Exposition of Psalm 119
by Charles Bridges, 1827
Verses 101 - 125
101. I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep Your word.
David's wisdom was of a practical—not of a merely intellectual or speculative—character. It taught him to "keep the Lord's precepts;" and in order to this, to refrain his feet from every evil way. And will not advancing wisdom show itself by increasing tenderness of conscience and carefulness of conduct? The professor is afraid of hell; the child of God—of sin. The one refrains from the outward act—the other seeks to be crucified to the love of sin. Observe not only the practice, but the motive—that he might keep the word. Shall we not "abhor that which is evil," that we might "cleave to that which is good" "abstaining from all appearance of evil" lest unconsciously we should be drawn into the atmosphere of sin, "hating even the garment spotted by the flesh"—fearing the infection of sin worse than death? But how fearful the danger of self-deception! What need to entreat the Lord to "see if there be any wicked way in us?" Oh! for the large supply of grace and unction, to maintain an upright walk before a heart-searching God; to "keep ourselves from our iniquity;" and in dependence upon the promises, and in the strength of the gospel, to "perfect holiness in the fear of God!"
But how awful to hear men talk of keeping the word in a loose and careless profession! For how can it be kept, if the heart has not felt its holiness? For this is its beautiful peculiarity; that, in order to keep it, there must be a separation from sin. The two things are incompatible with each other. The two services are at variance at every point; so that the love of sin must be cast out, where the love of God is engrafted in the heart. Yet so strongly are we disposed to every evil way, that only the Almighty power of grace can enable us to refrain from one or another crooked path. Often is the pilgrim (yes, has it not too often happened to ourselves?) held back by a temporary ascendancy of the flesh—by a little license given to sin—or by a relaxed circumspection of walk. At such seasons, the blessed privilege of keeping the word is lost. We are sensible of a declining delight in those spiritual duties, which before were our "chief joy." And "is there not a cause?" Have we not provoked our gracious God by harboring his enemy in our bosom—no more—by pleading for its indulgence? Has not "the Holy Spirit been grieved" by neglect, or by some worldly compliance: so that His light has been obscured, and His comforting influence quenched? No consolations, consistent with the love and power of sin, can ever come from the Lord. For the holiness of the word of God cannot be either spiritually understood, or experimentally enjoyed, but in a consistent Christian walk. And yet, such is the true blessedness of the word, that the very expectation of keeping it may operate as a principle of restraint from every evil way.
Is there any bondage in this restraint from sin? Oh, no! Sin is slavery; and therefore deliverance from it is "perfect freedom." There is indeed a legal restraint much to be deprecated, when the conscience is goaded by sins of omission or of wilfulness; and the man, ignorant of, or imperfectly acquainted with, the only way of deliverance, hopes to get rid of his burden by a more circumspect walk. But not until he casts it at the foot of the cross, and learns to look wholly to Jesus his deliverer, can he form his resolution upon safe and effectual grounds. Oh, may I therefore seek to abide within a constant view of Calvary! Sin will live everywhere but under the cross of Jesus. Here it withers and dies. Here rises the spring of that holiness, contrition, and love, which refreshes and quickens the soul. Here let me live: here let me die.
Blessed Lord! You know that I desire to keep Your word. Prepare my heart to receive and to retain it. May I so "abide in Christ," that I may receive the sanctifying help of His Spirit for every moment's need! And while I rejoice in Him as my Savior, may I become daily more sensible of every deviation from the straight path! May my eye guide my feet! "Looking to Jesus," may I have light and grace! And may daily grace be given to refrain my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word!
102. I have not departed from Your judgments; for You have taught me.
If I have refrained my feet from sin—if I have not departed from God's judgments—to Him be all the glory. Oh, my soul! Are you not a wonder to yourself? So prone to depart—to be carried away by uncertain notions—by the oppositions of Satan—by the example or influence of the world—how is it, that you are able to hold on your way? Because the covenant of the Lord engages Your perseverance, "I will put My fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from Me." While conscious of my own corrupt bias to depart, let me humbly and thankfully own the work of Divine teaching. Man's teaching is powerless in advancing the soul one step in Christian progress. The teaching from above is "the light of life." It gives not only the light, but the principle to make use of it. It not only points the lesson, and makes it plain: but imparts the disposition to learn, and the grace to obey. So that now I see the beauty, the pleasantness, the peace, and the holiness of the Lord's judgments, and am naturally constrained to walk in them. Oh, how much more frequent would be our acknowledgment of the work of God, did we keep nearer to the Fountain-head of life and light! How may we trace every declension in doctrine and practice—all our continual estrangement from the Lord's judgments—to following our own wisdom, or depending upon human teaching! "Trusting in man," is the departing of the heart from the Lord. I never shall depart from sin by the influence of human persuasion. I never shall depart from the Lord, so long as I have the witness in my heart—You teach me.
Reader! what has been your habit and progress in the judgments of God? Have you been careful to avoid bye-paths? Has your walk been consistent, steady, advancing "in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit?" If there has been no allowed departure from the ways of God, it has been the blessed fruit of "ceasing from your own wisdom," and the simple dependence upon the promise "written in the prophets—And they shall be all taught of God." And how delightfully does this heavenly teaching draw your heart with a deeper sense of need and comfort to the Savior! For, as He Himself speaks, "Every man therefore that has heard, and has learned of the Father, comes unto Me." Remember—it was no superior virtue or discernment that has restrained your departure from God, but—You have taught me the way to come to God; the way to abide in Him—Christ the way—Christ the end. And His teaching will abide with you. It will win you by light and by love, and by a conquering power allure your heart with that delight in His judgments, and fear of offending against them, that shall prove an effectual safeguard in the hour of temptation. Watch the first step of departure—the neglect of secret prayer—the want of appetite for the sincere word—the relaxing of diligence—the loss of the savor of godliness. Be careful therefore that the teaching of the Lord be not lost upon you. Inquire into your proficiency in His instructive lessons. And do not forget to prize His teaching rod—that loving correction, of which David had felt the blessing, and which He so often uses, to keep His children from departing from His judgments.
Lord! do lead me by the hand, that I may make daily progress in Your judgments. Restrain my feet from "perpetual backsliding." All human instruction will be ineffectual to keep me from departing from Your judgments, except You teach me. Neither grace received, nor experience attained, nor engagements regarded, will secure me for one moment without continual teaching from Yourself.
103. How sweet are Your words to my taste! yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth.
None but a child of God could take up this expression. Because none besides has a spiritual taste. The exercises of David in this sacred word were delightfully varied. Its majesty commanded his reverence. Its richness called forth his love. Its sweetness excited his joy. Its holy light, keeping his heart close with God, naturally endeared it to his soul. How barren is a mere external knowledge of the Gospel! The natural man may talk or even dispute about its precious truths. But he has never tasted them—at least not so as to relish and feed on them. The highest commendation cannot explain the sweetness of honey to one who has never tasted it. Thus nothing but experience can give a spiritual intelligence. But what we have really tasted, we can warmly commend, "Oh! taste and see that the Lord is good." Having once tasted of His Divine goodness, the sweetest joys of earth will be insipid, distasteful, and even bitter.
Do we ask—what is it that gives this unutterable sweetness to the word? Is it not that name, which "is as ointment poured forth?" Is it not "the savor of the knowledge of Christ", that revives the soul in every page with the breath of heaven? For can the awakened sinner hear, that "God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life"—and not be ready to say—How sweet are Your words to my taste! yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth? Can the weary soul listen to the invitation to "all that labor and are heavy-laden;" and not feel the sweetness of those breathings of love? Who can tell the sweetness of those precious words to the conflicting, tempted soul—displaying the Divine sovereignty in choosing him, the unchanging faithfulness in keeping him, and the Almighty power of the Divine will in the gift of eternal life? And how can the believer hear his Savior "knock at the door" of his heart, calling him to fresh communion with Himself: and not turn to Him with the ardent excitement of his love, "All Your garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made You glad!"
But are there not times, when we gather no sweetness from the word? It is with the spiritual, as with the natural food—a want of appetite gives disgust, instead of sweetness and refreshment. An indolent reading of the word without faith—without desire—without application—or with a taste vitiated by contact—with the things of sense—deadens the palate, "The full soul loathes an honeycomb: but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet."
But how melancholy is the thought of the multitudes, that hear, read, understand the word, and yet have never tasted its sweetness! Like Barzillai, they have no sense to "discern between good and evil." Full of the world, or of their own conceits—feeding on the delusive enjoyments of creature-comforts—nourishing some baneful corruption in their bosoms—or cankered with a spirit of formality—they have no palate for the things of God; they are "dead in trespasses and sins." But how sweet is the word to the hungering and thirsting taste! We eat, and are not satisfied. We drink, and long to drink again. "If so be we have tasted that the Lord is gracious, as new-born babes" we shall "desire the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow thereby." We shall take heed of any indulgence of the flesh, which may hinder the spiritual enjoyment, and cause us to "loathe" even "angels' food" as "light bread." Instead of resting in our present experience of its sweetness, we shall be daily aspiring after higher relish for the heavenly blessing. And will not this experience be a "witness in ourselves" of the heavenly origin of the word? For what arguments could ever persuade us that honey is bitter, at the moment when we are tasting its sweetness? Or who could convince us that this is the word of man, or the imposture of deceit, when its blessed influence has imparted peace, holiness, joy, support, and rest, infinitely beyond the power of man to bestow? But let this enjoyment—as the spiritual barometer—the pulse of the soul—accurately mark our progress or decline in the Divine life. With our advancement in spiritual health, the word will be increasingly sweet to our taste: while our declension will be marked by a corresponding abatement in our desires, love, and perception of its delights.
104. Through Your precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.
The Psalmist having spoken of the pleasure, now speaks of the profit—of the word—the teaching connected with its sweetness. Before, he had mentioned the avoiding of sin in order to profit—now, as the fruit of profit. So closely are they linked together. Man's teaching conveys no understanding—God's teaching not only opens the Scriptures, but "opens the understanding to understand them," and the heart to feel their heavenly warmth of life. Thus having learned "the principles of the doctrine of Christ," we shall "go on to perfection" "growing in grace, in the knowledge of Christ." Many inconsistencies belong to the young and half—instructed Christian. But when through the precepts he gets understanding, he learns to walk more uniformly and steadily, abiding in the light. In this spirit and atmosphere springs up a constant and irreconcilable hatred of every false way; as contrary to the God he loves. These ways will include a thousand devious paths—all meeting in one fearful end—often discovered too late. In doctrine can we too much turn away from the thought of putting anything—the Church, ordinances, repentance, prayers—in the place of Jesus—another "foundation" in the stead of that which God Himself "laid in Zion?" Oh, for spiritual understanding to hate this false way with a deadly hatred! What think we of the ways of the sinful world—so long trusted to for happiness—yet so delusive? The sinner thinks that he has found a treasure, but it proves to be glittering trash—burdensome instead of enriching—only leaving him to the pain of disappointed hope. Rightly are such ways called false ways; and of those that tread in them, it is well said, "This their way is their folly." Strewed they may be with the flowery "pleasures of sin." But they are "hard" in their walk, and ruinous in their end. Inquire of those, whose past wanderings justly give weight and authority to their verdict—'What is your retrospective view of these ways?' Unprofitableness. 'What is your present view of them?' Shame. 'What prospect for eternity would the continuance in them assure to you?' "Death." Let them then be not only avoided and forsaken, but abhorred; and let every deviation into them from the straight path, however pleasing, be "resisted" even "unto blood."
