Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening.
The psalm from which our text is taken is one of the most complete and impressive pictures of the universe to be found in ancient literature, and it breathes the very spirit of the Hebrew race. It has been called the Psalm of the Cosmos. It moves through all creation, and begins and ends with praise. In our psalm until we reach the text, the Deity is represented as working alone, causing the grass to grow and giving to the wild beasts their food; but man goeth forth — goeth forth a self-conscious, self-acting being, a distinct person, a sovereign soul with power to shape the course of his own life and activity. And this going forth of man is not only the summing up and end of a creation, but the beginning of a new creation. Marvellous as is the material universe, in man is hidden a glory beyond that of all things visible. Because he thinks and wills, and loves, he is kindred to the Infinite Mind and Will and Heart — kindred to God; not only a creature formed and sustained by the Creator's power, but a Son of God, begotten not made, and therefore more to God than vast worlds and burning suns. He has his origin and home in the Eternal Fatherhood with all its thought and labour and sacrifice.
I. WHY ARE WE HERE IN THIS WORLD AND WHAT FOR? Has the question never occurred to you? Rather has it not come up often in your experience? It has been at times only a vague and fleeting curiosity. Why are we here and what for? He is a little man in a little world who thinks that he can give a complete answer to this question. Why did the Creative power send forth man into this world at all? What if he were not and never had been? Can his work and labour in his brief mortal day count for much or anything in the universal plan? The mystery is great, but it is plainly the purpose of the mystery to challenge our courage and to lead the human mind onward step by step to the conquest of the unknown. We have not drifted to the place where we now find ourselves. We are not accidents, chance appearances in the world, a mass of solitary creatures unrelated to anything truly great and significant beyond and above ourselves. Of one thing we may be certain, that the whole purpose and order of the world must have some relation to our lives, and our lives some relation to the whole purpose and order of the world. We are here, must it not be? as parts of this great creation, to fill our place in it as faithfully as we can. In childhood many of us were taught that the chief end of man is to glorify God. It is a sublime answer to our question, and cannot be improved upon, if we only put the true meaning into it. We glorify God when we give ourselves to His purpose in the world and in our human life, to His will and work. St. Paul describes himself and his companions in service and sacrifice as fellow-workers with God. In his controversy with John Stuart Mill, the French philosopher Comte said, "My Deity (Humanity) has at least one advantage over yours — he needs help, and can be helped." Mill met the charge by saying that the theist's God is not omnipotent, "He can be helped, Great Worker though He be." But we are not compelled to doubt or deny the omnipotence of Deity before we can believe that our part in the Divine movement of the world is not a passive one, that we are not simple recipients and blind instruments, but allies and helpers of the Eternal Power. There prevails here and there a kind of belief in the power of God which makes all human effort appear to be unnecessary and superfluous, and which if acted on would deaden the sense of duty and be the paralysis of energy. On the other hand, what the philosopher described as the feeling of helping God, has always been cherished by the most sincere and earnest believers in the power of God over all. No one believed in the sovereignty of that power more than St. Paul, but his belief in it did not prevent him from putting forward the claim again and again, to be a fellow-worker with God. To be a fellow-worker with God may appear to be too vast and impossible an idea of the purpose of human life in this world; yet nothing is clearer and more certain than that He who made and meant man and sent him here to work and to labour until the evening has left many things for man to do in fulfilling His plans and completing His works. The Divine power in the world is not an abstract, impersonal energy, not an unembodied and wandering spirit. God in the world creating and perfecting it means His power and spirit dwelling in and working through industrious, righteous, faithful, beneficent lives. The unit of power in the world is not God isolated from man and not man isolated from God; but God and man united, working purposely and continuously together; God quickening and inspiring man and man opening his life to be a part of the Divine life of the world. How we have lost sight of this truth! And what confessions and miseries have come of our searching and effort to field God in the world outside of and apart from man; from placing God and man over and against each other as though their spheres of activity were separated by the chasm of an infinite difference! Deity has been conceived as a majestic Being dwelling apart from the universe, over-seeing it and intervening now and again by special acts, but working as a rule in profound and mighty isolation, outside of and apart from the world, outside of and apart from His children. Men have sometimes wrought and fought against the evil of the world as if they had no Divine companion at their side, and felt no need of any other help than their own. Again, at other times, they have imagined that God would do it all, that they had no place in the Divine work, that it was their place to stand by and wait and pray. In this vast order of things we often count ourselves of little worth and significance. But our littleness is only seeming. We can think the Creator's thoughts, be conscious of His purpose, and take some intelligent part in fulfilling that purpose. It must surely be more honouring and pleasing to Him who made us to pray and strive to be something. Our unreal and morbid self-depreciation cannot be acceptable to Him. We were not made to be nonentities, and the pietistic cry to be "nothing, nothing," must be hateful in the ear of Him who created us in His own image and sent us forth to work and to labour until the evening.
