The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt; their acts are vile. There is no one who does good.
I. A FEARFUL SIGHT ON WHICH "THE LORD LOOKED DOWN? To what precise period of time the psalm refers, we have no means of knowing; nor at what exact period it was written. This, however, is of no consequence. Every point specified here can. be verified now.
1. The depravity of man had vented itself in the most egregious folly, even in the denial, of God. There is ample room for the Christian teacher to expose the folly of such denial quite irrespectively of his theory of creation, be it the evolutionary one or no. Either way, the
(2) cosmological, and
(3) ontological proofs remain the same;
in fact, the teleological proof is receiving abundant and amazing illustrations in modern discovery; so much so that its power again and again "overwhelmed" Mr. Darwin himself. The argument in Paley's 'Natural. Theology ' may need resetting, but in substance has lost none of its force. While Mr. Herbert Spencer's statement, that we know with undoubting certainty that there is "an infinite and eternal Energy from which everything proceeds" is one of which the Christian advocate may make large and effective use. That there is a God all Nature cries aloud in all her works. And not till a man is a "nabal," "a fool," a withered, sapless being, does he come to deny the Divine existence. Such denial has, however, not yet ceased. On the contrary, it has assumed in our days a boldness not even contemplated by the psalmist himself. There is
(1) practical atheism, where men profess to know God, while in works they deny him;
(3) theoretical atheism, and even anti-theism;
(4) and in some of the works of positivists, it is even reckoned as a virtue for men to have no fear of God before their eyes I
2. Such atheism is the most striking and grievous folly.
(1) It is irrational.
(2) It is corrupting.
(3) It breaks out into abominable acts.
(4) In the course of its evolution, it makes aggressions on and even mocks at theology, religion, and religions people.
(5) It will gradually dry up entirely the springs of social virtue. It may not do this in the first generation, if the denier of God has first been cast by early Christian teaching in the mould of social morality and goodness; but let generation after generation of atheists arise, and it will be seen that when the ties are snapped which bind men to their God, the ties which bind man to man are cut asunder as well!
3. Such atheism is fearfully widespread among "the children of men. None that did understand, that did seek God." It is common among
(1) the irreligious;
(2) the free-thinkers;
(3) philosophers, under the guise of philosophy;
(4) scientific men, under the guise of science. The fact is, atheism is of the heart, not of the head. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked," and turns the very arguments which prove the Divine existence into an excuse for denying it! Its cry is, "Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us!" How grievous and terrible a sight is a world like this! How loathsome to infinite purity, when men are altogether become unprofitable, when there is "not one that doeth good, no, not one." Every expression in the psalm should be critically examined: they are all "gone aside;" they are all together become "filthy," "stinking," "corrupt," etc. There is a marvellous variety of words in the Hebrew for moral corruption. Nowhere in the whole world was the sense of sin, as sin, so deep as among the Hebrews. How was this? It will be seen how it was when we study our second question.
II. WHEN AND FOR WHAT PURPOSE DID THE LORD LOOK DOWN ON THIS MASS OF EVIL? The meaning of the psalmist could not go beyond the range of his inspiration and enlightenment. We live in a later age; the light is brighter now than then; and therefore the preacher will fall short alike of his privileges and of his mission, if he does not open up from this point more truth than it was possible for the psalmist to know.
1. In an early stage of the world, God looked down on it to punish its iniquity. The Deluge. Sodom and Gomorrah. The desolations which have come on Egypt, Babylon, Tyro, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Philistia, Jerusalem. And when great calamities come, the most irreligious men become the greatest cowards. "There were they in great fear, where no fear was."
2. God looked on the wickedness of the sons of men, and resolved to call out therefrom a people for himself. (Cf. Isaiah 51:1, 2, Hebrew.) God called Abraham; and how his people became a family, a tribe, and a nation, the roll of sacred history records. And it is owing to this that the psalmist refers to "the generation of the righteous" (ver. 5), in distinction from "the children of men" (ver. 2). Hence it is and has ever been the case, that, however prevalent the depravity of men may have become, there have ever been some trusting hearts who have found their refuge in God.
3. God instituted a priesthood and sacrifices to instruct his people in the dread evil of sin. The whole Levitical institute means this, and nothing less than this. The Law was a "child-guide," which took men to school, and taught them that nothing was right with men till they were right with God.
