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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Psalms 21

Verses 1-13

Prevenient Grace

Psalms 21:2-19.21.3

This Psalm is a battle song, a thanksgiving after the battle. It is full of the glow of triumph, the exultation of victory.

I. There has been a change of meaning in the word prevent since our English translation; or rather, as so often happens in the history of words, the meaning has taken on a different colour. 'Prevent' means simply to go before, and in the sense of our text meant to go before in order to help, to clear the way of difficulties, to anticipate, and prepare for the person following. There is in theology a term, still used, prevenient grace, meaning the grace which acts on a sinner before repentance inducing him to repent, the grace by which he attains faith and receives power to will the good. But we must not limit God's prevenient grace to the act of repentance, to the steps which lead up to the consciousness of sonship with God. When we do awaken to that consciousness we will, like the Psalmist, look back and see how God has been in the past leading, guiding, guarding, shepherding us, preventing, going before us with the blessings of goodness. We can point to this place and to that in our life's history where we have been kept from wrong by being kept from the opportunity. What we in blindness called hindering has been really helping.

II. Faith is of a piece. It believes about the future what it believes about the past; for God to it is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. We cannot live by faith now, and look forward to the fruition of faith in the days to come, unless we also interpret the past by faith. God's dealings with us are consistent. There is no break in His providence. His grace is not intermittent. It is prevenient, as well as present. Our future may be obscure; we may not be able to see very far ahead a clear path for our feet; but we know already what it is to walk by faith when sight has failed us. Difficulties may even at this moment loom before us; but there have often been difficulties in our lives which when we went up to them vanished as if some one had gone before us and cleared the way, like the women who went on their loving errand to the sepulchre of their Master very early in the morning, with sinking hearts, saying in despair: 'Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked they saw that the stone was rolled away.' We expected to be stopped, as the women did, by some insurmountable obstacle; but when we came up to it we saw our way past, and even when it seemed to block the way utterly we were enabled to make it a stepping-stone to higher things.

III. Even the valley of the shadow of death cannot bring evil. The love which illuminated all the day of life to us shall make our bed in dying, and in the eventide it shall also be light. Prevenient grace will not cease at death. Our faith fails not even here, and tells us that God goes before us with the blessings of goodness. 'I go,' said the Master, 'to prepare a place for you.' The forethought of love can never be exhausted. Our place has ever been prepared for us, and ever shall be. He has prepared our place for us at His Table. The broken bread and the poured out wine are symbols of that love in its culmination, tokens of the deathless love of God in Christ Jesus.

Hugh Black, Christ's Service of Love, p. 209.

Prevenient Goodness

Psalms 21:3

The word 'prevent' here is used in a different sense from that which it now bears. It has no suggestion of hindering about it; it means to anticipate or go before. 'Thou preventest him with the blessings of goodness' thou goest on ahead thou art in front. When the king reaches such and such an hour, he will discover that it has been prepared for. It is that assurance of a foreseeing power, of a footstep and a figure on ahead, which quieted and cheered the Psalmist's soul, and helped him to be brave against the morrow. The Psalmist knew that Jehovah was behind him, in the subtle interweavings of the past. He knew that God was with him in the present, invisible, yet nearer than his breathing. But he knew also, and there were times for him when the thought was inexpressibly refreshing, that the path he should have to tread tomorrow was being shaped by hands Divine today. God is not only with us as we journey. God is on before us as we journey. First, we shall look at the beginning of life; next, at the progress of life; and lastly, at the end of life.

I. Think, then, of the beginnings of life, and of the state of things which then awaited us.

1. And first remember how when we were born we came into a world that was prepared. 'Thou hast formed the world to be inhabited' is one of the deep sayings of the prophets. For whatever ends the world has been created, it has been fashioned upon the lines of man. It has been decked in beauty for the human eye; covered with sustenance for the human frame; stored with energies that would have slept unused, but for the large intelligence of man. Nature has been getting ready for millenniums, since she awoke from the primeval chaos; and in her depths, and on her hills of pasturage, has been preparing for this very hour.

