MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD. The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes.
Thy mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.Psalms
SKY, EARTH, AND SEA: A PARABLE OF GOD
Psalm 36:5 - Psalm 36:7.
This wonderful description of the manifold brightness of the divine nature is introduced in this psalm with singular abruptness. It is set side by side with a vivid picture of an evildoer, a man who mutters in his own heart his godlessness, and with obstinate determination plans and plots in forgetfulness of God. Without a word to break the violence of the transition, side by side with that picture, the Psalmist sets before us these thoughts of the character of God. He seems to feel that that character was the only relief in the contemplation of the miserable sights of which the earth is only too full. We should go mad when we think of man’s wickedness unless we could look up and see, with one quick turn of the eye, the heaven opened and the throned Love that sits up there gazing on all the chaos, and working to soothe sorrow, and to purify evil.
Perhaps there is another reason for this dramatic and striking swiftness of contrast between the godless man and the revealed God. The true test of a life is its power to bear the light of God being suddenly let in upon it. How would yours look, my friend! if all at once a window in heaven was opened, and God glared in upon you? Set your lives side by side with Him. They always are side by side with Him whether you know it or not; but you had better bring your ‘deeds to the light that they may be made manifest’ now, than to have to do it as suddenly, and a great deal more sorrowfully, when you are dragged out of the shows and illusions of time, and He meets you on the threshold of another world. Would a beam of light from God, coming in upon your life, be like a light falling upon a gang of conspirators, that would make them huddle all their implements under their cloaks, and scuttle out of the way as fast as possible? Or would it be like a gleam of sunshine upon the flowers, opening out their petals and wooing from them fragrance? Which?
But I turn from such considerations as these to the more immediate subject of my contemplations in this discourse. I have ventured to take so great words for my text, though each clause would be more than enough for many a sermon, because my aim now is a very modest one. I desire simply to give, in the briefest way, the connection and mutual relation of these wonderful words; not to attempt any adequate treatment of the great thoughts which they contain, but only to set forth the meaning and interdependence of these manifold names for the beams of the divine light, which are presented here. The chief part of our text sets before us God in the variety and boundlessness of His loving nature, and the close of it shows us man sheltering beneath God’s wings. These are the two main themes for our present consideration.
I. We have, first, God in the boundlessness of His loving nature.
The one pure light of the divine nature is broken up, in the prism of the psalm, into various rays, which theologians call, in their hard, abstract way, divine attributes. These are ‘mercy, faithfulness, righteousness.’ Then we have two sets of divine acts-’judgments,’ and the ‘preservation’ of man and beast; and finally we have again ‘lovingkindness,’ as our version has unfortunately been misled, by its love for varying its translation, to render the same word which begins the series and is there called ‘mercy.’
Now that ‘mercy’ or ‘lovingkindness’ of which my text thus speaks, is very nearly equivalent to the New Testament ‘love’; or, perhaps, still more nearly equivalent to the New Testament ‘grace.’ Both the one and the other mean substantially this-active love communicating itself to creatures that are inferior and that might have expected something else to befall them. Mercy is a modification of love, inasmuch as it is love to an inferior. The hand is laid gently upon the man, because if it were laid with all its weight it would crush him. It is the stooping goodness of a king to a beggar. And mercy is likewise love in its exercise to persons that might expect something else, being guilty. As a general coming to a body of mutineers with pardon and favour upon his lips, instead of with condemnation and death; so God comes to us forgiving and blessing. All His goodness is forbearance, and His love is mercy, because of the weakness, the lowliness, and the ill desert of us on whom the love falls.
Now notice that this same ‘quality of mercy’ stands here at the beginning and at the end. All the attributes of the divine nature, all the operations of the divine hand lie within the circle of His mercy-like diamonds set in a golden ring. Mercy, or love flowing out in blessings to inferior and guilty creatures, is the root and ground of all God’s character; it is the foundation and impulse of all His acts. Modern science reduces all modes of physical energy to one, for which it has no name but-energy. We are taught by God’s own revelation of Himself-and most especially by His final and perfect revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ-to trace all forms of divine energy back to one which David calls ‘mercy,’ which John calls ‘love.’