4. God established a prophetic order, which should declaim against sin. (See Isaiah 59:1-20, specially the fifteenth verse.) The mission of all the prophets was to speak for God, and uphold his claims before the people. And as they prophesied, God's treatment of the world's sin was being unfolded, as we see in the chapter from Isaiah to which we have just referred.
5. In the fulness of the times, God sent forth his Son, who by his death should atone for sin, and who by his Spirit should conquer sin. This, then, is like a God. We might have expected, from the psalmist's words, that God would take vengeance on the sinner and crush him. But no. He is a just God and a Saviour; condemning sin and saving the sinner (Romans 3.).
6. God has created in the hearts of his own a yearning after salvation and righteousness, which is in itself a prophecy of God's ultimate triumph over sin, and of a time when the anguish of his people shall give place to joy (ver. 7)! These desires of the holy are prophetic germs. The aspiration in the closing verse of the psalm is one the fulfilment of which has been going on ever since, and will, till the Redeemer who has come out of Zion shall have completed his saving work. - C.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.: — The traveller who passes from one quarter of the globe to another feels that the encircling sky which girdles in the ocean is but a type of the unseen power that surrounds us all. It is the expression of the same truth as that which drew from the first navigator who, from the shores of England, reached the shores of America, "Heaven is as near to us on the sea as on the land." The philanthropist whose wide charity embraces within its grasp the savage and the civilized man — feels that the hand of God is with him in his enterprises, because in the face of all his fellow-men he recognizes, however faintly and feebly expressed, the image of the likeness of God. The philosopher who endeavours to trace out the unity of mankind, and the unity of all created things, consciously or unconsciously, expresses the same truth — namely, that the Divine eye saw our substance yet being imperfect, and that in His book were all our members written, which day by day were fashioned and evolved, while as yet there were none of them — while all was as yet rudimental and undeveloped, alike in the individual and in the race. The heart-stricken, lonely, suffering, or doubting soul, who sees only a step before him, who can but pray, "Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom" — he, too, can echo the old psalmist: "The darkness is no darkness to Thee; the darkness and light to Thee are both alike. Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." But in the especial form of the words of the text there is a peculiar force, which it is my purpose to bring before you... The psalmist wishes to indicate that God could be found in those regions of the earth into which it was least likely that any Divine influence should penetrate, and he expresses it by saying, If I were to take the wings of the morning; if I were to mount on the outspreading radiance which, in the eastern heavens, precedes the rise of dawn, if I were to follow the sun on his onward course and pass with him over land and ocean, till I reach the uttermost parts of the sea, far away in the distant and unknown west, even there, also, strange as it may seem, the hand of God will lead me, the right hand of God will hold me; even there, also, beyond the shadows of the setting of the sun; even there, beyond the furthest horizon, the furthest west of the furthest sea, will be found the Presence which leaps over the most impassable barriers. That which seemed to him so portentous as to be almost incredible, has become one of the familiar, we might almost say one of the fundamental, truths of our religious and social existence. Not only in the East, — so we may venture to give his words their fullest and widest meaning — not only in the East, consecrated by patriarchal tradition and usage, but in the unknown and distant islands and seas of the West, the power of God shall be felt as a sustaining help and guiding hand.
I. THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE EAST AND THE WEST IS ONE OF THE MOST VIVID WHICH STRIKES THE MIND OF MAN. Of the great geographical impressions left on the most casual observer, none is deeper than that which is produced when a child of the Western civilization sets foot on the shores of the Eastern world. And so in history, two distinct streams of human interest have followed always the race of Shem and the race of Japhet; and the turning-points, the critical moments of their history, have been when the two streams have crossed each other and met — as on a few great occasions — in conflict or in union." It is the very image which is presented to us in the splendid vision of the evangelical prophet in Isaiah 60:8, 9. "Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?" They are the "isles"; that is, the isles, and coasts, and promontories, and creeks, and bays of the Mediterranean and Atlantic shores. "The isles shall wait for Him, and the ships of Tarshish first." Tarshish — that is, the West — with all its vessels of war and its vessels of merchandise. The ships of Tarshish first, and of Venetia, and Carthage, and Spain — these first brought the shores of Cornwall, the name of Britain, within the range of the old civilized world. All these, with their energy and activity, were to build up the walls and pour their wealth through the gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And so, in fact, it has been. Christianity, born in the East, has become the religion of the West even more than the religion of the East. Only by travelling from its early home has it grown to its full stature. The more it has adapted itself to the wants of the new-born nation which it embraces, the more it has resembled the first teaching and character of its Founder and of its followers. Judaism, as a supreme religion, expired when its local sanctuary was destroyed. Mohammedanism, after its first burst of conquest, withdrew itself almost entirely within the limits of the East. But Christianity has found not only its shelter and refuge, but its throne and home, in countries which, humanly speaking, it could hardly have been expected to reach at all. The Christian religion rose on the "wings of the morning"; but it has remained in the "uttermost parts of the sea," because the hand of God was with it, and the right hand of God was upholding it.
