The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Michtam of David. Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.A Mictham of David
"A Michtam," some say, a musical term. There is another and preferable interpretation—namely, "a golden legend." Under this interpretation we may regard the psalm as a kind of jewel-case. All the best treasures of the great singer are to be found in this precious casket. Call the psalm a golden treasury; then it will come before us as containing the most precious things David ever thought about, the most precious hopes by which David was ever animated; a collection of apothegms; pithy, solid, grand sentences; words to be quoted in the field of battle, to be whispered in the chamber of affliction, to be breathed in the hour and article of death. Let us see how far the psalm justifies that interpretation of the word Michtam.
The Psalmist will be "preserved"; he will not only be created. There is a cold Deism which says: Having been created, that is enough; the rest belongs to myself; I must attend to the details of life; creation may have been a divine act, but all education, culture, progress, preservation must fall under my own personal care. The Psalmist begins in another tone. He opens his psalm with the great word "preserve,"—equal to, Attend to all my cares and wants; pity my feebleness; take hold of my right hand and of my left hand, and be round about me, and never leave me for one moment to myself. That is true worship. Only a sense of the divine nearness of that kind can adequately sustain a noble and growing religion. We need a daily prayer; we die for want of daily food; every morning must be a revelation in light, every night must be a revelation in rest. "Pray without ceasing"; pray for the renewal of the tissue, the continual numbering of the hairs of the head, the suggestion of every syllable, the inspiration of every thought. This is not a selfish preservation, a preservation from evil, or danger, or suffering only, but the kind of preservation that is necessary to growth. Who has not seen the guards round the trees, especially the little trees, the young growths, so that they may have a chance of taking hold of the earth, and lifting themselves up to the sun, and bringing out of themselves all the secret of the divine purpose in their creation? A selfish preservation would be an impious desire, but the preservation being asked for as an opportunity of growth, is a preservation for which the noblest souls may daily pray. It is, then, not enough to have been created: even that divine act becomes deteriorated and spoiled, impoverished, utterly depleted of all ennobling purpose and inspiration, unless it be followed by continual husbandry or shepherdliness, nursing or culture—for the figure admits of every variety of change—the end being growth, strength, fruitfulness.
"For in thee do I put my trust." That was the claim which the Psalmist felt he had upon God. It is a great claim. The words may be so uttered as to become a commonplace; but there is nothing commonplace, in the sense of trivial, in such words as these. The meaning is: I have committed myself to thee; we stand or fall together; I have boldly told the nations that I have no other sanctuary, no other hope, and that if help do not come from heaven I am weak like other men. It is a noble challenge; it is the only course by which we can really—that is, livingly and exhaustively—glorify God. We do not give to him our veneration only, our formal and distant respect, but we plunge ourselves into him; we cut off all other associations, and live, and move, and have our being in God. Where such a challenge can be addressed with the sincerity of the heart, all heaven seems to be too little to form an answer to an appeal so complete in its pathos.
The Psalmist gives an outline of the Universal Church whilst he is in this hot rapture. Not until imagination burns do men become poet-prophets. Nothing can be done in cold mind, dry intellect, icy blood. The Psalmist having uttered his prayer, looks round about, and sees "the saints," and "the excellent" "that are in the earth." With ineffable spiritual modesty he says, in words difficult of translation, "My goodness extendeth not to thee," as though he would say: I have no status before thee, if it become a mere matter of argument and rightful possession; that is forfeited; but I have this in my heart which thou wilt appreciate, a desire for the communion and fellowship of everybody who loves thee. That in itself is a conception of true worship. We cannot extend the altar, but we can extend the church. The Cross does not subject itself to our manipulation, but the meaning of the Cross may be spoken in every tongue under heaven, and every soul may be invited to this great festival of love. This is the germ of the Universal Church. Up to this time we have been limited by a local term; we have had long pilgrimage with one called Israel: now we begin to see the day breaking over distant lands. The earth is greener than we thought it to be; there are harvest-fields beyond the river which we counted our limit: on the other side Jordan, and on the other side Euphrates—yea, even to the ends of the earth,—there is a possibility of growth and a possibility of harvest.