II. WE ARE HERE TO SHARE THE WORK OF GOD IN CREATING THE WORLD — called not only to subdue and control, but to create. "God made the heavens and the earth," said the ancient seer; but when God made the world He did not finish it. Creation is not finished, but is always proceeding. We stand in the midst of an unending Genesis. We do right to expand the six days of the Hebrew story into the whole life of the world. "My Father," says Jesus, "works continuously, and I work." And in this continuous and never-ceasing work of creation man can help or hinder, develop or retard, the creative purpose and process. Things have been made possible, but man has to make the possible into the actual. The world into which he is born has all the raw material prepared to his hand, but he is here to work it into new and nobler forms. Nature is a wilderness; he must work and labour to make it a garden. Some of you are familiar with the pathetic picture which Plutarch draws of a man of the earlier period addressing the men of a later ago: "O how you are cherished of the gods, you who live now! How fortunate is your time! All Nature is engaged in giving you delights. But our birth-time was mournful and barren. The world was so new that we were in want of everything. The air was not pure, the sun was obscured, the rivers overflowed their banks, all was marsh and thicket and forest; we had neither inventions nor inventors, our misery was extreme." The immense change which has taken place in the environment of man since the time Plutarch recalled has been due entirely to the co-operation of successive generations of mankind with God. What we behold as we look back is God creating through man, improving and completing His world, making it more habitable and home-like, less rude and barren, fairer and more fruitful. The one great teaching of modern knowledge is that not anything above a certain low level of excellence comes by natural law unaided by man; that all best things in the world of Nature to-day are the result of his thought and toil. An eminent geologist has written a book that bears the title, "The Earth as Modified by Human Action," and one has only to read it to see the wide range of human power and to discover how closely man is in partnership with God in carrying out and completing the creative process which is still going forward on a vast scale. True! he can do nothing without God; he can create no new force; neither sun nor soil, nor plant nor seed are of his making; all the material with which lie works Nature has furnished him; but what can he not do with that material, and what has tie not done? He has modified climate, made the rivers change their course, the ocean its shore, made forests grow and made new ground for them to grow in, made the parched ground a pool and the thirsty land springs of water, changed useless ore into iron and sand into glass clearer than Nature's crystals. Eight hundred years ago, for example, there was no such country as the Holland of our day; God had made it possible, but men had to give it frame and form. The map of Holland now is not even what it was at the beginning of last century. It has about 120,000 more acres of land than it had then. Thus does man work with God, thus does God work along the lines of human life, thus is the ancient miracle of creation repeated — "The waters under the earth were gathered together and the dry land appeared." Man is not only a factor in evolution but an instrument. Not without him does Nature evolve. He has his contribution to make towards the finishing and perfecting of the material universe. The message of evolution to man is, "Thou art God's fellow-worker." Through the animal world we see him working with creative touch, carrying out the Creator's purpose, improving the type and elevating in the scale of being the creatures God has made. To bring flowers and fruits to their perfection the labour of man must be joined to the labour of God, and man must improve and finish what God begins.
