A Sorrowful Inquiry

James Smith

"Why do You hide Your face from me?"
Psalm 88:14

This psalm is full of deep and painful experience. None can understand its true spiritual meaning, but souls deeply taught of God. It is supposed to refer to a very painful passage in Israel's history, even the oppression of Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. It just meets the case of those who are left to sigh and suffer for a time in darkness, bondage, and unbelief. Such may find a companion here. One with whom they may have fellowship. One who utters sigh for sigh, groan for groan.

But we are about to look at one cause of complaint. The Lord had hidden his face. The Scriptures often clothe the Divine majesty with our parts and passions, to convey instruction to our minds, and make impression upon our hearts. God is a spirit--but God is also a Father, our Father: and, as such, speaks to us of himself in terms and by figures which we can understand.

The face of God being towards us, or God's smiling on us, sometimes refers to providence, sometimes to grace, and sometimes to both. We take it here as referring to his dealings with us in grace. To turn the face to us implies three things:

First, attention: When God looks--he listens; he looks kindly while he listens attentively. But sometimes he appears to disregard us; we call upon him, we plead with him, we spread our cases before him, we present our petitions to him; but, there is no sense of his presence, no proof of his attention, no evidence of his regard. Praying is like speaking to the wall. Our utterances seem to rebound, and come back upon us. There is no access into his presence, no liberty at his throne, no freedom at his mercy-seat.

Secondly, approbation: When we approve, we look upon the person, and the countenance is clothed with a smile. So the Lord sometimes seems sensibly to smile upon us. We have an inward sense of his approbation. We feel that he is at peace with us. We are satisfied that he loves us. We can be free before him. "Perfect love casts out fear." But, at other times, there is no smile. No sense of the presence or approbation of God. A painful distance is felt. The soul is straitened. The spirit is dry. Faith becomes feeble. Hope falters. A gloom spreads over the soul. Like the earth, when the sun is beclouded, a deep shadow settles over the whole of the inner man. The face of our God is hidden, a sense of his approbation is withheld.

Thirdly, communication: When we converse with a person, we turn the face to, and look at that person. So the Lord sometimes comes to hold converse with his people. He turns his face to them, and communes with them. He reveals no new truths, for all he has to say to us is in his written word. Scripture is brought before the mind. It just suits the case. It is accompanied with light and unction, so that we see its meaning and its beauty, and our hearts are sweetly softened by it. It is "like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest." Then we feel it to be the word of God, indeed. We need no other proof of its inspiration. We have the witness in ourselves. But when the Lord hides his face, there are no divine communications. There is no life, savor, or unction in the word. We read, we pray, we hear the gospel, our understandings approve--but our hearts are void, waste, and dissatisfied. Unless the Lord unveil his face to us, or turn and look upon us, we have no inward sense of Divine attention or approbation, nor are any soul-satisfying communications made to us. Like the affectionate child, we are troubled if our Father hides his face from us.

"Why do You hide Your face from me?" We do not always know the cause--but there is one. We are sure to be happy if our souls are at all in a healthy state. We are filled with ardent longing to know the reason and to see his face again. Three CAUSES may be assigned for his hiding his face from us.

First, he is grieved with us. We have by our spirit or conduct grieved his loving heart. He feels our sins. He acutely feels our ingratitude. When his mercies are not prized, when his ordinances are slighted, when his book lies unopened, when his throne is neglected, or our prayers and praises are dry, formal, and customary, he is grieved with us. It once "repented the Lord that he had made man upon the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." It never repents him that he has made us his children--but it grieves him when we act so unworthy of the honor, and so basely repay his love.

Second, he intends to quicken us. We have, perhaps, got dull and heavy. The sunbeams have made us sleepy. Like the spouse, we have washed our feet, put off our armor, and laid down for a nap (Song 5:1, 8). Now the Lord withdraws, or hides his face, he is displeased with us—and he intends to quicken us. He gives us intimation of his withdrawal. We soon feel that we are alone. We want to hold fellowship with him--but he is gone. Now the soul begins to rouse, and shake itself from the dust. Regret, sorrow, grief, disquietude, anxiety, fear, doubt, and self-condemnation begin to work. The heart is wounded. The soul is restless. The conscience accuses. Memory presents the picture of former happy days, and we "remember God, and are troubled; we complain, and our spirit is overwhelmed."

Thirdly, he means to deepen his work in us. As the tree in winter strikes its roots downward, and takes a firmer grasp of the soil, so the work of God within us deepens often when the Lord hides his face from us. We pay more attention to the work of the Blessed Comforter within. We sow to the Spirit. Hope feels for the rock, and will make sure that the anchor has hold on it. Faith grasps the promise more firmly, and looks to Jesus more simply and entirely. Humility lays the soul deeper in the dust than ever. Penitence opens afresh the wounds of the broken heart, and mourns. Love sighs, sobs, and searches for the Beloved One. Submission bows the head, and owns that God is righteous. Joy is clothed in sack-cloth. Peace, like the bulbous plant in winter, is hidden deep in the heart. Patience, with meek eye and mild countenance, says, "I will wait for the Lord, who hides himself from the house of Israel, and I will look for him." The whole of the inner man is roused to action, gathers strength, and is improved by exercise.

Thus the Lord at times deepens his work, and makes the soul more susceptible of Divine impressions, more zealous in God's cause, more jealous of itself and fearful of grieving its heavenly Father; more watchful against sin, Satan, and the world. No settling upon the lees now. No sinking into Laodicean lukewarmness now. The soul "thirsts for God, for the living God!" and cries out with feeling and with fervor, "When shall I come, and appear before God." The prayer that ascends to the throne now is, "Cause your face to shine upon your servant, O save me, for your mercy sake."

Reader, do you know anything of this experience? All true Christians do more or less--but only Christians do. There are hundreds of professors who are total strangers to everything of the sort. It is not our province to condemn them--but we would be very sorry to be found in their case.

In the light of the Lord's countenance "there is life, and his favor is like the dew upon the grass;" or "like a cloud of the latter rain." It satisfies, quickens, refreshes, strengthens, and causes us to grow. If the Lord hides his face, "we are troubled." In prayer, we must have attention. In the holy place, we want the inward sense of his approbation. In ordinances, we want Divine communications. If there is no oil from the olive-tree, if there is no rain from the clouds, if there is no light and heat from the sun, or, without a figure, if there is no fellowship and communion with God in duties and in privileges--we are, we must be, dissatisfied, restless, and enquiring. The soul will be sure to cry out, "Lord, why do you cast off my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me?" O to enjoy more of the light of the Lord's countenance!