (Works, vii. 192).]
There is a beautiful little sentence in the works of Charles Lamb concerning one who had been afflicted: “He gave his heart to the Purifier, and his will to the Sovereign Will of the Universe.” But there is a speech in the third canto of the Paradiso of Dante, spoken by a certain Piccarda, which is a rare gem. I will only quote this one line: In la sua volontade è nostra pace (In His will is our peace). The words are few and simple, and yet they appear to me to have an inexpressible majesty of truth about them, to be almost as if they were spoken from the very mouth of God. It so happened that (unless my memory much deceives me) I first read that speech on a morning early in the year 1836, which was one of trial. I was profoundly impressed and powerfully sustained, almost absorbed, by these words. They cannot be too deeply graven upon the heart. In short, what we all want is that they should not come to us as an admonition from without, but as an instinct from within. They should not be adopted by effort or upon a process of proof, but they should be simply the translation into speech of the habitual tone to which all tempers, affections, emotions, are set. In the Christian mood, which ought never to be intermitted, the sense of this conviction should recur spontaneously; it should be the foundation of all mental thoughts and acts, and the measure to which the whole experience of life, inward and outward, is referred. The final state which we are to contemplate with hope, and to seek by discipline, is that in which our will shall be one with the will of God; not merely shall submit to it, not merely shall follow after it, but shall live and move with it, even as the pulse of the blood in the extremities acts with the central movement of the heart. And this is to be obtained through a double process; the first, that of checking, repressing, quelling the inclination of the will to act with reference to self as a centre; this is to mortify it. The second, to cherish, exercise, and expand its new and heavenly power of acting according to the will of God, first, perhaps, by painful effort in great feebleness and with many inconsistencies, but with continually augmenting regularity and force, until obedience become a necessity of second nature.1 [Note: W. E. Gladstone in Life, by John Morley, i. 215.]
Time was, I shrank from what was right
From fear of what was wrong;
I would not brave the sacred fight,
Because the foe was strong.
But now I cast that finer sense
And sorer shame aside;
Such dread of sin was indolence,
Such aim at Heaven was pride.
So, when my Saviour calls, I rise,
And calmly do my best;
Leaving to Him, with silent eyes
Of hope and fear, the rest.
I step, I mount where He has led;
Men count my haltings o’er;—
I know them; yet, though self I dread,
I love His precept more.2 [Note: Cardinal Newman, Verses on Various Occasions, 83.]
Fox (W. J.), Collected Works, iii. 175.
Gibson (E. C. S.), The Old Testament and its Messages, 128.
Hanna (H.), The Church on the Sea, 384.
Irving (E.), Collected Writings, iii. 383.
Lee (R.), Sermons, 325.
Morrison (J.), Sheaves of Ministry, 13.
Peabody (A. P.), King’s Chapel Sermons, 95.
Pierson (A. T.), The Hopes of the Gospel, 3.
Spencer (J. S.), Sermons, ii. 7.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, l. (1904) No. 2870.
Christian World Pulpit, xlvii. 24 (Scott Holland).
Church of England Magazine, viii. (1840) 112 (Dixon).
Expositor, 1st Ser., xii. 89 (Matheson).
Homiletic Review, New Ser., xix. 566.