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The Biography of a Soul
I. They believed His words. I venture to say there is not a soul who cannot recall, at least once or twice, such hours of vivid deliverance, when God's power thrust itself into your life and made clear your path before you. It may require perhaps a certain effort on your part to remember just at once such times of Divine interposition, but they are there none the less. They come in different ways.
( a ) Perhaps it was that day when some one dearer to you than life itself was lying on the borderland of death. You just prayed with all the passion of a soul that shrank from the anguish of bereavement, that God would hear you and give you back, even for a little while, the life that seemed to be slipping from your grasp. Then the miracle took place.
( b ) Or it may be that this Divine interposition in life comes through deliverance from some great temptation.
( c ) Or it may be that God reveals Himself in a human life in saving from some great personal peril.
II. Most of us who have experienced such deliverance have written the second chapter in that spiritual biography, the chapter of praise. I do not know anything more beautiful than he who has thus come out of such a deliverance writing in his deeds of love and charity his record of gratitude.
III. But then comes the other side of all this, the story of forgetfulness and indifference. They believed His words, then sang His praise, but they soon forgot Him. Literally, they made haste to forget Him. The vividness of their faith was obliterated by the suddenness of their indifference.
IV. Forgetfulness passed by a natural stage into apostasy. When the psalm of gratitude ceased, the discord of sin began. The soul must feed on something. It craved other food. Its passions demanded other sustenance. So inevitably sin creates an unnatural and unsatisfied appetite. It begins by making us forget God and it ends by making us crave for that which makes the very thought of God distasteful. So the tragic schism between the soul and its Maker is rendered complete.
D. S. Mackay, The Religion of the Threshold, p. 310.
Reference. CVI. 15. R. M. Benson, Redemption, p. 30.
Man's Rejection of God
Whatever diversity of opinion upon the sacred significance of life may be represented in this congregation, there is at least one thing upon which all serious-minded souls will agree, and that is, that there is nothing more important in the moral order than man's acceptance or rejection of God.
I. Causes of Man's Rejection of God. In the Bible there are many causes for man's rejection of God.
( a ) Dissatisfaction with the Invisible. The first of these seems to be the incapacity of man to rest satisfied with the invisible. He doubts the invisible. It does not seem to satisfy him, and he ever and anon looks about him in the world for some object upon which he can fasten the marvellously mixed emotions of his nature and at the same time satisfy the inquisitiveness of his reason. Hence it was that in early days when Moses, the man of God, was in the mount with the Father of us all, receiving from Him a revelation, the privileged people were dissatisfied with his absence and with that which the absence represented; they longed for the visible. They thought that the visible was the real.
( b ) Evil Associations. But this is not at all the only reason. We come down the stream of Hebrew history. We pass through the judicial period, through the monarchical period, and we come to the golden age of the Old Hebrew monarchy, to Solomon in his splendour, in all his Oriental magnificence. He has been warned of God against the peril of evil associates. He became associated with heathen women, and his heart strayed from God Who made him what he was. And thus we are enabled to see that evil associates, forbidden by God and known to men, will come between God and man and will produce the same result in the moral order that is produced by man's impatience with a religion that has in its centre the invisible.
( c ) Thinking Scorn of Religion. But in our text you have not to do with either of these. Here the cause that leads to separation between man and God is in the field of fancy. It is in the realm of the imagination. 'They thought scorn of that pleasant land.' The children of Israel wondered why they had been brought up from Egypt. Their insurrection took the practical form of trying to stone Moses. And the cause of this was that not one of them knew anything about the land. They refused the evidence, and they were in a state of open hostility to God their Father. They thought scorn of the land, and the consequence of this 'thinking scorn' is that they 'gave no credence' to the word of Moses. The word of Moses was the Word of God, and therefore the rejection of the message of Moses was the rejection of the Word of God. They thought scorn; and then they appear to have lost the capacity even to believe rightly about Divine things.
II. An Everyday Experience. That spirit is not quite extinct. There is a large number of persons who first think scorn of religion and then become not only disobedient to God's Word, but apparently they lose the power to grasp the weight of its increasing evidence. To bring this subject up to everyday life, we do not say that God gives us a land flowing with milk and honey, we do not adorn this land with all the fertility with which God was pleased to stimulate the spiritual life of the Israelitish nation. But we have our Canaan. What Canaan was to the Israelites Christ is to us, Christ in all the majesty of His Person, Christ in all the potentiality of His office, Christ in all the catholicity of His love, Christ in all His unchanging, undying sympathy with suffering humanity.
