The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.The Silent Church
This is the higher wisdom. The text begins with the "wise." Wisdom is assumed,—not intellectual wisdom, which is often only another name for ignorance, but moral wisdom,—wisdom of the heart. Whoso hath such wisdom, and will apply it in the observation of history, providence, mysterious interposition, shall come little by little to understand—not intellectually only, but morally, sympathetically; as if by identification with the thing itself—the lovingkindness of the Lord. Lovingkindness is a quality of kindness; tender mercy is a quality of mercy,—a peculiar, distinctive quality, an incommunicable quality. Kindness we see on every hand, and yet hardly ever see at all, in its pureness, and simplicity, and profoundest reality, because of admixtures that are human and almost inevitable. But in our searching after the heart of this kindness we come upon a quality which we distinguish by the name lovingkindness,—kind kindness, refined refinement, spiritual spirituality; the innermost thought and pulse and life of things. This is no rude judgment, no superficial or hasty criticism; as who shall speak of kindness, goodness, amiability: this is discriminating, critical consideration of innermost qualities: and the Psalmist is not ashamed of the redundance, "tender mercy," "lovingkindness." When love is sparing of language, when love tries to be concise, love puts its own eyes out, and inflicts a stab upon its own heart. Love has a right to be redundant; it flows like a river. This is more than Hebrew multiplication of words; this cometh of the necessity of things,—the heart seeing beyond kindness up to lovingkindness, beyond mercy to mercy that weeps hot tears, tender mercy, that will spare the smoking flax and the bruised reed. That is the text.
What are we called upon to do? To "observe." But that is a scientific word. Certainly. There is no book more scientific than the Bible. Is not science called sometimes the art of observation? Here is a religious teacher who says, Be scientific—observe. Sometimes we want a microscope, sometimes a telescope; everything depends upon the object on which we are fixing our observation; if it be minute, there is the microscope; if it be distant, there is the telescope; what we have to do is to observe,—which few men can do. There are few born surveyors. There are men enough who can lump things, and speak about them in vague generalities, but to observe the Lord, to watch him, we must neither slumber nor sleep; we must not look at broad lines, marking historical boundaries, we must look at all the fine lines, all the minute stippling, all the interior, wondrous touch, as of spiritual fingers; then we shall come to a just induction, to a soundly theological and rational conclusion concerning things. We cannot have the rough-and-ready man in the Church, and appoint him to tell us how love is going and how providence is shaping itself, and what lights are burning on the horizon. He may have his place, but it is not in the chair of criticism. He should be swift to hear, and be quite a stammerer in speech. Would God there were more stammering in certain sections of the Church, now being overburdened and noised to death by fluency! We are not to observe a little here and a little there, but we are to observe minutely, we are to observe in detail, to observe the little spectral shapes no larger than the hand of a man, and we are to observe them growing until the accumulation fills the firmament with promise of rain. It is delightful to find a word which binds us to a scientific policy. Isaac Newton said he was not aware that he excelled any one except it might be in the faculty of paying attention—shall we call it the faculty of observation? Darwin never slept; he was observing whilst he was dreaming; he left the object for a moment or two and came back to it to follow it on. And one would imagine from some of Sir John Lubbock's most useful books, packed as they are with information, that he had spent the most of his life in an ant-heap. He knows about ants—their policy, their economy, their method, their battles, their conflicts, their conquests—all their wondrous system of society. When a man observes God in that way, there will be no atheists. Atheism comes from want of observation,—not observation of a broad vulgar kind, as for example the eyes that take in a whole sky at a time without taking in one solitary gleam of light for careful and reverent analysis, but an observation as minute and detailed, and patient and long-continued, as a man has bestowed upon the habits of an ant. Who would go to a man who had never seen an ant, in order to learn from him the habits of the busy little creature? We smile at the suggestion. Yet there are men who go to professed atheists to know what they think of theology! That which would be ridiculous in science is supposed to be rather philosophical and somewhat broad-minded in the Church. We go to experts. We are right in doing so. We ought to go to experts in the study of history,—not the broad vulgar history of kings, and rival policies, and sanguinary battles; but the inner history of thought, motive, purpose, spiritual growth, and those mysterious inventions which seem to have no beginning and no ending, circumferences without visible centre, centres without measurable circumferences,—the mystery of social movement.