It is last as well as first, the final upshot of all revelation. The last voice that speaks from Scripture has for its special message ‘God is Love.’ The last voice that sounds from the completed history of the world will have the same message, and the ultimate word of all revelation, the end of the whole of the majestic unfolding of God’s purposes will be the proclamation to the four corners of the universe, as from the trump of the Archangel, of the name of God as Love. The northern and the southern poles of the great sphere are one and the same, a straight axle through the very heart of it, from which the bounding lines swell out to the equator, and towards which they converge again on the opposite side of the world. So mercy is the strong axletree, the northern pole and the southern, on which the whole world of the divine perfections revolves and moves. The first and last, the Alpha and Omega of God, beginning and crowning and summing up all His being and His work, is His mercy, His lovingkindness.
But next to mercy comes faithfulness. ‘Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.’ God’s faithfulness is in its narrowest sense His adherence to His promises. It implies, in that sense, a verbal revelation, and definite words from Him pledging Him to a certain line of action. ‘He hath said, and shall He not do it?’ ‘He will not alter the thing that is gone out of His lips.’ It is only a God who has actually spoken to men who can be a ‘faithful God.’ He will not palter with a double sense, ‘keeping His word of promise to the ear, and breaking it to the hope.’
But not only His articulate promises, but also His own past actions, bind Him. He is always true to these; and not only continues to do as He has done, but discharges every obligation which His past imposes on Him. The ostrich was said to leave its eggs to be hatched in the sand. Men bring men into positions of dependence, and then lightly shake responsibility from careless shoulders. But God accepts the cares laid upon Him by His own acts, and discharges them to the last jot. He is a ‘faithful Creator.’ Creation brings obligations with it; obligations for the creature; obligations for the Creator. If God makes a being, God is bound to take care of the being that He has made. If He makes a being in a given fashion, He is bound to provide for the necessities that He has created. According to the old proverb, if He makes mouths it is His business to feed them. And He recognises the obligation. His past binds Him to certain conduct in His future. We can lay hold on the former manifestation, and we can plead it with Him. ‘Thou hast been, and therefore Thou must be.’ ‘Thou hast taught me to trust in Thee; vindicate and warrant my trust by Thy unchangeableness.’ So His word, His acts, and His own nature, bind God to bless and help. His faithfulness is the expression of His unchangeableness. ‘Because He could swear by no greater, He sware by Himself.’
Take, then, these two thoughts of God’s lovingkindness and of God’s faithfulness and weave them together, and see what a strong cord they are to which a man may cling, and in all His weakness be sure that it will never give nor break. Mercy might be transient and arbitrary, but when you braid in ‘faithfulness’ along with it, it becomes fixed as the pillars of heaven, and immutable as the throne of God. Only when we are sure of God’s faithfulness can we lift up thankful voices to Him, ‘because His mercy endureth for ever.’ A despotic monarch may be all full of tenderness at this moment, and all full of wrath and sternness the next. He may have a whim of favour to-day, and a whim of severity to-morrow, and no man can say, ‘What doest thou?’ But God is not a despot. He has, so to speak, ‘decreed a constitution.’ He has limited Himself. He has marked out His path across the great wide region of possibilities of the divine action; He has buoyed out His channel on that ocean, and declared to us His purposes. So we can reckon on God, as astronomers can foretell the motions of the stars. We can plead His faithfulness along with His love, and feel that the one makes sure that the other shall be from everlasting to everlasting.
The next beam of the divine brightness is righteousness. ‘Thy righteousness is like the great mountains.’ Righteousness is not to be taken here in its narrow sense of stern retribution which gives to the evildoer the punishment that he deserves. There is no thought here, whatever there may be in other places in Scripture, of any opposition between mercy and righteousness, but the notion of righteousness here is a broader and greater one. It is just this, to put it into other words, that God has a law for His being to which He conforms; and that whatsoever things are fair and lovely, and good, and pure down here, those things are fair, and lovely, and good, and pure up there; that He is the Archetype of all excellence, the Ideal of all moral completeness: that we can know enough of Him to be sure of this that what we call right He loves, and what we call right He practises.
Brethren! unless we have that for the very foundation of our thoughts of God, we have no foundation to rest on. Unless we feel and know that ‘the Judge of all the earth doeth right,’ and is right, and law and righteousness have their home and seat in His bosom, and are the expression of His inmost being, then I know not where our confidence can be built. Unless ‘Thy righteousness, like the great mountains,’ surrounds and guards the low plain of our lives, they will lie open to all foes.
