Great Texts of the Bible
The Four Acts of Religion
Stand in awe, and sin not:
Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And put your trust in the Lord.—Psalm 4:4-5.
1. The Fourth Psalm is an evening petition, emanating from the same period in David’s life as the morning petition which precedes it. Both may reasonably be referred to the occasion of Absalom’s rebellion. The present Psalm is slightly different from its predecessor in tone, inasmuch as it assumes in part the form of a gentle loving expostulation with the enemies, and seeks for their conversion rather than their overthrow. A quieter tone prevails. There is less of complaint, more of joyous confidence. The difference is just that between a man rising to encounter a day of trial by faith in Jehovah and a man seeking rest in the conviction that all things work together for the good of the righteous, and that even for the most hardened sinner there is hope of repentance.
This is the evening psalm of Christendom. A great body of devout and homiletic literature has gathered round this Psalm, particularly among our people, on the fourth and sixth verses. The Vulgate version of the former is, Irascimini et nolite peccare: quae dicitis in cordibus vestris, et in cubilibus vestris compungimini. This was explained commonly as, “Be wroth (with yourselves) and sin not (further); say in your hearts whatever you say; repent in your beds.” The seventh verse is, Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui Domine—“There is stamped on us the light of Thy countenance, O Lord.” This verse was a text for Charlemagne in his struggle against images in churches. His Capitulare on the subject is almost a series of sermons, pleading against things which “dim instead of reveal the light of God’s countenance.”1 [Note: C. L. Marson, The Psalms at Work, 9.]
2. The fourth and fifth verses contain four acts, those four acts which belong to the birth of the religious life—self-awakening, self-communion, self-confession, and self-abandonment. There is, first, the awakening of self-life to the presence of another law, a moral law which says, “Stand in awe, and sin not.” There is, secondly, the communing of the soul with itself, the asking of that momentous question, “Am I in harmony with this moral law?” There is, thirdly, the recognition of righteousness and the unreserved confession of sin and weakness. Lastly, there is the perception that the consciousness of merit is itself a want of harmony with law, and the soul by an act of self-forgetfulness loses its sense alike of merit and of demerit in the trust of the living God.
My soul, wouldst thou reach this blessed conclusion? Wouldst thou arrive at this final haven of moral peace where thy weakness shall itself become thy strength? Thou mayest arrive at it, but it must be after a storm—a storm whose peculiarity shall be its inaudibleness to any ear but thine. Ere thou canst reach the final rest thou must enter into communion with thyself, must examine thine old nature in the stillness of solitude. Thine must be a struggle with thine own thoughts—a struggle where there is no clang of arms, but whose soreness lies in its very silence. How still is that communion which thy God requires of thee! “Commune with thine own heart”; what converse so silent as that? “Thine own heart”; not the heart of another. The heart of another would give more companionship, but it would give less test of truth. Thou mightest compare thy righteousness with the righteousness of thy brother, and go down to thy house rejoicing, and yet all the time thou mightest be in discord with the moral law of God. Only in thine own heart canst thou see thyself truly reflected, therefore it is with thyself that thy Father bids thee commune. “Commune upon thy bed”; not alone with thine own heart, but with thine own heart in the stillest locality—in the silence of the midnight hour, where there is no distraction, and where there is no deception. There thou shalt learn what it is to be an individual soul. In the world thou art taught to forget this; thy little life is swallowed up in the crowd, and thy moral good or ill seems an indifferent thing. But here the world’s judgment is reversed. When thou art alone with God the crowd melts away, and thou art to thyself an universe. Thy very sense of sin reveals to thee the infinitude of thy being. Thy very moral struggle tells thee that in spite of thyself thou art an immortal. Commune with thine own heart, O my soul.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Moments on the Mount, 214.]
In Angelica, you have the entirely spiritual mind, wholly versed in the heavenly world, and incapable of conceiving any wickedness or vileness whatsoever.
In Salvator, you have an awakened conscience, and some spiritual power, contending with evil, but conquered by it, and brought into captivity to it.
In Dürer, you have a far purer conscience and higher spiritual power, yet, with some defect still in intellect, contending with evil, and nobly prevailing over it; yet retaining the marks of the contest, and never so entirely victorious as to conquer sadness.
In Giorgione, you have the same high spiritual power and practical sense; but now, with entirely perfect intellect, contending with evil; conquering it utterly, casting it away for ever, and rising beyond it into magnificence of rest.2 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters (Works, vii. 373).]
“Stand in awe, and sin not.”
1. “Stand in awe, and sin not.” This seems to be a little remote from the phraseology of modern religious life. Our vocabulary is of a different type and order. Words like awe, fear, trembling, appear to be almost obsolete. Our speech finds its emphasis in such words as happiness, joy, peace, comfort. The Psalmist throws us back to quite a different plane. “Stand in awe, and sin not!” This man has had a vision of the great white Throne. He has been contemplating the terrors of the Lord. He has listened to the awful imperatives. He has had a glimpse of the midnight of alienation. He spent his days in levity, as though God and duty were distant and irrelevant trifles. But now his eyes have come upon the whiteness of the Eternal, the unsullied sovereignty, the holiness that would not be trifled with, and his careless walk is sharply arrested. His levity is changed into trembling. His indifference is broken up in awe.
We have seen the experience in miniature, even in the fellowship of man with man. One man has introduced a piece of indecent or questionable foolery in the presence of another man, and he has been immediately confronted with a face which chilled his blood and froze his levity into a stilled and wondering silence. No man’s life will ever be deepened into fruitful awe if he has not seen similar features confronting him in the countenance of God. “The face of the Lord is against them that do evil.” “Woe is me, for mine eyes have seen the King.” We have to see the Face if we are to be checked in our frivolity, and if we are to feel our indecencies blazing within us like a destructive fire.
We do not like the hymns in which the whirlwind sweeps and drives. We prefer the hymns that are just filled with honey. And so the “sweet” hymns are the favourites, and the sweeter they are the more welcome they are to our palates. We have partially dropped the hymns which harrow and alarm, and which minister to our fear. Some of us have what we sometimes call a “sweet Jesus.” We know Him only as the Speaker of gentle and condescending speech, and of tender, winsome invitation. We have not a Jesus before whom we frequently “stand in awe.” We glide on in the religious life heedlessly, and at no moment do we stand appalled.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Thirsting for the Springs, 131.]
Men do not feel the power of the Gospel when in Christ they discern nothing to fear. Many men are lost because they do not see the great white Throne. Thomas Boston said that the net of the Gospel needed to be weighted with the leads of the terrors of the law, or it would lightly float on the surface and no fish be caught. We must steadily keep in view the sterner patches of the New Testament teaching. We must contemplate the whiteness of the Eternal, and stand in awe.2 [Note: Ibid., 133.]
2. “Stand in awe, and sin not.” If we do not stand in awe, we are likely to sin, and to think lightly of it. There are various interpretations that we can put upon sin. We can treat a sin as being merely a moral mistake. We can regard it as being only an irresponsible legacy from a sinful parentage. We can think of it as being nothing more than the legitimate outcropping from our animal nature, the warranted self-assertion of the material side of our complex being and therefore not exactly sinful, but rather the natural tone sounded by one of the lower vibrating strings of our humanity. Or we can, without committing ourselves to any doctrine bearing upon us with uncomfortable pressure, contemplate our sin as being a violation of the conventional ideas of the more respectable element of society; or go so far even as to think of it as being a transgression of the moral law—attaching to the phrase “moral law,” however, no signification over-earnest in its exactions; for a mere “law,” if carelessly thought of, becomes that impersonal and visionary thing that touches no sensitive spot in our deeper nature.
Christ’s teaching concerning sin has been before the Church and the world for many centuries, but neither the world nor the Church has fully accepted it. The old practice of straining out gnats and swallowing camels still prevails; and, if the sins which the Jews considered great have been recognized in their extreme littleness, still, those which they regarded as too small to deserve notice are looked upon very much as the Jews looked upon them in our Saviour’s day; and, on the whole, sin, according to the world and according to the Church too, is more what the Scribes and Pharisees pronounced it to be than what Jesus Christ said it was.1 [Note: Life of Hugh Stowell Brown, 390.]
There is a pathetical story of Origen,—that when he had fallen into a foul apostasy, and, after some recovery from it, came into a congregation, and was desired to preach; he took the Bible, and opened it accidentally at the Fiftieth Psalm, and his eye fell first to read these words in the sixteenth and seventeenth verses of it:—“But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? Seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest my words behind thee.” Upon reading the words, he remembered his own fall; and, instead of preaching, he fell a weeping, and wept so bitterly, that he caused all the congregation to weep with him.2 [Note: J. Lightfoot, Works, vi. 111.]
“Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.”
When we have gazed upon the undefiled heights, upon the holiness of God, we are then to hold a soliloquy with ourselves. In his Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Richard Baxter says that every good Christian is a good preacher in his own soul. The very same methods that a minister uses in his preaching to others every Christian should endeavour after in speaking to himself. Having seen the Throne, let us hold converse with our own hearts.
Central Africa was to Stewart what Arabia was to Paul—a retreat in which he examined his own heart, revised his life, developed the self-reliance which is based upon the reliance of faith, and sought complete consecration to Christ and His service. In these great solitudes he had his musing times and sessions of sweet thought, and heard the voice of God more distinctly than elsewhere. “His faith in God, always strong,” Dr. Wallace writes, “though not effusive, was strengthened by his experiences of the solitary life in the heart of Africa, entirely cut off from Christian fellowship. In a letter written to me, when his only companion was a native boy, he said that he had never felt so near heaven, and added that now to him, ‘God, holiness and heaven are the only things worth living for.’ ”1 [Note: J. Wells, The Life of James Stewart of Lovedale, 93.]
1. The “heart” is the seat, not only of the desires and emotions, but also of the conscience and the intellect. The Psalmist appeals, in these words, to the conscience and reason of his hearers. He would have them collect their thoughts, and “say in their heart” something like those words of Isaiah, “Come ye, and let us walk in the light of Jehovah.”
There is the belief of the head and the belief of the heart. And these two blend together in one. As the heart believes, the objects of belief gradually clear and become definite to us. We no longer use words merely: we feel within us that they have a meaning; but our inward experience becomes the rock on which we stand: it is like the consciousness of our own existence. Can I doubt that He who has taught me to serve Him from my youth upward—He who supported me in that illness, who brought me near to the gates of death and left me not alone, is none other than God Himself? Can I doubt that He who gave me the impulse to devote myself to His work and to the good of mankind, who in some way inexplicable to me enables me to calm the violence of passion, the thought of envy, malice, impurity, to whom I go to lay open my breast and cleanse the thoughts of my heart, can be none other than the true God? Can it be that that example which He has given me in the life of His Son is other than the truth for me and for all mankind? Here we seem to have found the right starting-point. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”1 [Note: Benjamin Jowett, College Sermons, 21.]
In Psalm 77:6 we read: “I commune with mine own heart; and my spirit maketh diligent search.” Here David and his heart are talking together; and see what his heart saith unto him in Psalm 16:7 : “My reins instruct me in the night seasons.” For that the heart and reins do signify the same thing, when they are taken in a spiritual sense, and that they, so taken, do signify the conscience,—is a matter so copiously evident in Scripture that I need not to use any instances to prove it. And so in John 8:9, when our Saviour bids, “Whosoever is without sin, cast the first stone” at the woman taken in adultery, it is said of the company present, that they were “convicted of their own conscience.” The word in the Greek doth properly signify “a conviction by argument”: there was something within them that over-argued them, and talked and disputed them clean away. And so in Romans 2:15 : “The consciences of the very heathen spake, as it were, within them,” and gave in evidence either for them or against them, their thoughts either accusing or excusing, “inter se invicem,” as the Vulgar Latin,—as in a discourse among themselves.2 [Note: J. Lightfoot, Works, vi. 101.]
Commune with thine own heart!—no need
To wander the wide earth around;
If but in thine own breast thou read
Aright—thy God thou wilt have found;
Who habiteth Eternity
There condescends to dwell with thee.
Commune with thine own heart! for there
The Heaven-ascending ladder lies,
A pathway into purer air,
A window giving on the skies;
Through which thou mayest wing thy flight,
And mingle with the Infinite.…
Commune with thine own heart!—for there
The better, nobler self resides,
That in the life Divine doth share,
And ever in the Presence bides;
The self with Deity at one,
As with its beam the central sun.
There—from the world of sense aloof—
Such insight shall be granted thee
As shall afford thee ample proof
Of thine august paternity;
The Spirit witnessing with thine
That thou art sprung from seed Divine.1 [Note: William Hall, “Via Cruris.”]
2. “Upon your bed.”—“To commune upon one’s bed” is a form of expression taken from the common practice and experience of men. We know that, during our intercourse with men in the daytime, our thoughts are distracted, and we often judge rashly, being deceived by the external appearance; whereas in solitude, we can give to any subject a closer attention; and, further, the sense of shame does not then hinder a man from thinking without disguise of his own faults. David, therefore, exhorts his enemies to withdraw from those who witnessed and judged of their actions on the public stage of life, and to be alone, that they may examine themselves more truthfully and honestly. And this exhortation has respect to us all; for there is nothing to which men are more prone than to deceive one another with empty applause, until each man enters into himself, and communes alone with his own heart. Paul, when quoting this passage in Ephesians 4:26, or, at least, when alluding to the sentiment of David, follows the Septuagint, “Be ye angry, and sin not.” And yet he has skilfully and beautifully applied it to his purpose. He there teaches us that men, instead of wickedly pouring forth their anger against their neighbours, have rather just cause to be angry with themselves, in order that, by this means, they may abstain from sin. And, therefore, he commands them rather to fret inwardly, and be angry with themselves; and then to be angry not so much at the persons, as at the vices of others.2 [Note: Calvin, Psalms, i. 44.]
Whoso goeth to his bed as to his grave, may go to his grave as to his bed.3 [Note: Bishop Horne.]
3. The familiar maxim, “Know thyself,” shows that self-knowledge has for ages been considered desirable. In the ethical codes of the wiser moralists of the ancient world, the duty of self-analysis was prominent. As it was recommended and practised by them, however, it was quite different from the duty which is enforced here. Goethe, again, was an eager student of his own nature, and he was incessant and triumphant in his devotion to that study; but his one aim was to know his art, by knowing that on which it was to tell; and, to reach it, he was ready to sacrifice himself. Or, a man may seek acquaintance with his own nature for the worst as well as for the best of purposes. With a view to ends altogether unworthy of him, he may study the habits of his soul with the utmost care.
It is with the heart in its relation to things unseen and eternal that we are to commune. This is a duty which is strictly specific in its relation to certain objects. These are the habits of a man’s nature in reference to God’s truth, and immortality, and to whatever else constitutes us moral and responsible beings. What are our relations to God? What are our feelings towards Him? In what spirit and manner do we fulfil the obligations which He has laid on us? These are the questions which it is our highest interest to ask, and which we can answer only when we know our hearts and know them well. While this is our object, it often happens that by observing our dispositions towards what is external we are able to see most clearly into the inner man. We cannot take a purely abstract view of our own character. We must test ourselves by what tests us. We have to look out at times that we may look in. When we comprehend the influence which business and pleasure, our companions and our pursuits, exert on our moral nature, we see also how it stands affected towards what is higher and better. Our purpose, however, in all this must be to judge ourselves spiritually. Our aim is not simply to become masters of our own thoughts and feelings. Neither is it a desire to control the minds of others. We commune with our hearts that we may know what we are morally, and how we stand related to things that are unseen and eternal.
I had a treasure in my house,
And woke one day to find it gone;
I mourned for it from dawn till night,
From night till dawn.
I said, “Behold, I will arise
And sweep my house,” and so I found
What I had lost, and told my joy
To all around.
I had a treasure in my heart,
And scarcely knew that it had fled,
Until communion with my Lord
Grew cold and dead.
“Behold,” I said, “I will arise
And sweep my heart of self and sin;
And so the peace that I have lost
May enter in.”
O friends, rejoice with me! Each day
Helps my lost treasure to restore;
And sweet communion with my Lord
Is mine once more.1 [Note: Caroline A. Mason.]
(1) This communing must be marked by uncompromising fidelity. It were better not to take this trust in hand than to be faithless to it. Honesty and impartiality should characterize our inquiries. We must not desist from them when they become painful, because they awaken a slumbering conscience, or are at war with some dearly loved indulgence.
(2) In our self-communings Scripture should be our guide. Its aim is to lead the man who communes with himself to seek communion with Him by whom he can be transformed into the image of God. The Spirit of holiness, which alone can purify man’s nature, is made known in the Word of truth. As a mere duty, the habit to which the text exhorts us would fail to do us good; but when we engage in it aright, it gives us trust and desire, bringing us into the presence of our best Friend. It first casts us down, and then raises us up. It declares to us the plague of our own hearts, that we may repair to Him who is the great and good Physician of souls.
Never yet did there exist a full faith in the Divine Word which did not expand the intellect, while it purified the heart; which did not multiply and exalt the aims and objects of the understanding, while it fixed and simplified those of the desires and feelings.2 [Note: S. T. Coleridge.]
4. We should distinguish heart-communion from some things from which it differs. Thus we are not to identify the exercise with religious contemplation, that higher form of intellectual homage which the mind, when elevated above the level of earthly things, pays to the wisdom of God. Neither is meditation to be confounded with the exercise of reading, even though it be thoughtful, prayerful, scriptural reading. This may be helpful to heart-communion, but it is not the same, and is not a substitute for it. In all reading we have a view to the acquirement of some new truth, or at all events, to more deepened impressions of truths already known, in the hope that these truths, apprehended by the understanding more perfectly, may appeal with more power to the conscience and the heart. But in meditation we are not learning truths, but applying them. We are reducing what we have acquired to practice; our business lies directly with the affections and the will, which on the admitted sufficiency of present light, and under the felt force of present convictions are urged forward to greater attainments in practical holiness, to resolutions of higher aim, and victories more prominent, sanctified, and complete over all the desires of the flesh and of the mind.
It is not every “speaking in the heart” [the literal translation of the words] that the Psalmist here engageth to; for the fool speaks in heart, and saith in his heart, “There is no God”: the epicure speaks in his heart, and saith, “I shall never be moved”: the atheist speaks in his heart, and saith, “Tush, God hath forgotten, he will never see it.” And these persons to whom David speaketh, if we hit the occasion of the Psalm aright, were ready enough to say in their heart, “We will none of David, and nothing to do with the son of Jesse”: but the text enjoineth such a conference in the heart, as that the matters betwixt a man and his own heart may be debated to the very utmost,—that the heart may be so put to it in communing with it, as that it might speak its very bottom.1 [Note: J. Lightfoot, Works, vi. 99.]
Behold, beloved, among yourselves, and regard and wonder marvellously; for I can tell you a sad story in your ears, which ye will not believe, though it be told you. I have lived these forty years, and somewhat more, and carried my heart in my bosom all this while, and yet my heart and I are as great strangers, and as utterly unacquainted, as if we had never come near one another. And is there none, in this congregation, that can say the like? He spake very good sense, and much piety in it, that complained that he had lived so many years above threescore, and had been a student in the Scripture all his time, and yet could never attain to take out that lesson in the first verse of the nine-and-thirtieth Psalm,—“That he should not offend with his tongue.” But it is to speak a thing of monstrousness and amazement, to say that a man should live so long a time as I have done,—nay, as some do, to threescore, to fourscore years,—and yet never to get into acquaintance and to communication with their own hearts! who could believe such a report? and yet, how common is this amongst men!1 [Note: J. Lightfoot, Works, vi. 111.]
5. It is not mere worldly self-communion that the Psalmist recommends. It is not the far-seeing prudence of the man of the world, meditating upon his pleasures and his gains. It is not the self-complacency of the self-righteous, seeking out grounds for trusting in himself that he is righteous, and despising others. It is not the morbid self-contemplation of one merely gazing upon the workings of his own mind as he would watch some delicate machinery, without earnest resolves of self-amendment.
“Self-anatomy” may surely be either good or evil; to be free from it altogether, as is the case with many of the noblest women, is no doubt a blessing, and suited to their nature. I much doubt whether it be the same with men; a more distinct introspection of our own motives and feelings seems natural to us, and we are likely to go wrong without it. On the other hand, it is apt to become a dangerous and “morbid trick,” when its predominance makes the judgment chiefly analytical; then we come practically to look upon ourselves as a collection of wheels and springs, moved mechanically by “motives,” and we are suspicious and jealous of ourselves in a way the reverse of true Christian humility and watchfulness, misinterpreting our best and noblest impulses, either by persuading ourselves that they are merely imaginary or by resolving them into corrupt wishes. We then act in the same way towards others, especially those who may be in, or may be brought into, any near relation to ourselves, mistrusting in them all that is not comprehensible. Yet I doubt not that self-anatomy is in some form needful to deliver us from carnal delusions; and wisely-tempered self-consciousness, if it has its miseries, may also bring blessings unspeakable both on ourselves and on those who have it not.2 [Note: Life of F. J. A. Hort, i. 166.]
(1) It is, first, the effort of the mind by grace to draw away its thoughts and its affections from earth to heaven; from the things which are seen to realities unseen except by faith. It is surely not by mere accident that the sin which ruins souls is so often described in Scripture as the “forgetfulneas of God.” “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” They cannot indeed finally and for ever banish the remembrance of God completely from their minds. They only wish they could. But they do their best. And so they set their affections on things below. They drown the remembrance of heaven and hell and death and judgment by the never-ceasing clamour of earthly cares and carnal lusts, in which they plunge themselves day by day, and all day long. He, then, that would avoid their sin and danger must have his seasons of stated religious self-communion; when he may close his eyes upon the things of time and sense, and suffer the Spirit of God to draw up his mind to thoughts of the things eternal: when he may renew his strength to “use this world, as not abusing it” by secret acts of communion with that God who “is a Spirit.”
(2) Secondly, the Psalmist’s self-communion is for the trial of a man’s spiritual condition. “Examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.” And the questions to be asked by one who sets about it are not merely concerning what he does, or what he feels, or what he fancies. The inquiry is not what he once was, or what he hopes to be, but what he is. What is the prevailing tone and bias of his mind? What does he take most pleasure in? From what motive does he act? What are his friendships, and his favourite haunts? What is he in the unrestrained intercourse of private life? For many are the self-deceits that men put upon themselves. Scarcely any danger indeed is more earnestly exposed in Scripture than the danger of thinking we are safe when we are not: the danger of fancying ourselves accepted sons of God whilst unmortified passions proclaim us children of the wicked one: the danger of speaking and thinking confidently of our religious hopes, whilst the entire or partial absence of the Spirit’s fruits declares our hopes a lie. And when the Psalmist calls us to self-communion, he would have us use it to test ourselves, by sound Scripture rules, whether the Spirit of Christ have real possession of us or not.
If thou canst not continually recollect thyself, yet do it sometimes, at the least once a day, namely, in the morning or at night. In the morning fix thy good purpose, and at night examine thyself what thou hast done, how thou hast behaved thyself in word, deed, and thought; for in these, perhaps, thou hast oftentimes offended against God and thy neighbour. “Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.”1 [Note: Thomas à Kempis.]
If, after a serious retrospect of your past lives, of the objects you have pursued, and the principles which have determined your conduct, they appear to be such as will ill sustain the scrutiny of a dying hour, dare to be faithful to yourselves, and shun with horror that cruel treachery to your best interests which would impel you to sacrifice the happiness of eternity to the quiet of a moment.2 [Note: Robert Hall, Funeral Sermon for the Princess Charlotte.]
(3) And thus, thirdly, its proper office is to convince us of sin, and to humble us in remorse and shame for it. Humility, says one—genuine humility—is almost the last virtue man learns upon earth. All that lies around us is framed as if to teach us pride. And the only remedy is the consciousness of sin. To produce in us through grace this consciousness of sin, we are exhorted to self-communion. For genuine humility, observe, is not the mere vague self-condemnatory tone of a man merely lamenting his fallen nature. Many will confess their sinfulness who give no heed to their daily sins. Many will be heard to speak in the most exaggerated language of the depravity of their human nature who have no idea whatever of their own specific faults. They call themselves the worst of sinners, but they do not search out and confess their sins. And hence it often happens that no men slight the Church’s calls to self-discipline so contemptuously as those who need them most.
Although I had long known and admired Dr. McLaren in his preaching and his writings, it was only during the later years of his life that I became personally acquainted with him. My first introduction to him took place in Aberdeen in the house of my friend Sir George Reid, to whom he was sitting for his portrait. After this he was frequently under my medical care on his visits to Edinburgh, and especially during the year preceding his death. From the first of this acquaintance I was deeply impressed with his remarkable personality. While my interviews with him mainly bore reference to matters concerning his health, there soon began to grow up a feeling of something more than professional relationship, namely, a true and firm friendship.
Of Dr. McLaren it might truly be said he was clothed with humility. Who could have known from anything he said of himself that this man was one of the foremost preachers and expositors of the age, whose name was a household word throughout Christendom? Yet who could be for any time in his company without feeling that his presence and his words were at once an inspiration and a benediction?1 [Note: Sir James Affleck, in Dr. M Laren of Manchester, 263.]
(4) But, fourthly, the believer’s self-communion is no mere idle and fruitless habit of morbid self-contemplation. Its use is, that it is the handmaid of real repentance. It is the healthy self-scrutiny of one earnestly desirous of amendment: whose remorse and shame are not the mere sorrow of the world, but the natural outpouring of a heart that God has touched, and awakened to a real longing to be wholly His. He communes with his own heart to see his dangers and through grace to avoid them. He marks how the infinite variety of his passions, feelings, and ideas ripened into words and actions. He breaks up the ground of his heart, to find the seeds of those habits which are ready to spring up and give the colour to his life. He watches how some trivial indulgence strengthens into a criminal necessity; how a momentary thought returns, and becomes rooted in one’s bosom, and springs up a plant of iniquity; how an action, which startled him at first, steals silently and rapidly into the train of things committed without hesitation.
The great work is done by men who have in them a Divine dissatisfaction; who are ever striving for something higher, who have not attained, but who press on toward the mark. The decline of this spirit is the beginning of the end. It is told of Thorwaldsen, the great Danish sculptor, that, feeling his freshness of conception decaying, he said to a friend, “My power is on the decline.” Asked what he meant, he pointed to a statue of Christ. “That,” said he, “is the first piece of work I have ever been satisfied with. Till now my idea has always been far beyond my power to reach it. But it is no longer so. I shall never have a great idea again.” In the spiritual life there can be no self-satisfaction. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
“An ingenious artist of our time,” says Hazlitt, in his Table-talk, “has been heard to declare, that if ever the Devil got him into his clutches he would set him to copy his own pictures.” By doing this, he would encourage a self-complacency and satisfaction with what had already been attained, which would render all further advance impossible. “Thus,” says Hazlitt, “the secure, self-complacent retrospect to what is done is nothing; while the anxious, uneasy looking forward to what is to come is everything. We are afraid to dwell upon the past, lest it should retard our future progress; the indulgence of ease is fatal to excellence.”1 [Note: J. Burns, Illustrations from Art (1912), 88.]
(5) Once more, our self-communings should lead us up to Christ; to Him who never bends over us with such deep compassion as when we are humbled with the sense and consciousness of sin. For the duty enjoined on us in the text is not an end, but a means. It is the instrument of godliness, not godliness itself—one of the workman’s tools and implements with which the goodly fabric is built up. The end of it is Christ: Christ in whom alone “the sacrifice of righteousness,” which the next verse tells of, is offered up, and through whom alone the believer builds up his trust in God. The whole purpose and object of self-communion is to take away our trust in self, and place it unreservedly on Him; to make us feel our need of pardon, and to tell us where and for what we need it; to impress on us the sense of our own hearts’ weakness and deceitfulness, that we may go to Him for light and strength. It is to make us, in short, better Christians, and more self-denying and self-watchful men.
To be with God, there is no need to be continually in church. Of our heart we may make an Oratory, wherein to retire from time to time, and with Him hold meek, humble, loving converse. Every one can converse closely with God, some more, others less: He knows what we can do. Let us begin then; perhaps He is just waiting for one generous resolution on our part; let us be brave. So little time remains for us to live. Let us live and die with God: sufferings will be ever sweet and pleasant to us, while we abide with Him; and without Him, the greatest pleasures will be but cruel anguish. May He be blessed for all! Amen.2 [Note: Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 41.]
6. “Commune with thine own heart upon thy bed, and be still.” This brings us to the centre of our subject. We need quiet hours. We are too much in society—much more, from the necessities of our age partly, than our fathers were. We are too gregarious. We do not listen enough for the quiet tones of truth, as it speaks directly to the soul; but we look for the responsive verdict and the answering nod of our fellow-men. In all right growth there is quietness. The flowers unobserved expand their buds, and with a like noiseless progress the cornfields whiten with the grain of autumn. It is even so in the spiritual world. The heart that communes with itself and with its God makes no display, but steadily and surely the blessed results appear, in ite growing resemblance to the Man Christ Jesus.
Be able to be alone. Lose not the advantage of Solitude, and the Society of thyself, nor be only content, but delight to be alone and single with Omnipresency. He who is thus prepared, the Day is not uneasy nor the Night black unto him. Darkness may bound his Eyes, not his Imagination. In his Bed he may lie, like Pompey and his Sons, in all quarters of the Earth, may speculate the Universe, and enjoy the whole World in the Hermitage of himself. Thus the old ascetick Christians found a paradise in a Desert, and with little converse on Earth held a conversation in Heaven; thus they astronomized in Caves, and, though they beheld not the Stars, had the Glory of Heaven before them.1 [Note: Sir Thomas Browne.]
“Offer the sacrifices of righteousness.”
1. What are “sacrifices of righteousness”? It is probable that in this Psalm they are not sacrifices which, instead of consisting in slaughtered animals, consist in actions which are in accordance with God’s will; they are sacrifices that are offered in the right disposition, in the disposition that is in conformity with the mind of God, and not in a hypocritical spirit.
2. But whatever these words may have meant to the Psalmist, they can mean only one thing for us who live in the light of the Gospel day. When a man has contemplated the dazzling holiness of God, and in self-communion has discovered his own dark appalling need, and, full of trembling, turns again to the Father, he has only one resource. He must “offer the sacrifice of righteousness.” Christ Jesus is our “Righteousness.” “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”
(1) When the Israelites brought their sacrifices, the first thing they did was to lay their hand on the victim, and make a confession of sin. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” Let us own our shortcomings and transgressions. Let us not cloak or excuse our sins. Let us go to our chamber, and tell the Lord what we have done, pouring out our hearts before Him. Let us confess our pride and unbelief, our dishonesty, our falsehood, our disobedience to parents, our every breach of the Divine law; whatsoever we have done amiss; let us confess it before Him, and thus go to Him in the only way in which He can receive us, even as sinners owning our guilt.
Out of the gulf into the glory,
Father, my soul cries out to be lifted.
Dark is the woof of my dismal story,
Thorough thy sun-warp stormily drifted!—
Out of the gulf into the glory,
Lift me, and save my story.
I have done many things merely shameful;
I am a man ashamed, my Father!
My life is ashamed and broken and blameful—
The broken and blameful, oh, cleanse and gather!
Heartily shame me, Lord, of the shameful!
To my judge I flee with my blameful.
Saviour, at peace in Thy perfect purity,
Think what it is, not to be pure!
Strong in Thy love’s essential security,
Think upon those who are never secure.
Full fill my soul with the light of Thy purity;
Fold me in love’s security.
O Father, O Brother, my heart is sore aching!
Help it to ache as much as is needful;
Is it you cleansing me, mending, remaking,
Dear potter-hands, so tender and heedful?
Sick of my past, of my own self-aching—
Hurt on, dear hands, with your making.
Proud of the form Thou hadst given Thy vessel,
Proud of myself, I forget my donor;
Down in the dust I began to nestle,
Poured Thee no wine, and drank deep of dishonour!
Lord, Thou hast broken, Thou mendest Thy vessel!