The Psalmist dwells mainly upon four classes of people. Probably at that age of the world there were only four classes of people available for purposes of religious illustration. He deals with exiles, with prisoners, with sick men, and with men who see the wonders of the Lord in the great waters. So, in foreign lands, where there is no home; in prison, where the life is bound in cages of iron and brass; in the sick-chamber, where the life is worn down to one pain: and the great sea, which allows navies to pass but never to leave a footprint. This observing Psalmist opens the fifth book of the Psalter by saying that if men would only carefully observe all these things, they would come out of them singing and praising God, saying, In Babylon we saw thy goodness, and in the sea of the south we beheld how thy power lowered itself into pity and mercy.
The Psalmist does not neglect he extremities of men, when they are toiling and struggling and are put to all manner of distress. Indeed, he describes some of his clients, if we may so call them, as men who are at their wits' ends; literally, who are reeling, first on the right hand, then on the left, staggering, drunk, but not with wine. "They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in." That is the want of men. We cannot do without the city. Solitude is good for a time; to the truly growing and reverent soul, solitude is essential, but it must be occasional, it must be well-apportioned, it must be seasonable; it must follow the battle, it must come after the strenuous strife with darkness and sin and misery and social helplessness: the summer holiday must come after the winter's toil; then is solitude most welcome, then the wilderness is a huge garden. But taking life in its breadth and generality, men, plural Man, social man, wants a city to dwell in. The city is a poem, the city is a plan. Every citizen who pays attention to his limitations and responsibilities is more or less of a statesman. He learns something by having neighbours. He says, This is a party-wall. A common phrase; there is nothing in it in the ordinary specifications and covenants of builders and leaseholders, but looked into carefully it means,—I live on this side, and my neighbour lives on that, and if the wall should fall down we have both to build it. That is life in the city. The moment a man is joined by some other man, that man's rights are divided. If there were no other man but one in the solar system, no doubt he would be a person of great consequence—to himself: but the moment a little child came into that solar system his empire would be disputed, he must consider others, he must watch the child. Thus solitude is a larger condition than mere loneliness of the body. Solitude may in its larger signification point to one of those responsibilities the exercise of which develops the best and finest powers of the human soul. The cities are only symbols. The Lord allows us to bring our stone and timber and glass together, and allows us to make thoroughfares, and to have even corporations and councils; and he allows us to go forth at our full height as men of real civic importance: all the while he is saying, There is only one city that hath foundations: all these cities of yours are huts, places to dwell in for a day and a night, but on the third day you must be out. Blessed are they who declare plainly even in London that they seek a country out of sight, a city that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Live in your own city only, the hut which your own hands have made, and you lose the whole poetry of the situation. Every roof should mean in its higher symbolism a sky, every home should be the beginning of heaven. Poor wanderers!—were they the exiles returning from Babylon, and coming back to the Holy Land through every gateway accessible and passable? or is this a general description of the condition of human pilgrimage? Be it local, or be it general, there is the fact, that man can only do with a limited amount of solitude. Where he has to make his road every day, where there is only one little line of path, made by the feet it may be of beasts of prey, where there are no thoroughfares, no broad open roads with beauteous fields on either side, speaking of warmth, and comfort, and hospitality, and home, man says, When will this end? where is the city, the place of habitation, the home? where can we talk together, talk one another out of our miseries, speak one another by tender eloquence into new liberties and larger rights?