II. CONSIDER WHAT WERE THE PECULIAR POINTS OF CHRISTIANITY WHICH HAVE ENABLED IT TO COMBINE THESE TWO WORLDS OF THOUGHT, EACH SO DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHER. In its full development, in its earliest and most authentic representation, we see gathered the completion of those gifts and graces which East and West possesses separately, and which each of us is bound, in his measure, to appropriate and imitate. And, first, observe, on the one hand, in the Gospel history, the awe, the reverence, the profound resignation to the Divine will, the calm, untroubled repose which are the very qualities which the Eastern religions possessed, at a time when, to the West, they were almost wholly unknown, and which, even now, are more remarkably exhibited in Eastern nations than amongst ourselves. Christ has taught us how to be reverential, and serious, and composed. He has taught as no less how to be active, and stirring, and manly, and courageous. The activity of the West has been incorporated into Christianity, because it belongs to the original character and genius of its Founder, no less than its awe and its reverence. Again, in every Eastern religion, even in that which Moses proclaimed from Mount Sinai, there was darkness, a mystery, a veil, as the apostle expressed it — a veil on the prophet's face, a veil on the people's heart-a blind submission to absolute authority. There was darkness around the throne of God; there was darkness within the Temple wall; there was in the Holy of Holies a darkness never broken. To a great extent this darkness and exclusiveness must prevail always, till the time comes when we shall see no longer through a glass darkly. This we have in Christianity, in common with all the East; but yet, so far as the veil can be withdrawn, it has been withdrawn by Jesus Christ and by His true disciples. He is the Light of the world. In Him we behold the open face, the glory of the Father. Again; there was in all Eastern religions, whether we look Godward or manward, a sternness and separation from the common feelings and interests of mankind. We see it, as regards man, in the hardness and harshness of the Eastern laws. We see it, as regards God, in the profound prostration of the soul of man, displayed first in the peculiarities of Jewish worship, and to this day in the prayers of devout Mussulmans. And this, also, enters in its measure into the life of Christ and the life of Christendom. The invisible, eternal, irreproachable Deity, the sublime elevation of the Founder of our religion above all the turmoils of earthly passion and of local prejudice — that is the link of Christianity with the East. And, on the other hand, there was another side of the truth which, until Christ appeared, had been hardly revealed at all to the children of the older covenant. In Christ we see how the Divine Word could become flesh, and yet the Father of all remain invisible and inconceivable. In Christ we see not merely, as in the Levitical system of Christianity, man sacrificing his choicest gifts to God; but God, if one may so say, sacrificing His own dear Son for the good of man.
III. WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM THIS? Surely, the mere statement of the fact is an almost constraining proof that the religion which thus unites both divisions of the human race, was, indeed, of an origin above them both; that the light which thus shines on both sides, so to speak, of the image of humanity is, indeed, the light that lighteth every man. There is no monopoly, no sameness, no one-sidedness, no narrowness here. The variety, the complexity, the diversity, the breadth of the character of Christ and of His religion is, indeed, an expression of the universal omnipresence of God. It is for us to bear in mind that this many-sidedness of Christianity is a constant encouragement to hold fast those particles of it we already possess, and to reach forward to whatever elements of it are still beyond us. Say not that Christianity has been exhausted; say not that the hopes of Christianity have failed, nor yet that they have been entirely fulfilled. In our Father's house are many mansions. In one or other of its many mansions each wandering soul may at last find its place, here or hereafter.
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