Then, next, we pass from the divine character to the divine acts. Mercy, faithfulness, and righteousness all converge and flow into the great river of the divine ‘judgments.’
By judgments are not meant merely the acts of God’s punitive righteousness, the retributions that destroy evildoers, but all God’s decisions and acts in regard to man. Or, to put it into other and briefer words, God’s judgments are the whole of the ‘ways,’ the methods of the divine government. So Paul, alluding to this very passage when he says ‘How unsearchable are Thy judgments!’ adds, as a parallel clause, meaning the same thing, ‘and Thy ways past finding out.’ That includes all which men call, in a narrower sense, judgments, but it includes, too, all acts of kindness and loving gifts. God’s judgments are the expressions of His thoughts, and these thoughts are thoughts of good and not of evil.
But notice, in the next place, the boundlessness of all these characteristics of the divine nature.
‘Thy mercy is in the heavens,’ towering up above the stars, and dwelling there, like some divine ether filling all space. The heavens are the home of light, the source of every blessing, arching over every head, rimming every horizon, holding all the stars, opening into abysses as we gaze, with us by night and by day, undimmed by the mist and smoke of earth, unchanged by the lapse of centuries; ever seen, never reached, bending over us always, always far above us. So the mercy of God towers above us, and stoops down towards us, rims us all about and arches over us all, sheds down its dewy benedictions by night and by day; is filled with a million stars and light-points of duty and of splendour; is near us ever to bless and succour and help, and holds us all in its blue round.
‘Thy faithfulness reacheth to the clouds.’ Strange that God’s fixed faithfulness should be compared to the very emblems of mutation. The clouds are unstable, they whirl and melt and change. Strange to think of the unalterable faithfulness as reaching to them! May it not be that the very mutability of the mutable may be the means of manifesting the unalterable sameness of God’s faithful purpose, of His unchangeable love, and of His ever consistent dealings? May not the apparent incongruity be a part of the felicity of the bold words? Is it not true that earthly things, as they change their forms and melt away, leaving no track behind, phantomlike as they are, do still obey the behests of that divine faithfulness, and gather and dissolve and break in brief showers of blessing, or short, sharp crashes of storm, at the bidding of that steadfast purpose which works out one unalterable design by a thousand instruments, and changeth all things, being in itself unchanged? The thing that is eternal, even the faithfulness of God, dwells amid, and shows itself through, the things that are temporal, the flying clouds of change.
Again, ‘Thy righteousness is like the great mountains.’ Like these, its roots are fast and stable; like these, it stands firm for ever; like these, its summits touch the fleeting clouds of human circumstance; like these, it is a shelter and a refuge, inaccessible in its steepest peaks, but affording many a cleft in its rocks, where a man may hide and be safe. But, unlike these, it knew no beginning, and shall know no end. Emblems of permanence as they are, though Olivet looks down on Jerusalem as it did when Melchizedek was its king, and Tabor and Hermon stand as they did before human lips had named them, they are wearing away by winter storms and summer heats. But, as Isaiah has taught us, when the earth is old, God’s might and mercy are young; for ‘the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from thee.’ ‘The earth shall wax old like a garment, but My righteousness shall not be abolished.’ It is more stable than the mountains, and firmer than the firmest things upon earth.
Then, with wonderful poetical beauty and vividness of contrast, there follows upon the emblem of the great mountains of God’s righteousness the emblem of the ‘mighty deep’ of His judgments. Here towers Vesuvius; there at its feet lie the waters of the bay. So the righteousness springs up like some great cliff, rising sheer from the water’s edge, while its feet are laved by the sea of the divine judgments, unfathomable and shoreless. The mountains and the sea are the two grandest things in nature, and in their combination sublime; the one the home of calm and silence, the other in perpetual motion. But the mountain’s roots are deeper than the depths of the sea, and though the judgments are a mighty deep, the righteousness is deeper, and is the bed of the ocean.
The metaphor, of course, implies obscurity, but what sort of obscurity? The obscurity of the sea. And what sort of obscurity is that? Not that which comes from mud, or anything added, but that which comes from depth. As far as a man can see down into its blue-green depths they are clear and translucent; but where the light fails and the eye fails, there comes what we call obscurity. The sea is clear, but our sight is limited.