But let me ask myself, Have I detected the false ways of my own heart? Little is done in spiritual religion, until my besetting sins are searched out. And let me not be satisfied with forbearance from the outward act. Sin may be restrained, yet not mortified; nor is it enough that I leave it for the present, but I must renounce it forever. Let me not part with it as with a beloved friend, with the hope and purpose of renewing my familiarity with it at a "more convenient season:" but let me shake it from me, as Paul shook off the viper into the fire, with determination and abhorrence. What! can I wish to hold it? If through the precepts of God I have got understanding, must not I listen to that solemn, pleading voice, "Oh! do not this abominable thing that I hate?" No, Lord: let me "pluck it out" of my heart, "and cast it from me." Oh, for the high blessing of a tender conscience! such as shrinks from the approach, and "abstains from all appearance of evil;" not venturing to tamper with any self-pleasing way; but hating it as false, defiling, destructive! I have noticed the apple of my eye—that tenderest particle of my frame—that it is not only offended by a blow or a wound; but that, if so much as an atom of dust find an entrance, it would smart, until it had wept it out. Now such may my conscience be—sensitive of the slightest touch of sin—not only fearful of resisting, rebelling, or "quenching the Spirit," but grieving for every thought of sin that grieves that blessed Comforter—that tender Friend! To hate every false way, so as to flee from it, is the highest proof of Christian courage. For never am I better prepared to "endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ," than when my conscience is thus set against sin. Would not I then submit to the greatest suffering, rather than be convicted of unfaithfulness to my God?
Lord! turn my eyes, my heart, my feet, my ways, more and more to Your blessed self. Shed abroad Your love in my heart, that sin may be the daily matter of my watchfulness, grief, resistance, and crucifixion.
105. Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
The nightly journeys of Israel were guided by a pillar of fire—directing not only their course, but every step and movement. Thus is our passage in a dark and perilous way irradiated by the lamp and light of the word. But except the lamp be lighted—except the teaching of the Spirit accompany the word, all is darkness—thick darkness. Let us not then be content to read the word without obtaining some light from it in our understanding—in our experience—in our providential path. Did we more habitually wait to receive, and watch to improve the light, we should not so often complain of the perplexity of our path. It would generally determine our steps under infallible guidance: while in the presumptuous neglect of it—like Israel of old—we are sure to come into trouble.
Yet it may sometimes be difficult to trace our light to this heavenly source. A promise may seem to be applied to my mind, as I conceive, suitable to my present need. But how may I determine, whether it is the lamp of the word; or some delusive light from him, who can at any time, for the accomplishment of his own purpose, transform himself "into an angel of light?" Or if a threatening be impressed upon my conscience, how can I accurately distinguish between the voice of "the accuser of the brethren," and the warning of my heavenly guide? Let me mark the state of my own mind. If I am living in the indulgence of any known sin, or in the neglect of any known duty—if my spirit is careless, or my walk unsteady; a consoling promise, being unsuitable to my case, even though it awakened some excitement of joy, would be of doubtful application. The lamp of God under the circumstances supposed, would rather reflect the light of conviction than of consolation. For, though God as a Sovereign may speak comfort when and where He pleases; yet we can only expect Him to deal with us according to the prescribed rules of His own covenant; chastening, not comforting, His backsliding people. In a spirit of contrition, however, I should not hesitate to receive a word of encouragement, as the lamp of God to direct and cheer my progress; being conscious of that state of feeling, in which the Lord has expressly promised to restore and guide His people. Let me also inquire into the terms and character of the promise. When He "that dwells in the high and holy place," engages to dwell "with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit;" any symptoms of tenderness and humility would naturally lead me to consider this word of promise, as sent by my kind and watchful Father, to be a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
Again—a distinct and experimental view of the Savior in His promises, endearing Him to me, and encouraging my trust in His faithfulness and love—this is manifestly light from above. Or if the purpose of the promise answers any proper end—to excite or to encourage to any present duty connected with the promise; I cannot doubt, but the lamp of the Lord is directing my path.
For example—when the promise was given to Joshua, "I will not fail you, nor forsake you;" he could not misconstrue "a word" so "fitly spoken" "in a time of need." And when the same promise was subsequently given to the Church, the application was equally clear, as a dissuasive from inordinate attachment to the things of time and sense, and an encouragement to entire dependence upon the Lord.
Further—The practical influence of the word will also enable me clearly to distinguish the light of heaven from any illusion of fancy or presumption. The effect of an unconditional promise of deliverance given to the Apostle in a moment of extremity, was exhibited in a diligent use of all the appointed means of safety. An absolute promise of prolonged life given to Hezekiah when lying at the point of death, produced the same practical result, in a scrupulous attention to the means for his recovery. Upon the warrant of a general promise of Divine protection, Ezra and the Jews "fasted, and besought their God for this." Now in these and other instances, the power of the word, working diligence, simplicity, and prayer, evidently proved its sacred origin. An assurance of safety proceeding from another source, would have produced sloth, carelessness, and presumption; and therefore may I not presume the quickening word in darkness and perplexity, to be the Lord's lamp unto my feet, and light unto my path, "to guide my feet into the way of peace?"
Let me apply the same test to the threatenings of the word. Their influence, meeting me in a watchful and humble walk with God, I should at once consider as the suggestion of the great enemy of the soul, ever ready to whisper distrust and despondency to the child of God. But in a self-confident, self-indulgent state, I should have as little hesitation in marking an alarming word to be the light of the word of God. It would be well for me at such a time to be exercised with fear; not as arguing any insecurity in my state; but as leading me to "great searchings of heart," to increasing watchfulness, humiliation, and prayer. "The commandment is a lamp, and the law is a light: and reproofs of instruction are the ways of life." Oh, that I may be enabled to make use of this lamp to direct every step of my heavenly way!
Whence then—it may be asked—the various tracks even of the sincere servants of God? Though there is clear light in the word, yet there is remaining darkness in the most enlightened heart. There is no eye without a speck, no eye with perfect singleness of vision—consequently without some liability to error. There is light for the teachable—not for the curious;—light to satisfy faith—not caviling. Add to this the office of the ministry—the Lord's gracious ordinance for Christian instruction and establishment; not to enslave, but to direct the judgment in the light of the word. To honor this ordinance is therefore the path of light. To neglect it, is the exposure to all the evils of a wayward will and undisciplined judgment.
Lord! as every action of the day is a step to heaven, or hell—Oh! save me from ever turning my face away from the path, into which Your word would guide me. Enable me to avail myself of its light, in the constant exercise of faith, prudence, and simplicity.
106. I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep Your righteous judgments.
The blessing of the guidance of the Lord's word naturally strengthens our resolution to walk in its path. And as if a simple resolution would prove too weak, the Psalmist strengthens it with an oath. No more, as if an oath was hardly sufficient security, be seconds it again with a firm resolution—I have sworn, and I will perform it. 'There shall be but one will between me and my God; and that will shall be His, not mine.' Some timid Christians, under a morbid sense of their own weakness, would shrink from this solemn engagement. And some, perhaps, may have burdened their consciences with unadvised or self-dependent obligations. Still, however, when it is a free-will offering, it is a delightful service, well-pleasing to God. Such it was in the days of Asa, when "all Judah rejoiced at the oath: for they had sworn with all their heart, and sought Him with their whole desire; and He was found of them." Vows under the law were both binding and acceptable. Nor are they less so—in their spirit at least—under "the perfect law of liberty." A holy promise originating in serious consideration, and established by a more solemn obligation, so far from being repugnant to the liberty of the gospel, appears to have been enjoined by God Himself; no, His people are described as animating each other to it, as to a most joyous privilege; as a renewed act of faith and daily dedication.
Yet we would warn the inconsiderate Christian not to entangle his conscience by multiplied vows (as if they were—like prayer—a component part of our daily religion); nor by perpetual obligation—whether of restraint or of extraordinary exercises; nor by connecting them with trifles—thus weakening the deep solemnity of the purpose. Christian simplicity must be their principle. Our engagements to God must be grounded on His engagements to us. His faithfulness—not ours—must be our confidence. There is no innate power in these obligations; and except they be made in self-renouncing dedication, they will only issue in despondency and deeper captivity in sin.
But the inconsiderateness of the unwary is no legitimate argument against their importance. If Jephthah was entangled in a rash and heedless vow, David manifestly enjoyed the "perfect freedom" of the "service" of his God, when "binding his soul with a bond" equally fixed, but more advised, in its obligation. And have we; with "the vows of God upon us," baptismal vows—perhaps also confirmation or sacramental vows—found our souls brought into bondage by these solemn engagements? Does not a humbling sense of forgetfulness suggest sometimes the need of a more solemn engagement? And may we not thus secure our duty without being ensnared by it? Have not covenanting seasons often restrained our feet from devious paths, and quickened our souls in His service? Daily, indeed, do we need "the blood of sprinkling" to pardon our innumerable failures, and the Spirit of grace to strengthen us for a more devoted obligation. But yet in dependence upon the work and Spirit of Christ, often have these holy transactions realized to us a peace and joy, that leads us to look back upon such times and seasons of favored enjoyment. "If," therefore, "we sin" in a "perpetual backsliding" from these engagements, it is still our privilege without presumption to believe, that "we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins." And as for necessary grace, there is One who has said, "My grace is sufficient for you;" and that One has given no less a proof of His interest in us, than by dying for us. May we not therefore trust, that He will "perfect that which concerns us;" that He will "work all our works in us" "to will and to do of His good pleasure?"
Perhaps however "a messenger of Satan "may "buffet us." "You have broken your bond; now will it be worse with you than before." But did not Jesus die for sins of infirmity, and even of presumption? Does every failing annul the marriage covenant? So neither does every infirmity or backsliding dissolve our covenant with God. Was our faithfulness the basis of this covenant? Rather, does not "the blood of this covenant" make constant provision for our foreseen unfaithfulness? And does not our gracious God overrule even our backsliding to establish a more simple reliance upon Himself, and a more circumspect and tender walk before Him?
But let us take a case of conscience. A Christian has been drawn away from a set season of extraordinary devotion by some unforeseen present duty, or some unlooked-for opportunity of actively glorifying God. Has he then broken his obligation? Certainly not. It was, or ought to have been, formed with an implied subserviency to paramount duty. It cannot, therefore, be impaired by any such providential interference. Yet let it not be a light matter to remove a free-will offering from the altar. Let godly care be exercised to discover the subtle indulgence of the flesh in the service of God. Let double diligence redeem the lost privilege of more immediate and solemn self-dedication. In guarding against legal bondage, let us not mistake the liberty of the flesh for the liberty of the Gospel. Let us be simple and ready for self-denying service; and the Lord our God will not fail to give "some token for good."
