What Shall I Give Him?
Archibald G. Brown, October 23rd, 1870, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me?" Psalm 116:12
As I observed in reading this psalm at the commencement of the present service, we are not informed under what circumstances it was written, or what the peculiar troubles were, from which the sweet singer of Israel was delivered, that inspired him to pen these joyful verses. The language of thankfulness is such that it will beautifully suit any grateful soul, whatever his mercies may be. The psalmist may have referred to some special mercy, such as support from his enemies, or restoration to health after a dangerous sickness, in which the sorrows of death compassed him, and the pains of the grave got hold of him; or else the whole psalm may be the result of a general view of his God's loving-kindness towards him throughout his life.
It is perhaps a good thing that the particular subject of praise is thus left unmentioned, as it becomes more easily applicable to the present experience of God's saints. It is sufficient for us to know that David had been in some trouble and calamity; it is sufficient for us to know that in that trouble he did the wisest thing he could, "he called upon the name of the Lord;" Psalm 116.4 it is sufficient for us to know that when he cried, the Lord heard him and delivered him; and it is enough for us to know that overflowing with gratitude for so great a mercy, he exclaimed, "What shall I render to the Lord?" When David wrote this psalm he was enjoying one of those happy experiences which, alas, are too much like angels' visits, "few and far between." Thankfulness and holy joyfulness absorbed every other thought. It was no question with him whether he would praise the Lord or not — he was bound to; and he could no more resist the impulse than the lark can restrain the song as it mounts aloft. He had been in the horrible pit of depression, and stuck fast in the miry clay of foreboding fears; but now he had clean escaped from both, and with his feet planted on a rock, he found a new song placed on his lips. Oh what a happy thing it is to hear the involuntary melody of a heart tuned to Jehovah's praises. There is nothing happier, than to have that musical heart beating in one's own breast.
It is a remarkable thing in relation to the sayings of this blessed book, that they never become worn out or outgrown. Their freshness abides, and the dew of their youth ever remains upon them. No spiritual experience has so advanced as to get beyond the expressions of holy writ. They are just as applicable now, as when first breathed; and their words are as exact an echo to the saint's feelings of this century, as they were to the feelings of the inspired bard, prophet, or apostle who first uttered them.
It was but the other day I was reading a paragraph in a religious publication that serves as an illustration for this thought. An Alpine traveler, in company with a shepherd as a guide, had reached a dizzy height among the snowy peaks of the mountain range, when his guide asked him to stop and listen to a remarkable echo. Raising his shepherd's horn to his mouth, he blew a blast that startled the silence; the notes seemed to die away without producing any mountain music, and the traveler was just about to express his disappointment when — at first in gentle strains, the echo became audible. It was soon taken up and flung from side to side, until it seemed as if every icy peak and glassy precipice had found a tongue. Softened and mellowed by the glittering sounding-board, the music ascended in circles and broke in wavelets of harmony on every hand, until up to its highest peak that appeared enameled on the sky, the whole mountain was draped with seraphic harmony.
So is it in the mountain of the Lord's house. A shepherd king sounds a simple note of grateful praise. For a season, perhaps, the words seem to die away in silence; but then echoed and re-echoed not by icy pinnacles — but glowing hearts, they are heard on every hand. This echo never dies away — but swelling in grandeur as time flies, it outlives time itself. And when the fiat has gone forth that "time shall be no more," the note shall still be heard in the heavenly courts, loud as the sound of many mighty rushing waters, "What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord."
Let us this morning, by the Master's help, catch up the strain and send the echo back again. Let our hearts join in the noble work of sounding forth the praises of our God. Be-gone now all unbelief, all coldness and all deafness. Rising up from our inherent selfishness, and viewing only our manifold mercies, let the Psalmist's question become ours, and his answer too.
There are three things in the verse that will serve us for the matter of meditation.
They are, first — The desire that prompts the question.
Secondly — The question itself; and
thirdly — The only answer that can be given to the question.