And so there is no arbitrary obscurity in God’s dealings, and we know as much about them as it is possible for us to know; but we cannot see to the bottom. A man on the cliff can look much deeper into the ocean than a man on the level beach. The higher you climb the further you will see down into the ‘sea of glass mingled with fire’ that lies placid before God’s throne. Let us remember that it is a hazardous thing to judge of a picture before it is finished; of a building before the scaffolding is pulled down, and it is as hazardous for us to say about any deed or any revealed truth that it is inconsistent with the divine character. Wait a bit; wait a bit! ‘Thy judgments are a great deep.’ The deep will be drained off one day, and you will see the bottom of it. ‘Judge nothing before the time.’
But as an aid to patience and faith hearken how the Psalmist finishes up his contemplations: ‘O Lord! Thou preservest man and beast.’ Very well then, all this mercy, faithfulness, righteousness, judgment, high as the heavens, deep as the ocean, firm as the hills, it is all working for this-to keep the millions of living creatures round about us, and ourselves, in life and well-being. The mountain is high, the deep is profound. Between the mountain and the sea there is a strip of level land. God’s righteousness towers above us; God’s judgments go down beneath us; we can scarcely measure adequately the one or the other. But upon the level where we live there are the green fields where the cattle browse, and the birds sing, and men live and till and reap and are fed. That is to say, we all have enough in the plain, patent facts of creation and preservation of man and animal life in this world to make us quite sure of what is the principle that prevails up to the very top of the inaccessible mountains, and down to the very bottom of the unfathomable deep. What we know of Him, in the blessings of His love and providence, ought to interpret for us all that is perplexing. What we understand is good and loving. Let us be sure that what we do not yet understand is good and loving too. The web is of one texture throughout. The least educated ear can catch the music of the simpler melodies which run through the Great Composer’s work. We shall one day be able to appreciate the yet fuller music of the more recondite parts, which to us at present seem only jangling and discord. It is not His melody but our ears that are at fault. But we may well accept the obscurity of the mighty deep of God’s judgment, when we can see plainly that, after all, the earth is full of His mercy, and that ‘the eyes of all things wait on God, and He giveth them their meat in due season.’
II. So much, then, for the great picture here of these boundless characteristics of the divine nature. Now let us look for a moment at the picture of man sheltering beneath God’s wings.
‘How excellent is Thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Thy wings.’ God’s lovingkindness, or mercy, as I explained the word might be rendered, is precious, for that is the true meaning of the word translated ‘excellent.’ We are rich when we have that for ours; we are poor without it. Our true wealth is to possess God’s love, and to know in thought and realise in feeling and reciprocate in affection His grace and goodness, the beauty and perfectness of His wondrous character. That man is wealthy who has God on his side; that man is a pauper who has not God for his.
‘How precious is Thy lovingkindness, therefore the children of men put their trust.’ There is only one thing that will ever win a man’s heart to love God, and that is that God should love him first, and let him see it. ‘We love Him because He first loved us,’ is the New Testament teaching. Is it not all adumbrated and foretold in these words: ‘How precious is Thy loving-kindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust’?
We may be driven to worship after a sort by power; we may be smitten into some cold admiration, into some kind of reluctant subjection and trembling reverence, by the manifestation of divine perfections. But there is only one thing that wins a man’s heart, and that is the sight of God’s heart; and it is only when we know how precious His lovingkindness is that we shall be drawn towards Him.
And then this last verse tells us how we can make God our own: ‘They put their trust under the shadow of Thy wings.’ The word here rendered, and accurately rendered, ‘put their trust,’ has a very beautiful literal meaning. It means to flee for refuge, as the manslayer might flee into the strong city, or as Lot did out of Sodom to the little city on the hill, or as David did into the cave from his enemies. So, with such haste, with such intensity, staying for nothing, and with the effort of your whole will and nature, flee to God. That is trust. Go to Him for refuge from all evil, from all harm, from your own souls, from all sin, from hell, and death, and the devil.
Put your trust under ‘the shadow of His wings.’ That is a beautiful image, drawn, probably, from the grand words of Deuteronomy, where God is likened to the ‘eagle stirring up her nest, fluttering over her young,’ with tenderness in her fierce eye, and protecting strength in the sweep of her mighty pinion. So God spreads the covert of His wing, strong and tender, beneath which we may all gather ourselves and nestle.