"But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight" (Psalm 16:3). This is the communion of saints. This is the truly united church. Observe, the terms are themselves of a universal quality: "the saints," "the excellent;" the reference is to character, not to opinion, not to varied ways of looking at things which cannot be positively settled; the Psalmist dwells upon the eternal quantity—character, holiness, excellence, pureness;—these speak all languages, assume the hues of all climes, and under manifold outward diversity conceal an agreement subtle and undefinable as life itself. Who has discovered life?—who has taken it out with his dainty fingers and looked at it objectively? Yet it is everywhere—a spirit, a ghost, a mystery, giving its real value to everything, making a child valuable to the state, making the tiniest life a centre of sensitiveness—a possibility of agony. Did we look in this direction, we should lose all that is bitter in sectarianism, and cherish all that is good in the proper distribution of gift, and talent, and spiritual capacity. We should then belong to the Universal Church. Men are one, to a large extent, in worship. When they rise from their knees they begin, to contend with one another: then "pray without ceasing." This is the great gem which we have found in this golden treasury: a conception of humanity—new, gracious, inclusive.
"Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god" (Psalm 16:4).
The word "hasten" comes from a root which signifies to buy a wife. The idea of the Psalmist, therefore, is—Their sorrows shall be multiplied that go out after idolatry,—which has again and again been associated with adultery in the whole of the Old Testament writings. "After another god." Where do we find the word "god" in the plural number? Opening the divine book we read, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth;" and reading further on, we find the mysterious plural as used by the Eternal himself, signifying holy and inaccessible mysteries of being. But where is the word vulgarised and used as a term of temptation? Verily, in the grammar of the serpent. Said he, "Ye shall be as gods." A new term in what little human speech was then possible; an impiety in grammar; a distant and not at all obvious suggestion in the direction of polytheism. Who can tell how such ideas get into the mind? There is no insobriety in saying that they are insinuated into the mind by tempting spirits. Trifle with grammar, and you may come to trifle with theology; deplete language of its morality, and you may deplete worship of its inspiration. The Psalmist here pledges himself to a definite prophecy. We are entitled to ask, Is it true? History can be the only field of evidence; by history, meaning the religious experience of the individual and the religious experience of the commonwealth. The more gods, the more sorrow; the more gods, the more familiarity, the less reverence, and the less worship. The Chinese, who have thousands of deities, flog the gods that do not answer them. This is literal, and this is necessary; to have innumerable gods is to have no god; to have a life all miracles is to be destitute of the supernatural; we must have unity, the sacred mystery of personality, the grand idea of centralisation, monarchy, eternal supremacy.
Why does the Psalmist speak in these high and noble tones? The reason is satisfactory. He bases his larger hope upon his own complete and abiding happiness. Thus the man himself becomes the argument:—
"The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons. I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore..." (Psalm 16:5-9).
This is an appeal which is not only tenable, but graciously compulsory. "The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup"—literally, of my condition in life; I have nothing else;—but, as some commentator has said, how rich must he be who possesses the Possessor of all! "Thou maintainest my lot,"—not only thou directest me in general providence, for in that sense God holds the wicked in his power, but thou dost keep my lot for me; it is evermore in thy right hand; I am not put in trust with it, because some mishap might occur in this life of tumult, and strange and bewildering surprise; thou dost dispose the lot, and then keep it in thine own hands. So that the soul lives in continual nearness to the Father, within whisper-distance of him, so that communication can pass and repass, and the outer world not know when his signal has flamed in the heavens for the guidance of the dependent and adoring soul.
"The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places" (Psalm 16:6).