In the dust of Thy glory I nestle.1 [Note: George MacDonald, Poetical Works, ii. 358.]
Give me leave to relate unto you a story out of the Turkish history, and to apply it:—
Uladislaus, the king of Hungary, having made a league with Amurath, the great Turk, and solemnly covenanted and sealed to articles thereof in the name of Christ, was afterwards persuaded to break it, and to go to war against Amurath. Being in the heat of the fatal battle at Varna, the Turk draws the articles of the league out of his bosom, and spreads them towards the crucifix which he saw in the Christian’s banner, with these words: “Now, Christ, if thou be a God, as they say thou art, revenge the wrong done unto thy name by these thy Christians, who made this league in thy name, and now have thus broken it.” And, accordingly, was this wretched covenant-breach avenged with the death of Uladislaus, and almost all his army.
Should Christ spread our covenant before us, upon the same accusing terms as he spread his before Christ, what could we answer? Or, if Satan should spread our covenant before God against us, as Hezekiah did the Assyrian’s letter, what could we say for ourselves in so horrid and so plain a case? If the Lord should implead us, and speak such bitter things as these against us, “You have suffered the solemnest covenant to be thus broken, that ever was sworn unto by men: the horridest heresies and errors have grown amongst you that ever did among a nation: as glorious a church as was under heaven is thus near ruined before your eyes: and the glorious gospel that shone upon earth is almost destroyed,—and you look on!” How could we answer, or hold up our faces before the Lord? but how must iniquity lay her hand upon her mouth, and not be able to speak a word!2 [Note: J. Lightfoot, Works, vi. 123.]
(2) The main thing, however, is to bring to the Lord the offering which He has divinely appointed and provided. There is one sacrifice of righteousness without which we cannot be accepted. We come to God by faith in Jesus Christ, we plead the precious blood of atonement, and say, “My Lord, for His dear sake who died upon the tree, receive Thy wanderer, and now be pleased to grant me that repentance and remission of sins which He is exalted to give.”
How monstrous and shameful the nature of sin is, is sufficiently apparent from that great atonement which is necessary to cleanse us from the guilt of it. Nothing less has been required to take away the guilt of our sins than the sufferings and death of the Son of God. Had He not taken our nature upon Him, our nature had been for ever separated from God, and incapable of ever appearing before Him. And is there any room for pride, or self-glory, whilst we are partakers of such a nature as this? Have our sins rendered us so abominable and odious to Him that made us, that He could not so much as receive our prayers, or admit our repentance, till the Son of God made Himself Man, and became a Suffering Advocate for our whole race; and can we in this state pretend to high thoughts of ourselves? Shall we presume to take delight in our own worth, who are not worthy so much as to ask pardon for our sins without the mediation and intercession of the Son of God?1 [Note: William Law, Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, 299.]
There is one only Way
From death to life for me:
It is by Thee, O Crucified!
I, also, in Thy death have died,
And, since Thou livest, live in Thee,
Who art the living Way.
There is one only Way
Of righteousness for me:
O Jesus, risen—living now—
My only righteousness art Thou!
I draw my life and strength from Thee,
Who art the living Way.2 [Note: E. H. Divall, A Believer’s Rest, 154.]
“Put your trust in the Lord.”
1. How graciously the passage closes! The awe and the trembling converge in fruitful trust! The discovery of the holy Sovereignty, the discovery of personal defilement, the discovery of a Redeemer, are consummated in the discovery of rest. When I have found my “Righteousness” my part is now to trust. The awe, the purity of the holy Sovereignty will become mine. Trust keeps open the line of communication between the soul and God. Along that line convoys of blessedness are brought into the heart; manifold gifts of grace for the weak and defenceless spirit. When I trust I keep open the “highway of the Lord,” and along that road there come to me from the Eternal my bread, my water, my instructions, my powers of defence. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” I can “work out my own salvation with fear and trembling.”
It seems to me that the great difference between the Christian and the unbeliever is this: the unbeliever says that he cannot lay hold of God, and so believes in himself only. The Christian in proportion as he lays hold of God cannot believe in himself. Now the highest point of the Christian character is that in which we attain forgetfulness of self and act simply as God’s creatures. Such is the temper seen in St. Paul and St. John very clearly. But this self-forgetfulness is the fruit of a long process of training in trust in God. To you and me the pain of life lies in the perpetual contrast between the aspiration of our spirit and the poor realization of our actual life. It is no wonder that people have tried at many times to simplify the problem—that they have sought a special form of life in which they might be free from ordinary temptations—the monastery, the brotherhood, the ascetic practice; but all in vain, for the difficulty lay not without, but within—not in the world, but in their own heart.1 [Note: Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, i. 327.]
Looking back, I can say that the hardest battles of life are those fought with self; this is the one ever-present foe; the great crisis-fights are those which are fought within. Interpret life as we may, there are moments in which we cannot do without God; we must invoke His aid against the foe within. The victory lies in the gift of being ready to meet life’s vicissitudes with calmness. Such a victory is won with the conviction of the presence and providence of the living God, in whom worldly anxieties and ambitions may be vanquished.2 [Note: Bishop Boyd Carpenter, Some Pages of My Life, 173.]
2. How are we to put our trust in the Lord?
(1) First, we are to trust Him as willing to receive us, to forgive us, to accept us, and to bless us. Are we despairing? Do we say, “There is no hope”? “Put your trust in the Lord.” Are we saying, “I am without strength, and, therefore, cannot be saved”? Why not? “Put your trust in the Lord.” Does the evil one say that God will not receive us? “Put your trust in the Lord,” who is infinitely gracious, and full of compassion. “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Surely we may trust in Him whose mercy endureth for ever.