And how can we do that? By the simple process of fleeing unto Him, as made known to us in Christ our Saviour; to hide ourselves there. For let us not forget how even the tenderness of this metaphor was increased by its shape on the tender lips of the Lord: ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings!’ The Old Testament took the emblem of the eagle, sovereign, and strong, and fierce; the New Testament took the emblem of the domestic fowl, peaceable, and gentle, and affectionate. Let us flee to that Christ, by humble faith with the plea on our lips-
‘Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing’;
and then all the Godhead in its mercy, its faithfulness, its righteousness, and its judgments will be on our side; and we shall know how precious is the lovingkindness of the Lord, and find in Him the home and hiding-place of our hearts for ever.
They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures.Psalms
WHAT MEN FIND BENEATH THE WINGS OF GOD
Psalm 36:8 - Psalm 36:9.
In the preceding verses we saw a wonderful picture of the boundless perfections of God; His lovingkindness, faithfulness, righteousness, and of His twofold act, the depths of His judgments and the plainness of His merciful preservation of man and beast. In these verses we have an equally wonderful picture of the blessedness of the godly, the elements of which consist in four things: satisfaction, represented under the emblem of a feast; joy, represented under the imagery of full draughts from a flowing river of delight; life, pouring from God as a fountain; light, streaming from Him as source.
And this picture is connected with the previous one by a very simple link. Who are they who ‘shall be abundantly satisfied’? The men ‘who put their trust beneath the shadow of Thy wings.’ That is to say, the simple exercise of confidence in God is the channel through which all the fulness of divinity passes into and fills our emptiness.
Observe, too, that the whole of the blessings here promised are to be regarded as present and not future. ‘They shall be abundantly satisfied’ would be far more truly rendered in consonance with the Hebrew: ‘They are satisfied’; and so also we should read ‘Thou dost make them drink of the river of Thy pleasures; in Thy light do we see light.’ The Psalmist is not speaking of any future blessedness, to be realised in some far-off, indefinite day to come, but of what is possible even in this cloudy and sorrowful life. My text was true on the hills of Palestine, on the day when it was spoken; it may be true amongst the alleys of Manchester to-day. My purpose at this time is simply to deal with the four elements in which this blessedness consists-satisfaction, joy, life, light.
I. Satisfaction: ‘They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of Thy house.’
Now, I suppose, there is a double metaphor in that. There is an allusion, no doubt, to the festal meal of priests and worshippers in the Temple, on occasion of the peace-offering, and there is also the simpler metaphor of God as the Host at His table, at which we are guests. ‘Thy house’ may either be, in the narrower sense, the Temple; and then all life is represented as being a glad sacrificial meal in His presence, of which ‘the meek shall eat and be satisfied,’ or Thy ‘house’ may be taken in a more general sense; and then all life is represented as the gathering of children round the abundant board which their Father’s providence spreads for them, and as glad feasting in the ‘mansions’ of the Father’s house.
In either case the plain teaching of the text is, that by the might of a calm trust in God the whole mass of a man’s desires are filled and satisfied. What do we want to satisfy us? It is something almost awful to think of the multiplicity, and the variety, and the imperativeness of the raging desires which every human soul carries about within it. The heart is like a nest of callow fledglings, every one of them a great, wide open, gaping beak, that ever needs to have food put into it. Heart, mind, will, appetites, tastes, inclinations, weaknesses, bodily wants-the whole crowd of these are crying for their meat. The Book of Proverbs says there are three things that are never satisfied: the grave, the earth that is not filled with water, and the fire that never says, ‘It is enough.’ And we may add a fourth, the human heart, insatiable as the grave; thirsty as the sands, on which you may pour Niagara, and it will drink it all up and be ready for more; fierce as the fire that licks up everything within reach and still hungers.
So, though we be poor and weak creatures, we want much to make us restful. We want no less than that every appetite, desire, need, inclination shall be filled to the full; that all shall be filled to the full at once, and that by one thing; that all shall be filled to the full at once, by one thing that shall last for ever. Else we shall be like men whose store of provision gives out before they are half-way across the desert. And we need that all our desires shall be filled at once by one thing that is so much greater than ourselves that we shall grow up towards it, and towards it, and towards it, and yet never be able to exhaust or surpass it.