The land was marked out by lines, so that the inheritance began at this point and ended at that point; it was toward the rising of the sun, or toward the setting of the sun; or was near the river, or was far off among the hills; but it was an inheritance that "fell out," that belonged to the individual whose name was divinely associated with it; and the Psalmist says, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places." No matter where they are, for the whole land is pleasant. Is it not possible to think our inheritance the very best of all? The same blessed and comforting thought is felt in the family. What mother does not think her own children the very best?—admitting, as she may do, with a mother's reluctance, this drawback and that disadvantage; still, taking a certain view of the case, how her children stand up with attractions, in her judgment, not to be surpassed! So every man may deal with his inheritance. He may call it "a goodly heritage." Though some years there be little upon it, still the heritage is "goodly": the year before last the harvest was very abundant, and next year it may be more abundant still. The heritage is not to be blamed: the climate may be variable; all the transitory influences of the year may be more or less disappointing, but the heritage, the land, is moist with a divine blessing, living with a divine promise. He who takes this view of life—its cup, its lot, its heritage—has the contented mind which is a continual feast.
Now arises the advantage of connecting the Psalms with the period of history at which they were written. Many of these Psalms have their historical counterpart in the Books of Samuel. Referring to the history as given in those books, you will find that these exclamations on the part of the Psalmist are not the utterances of a rhapsodist. These are not terms in poetry, or phases of an imaginative life: the man who wrote all these words was not living in some lordly castle, whence he could survey velvet lawns, and mysterious landscapes, and fruitful gardens, and hear the singing of birds that lingered around the castle roof as if charmed by some subtle hospitality within; the man who wrote this psalm may be said to have written part of it upon the rock, to have finished the sentence in a cave, to have completed the eloquence when the air was rent by the cry of pursuing foes. In all such psalms the circumstances are the true commentaries. Enough for us to know at this moment that this man was not uttering a Sabbath-hymn in a church specially built for him, and protected as to all intrusion and unholy violence and trespass; he was writing in an unroofed church, or writing in a hidden den or cave. If trust in the living God will stand the test of such circumstances, he must be a bold man who can throw away the advantage of thus vitally associating himself with the living God.
How the ideas grow on the expanding mind of the harper! Not only does he see an outline of the Universal Church, but along with that, and almost consequent upon it, he sees an outline of Immortality. This is an idea which has been growing in the Old Testament. Now and again some word has been interjected into the story that did not seem to belong to it, or was of another quality—a word with a colour, a flush, as if light from an unknown source had struck upon it and lighted it up into new beauty. Job has said one or two words for the explanation of which we must wait; the Psalmist now speaks of his flesh resting in hope, of his soul not being left in the unseen place, and of the Holy One not seeing corruption. A beautiful threefold division, too, is coming into human language:—"My flesh," "my heart," "my soul,"—what more can the apostle say in his noble rapture but "body, soul, and spirit"? No fourth quality has been added. David, in whom was sleeping, according to the flesh, the Son of God, began to see a strange outlining of new possibilities of being. He is more than flesh, he is more than soul—he is flesh, soul, and heart; and because he has this conception of the inner nature he says, Surely the flesh shall share this glory somehow; I cannot tell in what manner, but "my flesh also shall rest in hope." As if to say, I cannot tell all that is in me; I am struggling to say something that will not be said, but I am alive, stirred, inflamed: oh that some prophet gifted with the genius of words could interpret me into speech! To impair the doctrine of immortality is to strike at the goodness of God. In denying immortality we may be said to deny the Creator. We cannot treat immortality as a doctrine only; it is really part of the divine nature. Given God, and immortality in some form is a necessity. Has he created us simply to let us die? Has he given us all these gifts merely to mock us at the last, by allowing us to drop into oblivion and nothingness? Does he permit us to climb to the very door of heaven, and to hear the songs that are sung inside, simply that he may thunder to us, You cannot have part or lot in this inheritance; your destiny is obliteration? Some argument must be founded upon instinct, impulse, yearning, longing, speechless unconsciousness. When we are all, body, soul, and spirit, lifting ourselves up to him, is it like him to deny the aspiration? or like him to give us that further movement which will connect us consciously with his own eternity? To this latter faith I incline. God has not created aspirations which he cannot satisfy. There is more in us than we can tell, and to these wordless impulses God sends this revelation of immortality.