"Come" then, my fellow-Christian, "and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant, never to be forgotten" by God: never to be forsaken by us. Let each of us renew our surrender, "O Lord, truly I am Your servant;" I offer myself to You: "You have loosed my bonds;" oh! bind me to Yourself with fresh bonds of love, that may never be loosed. Glad am I that I am anything—though the lowest of all; that I have anything—poor and vile as it is—capable of being employed in Your service. I yield myself to You with my full bent of heart and will, entirely and forever; asking only, that I may be "a vessel for the Master's use."
107. I am afflicted very much: quicken me, O Lord, according to Your word.
It would seem, that this holy saint's covenanting season was a time of deep affliction: while his determined resolution to keep God's word of obedience, gave boldness to his pleading, that God would perform His word of promise—Quicken me, O Lord, according to Your word. And this is our high privilege, that we are permitted to pour our troubles into the ear of One, who is able perfectly to enter into, and to sympathize with us in them; "who knows our frame," who has Himself laid the affliction upon us: yes, more than all, who in "all our affliction is" Himself "afflicted;" and who "suffered being tempted, that He might be able to support them that are tempted." There are none—not even those most dear to us—to whom we can unbosom ourselves, as we do to our heavenly Friend. Our wants, griefs, burdens of every kind—we roll them all upon Him, with special relief in the hour of affliction. An affecting contrast to those who are indeed afflicted very much; whose souls, "drawing near unto death," and knowing no refuge, are ready to burst with their own sorrows, "the sorrow of the world"—unmitigated—unrelieved, "working death!"
There is a "needs-be" for the afflictions of the Lord's people. The stones of the spiritual temple cannot be polished or fitted to their place without the strokes of the hammer. The gold cannot be purified without the furnace. The vine must be pruned for greater fruitfulness. The measure of discipline varies indefinitely. But such is the inveteracy of fleshly lusts, that very much affliction may often be the needful regimen. Yet will it be tempered by one, who knows the precise measure, who can make no mistakes in our constitutions, and whose fatherly pity will chasten "not for His pleasure, but for our profit." And need we speak of the alleviations of our trials, that they are infinitely disproportioned to our deserts—that they are "light, and but for a moment," compared with eternity—that greater comfort is given in the endurance of them, than we even ventured to anticipate from their removal—that the fruit at the end more than balances the trials themselves? Need we say—how richly they ought to be prized, as conforming us to the image of our suffering Lord; how clearly we shall one day read in them our Father's commission, as messengers of love; and how certainly "the end of the Lord" will be "that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy?"
Perhaps affliction—at least very much affliction—may not be our present lot. Yet it is our duty, and wisdom, as the good soldier in the time of truce, to burnish our armor for the fight. "Let not him that girds on his harness boast himself as he who puts it off. Because the wicked have no changes, therefore they fear not God." The continual changes in Christian experience may well remind us of the necessity of "walking humbly with God," that we may not, by an unprepared spirit, lose the blessing of the sanctified cross. How many of the Lord's dear children may bear Ephraim's name, "For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction!" Sometimes they are so conscious of the present good, that they dread affliction leaving them, more, probably, than the inexperienced professor dreads its coming.
But great affliction is as hard to bear as great prosperity. Some whose Christian profession had drawn out the esteem of others—perhaps also their own complacency—have shown by "faintness in the day of adversity their strength to be small," and themselves to be almost untaught in this school of discipline—shaken, confused, broken. Special need indeed have we under the smart of the rod, of quickening grace to preserve us from stout-heartedness or dejection. We think we could bear the stroke, did we know it to be paternal, not judicial. Have we, then, "forgotten the exhortation, which speaks unto us as unto children?" Do "we despise the chastening of the Lord?" 'Quicken me, Lord, that I may be preserved in a humble, wakeful, listening posture, to hear and improve the message of Your blessing of the sanctified cross.' Do we "faint, when we are rebuked of Him?" "Quicken me, O Lord," that I sink not under the "blow of Your hand." Thus will this Divine influence save us from the horrible sin of being offended with God in our fretting spirit. We shall receive His chastisement with humility without despondency, and with reverence without distrust; hearkening to the voice that speaks, while we tremble under the rod that strikes: yet so mingling fear with confidence, that we may at the same moment adore the hand which we feel, and rest in mercy that is promised. Our best support in the depths of affliction is, prayer for quickening according to Your word! and which of the exercised children of God has ever found one jot, or one tittle of it to fail? "Patience working experience, and experience hope, and hope making not ashamed," in the sense of "the love of God shed abroad upon the heart by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us"—all this is the abundant answer to our prayer, "You who have shown me great and sore troubles, shall quicken me again, and shall bring me up again from the depths of the earth. You shall increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side." Nothing will bear looking back to with comfort, like those trials, which though painful to the flesh, have tended to break our spirit, mold our will, and strengthen the simplicity of our walk with God.
108. Accept, I beseech You, the free-will offerings of my mouth, O Lord: and teach me Your judgments.
As the first-fruits of his entire self-devotion to the Lord; as the only sacrifice he could render in his affliction; and as an acknowledgment of his answered prayer for quickening grace, behold this faithful servant of God presenting the free-will offerings of his mouth for acceptance. Such he knew to be an acceptable service. For the sacrifices of the Old Testament were not only typical of the One sacrifice for sin, but of the spiritual worship of the people of God. To those who are interested in the atonement of Jesus, there needs "no more sacrifice for sin." That which is now required of us, and in which we would delight, is to "take with us words, and turn to Him, and say unto Him—Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously; so will we render the calves of our lips."
No offering but a free-will offering is accepted. Such was the service under the law: such must it be under the gospel. Yet neither can this offering be accepted, until the offerer himself has found acceptance with his God. "The Lord had respect," first to the person of "Abel," then "to his offering." But if our persons are covered with the robe of acceptance—if the "offering up of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" has "perfected" us before God: however defiled our services may be, however mixed with infirmity, and in every way most unworthy; even a God of ineffable holiness "beholds no iniquity" in them. No offering is so pure as to obtain acceptance in any other way; no offering so sinful as to fail of acceptance in this way. Most abundant, indeed, and satisfactory is the provision made in heaven for the continual and everlasting acceptance of our polluted and distracted services, "Another angel came, and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it, with the prayers of all saints, upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand." With such a High Priest and Intercessor, not only is unworthiness dismissed, but boldness and assurance of faith is encouraged.
But, as we remarked, it was a free-will offering that we here presented—the overflowings of a heart filled with love. No constraint was necessary. Prayer was delightful. He was not forced upon his knees. Let me seek fellowship with Him in presenting my free offering before my God. Does not He love it? Does not His free love to me deserve it? Did not my beloved Savior give a free-will offering of delight and of joy? And shall not His free-flowing love be my pattern and my principle? Shall His offering be free for me, and mine, be reluctant for Him? Shall He be ready with His blood for me, and I be backward with my mouth for Him? O my God, work Your own Almighty work—make me not only living, but "willing in the day of Your power." Let the stream flow in the full tide of affectionate devotedness. Blessed Jesus! I would be Yours, and none other's. I would tell the world, that I am captivated by Your love, and consecrated to Your service. Oh, let me "rejoice for that I offered willingly." Great grace is it, that He is willing to accept my service. For what have I to offer, that is not already "his own?" But let me not forget to supplicate for further instruction—'Teach me Your judgments, that I may be directed to present a purer offering; that by more distinct and accurate knowledge of Your ways, my love may be enlarged, and my obedience more entire, until I "stand perfect and complete in all the will of God."'
109. My soul is continually in my hand, yet do I not forget Your law. 110. The wicked have laid a snare for me: yet I erred not from Your precepts.
Precarious health, or familiarity with dangers, may give peculiar emphasis to the phrase—My soul is continually in my hand. David, in his early public life, was in constant apprehension from the open violence and the secret machinations of his bitter enemy. Hunted down "as a partridge in the mountains," and often scarcely escaping the snare which the wicked laid for him; at one time he could not but acknowledge, "there is but a step between me and death;" at another time he was tempted to say, "I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul." Subsequently the hand of his own son was aimed at his throne and his life. Yet could no peril shake his undaunted adherence to the law and precepts of God.
What was the life of Jesus upon earth? Through the enmity of foes—various, opposite, yet combined—his soul was continually in his hand. Yet how wonderful was his calmness and serenity of mind, when surrounded by them all, like "lions" in power, "dogs" in cruelty, wolves in malice! A measure of this spirit belongs to every faithful disciple—not natural courage, but "the spirit of power," as the gift of God, enabling him in the path of the precepts "to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand."
Let us again mark this confidence, illustrated in the open trials of the servants of God. Mark the Apostle, when "the Holy Spirit witnessed to him in every city, that bonds and imprisonment awaited him. None of these things"—said he, "move me. I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." He could look "tribulation, or persecution, or peril, or sword," in the face; and, while he carried his soul continually in his hand, in true Christian heroism, in the most exalted triumph of faith, he could say in the name of himself and his companions in tribulation, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors." Nothing could make him flinch. Nothing could turn him back. Nothing could wring the love of the service of his God out of his heart. His principle was found invincible in the hour of trial—not, however, as a native energy of his heart, but "through Him that loved him." Did he not speak and live in the spirit of this fearless confidence—Yet do I not forget Your law? Daniel's history again shows the utter impotency of secret devices to produce apostasy in the children of God. When the wicked, after many an ineffectual attempt to "find occasion or fault," were driven to lay a snare for him in "the law of his God," this noble confessor of the faith continued to "kneel upon his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did afore-time." The den of lions was far less fearful in his eyes than one devious step from the straight and narrow path. Sin was dreaded as worse than a thousand deaths. He surely then could have said—Yet I erred not from Your precepts.
But how striking must it have been to David, in his imminent peril, to have seen the "counsel of Ahithophel"—regarded as oracular, when employed in the cause of God—now, when directed against the church, "turned to foolishness!"—an instance, only "one of a thousand," of the ever-watchful keeping of the Great Head and Guardian of His Church. Thus does He over-rule the devices of the enemy for the establishment of His people's dependence upon Himself. "The wrath of man praises Him," and He "takes the wise in his own craftiness."
But the day of difficulty is a "perilous time" in the church. "Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried." Have we been able to sustain the shock in a steady adherence to the law and precepts of God? This is indeed the time, when genuine faith will be found of inestimable value. In such a time, David experienced the present blessing of having chosen the Lord for his God. When clouds began to gather blackness, and surrounding circumstances to the eye of sense engendered despondency—faith realized All-sufficient support; and "David encouraged himself in the Lord his God." And is not David's God "our God, the health of our countenance," the guide of our path, the God of our salvation? Oh, let us not rest, until his confidence becomes ours, "What time I am afraid, I will trust in You."