Where are you going to get that? There is only one answer, dear brethren! to the question, and that is-God, and God alone is the food of the heart; God, and God alone, will satisfy your need. Let us bring the full Christian truth to bear upon the illustration of these words. Who was it that said, ‘I am the Bread of Life. He that cometh unto Me shall never hunger’? Christ will feed my mind with truth if I will accept His revelation of Himself, of God, and of all things. Christ will feed my heart with love if I will open my heart for the entrance of His love. Christ will feed my will with blessed commands if I will submit myself to His sweet and gentle, and yet imperative, authority. Christ will satisfy all my longings and desires with His own great fulness. Other food palls upon man’s appetite, and we wish for change; and physiologists tell us that a less wholesome and nutritious diet, if varied, is better for a man’s health than a more nutritious one if uniform and monotonous. But in Christ there are all constituents that are needed for the building up of the human spirit, and so we never weary of Him if we only know His sweetness. After a world of hungry men have fed upon Him, He remains inexhaustible as at the beginning; like the bread in His own miracles, of which the pieces that were broken and ready to be given to the eaters were more than the original stock, as it appeared when the meal began, or like the fabled feast in the Norse Walhalla, to which the gods sit down to-day, and to-morrow it is all there on the board, as abundant and full as ever. So if we have Christ to live upon, we shall know no hunger; and ‘in the days of famine we shall be satisfied.’
O brethren! have you ever known what it is to feel that your hungry heart is at rest? Did you ever know what it is to say, ‘It is enough’? Have you anything that satisfies your appetite and makes you blessed? Surely, men’s eager haste to get more of the world’s dainties shows that there is no satisfaction at its table. Why will you ‘spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which satisfieth not,’ as Indians in famine eat clay which fills their stomachs, but neither stays hunger, nor ministers strength? Eat and your soul shall live.
II. Now, turn to the next of the elements of blessedness here-Joy. ‘Thou makest them drink of the river of Thy pleasures.’
There may be a possible reference here, couched in the word ‘pleasures,’ to the Garden of Eden, with the river that watered it parting into four heads; for ‘Eden’ is the singular of the word which is here translated ‘pleasures’ or ‘delight.’ If we take that reference, which is very questionable, there would be suggested the thought that amidst all the pain and weariness of this desert life of ours, though the gates of Paradise are shut against us, they who dwell beneath the shadow of the divine wing really have a paradise blooming around them; and have flowing ever by their side, with tinkling music, the paradisaical river of delights, in which they may bathe and swim, and of which they may drink. Certainly the joys of communion with God surpass any which unfallen Eden could have boasted.
But, at all events, the plain teaching of the text is that the simple act of trusting beneath the shadow of God’s wings brings to us an ever fresh and flowing river of gladness, of which we may drink. The whole conception of religion in the Bible is gladsome. There is no puritanical gloom about it. True, a Christian man has sources of sadness which other men have not. There is the consciousness of his own sin, and the contest that he has daily to wage; and all things take a soberer colouring to the eye that has been accustomed to look, however dimly, upon God. Many of the sources of earthly felicity are dammed up and shut off from us if we are living beneath the shadow of God’s wings. Life will seem to be sterner, and graver, and sadder than the lives ‘that ring with idiot laughter solely,’ and have no music because they have no melancholy in them. That cannot be helped. But what does it matter though two or three surface streams, which are little better than drains for sewage, be stopped up, if the ‘pure river of the water of life’ is turned into your hearts? Surely it will be a gain if the sadness which has joy for its very foundation is yours, instead of the laughter which is only a mocking mask for a death’s head, and of which it is true that even ‘in laughter the heart is sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heaviness.’ Better to be ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,’ than to be glad on the surface, with a perpetual sorrow and unrest gnawing at the root of your life.
And if it be true that the whole Biblical conception of religion is of a glad thing, then, my brother! it is your duty, if you are a Christian man, to be glad, whatever temptations there may be in your way to be sorrowful. It is a hard lesson, and one which is not always insisted upon. We hear a great deal about other Christian duties. We do not hear so much as we ought about the Christian duty of gladness. It takes a very robust faith to say, ‘Though the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vine, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation,’ but unless we can say it, there is an attainment of Christian life yet unreached, to which we have to aspire.
But be that as it may, my point is simply this-that all real and profound possession of, and communion with, God in Christ will make us glad; glad with a gladness altogether unlike that of the world round about us, far deeper, far quieter, far nobler, the sister and the ally of all great things, of all pure life, of all generous and lofty thought. And where is it to be found? Only in fellowship with Him. ‘The river of Thy pleasures’ may mean something yet more solemn and wonderful than pleasures of which He is the Author. It may mean pleasures which He shares, the very delights of the divine nature itself. The more we come into fellowship with Him, the more shall we share in the very joy of God Himself. And what is His joy? He delights in mercy; He delights in self-communication: He is the blessed, the happy God, because He is the giving God. He delights in His love. He ‘rejoices over’ His penitent child ‘with singing,’ In that blessedness we may share; or if that be too high and mystical a thought, may we not remember who it was that said: ‘These things speak I unto you that My joy may remain in you’; and who it is that will one day say to the faithful servant: ‘Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’? Christ makes us drink of the river of His pleasures. The Shepherd and the sheep drink from the same stream, and the gladness which filled the heart of the Man of Sorrows, and lay deeper than all His sorrows, He imparts to all them that put their trust in Him.
So, dear brethren! what a blessing it is for us to have, as we may have, a source of joy, frozen by no winter, dried up by no summer, muddied and corrupted by no iridescent scum of putrefaction which ever mantles over the stagnant ponds of earthly joys! Like some citadel that has an unfailing well in its courtyard, we may have a fountain of gladness within ourselves which nothing that touches the outside can cut off. We have but to lap a hasty mouthful of earthly joys as we run, but we cannot drink too full draughts of this pure river of water which makes glad the city of God.
III. We have the third element of the blessedness of the godly represented under the metaphor of Life, pouring from the fountain, which is God. ‘With Thee is the fountain of life.’
The words are true in regard to the lowest meaning of ‘life’-physical existence-and they give a wonderful idea of the connection between God and all living creatures. The fountain rises, the spray on the summit catches the sunlight for a moment, and then falls into the basin, jet after jet springing up into the light, and in its turn recoiling into the darkness. The water in the fountain, the water in the spray, the water in the basin, are all one. Wherever there is life there is God. The creature is bound to the Creator by a mystic bond and tie of kinship, by the fact of life. The mystery of life knits all living things with God. It is a spark, wherever it burns, from the central flame. It is a drop, wherever it is found, from the great fountain. It is in man the breath of God’s nostrils. It is not a gift given by a Creator who dwells apart, having made living things, as a watchmaker might a watch, and then ‘seeing them go.’ But there is a deep mystic union between the God who has life in Himself and all the living creatures who draw their life from Him, which we cannot express better than by that image of our text, ‘With Thee is the fountain of life.’
But my text speaks about a blessing belonging to the men who put their trust under the shadow of God’s wing, and therefore it does not refer merely to physical existence, but to something higher than that, namely, to that life of the spirit in communion with God, which is the true and the proper sense of ‘life’; the one, namely, in which the word is almost always used in the Bible.
There is such a thing as death in life; living men may be ‘dead in trespasses and sins,’ ‘dead in pleasure,’ dead in selfishness. The awful vision of Coleridge in the Ancient Mariner, of dead men standing up and pulling at the ropes, is only a picture of the realities of life; where, as on some Witches’ Sabbath, corpses move about and take part in the activities of this dead world. There are people full of energy in regard of worldly things, who yet are all dead to that higher region, the realities of which they have never seen, the actions of which they have never done, the emotions of which they have never felt. Am I speaking to such living corpses now? There are some of my audience alive to the world, alive to animalism, alive to lust, alive to passion, alive to earth, alive perhaps to thought, alive to duty, alive to conduct of a high and noble kind, but yet dead to God, and, therefore, dead to the highest and noblest of all realities. Answer for yourselves the question-do you belong to this class?
There is life for you in Jesus Christ, who ‘is the Life.’ Like the great aqueducts that stretch from the hills across the Roman Campagna, His Incarnation brings the waters of the fountain from the mountains of God into the lower levels of our nature, and the fetid alleys of our sins. The cool, sparkling treasure is carried near to every lip. If we drink, we live. If we will not, we die in our sins, and are dead whilst we live. Stop the fountain, and what becomes of the stream? It fades there between its banks, and is no more. You cannot even live the animal life except that life were joined to Him. If it could be broken away from God it would disappear as the clouds melt in the sky, and there would be nobody, and you would be nowhere. You cannot break yourself away from God physically so completely as to annihilate yourself. You can do so spiritually, and some of you do it, and the consequence is that you are dead, dead, DEAD! You can be made ‘alive from the dead,’ if you will lay hold on Jesus Christ, and get His life-giving Spirit into your hearts.
IV. Light. ‘In Thy light shall we see light.’
God is ‘the Father of lights.’ The sun and all the stars are only lights kindled by Him. It is the very crown of revelation that ‘God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.’ Light seems to the unscientific eye, which knows nothing about undulations of a luminiferous ether, to be the least material of material things. All joyous things come with it. It brings warmth and fruit, fulness and life. Purity, and gladness, and knowledge have been symbolised by it in all tongues. The Scripture uses light, and the sun, which is its source, as an emblem for God in His holiness, and blessedness, and omniscience. This great word here seems to point chiefly to light as knowledge.
This saying is true, as the former clause was, in relation to all the light which men have. ‘The inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding.’ The faculties by which men know, and all the exercise of those faculties, are His gift. It is in the measure in which God’s light comes to the eye that the eye beholds. ‘Light’ may mean not only the faculty, but the medium of vision. It is in the measure in which God’s light comes, and because His light comes, that all light of reason in human nature sees the truth which is its light. God is the Author of all true thoughts in all mankind. The spirit of man is a candle kindled by the Lord.
But as I said about life, so I say about light. The material or intellectual aspects of the word are not the main ones here. The reference is to the spiritual gift which belongs to the men ‘who put their trust beneath the shadow of Thy wings.’ In communion with Him who is the Light as well as the Life of men, we see a whole universe of glories, realities, and brightnesses. Where other eyes see only darkness, we behold ‘the King in His beauty, and the land that is very far off.’ Where other men see only cloudland and mists, our vision will pierce into the unseen, and there behold ‘the things which are,’ the only real things, of which all that the eye of sense sees are only the fleeting shadows, seen as in a dream, while these are the true, and the sight of them is sight indeed. They who see by the light of God, and see light therein, have a vision which is more than imagination, more than opinion, more than belief. It is certitude. Communication with God does not bring with it superior intellectual perspicuity, but it does bring a perception of spiritual realities and relations, which, in respect of clearness and certainty, may be called sight. Many of us walk in darkness, who, if we were but in communion with God, would see the lone hillside blazing with chariots and horses of fire. Many of us grope in perplexity, who, if we were but hiding under the shadow of God’s wings, would see the truth and walk at liberty in the light, which is knowledge and purity and joy.
In communication with God, we see light upon all the paths of duty. It is wonderful how, when a man lives near God, he gets to know what he ought to do. That great Light, which is Christ, is like the star that hung over the Magi, blazing in the heavens, and yet stooping to the lowly task of guiding three wayfaring men along a muddy road upon earth. So the highest Light of God comes down to be ‘a lantern for our paths and a light for our feet.’
And in the same communion with God, we get light in all seasons of darkness and of sorrow. ‘To the upright there ariseth light in the darkness’; and the darkest hours of earthly fortune will be like a Greenland summer night, when the sun scarcely dips below the horizon, and even when it is absent, all the heaven is aglow with a calm twilight.
All these great blessings belong to-day to those who take refuge under the shadow of His wings. But blessed as the present experience is, we have to look for the perfecting of it when we pass from the forecourt to the inner sanctuary, and in that higher house sit with Christ at His table and feast at ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ Here we drink from the river, but there we shall be carried up to the source. The life of God in the soul is here often feeble in its flow, ‘a fountain sealed’ and all but shut up in our hearts, but there it will pour through all our being, a fountain springing up into everlasting life. The darkness is scattered even here by beams of the true light, but here we are only in the morning twilight, and many clouds still fill the sky, and many a deep gorge lies in sunless shadow, but there the light shall be a broad universal blaze, and there shall be ‘nothing hid from the heat thereof.’
Now, dear brethren! the sum of the whole matter is, that all this fourfold blessing of satisfaction, joy, life, light, is given to you, if you will take Christ. He will feed you with the bread of God; He will give you His own joy to drink; He will be in you the life of your lives, and ‘the master-light of all your seeing.’ And if you will not have Him, you will starve, and your lips will be cracked with thirst; and you will live a life which is death, and you will sink at last into outer darkness.
Is that the fate which you are going to choose? Choose Christ, and He will give you satisfaction, and joy, and life, and light.