III. Factors in Coming to Christ. But in our invitations to men to come to our Canaan, that is, to Christ, there are three factors that must not be omitted:
( a ) A Sense of Sin. The first of these is sin. Let men be as optimistic as they may about the advancement of education, about the spread of order, sin cannot be excluded from the body politic nor from the individual nor from the race. It is as certain as that there is blood in the body, that penetrating and inter-penetrating the moral nature of man there is the awful reality that God calls sin. For that God has been pleased to provide a great remedy. It is pardon, and this pardon is given through Christ. Society cannot pardon sin. Society can punish. It is only Christ Who has the power to say 'Go, and sin no more'.
( b ) Repentance. The second factor in our message is repentance. Man needs this if he desires to have perpetual affinity and association with God. A bad, unpardoned soul in heaven would make it hell. There must be affinity between those who dwell together, and the only way in which this affinity can be ours is announced to us by Him Who has made it absolutely certain, that is, Christ. He gives us His righteousness, and when we are in Christ God beholds us as in Him. We are one with His righteousness.
( c ) Power. And there is the third great factor that we may not be without. I need not only that my sins be forgiven, I want power to resist sin. I want freedom, and freedom consists in the power to master sin that will otherwise master me. Why do men commit sin at all? Because sin is stronger than man. Christ makes man stronger than his sin. Young men, carry away that sentence with you, love it, translate it into the moral rhetoric of your everyday life, and when you are tempted again, remember that Christ makes you stronger than your sin.
IV. What is our Response? What is our response to the appeal? Is there nobody here who thinks 'scorn of the pleasant land,' and then gives 'no credence 'to the Word of God Almighty? Is there no one who thinks scorn? Why, there are crowds of men who gather their ideas of religion not from their Bible, not from the character of people who love the Bible and God, but from some caustic publication or novel that seems to make light of truths that God holds dear, and of religion by which we are to live and without which we dare not die. You think scorn of the pleasant land and of those who think anything of it. No, you will say, that is hard, that is uncharitable we do not think scorn, but we will act scorn. God expects every soul baptized into the Church and who rejoices in the association with Christ, to work and to labour. He has purchased to Himself 'a peculiar people, zealous of good works'. How many here are addicted to any form of moral work? Spiritual levity precedes spiritual unbelief, and spiritual unbelief means spiritual sterility. The man that is frivolous about religion will soon disbelieve it, and the man who disbelieves will not only not aid God's work but will hinder it. All this is very serious and sorrowful. Now what are we to do? The first thing, I say, and especially to the young, is this: In all my reading I have never yet read of one experience, and that is that any soul who gave himself to Christ ever regretted having done so. You will never find a nobler religion than the one presented to you. Whoever discovered a better? Frivolity is such a peril to the English nation at the present time. Who would have his spirit tossed upon the torrent of the stream and in the end find himself without possibility of returning, without capacity to believe? There are dangers in the world of the imagination, dangers in the world of fancy, dangers which God has immortalized for our learning in these well-known words 'They thought scorn of that pleasant land, and gave no credence unto His word'.
The Pleasant Land
This Psalm was written when Israel had a long history stretching far back into the past. The particular episode brought before us in these verses is the refusal of the children of Israel to advance and take possession of the Promised Land. There is one parallel which is frequently drawn between ourselves and the ancient Israelites. Canaan was to the Israelites what heaven is to us.
I. There is a Pleasant Land nearer to us than that which is divided from us by death. A Pleasant Land which we might possess now if we had the courage and made the necessary effort. Much that is meant to be ours now we push from us, and locate somewhere in the afterlife. The Christians of the Dispersion really knew something of the 'joy unspeakable and full of glory'. We find Wesley testifying to what he had seen men, women, and children saved from sin, and filled with warm, holy feelings. Christian experience has been shared by many who had no genius of any kind.
II. Let us be real then, and ask ourselves what efforts were necessary to enter this Pleasant Land.
( a ) Inwardly we should have to overcome our sins, our sinful ways of thinking or speaking, our sloth, despondency from past failures, the deadening weight of routine, acquiescence in what we are.
( b ) Outwardly, too, we have our difficulties. Some may fear social coolness, ridicule heard or suspected. We have often heard exhortations to greater earnest. ness, and have approved. Has not our habitual sloth interposed between the approving judgment and the will to do? As Israel murmured 'in the tents' so we excuse our sloth by what we are and have been.