But the cross, which proves and establishes the Christian, sifts the unsound professor as chaff. Nothing but this solid principle of faith can resist either the persecution or the snare. Many desire conformity to Christ and His people in everything but in their cross. They would attain their honor without the steps that led them to it. Dread this flinching spirit. Reject it—as did our Lord—with indignation. It "savors not of God." It is the voice of Satan, who would promise a pillow of carnal ease under our heads—a path of roses under our feet—but a path of slumber, of delusion, and of ruin.
The time of special need is at hand with us all, when we shall need substance and reality for our support—the true confidence of a living faith. Those who have never felt the nearness of eternity, can have but a faint idea of what we shall need in the hour when "flesh and heart fail," to fix a sure unshaken foot upon "the Rock of ages." "Watch, therefore," for you know not how soon you may be ready to say, My soul is in my hand, quivering on the eve of departure to the Judge. "Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning! and you yourselves like men that wait for the Lord, when He will return from the wedding; that when He comes and knocks, they may open unto Him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord, when He comes, shall find watching; verily I say unto you, that He shall gird Himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them."
111. Your testimonies have I taken as an heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart.
'Precious Bible: what a treasure!' The testimonies of God—the declaration of his will in doctrine—obligation—and privilege! David had felt their value, as the stay of his soul in shaking and sifting trial. But how did he claim his interest in them? Not by purchase, or by merit, it was his heritage. As a child of Abraham, he was an "heir according to promise." They—all that is contained in them, "the Lord Himself," the sum and substance of all, "was the portion of his inheritance." Man looks at his heritage. 'This land—this estate—or this kingdom is mine.' The child of God looks round on the universe—on both worlds—on God Himself with His infinite perfections—and says, "All things are mine." My title is more sure than to any earthly heritage. Every promise is sprinkled with "the blood of the everlasting covenant," as the seal of its blessings, and the pledge of their performance.
But not only are they my heritage;—by my own intelligent choice I have taken them to be so. A blessing is it to have them. But the blessing of blessings is to have them made good—applied—sealed—made my own; so that, like the minor come to age, I take possession of my heritage, I live on it, I live in it, it is my treasure, my portion. If a man is known by his heritage, let me be known by mine. Let it "be known and read of all men," that I count not the world my happiness, but that I take my Bible, 'Here is my heritage. Here I can live royally—richer upon bare promises than all the treasures of earth could make me. My resources never fail when all besides fail. When all earthly heritage shall have passed away, mine endures forever.'
Let me not then entertain a low estimate of this precious heritage. "Heirs of promise" are entitled to "strong consolation." What belongs to a "joint-heir with Christ," interested in the unchanging love of Jehovah from eternity, but the language of triumphant exultation? The first view, as it passed before my eyes, was the rejoicing of my heart; and never could I be satisfied, until I had taken it as my soul-satisfying and eternal portion.
Need we then entreat you, believer, to show to the world, that the promises of your heritage are not an empty sound—that they impart a Divine reality of support and enjoyment—and that an interest in them habitually realized is a blessed, a heavenly portion? Should your heart, however, at any time be captivated by the transient prospect before your eyes: should you be led to imagine some substantial value in this world's treasures—you will have forgotten the peculiar preeminence of your heritage—its enduring character. But what are the gaudy follies—the glittering emptiness of this passing scene, in comparison with your heavenly prospects, or even of your present sources of enjoyment!
We can readily account for the affecting indifference with which "the men of the world" barter away these treasures, as Esau did his birthright, for very trifles. They have no present interest in them. "They have their portion in this life. They have received their consolation." But, oh! how soon, having spent their all, will they "begin to be in" infinite, eternal "want!" Yet, having no interest in this heavenly heritage, they can have no pleasure in surveying it. If, therefore, conscience imposes upon them the drudgery of casting their careless eye over it, what wonder if they should find nothing to enliven their hopes, or to attract their hearts? What communion can worldly hearts hold with this heavenly treasure? What spiritual light, as the source of heavenly comfort, can penetrate this dark recess? As well might the inhabitant of the subterraneous cavern expect the cheerful light of the sun, as the man, whose eyes and heart are in the center of the earth, enjoy the spiritual perception of an interest in the heritage of the people of God. If, however, the darkness and difficulties of the word are pleaded in excuse for ignorance; let those indolent triflers confess, how small a portion of that persevering devotedness, which has been employed in gathering together the perishing stores of this world, has been given to search into this hidden mine of unsearchable riches!
O my soul, if I can lay claim to this blessed heritage, I envy not the miser his gold! Rather would I adore that grace, which has "made me to differ" from him; and given me a far happier and far richer heritage. But let me be daily enriching myself from this imperishable store; so that, poor as I am in myself, and seeming to "have nothing," I may in reality be "possessing all things." Let the recollection of the rich heritage of light, comfort, peace, and strength, furnished in the word, be my abundant joy: and bind my heart to a closer adherence to its obligations, and to a more habitual apprehension of its privileges.
112. I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes always, even to the end.
The Psalmist had just been rejoicing in his privileges. He now binds himself to his obligations—and that not for a day—but even to the end. Observe where he begins his work—not with the eye—the ear—the tongue—but with the heart, "for out of the heart are the issues of life." And yet this inclining of the heart to the Lord's statutes is as much the work of God as to create a world; and as soon could "the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots," as we could "do good, who are accustomed to do evil." David was very far from meaning, that any act of his own power could turn the channel of his affections out of their natural course. But prayer, such as he had often poured out, sets every principle of the soul in action, and, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, he inclines his heart. Thus we do what we do; but God enables us, 'preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will' (Are. X.)—not working without or against us, but in us—through us—with us—by us. His preventing grace makes the first impressions, and His assisting grace enables us to follow. Weak indeed are our purposes, and fading our resolutions, unsupported by Divine grace. Yet renewing strength is given to the "waiting" Christian, even to "mount up on eagles' wings, to run without weariness, and to walk without fainting." Conscious as we are, that "without Christ we can do nothing," it is no less true, that we "can do all things through Christ which strengthens us." Let us exercise, then, the grace already given, in dependence upon a continued supply; and turning to Him with freedom and delight, we shall incline our hearts with full purpose to perform His statutes always, even unto the end. This is God's way of quickening the dead soul to life and motion; alluring it by an inexpressible sweetness, and at the same moment, by an invincible power, drawing it to Himself.
Every step indeed to the end will be a conflict with indwelling sin, in the form of remaining enmity, sloth, or unbelief. But how encouraging is it to trace every tender prayer, every contrite groan, every spiritual desire, to the assisting, upholding influence of the "free spirit of God!" The continual drawing of the Spirit will be the principle to perseverance. The same hand that gave the new bias for a heavenward motion will be put forth to quicken that motion even unto the end. 'I can hardly hold on,'—the believer might say—'from one step to another.' How can I then dare to hope, that I shall hold on a constant course—a daily conflict to the end? But was it not Almighty power that supported the first step in your course? And is not the same Divine help pledged to every successive step of difficulty? Doubt not, then, that "He is faithful that has promised:" dare to be "confident of this very thing, that He which has begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." And in this confidence go on to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure."
113. I hate vain thoughts, but Your law do I love.
The fall of man has misplaced his affections. Love was originally made for God and His law;—hatred, for sin. Now man loves what he ought to hate, and hates what he ought to love. The work of Divine grace is to restore the disordered affections to their proper center, and to bestow them on their right object;—hating vain thoughts, and loving the law of God. Few think of the responsibility of their thoughts; as if they were too trifling to be connected with any solemn account. The enlightened soul, however, learns to make a conscience of his thoughts. Here is the seminal principle of sin. How must a radical remedy be applied?
Vain thoughts are the natural produce of the unrenewed heart, and of the yet unrenewed part of the believer's heart. Who that "knows the plague of his own heart," and the spirituality of the Christian walk with God, does not constantly complain of their baneful influence? The child of God longs that his "every thought may be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." But he "sees another law in his members, warring against the law of his mind;" so that "when he would do good, evil is present with him." When he would "attend upon the Lord without distraction;" many times, even in a single exercise, does he forget his sacred employment. Sin seems to enter into every pore of his soul; and a cloud of vain thoughts darkens every avenue to communion with God. He would gladly say, "My heart is fixed, my heart is fixed;" but he finds his affections wandering, as "the eyes of the fool, in the ends of the earth," as if there were no object of Divine attraction to his soul. We do not hear the worldling, or indeed the servant of God in his worldly employments, complaining of this burden. He can bring to deep, important, and anxious concerns of this world, all that intensity and fixedness of attention which the emergency may demand. Indeed, the wily adversary would rather assist than hinder this concentration of mind, as diverting the soul from the far more momentous and interesting subjects of eternity. But never do the "sons of God come to present themselves before the Lord," except "Satan comes also among them."
Vain thoughts are his ceaseless hindrances to our spiritual communion with God. Are we aware of the subtlety, and therefore the peculiar danger, of this temptation? We should instinctively start from an enticement to open transgression. The incursion of defiling or blasphemous thoughts would be such a burden, that we should "have no rest in our spirit," while they remain undisturbed within us. But perhaps neither of these temptations are so formidable as the crowd of thoughts of every kind, incessantly running to and fro in the mind; the indulgence of which, though not actually sinful in itself, yet as effectually restrains the soul from communion with God, as the most hateful injections. These are "the little foxes, that spoil the tender grapes." No—the thoughts may be even spiritual in their nature, and yet vain in their tendency; because unsuitable to the present frame, and calculated, and indeed intended by the great enemy, to divert the mind from some positive duty. Who has not felt a serious thought upon an unseasonable subject, and an unseasonable time, to be in its consequences a vain thought—the secret impulse of the false "angel of light," dividing the attention between two things, so that neither of them may be wholly done, done to any purpose, done at all? If at any time "iniquity has been regarded in the heart;" if the world in any of its thousand forms has regained a temporary ascendancy; or if lusting imaginations are not constantly "held in" as "with bit and bridle;" these vain thoughts, ever ready to force their entrance, will at such seasons "get an advantage of us." Restless in their workings, they keep no sabbaths: and can only be successfully met by a watchful and unceasing warfare.
It may indeed be sometimes difficult, in the midst of this continual trial, to maintain a clear sense of adoption. But this is the distinctive mark of Christian sincerity:—Do we cordially hate them, as exceedingly sinful in the sight of God, hurtful to our own souls and contrary to our new nature? If we cannot altogether prevent their entrance, or eject them from their settlement, are we careful not to invite them, not to entertain them, not to suffer them to "lodge within us?" This active hatred is a satisfactory proof that they are not so much the natural suggestion of the heart, as the injections of the enemy of our peace. They are at least so directly opposed to our better will and dominant bias, that we may say, "If I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me." Our affliction and conflict with them prove that they dwell with us—not as welcome guests, or as the family of the house—but as "thieves and robbers." Their indulgence constitutes our sin. Their indwelling may be considered only as our temptation. They supply, indeed, continual matter for watchfulness, humiliation, and resistance; yet so far as they are abhorred and resisted, they are rather our infirmities than our iniquities, and leave no stain of actual guilt upon the conscience. An increasing sense of the sinfulness of sin, and of the extent of duty, will indeed show their deeper aggravations and more persevering opposition. Still, however, even while we groan under their defiling, distracting influence, in our best services, we may assure our confidence in Him, who "spares us, as a man spares his own son that serves him," and who will gather up the broken parts of our prayers with merciful acceptance.