I. The DESIRE that prompts the question.Let us then commence at the desire that gives vent to itself in the question of our text; and before we talk of the stream, let us try and describe the fountain from which it flows.
What was it that prompted David ever to ask such a question? It was a desire to show that he was not insensible to the multitude of God's mercies bestowed on him. If we were able to look into his heart at the time he wrote these words, I think we would have found some thoughts and meditations such as these: "O, my God, I have been wonderfully blessed by You — Surely none owe You a deeper debt than I. You have poured out of your mercy upon me in a most marvelous manner. You have delivered my soul from death. You have wiped tears from my eyes, and my very feet have been held in your paths. All that I am and all that I have is from You; but O, my God, I fear lest I should receive your mercy as my right, and take your gifts as my due — I fear lest base ingratitude should betray me, and a cold insensibility benumb me — I tremble, lest like an open grave I were to swallow up all your benefits and make as little return, to selfishly accept the gifts — but show no gratitude to the Giver."
Some thoughts such as these doubtless passed through his mind; and anxious to clear himself of so horrible a suspicion, he exclaims, in the language of the text, "What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits towards me?"
Alas, how prone we all are to get — but never give; to grumble if one mercy is withheld — but withhold our song, though a thousand benefits are freely granted. Too many of us are like the barren rock, wet with the dew of Heaven's mercy, and warmed with the sun of Heaven's favor — and yet as unproductive in return. But still, far though we fall short of the gratitude that is His due, there will yet be in the heart of every saint at least the same desire after thankfulness.
It seems to be a law of nature, that some return should be made for benefits received. Look abroad into the fair face of creation, and you will discover no selfishness there.
Yonder is a field that once was covered with a sward like velvet — but there has been a long drought, and now the fresh greenness has departed, and given way to a brownish yellow; on every hand the ground is seamed with gaping cracks that appear as so many thirsting mouths calling for their drink. The cattle search in vain for food; dust there is plenty — but pasture none. But lo! The weather changes. Black clouds gather overhead, and for a whole week they let fall the welcome rain. It runs into the cracks and soaks into the soil. The thirsty field has drunk it all. Does it make no return? Walk into that meadow a few days after and see. The green blades again point their fingers to the sky from which the showers of blessing came, and the daisy lifts up its pale but lovely face in silent thankfulness. The meadow has made its return for the benefits it received.
The sun pours its golden light upon the garden; a thousand plants are warmed and nourished by its rays. Do they make no return? Look at those opening buds and see, and when the whole garden is one mass of bloom, and every shade of color blends in harmonious contrast with the leafy shade — learn how nature gives loveliness for light.
You will perceive the same thing if you turn to the animal creation. The Arab steed neighs with delight when his master comes near its stall, and the dog licks the hand that has patted its head.
Shall inanimate nature and the lower creatures of God's handiwork make His saints blush? Shall the grass of the field and the beast of the stall, put to shame the trees of the Lord's right hand planting, and the children of the house? Surely not! Unless the heart has become depraved beyond conception, its first impulse must be, even if it is in the most humble form, to make some return for every gift received.
Remember, moreover, that gratitude can only be shown by making some return. It is impossible to detect gratitude apart from its results. No, it is impossible for it to exist without them. I grant that the returns may be most inadequate, and valued by some standards, perfectly worthless; but there are returns, and perhaps only such as the recipient could give. To some poor wretched starving vagrant, who has nothing in the world but the rags that hang on his shoulders — you give relief. You ask, what return can he make? If he is grateful, he will give you what he has, perhaps a tear in the eye, or a broken "God bless you sir." Is that not something? And if no word were spoken and no look given, would you not justly doubt the fact of his having any feeling of thankfulness whatever?
Believe me, some of these poor returns are the most genuine, and will live in your remembrance when costlier ones are forgotten. That unutterable look that the widow gave as she tried in vain to thank you for the bread you placed in the mouths of her hungry children, was a return that made you feel you had received more than you ever gave. Yes, there is always some way in which gratitude of heart can manifest itself, and it will too, if it is there.
Another thing which should heighten the grace of thanksgiving in your esteem, and set you to longing to possess more of it — is that it is the peculiar privilege of the saint. None but the saints can praise God aright. It is not everyone that can make melody on the flute or lute, nor can anyone sound forth the harmonious praises of their God. I freely grant you that the wicked are bound to praise God — but I am equally certain they are not fit to. Praise is the work of a living man, "for the dead cannot praise Him," Isaiah 38.18, nor can those who are still dead in trespasses and sins render any acceptable thanksgiving to God. It is left to His saints and to them only, to thank Him.
I suppose there are not many present who have not, with the speaker, often had a shudder run through them as they heard the miserable apology for praise that some godless person has thought it "the proper thing" to make. Who has not heard the cold and discordant note of "God almighty has been very good to me," and while you heard it, you felt it was next door to an indecency for someone who was living a God-dishonoring life to attempt His praise. It is good old Thomas Watson, in his rare book, "A Godly Man's Picture Drawn With A Scripture Pencil," from which I have gleaned many thoughts this morning, who says in more pungent and poetical language, "A profane man covered with God's praises, is like a dunghill stuck over with flowers."
Thanksgiving is the highest part of worship. Prayer may, in great measure, be the offspring of a selfish desire — but praise is the result of a sincere heart. Prayer, it has well been said, is like the raven that cries — but praise is like the lark that carols. It is a blessed thing to be able to cry to God — but it is surely a higher act to praise God. It is a comforting thought that He who hears the raven when it cries, hears us also in our petitions; but it is a soul-inspiring thought that our God bends down and listens with delight to our feeble strains of praise. When upon our knees in prayer we act like men, and like men who feel their emptiness; but when our soul rises in praise we are brought more into harmony with the worship of those who surround the throne, and who have nothing to do but sing the high praises of Him who brought them there.
I think that here is one of the weak points in our public worship as nonconformists. I fear that the sermon is too often looked at as the chief part of worship, and the rest as mere accessories; whereas the sermon is no part of worship whatever, and should only be valued as it is a means of conveying grace to the hearer. The truest part of worship is the singing, and it is a thousand pities that it should be thought so little of, or else only thought of as a musical performance. It is in the united hymn of praise that the congregation reaches the climax of worship. To borrow another thought from the old puritan I have already quoted, "Thanksgiving and praise is the one thing the Devil cannot do. It is in this that we reach an altitude beyond the power of Hell to attain."
Do you pray? The devils can do this, and have done — and been answered too. They begged Christ that if they were turned out of the poor possessed man, they might be allowed to enter the herd of swine at hand, and their request was allowed.
Do you quote scripture? So can the Devil, and better too, doubtless. In his conflict with our Savior, he showed he had the word of God on the tip of his tongue, if not in the center of his heart.
Do you believe in God? So do the devils, "and tremble," Jas 2.19, which is something more than the faith of some present has ever produced.
Do you make a profession? So can the Devil, and a fairer one by far than you, for he can transform himself "into an angel of light." 2 Cor 11.14.
But when as a saint, you offer to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving, you perform an act that Satan cannot do. Hell knows no hallelujahs, and perdition can raise no praises. The voice of praise is a heavenly one, and the praising Christian, has Heaven commenced on earth. Since then it is such a high and blessed thing to have this thankful and thanksgiving spirit, I can imagine that many present are now asking a question, that I desire for a few minutes to try and answer. It is this — How may we know when we are truly thankful?
The heart is so deceitful — and we are so ready to be deceived when the deception is that we possess something that is good — that it would be good for all to put themselves to the test.
I think I may say, we have the truly thankful spirit, when we are quick to see our mercies, and slow to forget them. By being quick to see our mercies, I mean, having a disposition that loves to find out mercies that are perhaps not apparent at first. Anyone can see the mercy that meets him in the very middle of the path of life; but the truly thankful soul will hunt the hedges that line his road, to see if there are no concealed mercies among the thorns. The character I would describe, is the one that always looks for the bright side of every providence, and if unable to find a bright spot, thanks God that it is no darker than it is.