The New Testament use of this psalm we will find in Acts 2:25-28 : "For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance." "Being a prophet," Peter adds, "being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; he seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption." We must bring Christ into the Psalms as well as history, to catch all their light, to hear all their music, and enjoy all their gladness. O blessed darling of Israel, David, thou wast the sweet singer of Israel; Christ was in thee. Who can explain the mystery of heredity and propagation? The very Son of God was in him at the time. He was, according to the flesh, the father of the Messiah at the time. And if we are related to the past, who can tell in what degree and in what mysterious manner we are related to the future? Who is singing in that songster, preaching in that preacher, writing in that author? The world may have to wait ages before it gets the full explanation of many a word of eloquence, and many a deed of charity.
Almighty God, thou givest songs in the nighttime; that is our surprise. Thou makest us to pray in the morning, and causest us to sing at night, and at midday thou dost make us lie down in the shadow, for the heat is too great for us. All the day long thy love is revealed unto us; thou hast not left one hour without a sign of thy presence and care. We bless thee for this assurance; it is triumph in the day of battle, it is healing in the night of sickness, it is immortality in the last struggle. We thank thee we are able to say that in our right hand is thy rod, and in our left hand thy staff, and though the valley of the shadow of death is still where it ever was, yet a great light from heaven shines upon it, and it becomes an upward way—a valley leading to the skies. Behold, thou hast made all things new. Out of the dust thou didst make man: is not the dust, then, living—ancient dust—itself the remains of incalculable life? Thou didst turn the sheepskin into a covering for human nakedness: do not all things minister to man? Thou hast turned the common bread into thy body, O Christ, and the wine into thy blood, O Lamb of God, and thou wilt perfect this process of transformation until the whole earth shall become beautiful, pure, a temple of God, full of holy song, the scene of holy service. We delight to watch these processes of transformation, to see them in ourselves, to behold the child passing away and the old man slowly coming on, to see how the letter is dispossessed by the spirit, so that we who lived once in a narrow limit now enjoy a glorious liberty; to watch how all things that we once prized pass away like shadows that are unvalued, until a land that we had not dreamed of comes down to us in our visions of faith, and we are drawn to it as to an unseen and blessed country. Once we lived in the letter, and in things visible, and in things we could handle, and in things we called realities; now, looking upon them all stored up in their empty wealth, we say, Vanity of vanities; all is vanity: these are but symbols pointing us onward to the true things that abide for ever—the things of thought and holiness, love and consecration, and hope and heaven, Thus thou dost lead us on day by day. The child puts down his playthings as exhausted, the youth lays hold of things that appear to be of immediate value; the man also puts these away, and begins to struggle after things invisible, immeasurable, ineffable. Truly, this is the birth of the Spirit, the new life, the larger existence, and only God can satisfy it, only Christ can answer its questions, only the Holy Spirit can work within it the miracle of contentment. We bless thee for all the tumult which has made us anxious for rest; even for the vain and noisy controversy which has made us yearn for prayer. All things that help us towards the sanctuary are of thy sending and thine appointing; they are mysteries from heaven: we accept them as such, and bless the living Lord for such ministries. Thou knowest what we need and that we are always needing. Thou hast made our life a necessity, and our very sighing an aspiration. We must pray. We say we cannot pray, and we pray whilst we say we cannot: our tears are prayers, our groans are petitions, our unrest is a wordless speech addressed to God. For the interpretation of these things we bless thee. We did not understand them at the first, but now we see the whole meaning and bless thee for it: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. Continue thy work of education, purification, even until we know the meaning of sanctification—the spotless purity of God. Give us the mastery of life, the high supremacy, which looks down upon it from heavenly heights and scorns the things that threaten but cannot execute, that promise but cannot fulfil, that tempt but cannot realise. This life we can have in Christ Jesus thy Son—even this sovereignty over time and space. May we so live in him that we know not whether we have eaten or not, whether we have been fasting before God or feasting in some great banqueting-house of heaven: deliver us from the consciousness which dwarfs the soul, which