The Psalmist dwells upon the limitations and restrictions of the man and the society, the whole idea of humanity: "Therefore he brought down their heart: with labour"—literally, with misery "they fell down, and there was none to help." Sometimes we are all helpless. A question arises on which no one, even the whitest-haired, even the wisest, can shed light; then we fall down. What a striking, vivid image is this of the reality of things. We fall down. We can only stand in the degree in which we are wise, or capable, or conscious of ability to meet in some degree the pressure and agony of the situation: there comes a time when we fall down not in worship but in feebleness, and when though we be a multitude in number there is none to help. What did they do?" Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble." That has been his black Church through all the ages. Who ever went to a wedding to find the Lord? Who ever went out in high summer noon, saying, Let us pray? Then there seemed to be no need for prayer: but "in their trouble"—a church without windows, a church all blackness; when they could not see one another because of the denseness of the cloud—"they cried." The voice can go forth when the vision fails. We see God best in the darkness; we never knew the meaning of the words "I am the Resurrection and the Life" till we kissed the icy lips of the one child for whom the man waited outside to carry his ashes to the grave-pit. Then, when that voice fell upon us, we: said, Lord, this must be true: yes, speak again—"I am the Resurrection and the Life." We needed some one to face that white enemy that blanches everything he looks upon; we spoke to him, and he mocked us with a grin; we implored him, and he trampled upon our prostrate form: but here is One that comes to him with majesty and says, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." In trouble that gospel was announced. When the house was desolate because the brother was dead, God opened that window in it through which the sisters saw all heaven's vitality.
The Psalmist, by a fine touch, artistic as well as spiritual, indicates how sometimes men are the mere sport of nature:—"He commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof." Can they not throw oil upon the waters? What oil would fill the Atlantic? Can the captain not say to the waves, "Peace, be still"? Yes, but the waves do not know him, though he be robed in uniform, and be gilded with medals. Can all the passengers not combine to say, We are men and you waves must not hurt us? Yes, they can do that, they can "call spirits from the vasty deep." To call is one thing: for the spirits to come, for the sea to obey, is another. "Commandeth" is a large word; literally, he spake,—so common a word as that. All great deeds in the Bible have been done, not by commanding, which is a term indicative of high majesty, but by speaking, saying: "And the Lord said, Let there be light," and the whole firmament gleamed with glory: "And the Lord said, Let us make man," and man stood up almost a god: "The Lord spake," and the sea fell into infinite undulations, and the ship was a creaking toy, now in the valley, now on the hill, in the trough and on the crest—absolutely helpless. It is instructive to note sometimes how we are almost the mere sport of nature.
The Lord "sent his word and healed them,"—literally, he sends his word, and heals them. Is this the word referred to in the expression "commandeth," or spake? Should this word be printed with a capital W? Is it more than a vocable, a syllable? Does it live? Is this the Logos? There may be some who would starve the soul and say, Do not read such meanings into the Psalms: there are others who have read beyond the psalms into the gospels and are able to say, Now take back your New Testament light and hold it over your Old Testament object and read the psalm again:—In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God: and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us: he sent his Word. God is always sending; the Gospel is a sent blessing; and it is sent to be sent; around the world it goes, God's angel, God's voice, God's benediction.
Who is to say this? "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so." "The redeemed of the Lord" is an expression that Isaiah made use of:—"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." The redeemed have been silent too long. We want a speaking Church; we want a Church of testimony. Every man can at all events relate his own experience, modestly and tenderly. A man may not be able to expound prophets and paraphrase sweet gospels so that a thousand men shall listen to him with more or less of interest, but every man can tell what he has seen and known and felt and handled of the Word of life. "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so." Church, thou hast been silent too long. O assembly of the saints, why this speechlessness? You will be mocked, of course. If a man shall lock himself up in selfish contemplation and spend his life in self-analysis, then no notice will be taken of him; but if he come out and speak boldly, he will be taunted and sneered at and ridiculed and undervalued and misrepresented. Which is to be the guide of life, the overpowering inspiration of God, which says, Speak out! or the self-considering misinspiration of time and sense and self which says, Stay at home?
What shall be the result of this observation: Shall man see the power of God, the grandeur of God, the majesty of God? No: or through them he will see the further quality, the beauteous reality:—"Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the lovingkindness of the Lord." The exiles shall say, He was good to us in Babylon, though we knew it not at the time. The prisoners shall say, There was not one bar too many of iron or brass in the cage that held us: we see it now. Sick men shall say, In the sick-chamber where we mourned and pined in weakness God was love. And men who have been tossed to and fro on great waters shall say, The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, and his also is the fulness of the sea. They come out of all this tumult of experience, not saying, God is great, God is majestic, God is overwhelming: hear them; they come out of all this tragedy, agony, loss, saying, "God is love.