Such a spirit may well be illustrated by a little anecdote I was reading this week. A poor woman had two children — but not a bed for them to lie on, and scarcely clothes to cover them. One winter night, when they were nearly perished with the cold, and half frozen by the bitter wind that found its way into the room, the mother took the door of the cellar off the hinges, and set it up before the corner where the little ones were crouching down to sleep, in order that some of the draught might be kept from them. One of the children whispered to her, as she was complaining of how badly off they were, "Mother, what do those dear little children do, who have no cellar door to put in front of them?" That little one was quick to see a mercy.
But not only is the truly thankful one quick to see a mercy — but he is also slow to forget it. It is said that the memory is the part of man that first decays. It is so spiritually. We are too prone to record our mercies as children record their names in the sand, to be washed out by the first wave of a new trouble that reaches us. Now the thankful soul treasures his mercies as the miser does his gold, and in dark and trying times he lives over again the bright past.
A person is only truly thankful, when his heart is in his praises; and when his heart is in them, he will never consent to render them by proxy. No mere instrumental music in church, will suffice for the truly thankful soul. He will sing with it but never let it sing for him, and perhaps he will sing truest praise without any of its assistance. No choir can render to God the praises of his soul. He must render them himself. I greatly question whether organs and choirs have ever been any help in the praise of God. They have doubtless been so to the correct singing of the congregation — but that is a very different thing from true praise. At all events, no earnest soul will take them as its substitute. The idea of "a children's choir" performing his thanksgivings for him, will only rouse a feeling of indignation. He must sing them out himself, although the heart is in far better tune than the lips. Nothing, however beautiful in itself, can be accepted in the place of hearty worship.
I well remember being, sometime back, in York-Minster, and being delighted with the service as a musical treat. Next to me was a poor old woman, who evidently had come to render her thanks to her Lord. She never was in time or tune — but her responses came so deep from her heart, that many turned round in evident displeasure at her great lack of taste in allowing her unmusical voice to be heard so distinctly. I could not help feeling on leaving, that the most real thing I had witnessed was her worship, and that perhaps in God's ears the most melodious part of the service was that old woman's honest — but discordant praise. Have heart and music too, if possible — but if you are in earnest, you will have the heart.
The heart is truly thankful when in its praises, there is an absence of all thought of human merit. That is no true thanksgiving that says, "I bless God for his mercy — and myself for my wisdom," or "God has been very good to me — and I feel in some measure I deserve his benefits." No, no. True praise says, "I am not worthy of the least of His mercies." "What am I or my father's house that you have brought me here? Not to me, O Lord, not to me — but to your name be all the glory." When self creeps in — praise creeps out; and in proportion as our song rises to true melody, self will sink in utter abasement.
Before passing on to our second point, let us all put the question home to our souls. "O my soul, if you have nothing beside, have you the same deep desire that gave birth to David's question: What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits towards me?" May the Lord breathe that desire into us, and mightily increase it if it is already there.
II. The question itself."What shall I render"? Here is a question far easier asked, than answered. I confess that in studying this subject, when I asked my soul this question, and then tried faithfully to answer it, I found myself completely bewildered. I found I had all the desire in the world to render something. But what?
There are many thoughts that occur to our mind that only make the question a greater difficulty. Think for a moment of the possessions of God. Rightly has the text been engraved upon the front of our Royal Exchange, "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof!" Psalm 24.1. What can mortal man give to his God? How can the treasury of the Creator, be enriched by the gifts of the creature? The thought of our God's infinite wealth makes the question of our text appear next door to an impertinence. Listen but to his own words, "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it." Psalm 50.9-12.
The golden veins of the everlasting hills are his, and the hidden treasures of the deep belong to him. Lift up your eyes on high some starry night, and behold the bespangled skies — every glittering speck you see is a rolling world, and every world is the result of His handiwork. He calls them all by their names, and the heavens are but His jewel-case.