imprisons and impoverishes the spirit, and give us to know that sweet absorption in thy love which takes no note of weeks or days or months or dying years, but is filled with the eternity of God. Overrule for us whatever happens in life. Save us from looking at things when they are too near at hand; show us that distance is necessary to true judgment—distance of time as well as distance of space. May we therefore be in no haste to sin with our tongue; may we have the grace of patience which waits today and to-morrow and the third day, and then looks upon the perfectness of God. Deliver us from all that would embitter our life. Wherein we have been disappointed, may our disappointment not become sourness in the soul. Oh, keep us sweet of mind—pure, childlike in heart; may we never lose the morning dewiness, but feel how good a thing it is to be near God, and accept life in its daily portions as a daily education. When we are ill thou wilt know how to handle us, so that we shall know not the pressure—yea, shall feel the comfort—of thine hand. When we are in darkness thou canst still speak to us: for is not the song sweetest when the singer cannot be seen? and are there not messages which may not be delivered in the light? When we are weary, disquieted, and ill at ease, give us a sense of thy nearness, and let our poor fingers touch the walls of thy sanctuary. Look upon men and women who have done wrong, and are shut up in prison for their wrongdoing. As for the criminal—is the criminal within the region of prayer? Thou knowest: we cannot tell, for our prayers die in sight of the awful wickedness. But surely the fool may be saved—the man who has been snared and entrapped, who is sound at heart and generally innocent; the Lord have pity upon such, the Lord send comfort and hope after penitence. Be with our dear ones far away, in other lands, yet still at home; some speaking other languages, and longing to speak their native tongue; some in trouble on the sea—that great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. The Lord hear us, draw us to the Cross, the scene of blood, the Aceldama made by God and not by men, the altar of propitiation, the mysterious mercy-seat Amen.
But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight."Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"... The saints that are in the earth."—Psalm 16:3
Take this as indicating the mixed character of human society. Even if we had no Bible it would be impossible to deny that human society is composed of conflicting and irreconcilable elements. We find in the same community honesty and dishonesty, simplicity and duplicity, faithfulness and faithlessness, generosity and selfishness. The Bible does not create these distinctions; it recognises them. We have magnanimous men, and men of little mind: on every side we see men who take large and generous views of life, and men whose views of life are small and suspicious. Why, then, is it impossible that there should be men to whom the word "saint" should be applied? By "saints" understand holy men, separated men, men who live and move and have their being in God, men who test everything by divine standards. Has there ever been a time when the earth has been totally void of saints? By saints we are not to understand men who are perfect, but men whose aim is to discover God and to obey God. A saint is no good in any final sense. He is only good in his purpose, in his relations to other men, and in his aspirations towards God. Beside the holiness of God there is no purity. God chargeth his angels with folly, and the heavens are not clean in his sight. Yet, according to the common use of language, and according to a very high moral standard, there are moral men, honest men, upright men, saints, peculiarly and distinctively men who draw their life and their inspiration from God. The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous. Say ye to the righteous, It shall be well with him. They shall be mine, saith the Lord, in that day when I number up my jewels. There is no indiscriminateness in the judgment of God. The Lord separateth men as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. Continually the Lord distinguishes between good and evil, light and darkness, and his judgment is directed according to the character of those who are set before him. To the righteous heaven itself is small; to the unrighteous all punishment is eternal. The saints are the salt of the earth. The saints are the light of the world. The saints are the security of the world. For the sake of ten righteous men, who can tell how many cities the Lord is now sparing? Who can tell how much we are indebted even for physical advantages to the praying souls in the neighbourhood in which we live? Life is not the flat and superficial thing which atheism would have us believe; it: is profound, subtle, infinite; the elements and forces which it touches are beyond all reckoning. So long as there are good men upon the earth, the earth will be precious in the sight of God. Let us rejoice when the godly are multiplied, for in their increase is there multiplication of prayer and multiplication of holy service.