III. IN HIS OWN MAKING AND SAVING, IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF PERSONAL FACULTY AND CHARACTER, MAN IS CALLED TO WORK AND TO LABOUR UNTIL THE EVENING. What he can do for the earth and for the creatures and things which live upon it, he can do for himself — fulfil and finish the Creator's purpose and plan. God makes nothing right-away and perfect at once. Like the rest of His work man was left unfinished that man himself might complete what God began. All creation moved by steady gradation up to man, and from age to age man has been moving upward, slowly finding himself, becoming more and more an intellectual and moral being, more and more a son of God able to know the truth, to discern and do the right, and to love and serve the Infinite God. Not alone and not out of nothing has he created language, literature, art, science, society, religion; but with the help of God and out of capacities which were hidden in him from the beginning and which contained the promise and potency of his future development. Faith in man, in what he can do and achieve, and in his power to create character, does not exclude but include God as the ground of all power, the giver of all good, and the helper of all endeavour. Our knowledge is knowledge of His ways in those laws which to the religious mind are His will. We can do nothing for ourselves without God, but God can do nothing with us, cannot bring us to ourselves, without our cooperation. To an extent practically unlimited we can make or mar ourselves. "Work out your salvation," says the apostle. We cannot be passive recipients of the divinest blessings of life. But the work of God for and with man is identified not only with the salvation of individual souls and lives, but with all work we respect, honour, and rejoice in; with art, science, literature, politics, trade, with every activity that makes for the good of the community and the civilization of nations. We must not think of Him with whom we have to do as if we only had to do with Him in parts of our life and not in the whole of it; as if He were only interested in ministers of religion, missionaries, itinerant evangelists, in supplying theological colleges with students, in starting revivals, in the size of congregations and the amount of collections. His kingdom ruleth over all. Not long ago I read in the biography of an eminent business man that he would never engage in any commercial enterprise which he did not think to be beneficial to the community. That is what it means to work with God in the ways of common life. It is working in accordance with His will. The great duties, believe me, are never at the ends of the earth. Let us idealize our daily tasks and put them on the side of the Power who is working for righteousness and love in human society.
IV. IN THE SAVING OF THE WORLD GOD SEEKS TO JOIN MEN WITH HIMSELF AND HIS CHRIST, AND CALLS THEM TO WORK AND LABOUR WITH HIM UNTIL THE EVENING. In the New Testament the work of reconciliation or atonement is spoken of as in a peculiar sense the work of God in our human world. We cannot conceive of the Eternal Goodness ever being insensate and passive, or as other than ceaselessly compassionate and helpful. The life of sacrifice is the law of love for heaven as for earth. It was not a new and strange work which His beloved Son came to do, but the work which He knew His Father was doing continuously. It is the Father's work into which the Son enters. In redeeming the world, even more than in creating it, God works through men and in human ways. God the Saviour must be helped even more than God the Creator. And we — if we have the spirit of sonship to God and live in the fellowship of Jesus Christ, — cannot help sharing in the ministry of reconciliation and in the sorrow and sacrifice of that cross in the heart and life of God, which was shadowed forth in space and time in the crucifixion on Calvary. God needs strong men. His Kingdom will never come in this world without them. Men and women! what are we doing in the way of helping God to create and redeem His world? Fellow-workers with God! This is what you and I are here for in this world; this is why we are endowed with various gifts and why we ought to train them to the utmost and make the best of them; this is why we are placed in different spheres and stations, with different opportunities and duties. Fellow-workers with God! This is a vision of life at its prophetic best. and when one realizes its meaning it becomes his greatest inspiration. There is no dead line in that man's work and no slackening of effort. He keeps his faith, his freshness of spirit, his enthusiasm unto the end.
(J. Hunter, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.