Turn your eyes to a darker region, and you will but behold His possessions, for swinging at His waist are the keys of death and Hell.
Now say believer, what you will lay at the feet of Him who can place His hand upon Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and say, "all is mine!"
But apart from the possessions of our God, there is another insuperable difficulty to answering the question, and that is our own poverty. It is not the rich offering to the richer, nor the wealthy rendering to the more wealthy — but is total poverty talking of making a gift to infinite wealth.
Forgetting for a moment that God's riches that can never be increased, let us ask ourselves "if it were otherwise, what do we have?" Ransack your memory, run over your accounts, find out what you do possess. "What is the sum total? Nothing! Nothing!! Nothing!!! We are miserable bankrupts, not worth a jot. The very bread we eat is the bread of divine charity, and the breath we draw is lent to us. It is utter emptiness, talking of giving to the perfection of fullness. It is the beggar rendering to the benefactor!
There is yet another reason for our being at a non-plus in giving an answer, and that is, if we were able to give Him anything — it would be but rendering to Him what is already His own. What do we have, that we have not first received from God? 1Cor 4.7. Scripture is most emphatic on this point, "You are not your own — but purchased with a price." 1Cor 6.19-20. When Jesus died on the cross to redeem His people, or as Peter expresses it, "to purchase" his church, Act 20.28 — He bought all they were and all they had. Our body, soul, and spirit, our time, our talents, our head, our heart, our hands, our mouth, our feet, all belong to Him — so that with every offering we should have to say with David, "But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from You, and we have given You only what comes from Your hand!" 1 Chronicles 29:14
Now I ask you my dear friends, with these thoughts in your mind, what answer will you make to the question? Surely you can make only one, and that is the same as the Psalmist.
This leads us to our third and last division.
III. The only answer that can be given."I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord." Psalm 116.13. As I mentioned in the exposition of this Psalm when reading it, this has reference to an old Jewish custom. At the close of a meal, the master of the family would take and drink from a cup, called the cup of blessing, in token of his gratitude for the mercies they had received.
So the psalmist seems to say: "In token of gratitude for all God's benefits towards me, I will take up the cup of thanksgiving and bless the name of the Lord." The heart's gratitude is all the saint can give in return for divine mercies that are fresh with every hour, and as numerous as the seconds in the day.
But you will reply, "Is that not giving to God what He has first bestowed. Is that very gratitude of soul, not His gift?" It is — but in His infinite compassion, our Lord is willing to accept from our hands, that which He has first placed in them. O grasp therefore the cup of thanksgiving, and drink it in His courts to His praise. Do not niggardly withhold the only thing you can render. Show that the question you have asked was asked with a purpose, and was no mere heartless mockery. Praise Him, it costs nothing, it is all that you can do, and it is just what He is willing to accept. Not to do so is disloyalty to Heaven's throne.
But if thanksgiving is good, remember thanks-living is better; therefore let your whole life join in the harmony. There are several ways in which you may take the cup of blessing in your hand. I will mention but a few, and close the discourse.
First — Give Him your love. Nothing testifies to gratitude so much. Indeed, where this is lacking, no true praise can exist. Do not be afraid of loving Him too much. Do not fear being thought a fanatic, or considered an enthusiast. If you could love Him to a flaming passion, absorbing every love, you would not love Him half enough. Give Him your love; He asks for it. He will pardon its weakness, and at the same time increase its power, for he who loves will learn to love. You are not grateful if you deny him this.
Consecrate yourself to His service. This is another way to render praise. Lay yourself upon His altar. Keep no selfish reserve — but live for Him who died for you. Let the locks of your dedication to God be thick as Samson's, and see that no Delilah robs you of them. The highest praise that mortal saint can give, is the praise that vents itself in the exclamation, "for me to live is Christ." Phi 1.21
Resignation under present trouble also supplies some of the softest, sweetest, and most melodious notes in the anthem of a life song.
May God now inspire every heart in his presence with the desire that burned in David. On every lip may the same question dwell, and in the life and character of every one, may the answer be heard and seen. Amen.