2. Again, let us bear this in mind, that we were born into a society that was prepared. Life perishes without a right environment, and an environment contains a thousand yesterdays. Thou goest before us with the blessings of goodness. We are all aristocrats and born into a heritage. We struggle through broken efforts into speech, and the speech of a little child is always wonderful. And yet the Celt is in it, and the Saxon, and the pride and chivalry of Norman conquerors, and it has been shaping for a thousand years that it might be ready for the child today.

3. And more than that, is it not also true that we were born into a home that was prepared? God has not only been busy in the world; God has also been busy in the home. Sometimes there comes a visitor to see us of whose coming we had no anticipation. He has been long abroad and for years we have not seen him, until one day he is standing at our door. But it is not thus that into Christian homes there come the joy and mystery of childhood. The child is born in a prepared place, and love has been very busy with its welcome. Thou goest before us with the blessings of goodness. Thou touchest hearts to fatherhood and motherhood. Thou givest to the little helpless child the sign and seal of sacramental baptism. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is there, and the memory of His love for little ones, and the cleansing of blood that was poured out in ransom, not yesterday, but long centuries ago.

II. In the second place, think of the progress of life as we advance in it from stage to stage. God is not only behind us in our memories, God is also before us in the way.

1. Think, for example, of the surprise of life its unexpected and unlooked-for element. There is not a life so dull and commonplace but has had ample experience of that. Our joys surprise us like birds upon the wing, flashing upon us suddenly and strangely.

2. Or think again of the cravings of our life; those longings that beset us as we journey. Our life is measured not by what we win: our life is measured by the thing we strive for. As a man deepens so his longings deepen, till they reach to the infinite and the eternal. And the strange thing is, that as these cravings alter, and rise from the transient to the enduring, so God is ever there before us, with His prepared answer to our quest.

III. Does not this thought illuminate the close of life? Thou goest before us into the dark valley. 'I go to prepare a place for you,' said Christ Whatever hell be, it is not man's environment. It was prepared for the devil and his angels. Whatever heaven be, it is man's native place, prepared for him from the foundation of the world. And then within that kingdom, all made ready, there is to be the individual touch I go to prepare a place for you.

G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, p. 143.

The Prevenient Goodness of the Lord

Psalms 21:3

The wonderful way in which God is beforehand with men always.

I. Let us remember how obvious it is with regard to our first appearance in this world at all. Before you put your tender cutting into the ground you are careful to prepare a fitting soil that it may take root readily. And before He plants His children in this world the Heavenly Husbandman is at singular pains to secure that the place they are to occupy be in rich readiness and favourable for their bearing the fruit he looks for from their lives.

( a ) That at least among ourselves is the rule. It is true there are exceptions or what must seem to us to be so. There are children born into the world for whom you would say little preparation had been made by any one. Is God beforehand with them with the blessings of goodness. One thing is certain; that He has the strangest ways of blending His mercy even with the most untoward environment.

( b ) There can hardly, I should think, be any one here but will find upon reflection how wonderfully his place in the world was prepared for him before he came to occupy it. Who is it that says that if you are to give a child a good education you must begin a hundred years before he is born? All down the generations the lot we should in due time stand in has been growing more goodly and favourable. Richly significant as such preparation for their arrival here may be, its influence nevertheless must be largely lost on men but for a further preparation made in the sphere that lies closer about them still. To have first drawn breath then, in a truly Christian home is to have been born to an inheritance which not all the world's wealth could buy.

( c ) All this prevenient lovingkindness of God was expressed towards us in our baptism. For baptism is the seal of our lineage, and signifies that we come of the elect stock.

II. All through life the same truth holds how not merely at the beginning but from stage to stage thereafter God is beforehand with men. Take an illustration or two; for example: ( a ) The great joys of life. As a rule these are not of a man's own working. They arrive we know not whence or how. And what does this mean but just that the Divine lovingkindness had prepared for us such mercy, and then at the fitting moment laid it bare.

( b ) The great sorrows and trials of life. If not at the time then later men and women become aware of the Divine purpose that was in their loss and pain. It is not given to all God's children while presently under discipline to recognize the meaning and the mercy of it; but when they have emerged it is.

( c ) Or, once more, take temptation, that constant element in our lives. But with the temptation there is always a strength available for the bearing of it, which if we seize and are not overborne by it, nothing but good is the issue. It teaches faith. It teaches to pray.

III. Finally observe how the truth we are dealing with, and which is realized so unbrokenly through life, holds good to the end.