But the subjugation of this evil—even though we be secured from its condemnation—is a matter of the deepest concern. Forget not—oh, may the impression be indelible!—that it was for these vain thoughts that the Savior was nailed to the cross. Here lies the ground of self-loathing—the quickening principle of conflict and exertion. Let the heart—the seat of this evil disease—be continually washed in the cleansing blood of Calvary; for until the corrupt fountain be cleansed, it must ever "send forth bitter waters." Let it be diligently "kept," and carefully filled, so that it may be a "good treasure bringing forth good things." Let there be the continued exercise of that "watchfulness" "which is unto prayer," combined with an unflinching adherence to plain and obvious duty. Let the temptation to desist awhile from services so polluted, that they appear rather to mock God than to worship Him, be met on the onset with the most determined opposition. Once admit this suggestion, and our active enemy will pour in successive incursions of vain thoughts into our perplexed and yielding minds, to turn us back step by step in our attempts to approach God. If, therefore, we cannot advance as we could wish, let us advance as we can. If a connected train of thought or expression fails us, let us only change—not surrender—our posture of resistance; substituting sighs, desires, tears, and "groanings"—for words, and casting ourselves upon our God in the simple confidence of faith, "Lord, all my desire is before You, and my groaning is not hid from You. You tell my wanderings: put my tears into Your bottle: are they not in Your book?" It is far better to wander in duty than from it. For if any duty be neglected on account of the defilement that is mingled with it, for the same reason we must neglect every other duty, and, as the final consequence, the worship of God would be abolished from the earth.
Much of our successful warfare, however, depends upon an accurate and well-digested acquaintance with our own hearts—upon a discovery of the bias of the mind in our unoccupied moments, and of the peculiar seasons and circumstances that give most power to temptation. This once known, set a double watch against those doors, by which the enemy has been accustomed to find his most convenient and unobstructed entrance.
But we must not forget the effective means suggested by David's experience—the love of God's law. Here rises the native enmity against God—not as the Creator, but the Law-giver—and therefore against His law as the dictate of His will. Here, then, is the power of grace subduing this enmity. Not only I fear, and therefore through fear I keep, but I love Your law. And 'He who loves a holy law'—remarks an excellent old writer—'cannot but hate a vain thought.' For if the law be the transcript of the image of God, the thoughts affectionately drawn out towards him must naturally fix the image of the beloved friend upon the mind, and by a sweet constraint fasten down the thoughts to Divine contemplation. Are we then ever winged with an elevating love to the Savior? And do we not find our hearts start out from their worldly employments with frequent glances and flights towards the object of our desire? And will not this communion of love gradually mold the soul into a fixed delight, exciting our hatred, and strengthening our resistance of every sinful affection? Thus, as love to the law stirs up the powers of the renewed man, "spiritual wickedness" will be abhorred, conflicted with, and overcome.
Yet these defilements will remain to die with the last breathings of the old man; which, though crucified indeed and expiring, will struggle with fearful strength and unabated enmity to the end. And let them remain, as humbling mementos of our unclean nature, "shaped in iniquity, and conceived in sin;" and as enlivening our anticipations of that blessed place, where "shall in no wise enter anything that defiles;" where vain thoughts, and whatever beside might "separate between us and our God," will be unknown forever. Meanwhile let them endear to us the free justification of the Gospel; let them lead us daily and hourly to "the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness;" and enhance in our view that heavenly intercession, which provides for the perfect cleansing and accepting of services even such as ours.
Blessed contemplation! Jesus prays not for us, as we do for ourselves. His intercession is without distraction—without interruption. If we are then so dead, that we cannot, and so guilty, that we dare not, pray, and so wandering in our vain thoughts, that our prayers appear to be scattered to the winds, rather than to ascend to heaven—if on these accounts combined, we "are so troubled, that we cannot speak:" yet always is there One to speak for us, of whom "a voice from heaven" testified for our encouragement, "saying—This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." With such hopes, motives, and encouragements, let us "continue instant in prayer," until we pray, and that we may pray. Let us supplicate our Lord with restless importunity, that His omnipotent love would take hold of these hearts, which every moment sin and Satan seem ready to seize. At the same time, conscious of our hatred of every interruption to His service, and of the simplicity of our affection to His holy law, let us hold fast that confidence before Him, which will issue in perfect peace and established consolation.
114. You are my hiding place, and my shield; I hope in Your word.
We have seen the unremitting vigilance of the enemy pursuing the man of God in his secret retirement with painful distraction. See how he runs to his hiding-place. Here is our main principle of safety—not our strivings or our watchfulness, but our faith. Flee instantly to Jesus. He is the sinner's hiding-place, "the man,"—that wondrous man, "in whom dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." Yes, Jesus exposed Himself to the fury of "the tempest," that He might become a hiding-place, for us. The broken law pursued with its relentless curse—'The sinner ought to die'—But You are my hiding-place, who has "redeemed me from the curse of the law, being made a curse for me." "The fiery darts" pour in on every side: but the recollection of past security awakens my song of acknowledgment, "You have been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of 'the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall." Our hiding-place covers us from the power of the world. "In Me"—says our Savior, "you shall have peace. Be of good cheer! I have overcome the world." Helpless to resist the great enemy, our Lord brings us to His wounded side, and hides us there. We "overcome him by the blood of the Lamb." To all accusations from every quarter, our challenge is ready, "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?" From the fear of death, our hiding-place still covers us. "Jesus through death has destroyed him that had the power of death." Against the sting of this last enemy, a song of thanksgiving is put into our mouth, "O death! where is your sting? O grave! where is your victory? Thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Thus is "the smoking flax," which the malice of Satan strives to extinguish, not "quenched;" nor is "the bruised reed," which seems beyond the hope of restoration, "broken."
But the completeness of our security is graphically portrayed—You are my hiding-place, to cover from danger—my shield, also to protect me in it. Either I shall be kept from trouble, that it shall not come; or in trouble, that it shall not hurt me. The hiding-place alone would be imperfect security, as being limited to one place. But my shield is moveable, wherever be the point of danger or assault. I can "quench the dart" that is aimed at my soul.
But a hiding-place implies also secrecy. And truly the believer's is "a hidden life," beyond the comprehension of the world. He mixes with them in the common communion of life. But while seen of man, he is dwelling "in the secret of the Lord's tabernacle," safe in the midst of surrounding danger, guarded by invincible strength. Often, indeed, must the world be surprised at his constancy, amid all their varied efforts to shake his steadfastness. They know not "the secret of the Lord, which is with them that fear Him." And never could he have had a just conception of the all-sufficiency of his God, until he finds it above him, around him, underneath him, in all the fullness of everlasting love—his hiding-place, and his shield. Thus in the heart of the enemy's country "he dwells on high, and his place of defense is the munitions of rocks."
But are we acquainted with this hiding-place? How have we discovered it? Are we found in it, and careful to abide in it? Within its walls "that wicked one touches us not." Yet never shall we venture outside the walls unprotected, but his assault will give us some painful remembrance of our unwatchfulness. And then do we prize our shield, and run behind it for constant security. Remember, every other hiding-place "the waters will overflow." Every other shield is a powerless defense. Surely then the word which has discovered this security to us, is a firm warrant for our hope. And, therefore, every sinner, enclosed in the covert of love, will be ready to declare—I hope in Your word.
115. Depart from me, you evil-doers; for I will keep the commandments of my God.
Safe and quiet in his hiding-place, and behind his shield, David deprecates all attempts to disturb his peace—Depart from me, you evil-doers. He had found them to be opposed to his best interests; and he dreaded their influence in shaking his resolution for his God. Indeed such society must always hinder alike the enjoyment and the service of God. "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" And can we be "agreed," and walk in fellowship with God, except we be at variance with the principles, the standard, and conduct of a world that is "enmity against Him?" Not more needful was the exhortation to the first Christians than to ourselves, "Save yourselves from this untoward generation." True fellowship with God implies therefore a resolute separation from the ungodly. Secure in the hiding-place, and covered with the shield of our covenant God, let us meet their malice, and resist their enticements, with the undaunted front of "a good soldier of Jesus Christ."
Not that we would indulge morose or ascetic seclusion. We are expressly enjoined to courtesy and kindness; to that wise and considerate "walk towards them that are without," which "adorns the doctrine of God our Savior," and indeed in some instances has been more powerful even than the word itself, to "win souls to Christ." But when they would tempt us to a devious or backsliding step—when our connection with them entices us to a single act of conformity to their standard, dishonorable to God, and inconsistent with our profession—then must we take a bold and unflinching stand—Depart from me, you evil-doers for I will keep the commandments of my God.
This resolution gives no countenance to the self-delusive notion of maintaining an intimate connection with professed evil-doers, for the kind purpose of recommending our religion to their acceptance—a scheme, which requires a rare degree of caution and simplicity to attempt without entangling the conscience; and which, for the most part at least, it is to be feared, is only a specious covering for the indulgence of a worldly spirit. If the men of the world are to be met, and their society invited, for the accomplishment of this benevolent intention, it must be upon the principle of the Lord's command to his prophet, "Let them return unto You: but return not You to them." The amiable desire to "please our neighbor" is limited to the single end, that it should be "for his good to edification." And whenever this end and restriction has been overlooked, it is sufficiently evident that self-gratification has been the moving principle: and that the distinctive mark of the Christian character—bearing the cross, and confessing the name of our Divine Master—has been obscured.
Sometimes, however, in the struggle of conscience, an apprehension of danger is not altogether forgotten, and the question is asked, with some trembling of spirit, "How far may I conform to the world, without endangering the loss of my religion?" But, not to speak of the insincerity and self-deception of such a question, it would be better answered by substituting another in its place, "How far may I be separate from the world, and yet be destitute of the vital principle?" Scrutinize, in every advancing step toward the world, the workings of your own heart. Suspect its reasonings. Listen to the first awakened conviction of conscience. Though it be only a whisper, or a hint, it is probably the indication of the Divine will. And never forget, that this experiment of worldly conformity, often as it has been tried, has never answered the desired end. However this compromise may have recommended ourselves, no progress has been made in recommending our Master; since His name—whether from unwatchfulness or cowardice on our part, or from the overpowering flow of the world on the other side—has probably in such society scarcely passed over our lips with any refreshment or attentiveness. Indeed, so far from commending our religion by this accommodation, we have succeeded in ingratiating ourselves in their favor, only so far as we have been content to keep it out of sight; while at the same time, our yielding conformity to their taste, and habits, and conversation, has virtually sanctioned their erroneous standard of conduct; and tended to deceive them with the self-complacent conviction, that it approaches as near to the Scriptural elevation, as is absolutely required. The final result, therefore, of this attempt to recommend the Gospel to those who have no "heart for it," is—that our own consciences have been ensnared, while they retain all their principles unaltered.
It must surely be obvious, that such a course is plainly opposed to the revealed declarations of Scripture, and bears the decisive character of unfaithfulness to our Great Master. We might also ask, whether our love to the Lord can be in fervent exercise, while we "love them that hate Him?"—whether our hatred of sin can be active and powerful, while we can find pleasure in the society of those, whose life "without God in the world," is an habitual, willful course of rebellion against Him?—whether we can have any deep or experimental sense of our own weakness, when thus venturing into temptation?—whether by unnecessary contact with the world, we can expect to "go upon hot coals," and our "feet not be burned?"—or, in fact, whether we are not forgetting the dictates of common prudence in forsaking the path of safety for a slippery, but more congenial path? Is no harm to be anticipated from a willful, self-pleasing association? Is it likely to be less dangerous to us than it was to an Apostle? or, because we conceive ourselves to have more strength, shall we use less watchfulness, and show more presumption?
But, supposing Scripture not to determine the path of duty with infallible certainty; let this line of conduct be subjected to the impartial scrutiny of our own hearts, and of the effects, whether neutral or positively detrimental, which have resulted from it to ourselves, or to the church. Have we not felt this fellowship with evil-doers to be an hindrance in keeping the commandments of our God? If it has not always ended in open conformity to their maxims; or if, contrary to our apprehensions, it does not appear to sanction their principles, yet have we realized no deadening unfavorable influence? Has the spirit of prayer sustained no injury in this atmosphere? Have we never felt the danger of imbibing their taste—the spirit of their conversation and general conduct; which, without fixing any blot upon our external profession, must insensibly estrange our best affections from God! And have we never considered the injury of this worldly association to the Gospel in weakening by an apparent want of decision "on the Lord's side," the sacred cause which we are pledged to support; and obscuring the spiritual character of the people of God as a distinct and separate people? In a providential connection with evil-doers, we go safely in the spirit of humility, watchfulness, and prayer; and this connection, felt to be a cross, is not likely to prove a snare. But does not union of spirit with them, to whom David says, with holy determination—Depart from me—and to whom David's Lord will one day say, "Depart!"—prove a want of fellowship with his spirit, and an essential unfitness for communion with the society of heaven? The children of this world can have no more real communion with the children of light, than darkness has with light. As great is the difference between the Christian and the world, as between heaven and hell—as between the sounds, "Come, you blessed," and, "Depart, you cursed." The difference, which at that solemn day will be made for eternity, must, therefore, be visibly made now. They must depart from us, or we from God. We cannot walk with them both. 'Defilement'—as Mr. Cecil remarks—'is inseparable from the world.' We cannot hold communion with God, in the spirit of the world; and, therefore, separation from the world, or separation from God, is the alternative. Which way—which company—is most congenial to our taste? Fellowship will be a component part of our heavenly happiness. Shall we not then walk on earth with those, with whom we hope to spend our eternity, that our removal hence may be a change of place only, not of company? May we have grace to listen to our Father's voice of love, "Therefore, come out from among them, and be separate, says the Lord; and touch not the unclean thing: and I will receive you, and will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."
116. Uphold me according unto Your word, that I may live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope.
Lest the Psalmist should seem to have been self-confident in his rejection of the society of the ungodly, and his determination to adhere to his God; here, as on former occasions, mindful of his own weakness, he commits himself to the upholding grace of God. He does not content himself with commanding the evil-doer to depart. He pleads for his God to come to him. He wants not only the hindrances to be removed, but the vouchsafement of present supporting grace. Such is our urgent continual need! Every circumstance has its temptation. Every change of condition is specially trying—and what is he in himself? unstable as water! Indeed the highest Archangel before the throne stands only as he is upheld by the Lord, and may unite with the weakest child in the Lord's family in the acknowledgment, "By the grace of God I am what I am." Much more, therefore, must I, pressed on every side with daily conflict and temptation, and conscious of my own weakness and liability to fall, "come to the throne of grace," for "grace to help in time of need." My plea is the word of promise—according to Your word, "as your days, so shall your strength be." "Fear not"—is the language of my upholding God, "for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God: I will strengthen you: yes, I will help you: yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of My righteousness." Blessed be the goodness that made the promise, and that guides the hand of my faith, as it were, to fasten upon it!
But why do I need the promise? why do I plead it? but that I may live—that I may know that life, which is found and enjoyed "in the favor" of God? Nothing seems worth a serious thought besides; nothing else deserves the name. And therefore new life, "life more abundantly"—let it be the burden of every prayer—the cry of every moment. Thus upheld by the Lord's grace, and living in His presence, I hope to feel the increasing support of my Christian hope. Though I have just before expressed it in God's word—though I have "made my boast in the Lord," as my hiding-place and my shield, yet conscious helplessness leads me earnestly to pray—Let me not be ashamed of my hope.
Yes—Jesus is the sinner's hope, "the hope set before" His people, to which they "flee for the refuge" of their souls. And well may our "hope" in Him be called "an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast." How does the distressed church plead with the hope of Israel, and put her God in remembrance of this His own name, that she might not be ashamed of her hope! And how does she—with every member of her body—eventually learn by this pleading, to say in the confidence of faith, "I know whom I have believed!" And is there not a solid ground for this confidence? Is not the "stone that is laid in Zion for a foundation," a "tried stone?" Has it not been tried by thousands and millions of sinners—no, more, tried by God Himself, and found to be "a sure foundation?" Yet still, that I may "hold fast the beginning of my confidence," and "the rejoicing of my hope, firm unto the end," I must persevere in prayer—Uphold me according unto Your word.
David, when left to his own weakness, was ashamed of his hope:, "I said in my haste, I am cut off from before Your eyes." At another time, when upheld in a season of accumulated trial, "he encouraged himself in the Lord his God." Thus I see "wherein my great strength lies," and how impotent I am, when left to myself. What a mercy, that my salvation will never for a single moment be in my own keeping! what need have I to pray to be saved from myself! How delightful is the exercise of faith in going to the Strong for strength! The issue of my spiritual conflicts is certain. He who is the author, will ever be the upholder, of the "hidden life" in His people. It is a part of His own life, and therefore can never perish. The Tempter himself will flee, when he marks the poor, feeble, fainting soul, upheld according to the word of his God, and placed in safety beyond the reach of his malice. Not, however, that, as I once supposed, my weakness will ever be made strong; but that I shall daily grow more sensible of it, shall, stay myself more simply upon infinite everlasting strength; and "most gladly shall I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."
117. Hold me up, and I shall be safe; and I will have respect unto Your statutes continually.
Such is my sense of need and peril, that my only refuge lies in "continuing instant in prayer." I must send up one cry after another into my Father's ear for the support of His upholding grace. For not only the consciousness of my weakness, but the danger of the slippery path before me, reminds me, that the safety of every moment depends upon my upholding faithful God. The ways of temptation are so many and imperceptible—the influence of it so appalling—the entrance into it so deceitful, so specious, so insensible—my own weakness and unwatchfulness so unspeakable—that I can do nothing but go on my way, praying at every step—Hold me up, and I shall be safe. Often, indeed, can I remember, when "my feet were almost gone, my steps had well-near slipped:" that I have been enabled to record, "Your mercy, O Lord, held me up."
How beautiful is the picture given of the church of old! "Who is this that comes up from the wilderness, leaning upon her Beloved?" This state of dependence was familiar to the Psalmist, and aptly delineates his affectionate, though conflicting, confidence. "My soul follows hard after You: Your right hand upholds me." The recollection of the care of his God, from his earliest life, supplied encouragement for his present faith, and matter for unceasing praise, "By You have I been held up from the womb; You are He who took me out of my mother's affections: my praise shall be continually of You." We cannot wonder, then, that this confidence should sustain his soul in the contemplation of the remaining steps of his pilgrimage, and his prospects for eternity. "Nevertheless"—says he, "I am continually with You: You have holden me by Your right hand. You shall guide me with Your counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory." And, indeed, the more lively my spiritual apprehensions are, the more I shall realize the Lord by the operations of His grace as well as of His providence, "compassing my path and my lying down;" lest any hurt me, keeping me night and day."
Is it inquired—how the Lord holds up His people in this slippery path? "Of the fullness of Jesus they all receive, and grace for grace;" so that "the life which they now live in the flesh, they live by the faith of the Son of God." And, therefore, if I am upheld, it is by the indwelling of the Spirit, who supplies from His infinite fountain of life all the strength and support I need throughout my dangerous way. By His Divine influence the dispensations of Providence also become the appointed means of drawing and keeping me near to my God. If, therefore, prosperity is endangering my soul, and strengthening my worldly bonds, may I not trust to the ever-watchful kindness of the Lord, to keep me low, and not to permit me to be at ease in my forgetfulness? If the pleasures of sense, if the esteem of the world, or the good report of the church, are bringing a bewitching snare upon my soul, my God will lead me into the pathway of the cross—in the "valley of humiliation."
Here, then, is the secret of an unsteady walk—the neglect of leaning upon an Almighty arm! How fearfully is the danger of self-confidence unveiled! Standing by my own strength, very soon shall I be made to feel, that I cannot stand at all. No "mountain" seemed to "stand stronger" than Solomon's: yet when he became the very "fool" that he describes, "trusting in his own heart"—how quickly was it removed!
Peter thought in the foolishness of his heart, that he could have walked upon the water unsupported by the arm of his Lord: but a moment's sense of weakness and danger brought him to his right mind: "and, beginning to sink, he cried, saying—Lord! save me!" Well would it have been for him, if his deliverance at that moment of peril had effectually rebuked his presumption. We should not then have heard from the same lips that language of most unwarranted self-confidence: "Although all shall be offended, yet will not I:—if I should die with You, I will not deny You in any wise." Poor deluded disciple! You are on the brink of a grievous fall! Yet was he held up from utterly sinking. "I have prayed for you"—said the gracious Savior, "that your faith fail not." And thus held up by the same faithful intercession of my powerful friend (whose prayers are not weak as mine, "nor will He fail or be discouraged" by my continual backslidings), "I" too—though in the atmosphere of danger, in the slippery path of temptation, shall be safe—safe from an ensnaring world—safe from a treacherous heart—safe in life—safe in death—safe in eternity. Thus does an interest in the covenant encourage—not presumption—but faith, in all its exercises of humility, watchfulness, diligence, and prayer; in this appointed way does the Lord securely "keep the feet of His saints."
Let me not, then, forget, either my continual liability to fall if left to myself, or the faithful engagements of my covenant God, to "keep me from falling." While I recollect for my comfort, that I "stand by faith," still is the exhortation most needful, "Be not high-minded, but fear." "By faith I stand," as it concerns God; by fear as it regards myself. As light is composed of neither brilliant nor somber rays, but of the combination of both in simultaneous action, so is every Christian grace combined with its opposite, "that it may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." Hope, therefore, combined with fear, issues in that genuine, evangelical confidence, in which alone I can walk safely and closely with God. Let, then, the self-confident learn to distrust themselves, and the fearful be encouraged to trust their Savior; and in each let the recollection of grace and help given "in time of need," lead to the steadfast resolution—I will have respect unto Your statutes continually. However self-denying they may be in their requirements: however opposed in their tendency to "the desires of the flesh and of the mind," I take my God as the surety of my performance of them; and I desire to love them as the rule of my daily conduct, and the very element of heavenly happiness to my soul.
118. You have trodden down all them that err from Your statutes: for their deceit is falsehood. 119. You put away all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Your testimonies.
The Psalmist's determination to keep the statutes of God was strengthened by marking His judgments on those that erred from them. And thus the Lord expects us to learn at their cost. The cheerful, grateful respect to His statutes marks also a difference of character indicative of a difference of state. "His saints are in His hand, or sitting down at His feet;" His enemies are trodden down under His feet in full conquest, and disgraceful punishment. His own people He has exalted to be "heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ." Even now "he has made them to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus;" and shortly will they "be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of their God;" while the ungodly are put away like dross from the precious gold. "Reprobate silver shall men call them, because the Lord has rejected them." The same difference He makes even in chastening—upholding His own children under the scourging rod, lest they faint; but "breaking the wicked with a rod of iron, and dashing them in pieces."
This separation has been from the beginning; in His conduct to the first two children of men; and in His selection of Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, from the world of the ungodly, "as vessels of honor, meet for the Master's use." In after ages, He made Egypt "know, that He put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel." They were His own "people, that should dwell alone," and not "be reckoned among the nations"—a people, whom He had "formed for Himself, that they should show forth His praise." And the same difference He has made ever since, between His people and the world—in their character—their way—their exercises of mind—their services—their privileges—and their prospects. At the day of judgment, the separation will be complete—final—everlasting. "'When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory; and before Him shall be gathered all nations; and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left; and these shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal."
But mark the character—They err from God's statutes—not in their minds, through ignorance; but "in their hearts" through obstinacy. They do not say, 'Lord, we know not,' but, "We desire not the knowledge of Your ways." It is not frailty, but unbelief; not want of knowledge, but love of sin—willful, damnable. Justly, therefore, are they stamped as the wicked of the earth, and marked out as objects of the Lord's eternal frown—expectants of the "vengeance of eternal fire."
And is not this a solemn warning to those "that forget God"—that "they shall be turned into hell;" to "the proud"—that in "the day that shall burn as an oven, they shall be as stubble;"—to the worldly—that in some "night" of forgetfulness, their "souls will be required of them;"—to the "hypocrites in heart"—that they "are heaping up wrath?" Thus does the eye of faith discern through the apparent disorder of a world in ruins, the just, holy, and wise government of God. "Clouds and darkness are round about Him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne." If the wicked seem to triumph, and the righteous to be trodden down under their feet, it shall not be always so. "The end" and "wages of sin is death." "The ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous."
How awful, then, and almost desperate their condition! Their deceit is falsehood; "deceiving and being deceived"—perhaps given up to believe their own lie—perhaps one or another "blessing themselves in their own heart," saying, 'I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my own heart, to add drunkenness to thirst.' What, then, is our duty? Carnal selfishness says, 'Be quiet—let them alone'—that is, "Destroy them by our" indolence and unfaithfulness, "for whom Christ died." But what does Scripture, conscience, no more—what does common humanity say? "Cry aloud, spare not." Awake the sleepers—sound the alarm, "Now is the accepted time—the day of salvation!" the moment to lift up the prayer, and stretch forth the hand for plucking the brands out of the fire. Tomorrow, the door may be shut, never to be opened more.
How awful the judgment of being put away like dross! Look at Saul, when put away—going out, to harden himself in the sullen pride of despondency. Hear the fearful doom of Israel, "Son of man, the house of Israel is to me become dross; all they are brass, and tin, and iron, and lead, in the midst of the furnace; they are even the dross of silver. Therefore says the Lord God—Because you are all become dross, behold, therefore I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem, as they gather silver, and brass, and iron, and lead, and tin into the midst of the furnaces to blow the fire upon it, to melt it; so will I gather you in My anger and in My fury; and I will leave you there, and melt you." But how should this justice of the Lord's proceedings endear His statutes to us! It is such a sensible demonstration of His truth, bringing with it such a close conviction of sovereign mercy to ourselves—not less guilty than they! Add to this—If He were less observant of sin—less strict in its punishment as a transgression of His word—we should lose that awful display of the holiness of the word, which commends it supremely to our love, "Your word is very pure; therefore Your servant loves it."
120. My flesh trembles for fear of You; and I am afraid of Your judgments.
The justice of God is a tremendously awful subject of contemplation, even to those who are safely shielded from its terrors. The believer, in the act of witnessing its righteous stroke upon the wicked of the earth, cannot forbear to cry out—My flesh trembles for fear of You. Thus did the holy men of old tremble, even with a frame approaching horror, in the presence of the Divine judgments. David trembled at the stroke of Uzzah, as if it came very near to himself. "Destruction from God"—says holy Job, "was a terror to me: and by reason of His highness I could not endure." Such also was the Prophet's strong sensation, "When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at Your voice: rottenness entered into my bones." And thus, when God comes to tread down and put away His enemies for the display of the holiness of His character, and to excite the love of His people—those that stand by, secure under the covert of their hiding-place—cannot but "take up their parable and say—Alas! who shall live, when God does this!" The children of God reverence their Father's anger. They cannot see it without an awful fear; and this trembling at His judgments upon the ungodly covers them from the heavy stroke. Those that refuse to tremble shall be made to feel, while those that are afraid of His judgments shall be secure. "Only with Your eyes shall you behold, and see the reward of the wicked." "I trembled in myself," said the prophet, "that I might rest in the day of trouble." Even the manifestations of His coming "for the salvation of His people" are attended with all the marks of the most fearful terror—as if His voice would shake the earth to its very foundation, "You caused judgment to be heard from heaven—the earth feared and was still: when God arose to judgment, to save all the meek of the earth."
To mark this trembling as the character of the child of God, we need only contrast it with the ungodly scoffing, "Where is the God of judgment? Where is the promise of His coming? The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil." Thus do men dare to "run upon the thick bosses of His bucklers;" instead of trembling for fear of Him! This "stoutness against the Lord," excites the astonishment of the hosts of heaven; so discordant is it to their notes of humble praise, "Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name; for Your judgments are made manifest!" Such is the special acceptance of this trembling spirit, that some shadow of it obtained a respite even for wicked Ahab, and a pardon for the penitent Ninevites; while its genuine "tenderness of heart" screened Josiah from the doom of his people, and will ever be regarded with the tokens of the favor of this terrible God. "To this man," says he, "will I look, even to him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit, and that trembles at My word."
Believers in Christ! rejoice in your deliverance from that "fear which has torment." Yet cherish that holy reverential fear of the character and judgments of God, which will form your most effectual safeguard "from presumptuous sins." The very supposition, that, if God had not engaged Himself to you by an unchangeable covenant, His fearful judgments would have been your eternal portion, is of itself sufficient to mingle the wholesome ingredient of fear with the most established assurance. What! can you look down into the burning bottomless gulf beneath your feet, without the recollection—If I were not immovably fastened to the "Rock of Ages" by the strong chain of everlasting love, this must have been my abode through the countless ages of eternity. If I had not been thus upheld by the grace, as well as by the providence, of God, I might have dropped out of His hand, as one and another not more rebellious than I have fallen, into this intolerable perdition! O God! my flesh trembles for fear of You; and I am afraid of Your judgments.
Thus the dread of the judgments of God is not necessarily of a slavish and tormenting character. "His saints" are called to "fear Him;" and their fear, so far from "gendering unto bondage," is consistent with the strongest assurance; no, even is its fruit and effect. It is at once the principle of present obedience, and of final perseverance. It is the confession of weakness, unworthiness, and sinfulness, laying us low before our God. It is our most valuable discipline. It is the "bit and bridle" that curbs the frowardness of the flesh, and enables us to "serve God acceptably," in the remembrance, that, though in love He is a reconciled Father, yet in holiness He is "a consuming fire."
Now, if we are under the influence of this reverential awe and seriousness of spirit, we shall learn to attach a supreme authority and consideration to the least of His commands. We shall dread the thought of wilfully offending Him. The fear of grieving Him will be far more operative now, than was the fear of hell in our unconverted state. Those who presume upon their gospel liberty, will not, probably, understand this language. But the humble believer well knows how intimately "the fear of the Lord" is connected with "the comfort of the Holy Spirit," and with his own steady progress in holiness, and preparation for heaven.
121. I have done judgment and justice: leave me not to my oppressors. 122. Be surety for Your servant for good: let not the proud oppress me.
There is something very solemn in the reflection, that God has set up a Viceregent in the heart—an internal Judge, who takes cognizance of every thought, every emotion, every act—determining its character, and pronouncing its sentence. This tribunal tries every cause without respect to persons, time, place, or any circumstances, that might seem to separate it from other cases under the same jurisdiction. No criminal can escape detection from defect of evidence. No earthly power can hinder the immediate execution of the sentence. The sentence then, of this awful Judge, whether "accusing or excusing," is of infinite moment. The ignorant expression—'Thank God, I have a clear conscience!' is used alike by the self-righteous and the careless. The awakened sinner, however, pleads guilty to its accusations, and knows not how to answer them. Blessed be God for the revelation of His gospel, which proclaims the blood of Jesus—sprinkling the conscience—silencing its charges—and setting before the sinner the way of peace! And now through Jesus, "the new and living way" of access to God, conscience, sitting on the throne—speaks peace and acceptance; and though sins of infirmity will remain, defiling every thought, desire, and act; yet, like the motes on the face of the sun in the clearest day, they have little or no influence to obstruct the shining of the cheerful light upon the heart.
The clearing of conscience is however connected with Christian integrity. "If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God." This "testimony of conscience" has often been "the rejoicing" of the Lord's people, when suffering under unremitted reproach or proud oppression. They have been enabled to plead it without offence in the presence of their holy, heart-searching God—no, even when in the near prospect of the great and final account, they might have been supposed to shrink from the strict and unerring scrutiny of their Omniscient Judge.
But observe the influence of this testimony upon our spiritual comfort. David was at this time under persecution—no new trial to a child of God and one that will never cease, so long as Satan has instruments at his command. But see the blessing which conscious uprightness gave to his prayers: I have done judgment and justice: leave me not to my oppressors. Can my heart and conscience respond to this appeal? Then may I plead my cause before God, Leave me not to my oppressors. Let not the proud oppress me. Plead my cause with them. Let my righteousness be made known. Let it be seen, that You "will not leave me in their hand, nor condemn me when I am judged. Let integrity and uprightness preserve me: for I wait on You." But if any deviation from the exact rule of righteousness between man and man has been allowed—if the world charge me as ungodly, because they have proved me unrighteous—then let me not wonder, that "the consolations of God shall be small with me;" nor let me expect a return of the Lord's cheering manifestation, until the Achan has been removed from the camp, and by confession to God, and reparation to man, I have "given glory to the Lord God of Israel."
But let not this appeal be thought to savor of Pharisaical pride. He pleads not merit. He only asserts his innocence—the righteousness of his cause—not of his person. Though upright before man, he ever felt himself a sinner before God. The highest tone of conscious integrity is therefore consistent with the deepest prostration of evangelical humility. The difference is infinite between the proud Pharisee and the upright believer. The Pharisee makes the appeal with undisturbed self-delight and self-righteous pleading. The believer would ever accompany it with the Tax-collector's prayer for mercy. Instantly—in a deep conviction of need—he appends the supplication—Be surety for Your servant for good. The keen eye of the world may possibly not be able to affix any blot upon my outward profession; but, "if you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" The debt is continually accumulating, and the prospect of payment as distant as ever. I might well expect to be left to my oppressors, until I should pay all that was due unto my Lord. But behold! "Where is the fury of the oppressor?" The surety is found—the debt is paid—the ransom is accepted—the sinner is free! There was a voice heard in heaven, "Deliver him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom." Yes, the Son of God Himself became "surety for a stranger," and "smarted for it." At an infinite cost—the cost of His own precious blood—He delivered me from my oppressors—sin—Satan—the world—death—hell. "It was exacted: and he answered." As Judah in the place of Benjamin, he was ready to stand in my stead before his Father, "I will be surety of him: of my hand shall you require him." As Paul in the stead of Onesimus, he was ready to plead, before the same tribunal, "If he has wronged you, or owes you anything, put that on my account; I will repay it."
Let this subject be ever present to my mind. Well indeed was it for me, that Jesus did not "hate suretyship." Had He refused the vast undertaking, how could I have answered before the bar of God? Or had He undertaken only for those who loved Him, again should I have been left without a plea. But when as my surety He has brought me under His yoke, and made me His servant, I can plead with acceptance before His throne, Be surety for Your servant for good—for the good, which You know me to need—my present and eternal deliverance from my proud oppressors. And do not I need such a surety every moment? And need I be told how fully He has performed the Surety's part? So that I may boldly say, "Who is he who condemns? it is Christ that died. It is Christ that lives. There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus."
123. My eyes fail for Your salvation, and for the word of Your righteousness.
And do your eyes, tried believer, begin to fail? So did your Redeemer's before you. He, whom you have been recollecting as your Surety, when He stood in your place, burdened with the intolerable load of your sin—bearing the weighty strokes of Infinite justice upon His soul—He too was constrained to cry out, "My eyes fail, while I wait for my God." Listen, then, to your deserted Savior counseling His deserted people; "gifted with the tongue of the learned, that he should know how to speak a word in season to you that are weary" "Who is among you that fears the Lord, that obeys the voice of His servant; that walks in darkness, and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God."
That our Surety will plead for our good, doubt not. Yet "the vision is for an appointed time." "But shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them?" Salvation—a gift of such comprehensive and enduring blessing—is it not worth the waiting trial? Wonderful is that arrangement, by which the word of grace is made the word of righteousness! God has bound Himself to us by His promises of grace, which are not, Yes and no, but "Yes and amen"—under His own hand and seal. Who that has tried them, but will "set to his seal that God is true?" Cheering indeed is the thought, that, amid the incessant changes in Christian experience, our hope is unchangeably fixed. We may not indeed always enjoy it; but our salvation does not depend upon our present enjoyment of its consolation. Is not the blessing as certain—yes—is not our assurance of an interest in it as clear, when we are brought to the dust under a sense of sin, as if we were "caught up into the third heaven" in a vision of glory?
In a season of desertion, therefore, while we maintain a godly jealousy over our own hearts, let us beware of a mistrustful jealousy of God. Distrust will not cure our wound, or quicken us to prayer, or recommend us to the favor of God, or prepare us for the mercy of the Gospel. Complaining is not humility. Prayer without waiting is not faith. The path is plain as noon-day. Continue to believe as you can. Wait on the Lord. This is the act of faith, depending on Him—the act of hope, looking for Him—the act of patience, waiting His time—the act of submission, resigned even if He should not come. Like your Savior, in His "agony" of desertion, "pray more earnestly." Condemn yourself for the sins of which you are asking forgiveness. Bless Him for His past mercy, even if you should never taste it again. Can He frown you from His presence? Can He belie His promise to His waiting people? Impossible! No! while He has taken away the sensible apprehensions of His love, and in its room has kindled longing desires for the lost blessing; is not this to show Himself—if He be "verily a God that hides Himself"—yet still "the God of Israel, the Savior?" Though He delays His promise, and holds us as it were in suspense; yet He would have us know, that He has not forgotten the word of His righteousness. But this is His wise and effectual mode of trying His own gift of faith. And it is this "trial of faith"—and not faith untried—that will be "found to praise, and honor, and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ."
The full consolation of the Gospel is therefore the fruit of patient, humble waiting for the Lord, and of earnest desire, conflicting with impatience and unbelief, and at length issuing in a state of child-like submission and dependence. The man who was here expressing his longing expectation for God's salvation, was evidently, though unconsciously, in possession of the promise. Nor would he at this moment have exchanged his hope, clouded as it was to his own view, for all "the pleasures of sin," or the riches of the world. Although at this moment he appeared to be under the partial hidings of his Father's countenance, yet it is important to observe, that he was not satisfied, as an indolent professor, to "lie upon his face" in this sad condition. His "eyes failed with looking upward"—stretched up with earnest expectation to catch the first rising rays of the beaming Sun of Righteousness. He knew, what all Christians know, who walk closely with God, that his perseverance in waiting upon God, would issue in the eventual fulfillment of every desire of his heart.
But can we assuredly plead the word of His righteousness for the anticipation of the object of our desire? Have we always an express promise answering to our expectations, "putting God in remembrance" of His word? Possibly we may have been asking not "according to His will," and therefore may have "charged God foolishly," as if He had been unfaithful to His word, when no engagement had been pledged: when we had no warrant to build upon from the word of His righteousness. If, however, our petition should be found to be agreeable to His word of promise, and faith and patience hold on in submission to His will, we must not, we cannot, suppose, that one tittle that we have asked will fail. Whether the Lord deliver us or not, prayer and waiting will not be lost. It is a blessed posture for Him to find us in, such as will not fail to ensure His acceptance, even though our request should be denied. An enlivening view of the Savior is in reserve for us; and the word of righteousness will yet speak, "This is the rest, with which you may cause the weary to rest: and this is the refreshing." To every passing doubt and rising fear, oppose this word of His righteousness.
But let me bring my own heart to the test. Am I longing for the manifestation of God? Surely if I am content with what I already know, I know but very little of the unsearchable depths of the love of Christ; and I have abundant need to pray for more enlarged desires, and a more tender enjoyment of His Divine presence. If faith is not dead, yet it may have lost its conquering and quickening vigor. Let me then exercise my soul in diligent, careful, patient waiting upon God, equally removed from sloth and frowardness—and I shall yet find the truth of that consoling word of His righteousness, "Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart."
124. Deal with Your servant according unto Your mercy, and teach me Your statutes. 125. I am Your servant; give me understanding, that I may know Your testimonies.
A sense of mercy, and the privilege of Divine teaching, were the earnest of the Lord's salvation, for which the eyes of his servant were failing, and for which he was waiting in dependence upon the sure word of His righteousness. And indeed these two wants daily press upon every servant of God as matter for earnest supplication. Both are intimately connected. A deeper sense of mercy will bind us more strongly to His statutes; while a more spiritual teaching in the statutes will humble us in a sense of sin, and consequent need of mercy. As it respects the first—if there is a sinner upon the earth, who needs the special mercy of God, it is His own servant. For as the Lord sees abundantly more excellence in his feeblest desire, than in the professor's most splendid external duties; so He sees far more sinfulness and provocation in the workings of his sin, than in the palpably defective services of professors, or in the open transgression of the wicked of the earth. Let him scrutinize his motives, thoughts, and affections, even in his moments of nearest and happiest approach unto his God; and he will find such defilement cleaving to every offering, with all the aggravations of mercy, light, and knowledge, given, that the confession of his soul, when comparing himself with his fellow-sinners, will be, "Of whom I am chief." And therefore, as a servant of God, I can only come before Him upon the ground of mercy. For my best performances I need an immeasurable world of mercy—pardoning—saving—everlasting mercy; and yet by the blood of Jesus I dare to plead—Deal with Your servant according unto Your mercy.
But then I am ignorant as well as guilty; and yet I dare not pray for teaching—much and hourly as I need it, until I have afresh obtained mercy. These two blessings lead me at once to the foundation of the gospel—in the work of Christ, and the work of the Spirit—mercy flowing from the blood of the Son—teaching from the office of the Spirit. Mercy is the first blessing, not only in point of importance, but in point of order. I must know the Lord as a Savior, before I can go to Him with any confidence to be my teacher. But when once I have found acceptance for my petition—Deal with Your servant according to Your mercy—my way will be opened to enlarge my petition—yes, once and again to repeat it—Teach me Your statutes. Give me understanding, that I may know Your testimonies—that I may know with intelligent conviction; walk, yes, "run in the way of Your commandments" with "an enlarged heart." For let me never forget, that I am "redeemed from the curse" only—not from the service "of the law"—yes, redeemed from its curse, that I may be bound to its service. And does not my especial relation to my God as His servant, furnish me with a plea for His acceptance? For when this "earth is full of His mercy"—much more may I, as belonging to His house, plead for the special mercy of His teaching—His own covenant promise—so needful for His servant, who desires to know, that he may do, His will.
But if I am the Lord's servant, how did I become so? Time was (let me be ashamed and confounded at the remembrance of it) when I was engaged for another master, and in another service. But His sovereign grace called me from the dominion of sin—from the chains of Satan—from the bondage of the world, and drew me to Himself. "His I am—and Him I serve." His service is my highest privilege: His reward of grace is my glorious hope. "If any man serve Me," says my Master, "let him follow Me: and where I am, there shall also My servant be. If any man serve Me, him will My Father honor." As His servant, therefore, I cast myself with confidence upon His mercy, and expect to be dealt with according to that mercy. No—I shall be denied nothing that I "ask according to His will." For He has condescended to call me—not His servant, but "his friend"—yes more, to call himself "my brother."
Lord! You have showed me this great favor and grace, to make me Your servant. I would be Yours forever. I love Your service too well to wish to change it; yet must I mourn over my dullness, my backwardness in doing Your will, and walking in Your way. Oh! teach me Your statutes more clearly, more experimentally! Give me understanding to discern their heavenly sweetness and their holy liberty, that I may live in a more simple and devoted obedience to them, until I come to see Your face, and to be Your servant in Your heavenly temple, "no more to go out."