For a long time no equivalent could be found in the language of Aniwa for “faith,” and my work of Bible translation was paralysed for the want of so fundamental and oft-recurring a term. The natives apparently regarded the verb “to hear” as equivalent to “to believe.” I would ask a native whether he believed a certain statement, and his reply would be, should he credit the statement, “Yes, I heard it”; but, should he disbelieve it, he would answer, “No, I did not hear it,” meaning, not that his ears had failed to catch the words, but that he did not regard them as true. This definition of faith was obviously insufficient. Many passages, such as “Faith cometh by hearing,” would be impossible of translation through so meagre a channel; and we prayed continually that God would supply the missing link. I spared no effort in interrogating the most intelligent native pundits, but all in vain, none caught the hidden meaning of the word.
One day I was in my room anxiously pondering. I sat on an ordinary kitchen chair, my feet resting on the floor. Just then an intelligent native woman entered the room, and the thought flashed through my mind to ask the all-absorbing question yet once again, if possible in a new light.
Was I not resting on the chair? Would that attitude lend itself to the discovery?
I said, “What am I doing now?”
“Koikae ana,” “You’re sitting down,” the native replied.
Then I drew up my feet and placed them upon the bar of the chair just above the floor, and leaning back in an attitude of repose, asked: “What am I doing now?”
“Fakarongrongo,” “You are leaning wholly,” or, “You have lifted yourself from every other support.”
“That’s it!” I shouted, with an exultant cry; and a sense of holy joy awed me, as I realized that my prayer had been so fully answered.
To “lean on” Jesus wholly and only is surely the true meaning of appropriating or saving faith. And now “Fakarongrongo lesu ea anea mouri” (“Leaning on Jesus unto eternal life,” or “for all the things of eternal life”) is the happy experience of those Christian islanders, as it is of all who cast themselves unreservedly on the Saviour of the world for salvation.1 [Note: John G. Paton, iii. 55.]
(2) Especially are we to trust in the Lord as He reveals Himself in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. In Him we see love written out in capital letters. “Put your trust in the Lord” as having provided the one sacrifice for sin, whereby He has put away for ever all the sins of those who believe in Him. God is just, and the justifier of him that believeth. We are to believe that the precious blood can make us whiter than snow, scarlet sinners as we are. Let us come with that daring trust which ventures all upon the bare promise of a faithful God. Let us say, “I will go in unto the King, and if I perish I perish.”
(3) We are to trust in the Lord, next, that by the work of His Holy Spirit He can renew us. The glorious Lord, who made the world out of nothing, can make something out of us yet. If we are given to anger, the Holy Spirit can make us calm and loving. If we have been defiled with impurity, He can make us pure in heart. If we have been grovelling, He can elevate us. He can put heavenly treasure in earthen vessels. He can set us at last among the heavenly choristers, that our voice, sweeter than that of angels, may be heard amongst their everlasting symphonies. He will even here put us among the children, and set us with the princes of His people. Let us believe that the Holy Ghost can create us anew, can raise us from our dead condition, and can make us perfect in every good work to do His will.
A pleasing memory of early church going at Perth was that of the solemn administration of the Lord’s Supper. In the procession of the elders, the child (as John Watson was then) was specially interested in an old man with very white hair and a meek, reverent face. Some time after he was walking on the road and passed a man breaking stones. The white hair caught his attention, and he looked back and recognized the elder who had carried the cup. Full of curiosity and wonder, he told his father the strange tale. His father explained to him that the reason why the old man held so high a place in the Church was that, although he was one of the poorest men in all the town, he was one of the holiest. “Remember,” said his father, “the best man that ever lived upon this earth was the poorest, for our Lord had not where to lay His head”; and he added, “James breaks stones for his living, but he knows more about God than any person I have ever met.” So he learned that evening, and never departed from the faith, that the greatest thing in all the world is character, and the crown of character is holiness.1 [Note: W. Robertson Nicoll, Ian Maclaren, 21.]
Benson (E. W.), Boy-Life, 60.
Boston (T.), Complete Works, iv. 262.
Fairbairn (R. B.), Sermons in St. Stephen’s College, 97.
Garbett (E.), The Soul’s Life, 1.
Gregg (D.), Our Best Moods, 31.
Hiley (R. W.), A Year’s Sermons, iii. 1.
Jowett (J. H.), Thirsting for the Springs, 129.
Lightfoot (J.), Whole Works, vi. 96.
Martineau (J.), in The Outer and the Inner World, 1.
Matheson (G.), Moments on the Mount, 213.
Moore (D.), The Golden Lectures, 2nd Ser., No. 3171.
Parkhurst (C. H.), A Little Lower than the Angels, 159.
Simeon (C.), Works, v. 15.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxxiii. (1888), No. 2033.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, xxvii. (1904), No. 2.
Christian World Pulpit, xix. 377 (Statham); xxii. 257 (MacDonald); lxvi. 129 (Rees).
Church of England Magazine, xli. 272 (Pulcher).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Ember Days, xv. 433 (Woolmer).
Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., xi. 333 (Youard).
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., x. 183 (Spurgeon).
Expositor’s Library: The Psalms, 1:132 (Keble), 137 (Stracey), 140 (MacEwen), 148 (Rees).
Plain Sermons by Contributors to the “Tracts for the Times,” i. 19.
Twentieth Century Pastor, xxxi. (1912) 315.