( a ) Life of course does wear to a close, and not all men are able to ignore it. Some are even haunted by the thought. What those who though believers must lay to heart is that their dying also, as well as everything else in their history, has been long ago provided for.

( b ) As for what they find upon the other side what shall we say of it? It is upon no barren shore that they step forth, but upon a better country, and one where they are looked for. Our Lord says a great word about it when He bids the faithful look to be bidden welcome to a kingdom 'prepared' for them 'from the foundations of the world'.

( c ) It would seem that a more special provision of His mercy still is made for His children in the world to come, for He Who came from thence and went thither again has gone 'to prepare a place for them' that is, surely, a place of His own for each. We may believe that whatever our appointed place hereafter may be, it will not be so strange and unfamiliar as we are apt to think.

A. Martin Winning the Soul, p. 199.

The Ministry of Surprise

Psalms 21:3

The element of surprise in the handiwork of God.

I. In nature. We talk of the uniformity of nature, and it is wonderful with what a steady march the days and seasons keep their appointed course: 'While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and heat and cold, and summer and winter, shall not fail'. Now you would think it would be a dull dead world where everything was so uniform as that. Well I believe it is that dread monotony that God averts by His strange and beautiful method of surprise. I may have watched the coming of a score of springtimes; but when the next spring comes, with its throat of music and its cloak of green, it is all so fresh and wonderful to me as if there had never been a spring before. The glad surprise of every dawn and May day, in the teeth of iron and inexorable law, speaks better than a hundred arguments, of the presence of an immanent Creator.

II. The element of surprise, too, is found in human character. In our most commonplace neighbour there is something that in a twinkling upsets our calculations. We thought we knew our neighbour perfectly. But suddenly he is forced by opportunity, or a staggering blow falls, or a great crisis comes, and there flash upon the man such gleams of heroism, such dauntless resource, such noble fortitude, that our old estimates go by the board at once. There were deeps in him that we had never dreamed of.

III. This feature of surprise, again, has a large place in God's providential dealings, so large that we all know the maxim of a shrewd observer: it is the unexpected that happens. We read about the call of David. We read of Samuel in the house of Jesse. And when Eliab came big, brave, and handsome, Eliab the first-born, every inch a king Samuel was certain this was Saul's successor. But God was as certain Eliab was not His king was out on the hills with the sheep that morning. A minister gets home from his pulpit of a night, and sits down and says, 'I have done well today,' and in the judgment of heaven it may have all been failure. And another Sabbath his heart is sick: no one is listening: he failed; and souls will bless God to all eternity that they were touched and kindled by that message. It is God's surprise in providential dealing.

IV. But I think it is in the life of Jesus Christ that the method of surprise comes to its Crown. Is there no surprise that the cradle was a manger? Is it not surprising that the King of Life should have been slain by cruel hands upon the Cross? We do not feel the marvel of it, because it is all familiar in our ears as household words. Did it come new to us, and freshly as the dawn, and find us unsophisticated, childlike, we should begin to marvel at it more.

G. H. Morrison, Flood-Tide, p. 252.

References. XXI. 3. S. Martin, Westminster Chapel Pulpit (1st Series), No. 2. J. E. Vaux, Sermon Notes (4th Series), p. 62. Preacher's Monthly, vol. v. p. 15. XXI. I. Williams, The Psalms Interpreted of Christ, p. 380. XXII. 1. J. Pulsford, Our Deathless Hope, p. 92. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 106. XXII. 1-5. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 373. XXII. 2. S. Home, The Soul's Awakening, p. 131. XXII. 6-13. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 380. XXII. 7. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 105. XXII. 9, 10. J. Keble, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, p. 139. XXII. 11. H. P. Liddon, Old Testament Outlines, p. 104. XXII. 14. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 103. XXII. 14-18. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 387. XXII. 15. Preacher's Monthly, vol. vii. p. 378. XXII. 16. C. G. Clark-Hunt, The Refuge of the Sacred Wounds, p. 35. XXII. 19. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 394. XXII. 21. H. Windross, The Life Victorious, p. 46. XXII. 22, 23. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiv. No. 799. XXII. 26. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1312. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 134.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 21". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/psalms-21.html. 1910.