III. But besides our contempt of the Pleasant Land of Christian experience another reason for our failure is unbelief. Such unbelief is fashionable. When Christianity was young Christian joy and exultation were then real things. But in these later ages our religion is a sober thing, and it is well if we attain peace. All the spiritual experiences of the New Testament, then, are real, and are possible now. What is begun here is perfected there.
P. J. Maclagan, The Gospel View of Things, p. 23.
How often does the word 'inventions' occur in the holy record? It seems quite a modern word, but in reality what is there that is modern? The whole text reads: 'Thus' as a thing done over and over again 'Thus they provoked Him to anger with their inventions,' their tricks, their small novelties, their empty and futile devices. We do not make any graven images now; still we may be credited with inventions, as we shall presently see. What are these inventions, under what name soever they may flourish amongst us? They are attempts to do without God, to put substitutes instead of the living Father, to displace the spiritual and ineffable by something that we can see and handle.
I. What are these inventions? They are attempts to supplement God. The Israelites did not wish to dethrone Jehovah. It would have struck them as a very curious suggestion if you had charged them with a desire to get rid of God; they would have replied that they had no such desire or intention, but they would endeavour to supplement the majesty of the Eternal; something that was nearer to their own hands they would like to be able to approach. It is so difficult to take in eternity, it was never fitted to the human nostril; and so difficult to take in infinity, it was never shaped and adapted to the human eye. So they would have something supplemental, something subsidiary, something of the nature of a deputized Jehovah. They, poor innocent creatures, did not want to unseat the King, they wanted to have some kinglings to whom they could talk in a way more or less familiar. These were part of the 'inventions' of old Israel.
II. What has been the opinion of God about all these inventions? That opinion is given in the text 'They provoked Him to anger with their inventions: and the plague brake in upon them'. God has cleansing days, great ventilating shafts which He opens now and then in the cumbrous process of all this human evolution; so He calls in the plague, and says: 'They are past entreaty, pray for them no more, let the plague go'. And then we wonder where the plague came from, and what we have done to provoke this uproar and upset of the ordinary commonplaces of life. There is always a moral reason even behind an earthquake.
III. Now 'their inventions' sometimes take curious forms and expressions as lots, coincidences, omens. Sometimes we have given way to these tricky and apparently innocent temptations. An omen! I heard a voice, I heard no words, but I heard a voice, and it seemed to be a calling, an inviting, seductive voice; something I am sure is going to happen, because the omen was so distinct and so delightful and impressive. 'Man was made upright, but he sought out many inventions.' We are led away from simplicity; we are led away from restful truths. We tempt God.
IV. What is God's view of all such invention? We have that view in the text, and in Psalms 99:8 we have 'Thou tookest vengeance of their inventions'. He wrung their necks, and dashed them to the dust; He has swept out all these god-houses and invention-museums and ground them to powder, and He will do so again, and all your lots and omens and coincidences and shadows and table-rappings and table-turnings and all your miserable inventions, which are lies from the beginning to the end, because they spring out of a lie. The Apostle in Romans 1:30 says, 'They are inventors of evil things'. Good things do not need in venting; evil things suggest themselves for incarnation and expression, and the evil things sometimes have falsehood enough in them to say, If you embody us, if you incarnate us, you will do a world of good by showing what evil really is if properly interpreted. You know the old fable in the writings of Erasmus in which the tempted man asks for a dark place, for a more hidden place, and when he gets to the place which he cannot get beyond he says to the woman-devil, Can God see us here? That one question was like a lightning flash that cut the darkness in pieces and made midnight brilliant as noonday. We cannot bury ourselves out of God's sight; He is as familiar with the bottomless pit as with the immeasurable heights of heaven.
Then whence is the cleansing? There is only one answer to that inquiry. Only one power can cleanse the heart and bring us back to holiness, simplicity, and real sonship in the household of God. All this has to come out of us by blood, by the precious blood, by the redeeming, atoning, priestly blood of the Son of God.
Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. v. p. 136.
References. CVI. 45. L. E. Shelford, The Church of the People, p. 128. CVI. 48. J. Percival, Some Helps for School Life, p. 177. CVI. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 339. CVII. 9. W. G. Rutherford, The Key of Knowledge, p. 256. CVII. 14. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. iii. p. 149. CVII. 17-20. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxi. No. 1824. CVII. 19. E. A. Askew, Sermons Preached in Greystoke Church, p. 42. CVII. 21. J. Baldwin Brown, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi. pp. 312, 375. CVII. 23. S. Gregory, How to Steer a Ship, p. 91.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 106". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany