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The Book of Ruth
These words express in the shortest possible compass the main lesson of the book of Ruth. It is rather a matter for rejoicing that the lovely pastoral, in which Ruth the Moabitess is the principal figure, forms no part of the record of that anarchic and sanguinary era, so that we take it up as an independent whole, complete in itself. Coming to it, indeed, after the violence and disorder of which the book of Judges is full, is like passing from scenes of battle and carnage to a quiet and peaceful landscape with its homely cottages and waving cornfields. How pathetic, for example, are the unstudied phrases that paint for us the desolation of the childless Naomi!
I. Yet the story of Ruth is not altogether a sad one. The closing scene comes as a cheerful contrast to the pathetic beginning; while, quite apart from this, we get a glimpse of the deeper compensations that enable us in some degree to justify the ways of God to man. Take, for example, the doctrine of a Divine Providence bringing good out of evil, and guiding human lives to unforeseen issues. I do not mean to say that this doctrine is clearly set forth in the book of Ruth; it teaches us, as life itself does, indirectly, by signs and tokens that are clear enough to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And the lesson taught in this indirect way is, surely, that God is the Protector of all that trust in Him. Our lives are not random things the sport of cruel accident. There is a clue to them; and the clue is in the hands of One who, being infinitely wise and merciful, has ordained this world as a scene of discipline and preparation.
II. Your lot in life, whoever you are, may be humble; you think it insignificant. You can do nothing for God. But ask yourself, can God do nothing in and through you? God's voice in this book says to you, 'Don't creep away into the cavern of your own private cares and griefs and hide yourself there; don't settle down into a life of moaning and sighing and querulous regrets. Come out of yourself; come out into the world all groaning and travailing in pain, and see whether Divine grace cannot help you to be a blessing and a consolation to others.'
III. But the picture is not complete yet. Ruth was not a daughter of Israel. She was an alien, a heathen, one of a race hated and despised by the chosen people. The old law said, 'An Ammorite or a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation'. But no law of God's making is levelled against truth or goodness; and in the great congregation of worshippers of the one true God, they who 'do justly and love mercy' are there by Divine right. What a rebuke there is here to our narrow formulas of race and creed and terms of communion.
IV. But what does the Bible answer to the sneer, 'Can any good thing come out of Nazareth'. It is 'Come and see'. So the bigot who fancies that his own particular Church or sect is a land of Goshen where alone, amid the surrounding darkness, the true light shines; to the cynical pessimist who goes about with a lantern looking for an honest man, the same answer is given. Call the story of Ruth idyllic if you like. I refuse to believe that it is exceptional. In this harsh world such lives are led, such deeds are done. The Bible story does but lay bare a vein of tender true-heartedness that not in one place only, but in places innumerable, runs underneath the selfishness and the pretentiousness of our modern life.
V. One more last word. The book of Ruth is a domestic story. Its moral for Christians is the consecration of the Christian idea of the home. When the Son of God took upon Him our flesh He revealed the sacredness of human life. He took up the institution of the family into the Divine order, and so hallowed it for ever. It is God who sets the solitary in families; and His sacred purpose is that, through the homely bonds of human fellowship, which link human beings together, they should learn to see and to strengthen the invisible bonds that bind us all to our Father who is in heaven. Surely it is worth our while to try to realize God's idea of home and kindred and the ties that unite those who live together and share the same lot.
J. W. Shepard, Light and Life, p. 114.
References. LXVI1I. 6. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 58. C. J. Ridgeway, The King and His Kingdom, p. 20. LXVIII. 10. H. Melvill, Sermons, vol. i. p. 175. Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 345. LXVIII. 11, 12. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iv. p. 9. LXVIII. 12. Bishop Woodford, Occasional Sermons, vol. i. p. 210. Practical Sermons, vol. ii. p. 312.
The Silver Wings of the Dove
This Psalm is a hymn of glorious triumph. It was probably composed for and used on an occasion of great national thanksgiving in the history of the children of Israel. Throughout the whole of it, it is a most soul-stirring poem to anyone who has a soul to be stirred. Every verse of it breathes of victory on the battlefield, and triumph, and thankful hearts rejoicing. The central thought of this particular verse is clearly a contrast between some kind of humiliation on the one hand, referred to by the lying among the pots; some kind of exaltation on the other, referred to by the expression, 'having the wings of a dove: that is covered with silver wings, and her feathers like gold'. That is clearly the central thought, but the figure in which the thought is conveyed has proved to almost every one who has tried to interpret it a most perplexing problem. Dr. Thomson, the celebrated Eastern traveller, who in his day, not so very distant or remote, knew more of the manners and customs of Oriental countries than perhaps any other living person, acknowledged himself in his book to be absolutely nonplussed and completely unable to discover any connexion of a reasonable kind or character between these two figures. Some years ago, however, Miss Whately, a daughter of the great Archbishop of Dublin, was travelling in Egypt, and she noticed something which she thought might perhaps have suggested this figure to the Psalmist, and in her most deeply interesting book, entitled Ragged Life in Egypt, describes what she saw. She says, speaking of the flat roofs of the houses in Egypt, that in the houses of the very poor these flat roofs were usually in a state of the greatest filth, from the fact that they were made the convenient receptacles of the rubbish of the house. She says these places, both for their warmth at night and their shade and shelter by day, are the resort of tame pigeons and doves who sleep there in the heat of the day. In the cool of the evening, however, these doves emerge from behind the rubbish, and pots and broken earthenware, and, shaking off the dirt and dust, in the midst of which they have spent their happy day, fly upwards. Their outstretched wings as they catch the evening sun look as clear and as bright as silver as if they had never been in contact with dirt or dust at all. She says that when she saw that, which she did so often, she at once thought it might be that which gave the Psalmist the idea of lying amongst the pots, dirty, dusty, and defiled, and yet having the wings of a dove, without any dust or dirt, and with no defilement, and shining like silver and gold. If so, what a picture of the possibility of our Christian life! You see the believer living in the world but not of it, surrounded on every side by contamination and degrading influences, but untouched by any, living and moving amongst that which hurts and seems as if it must hurt, and spoils, and seems as if it must spoil, and damages, and seems as if it must damage the Christian life; but for all that the Christian life is not hurt, not spoiled, not damaged, not defiled. A dove often has to hide itself, and a tame pigeon often has to hide itself in an unlovely retreat, and yet when it darts out it shines in the glorious sunlight in unsullied beauty. If that is the Psalmist's meaning, how easy to apply it to our hearts and minds to-night!
I. The Christian and his Surroundings. If a man is a true Christian he may as well maintain, if he wants to maintain, in the midst of the most unfavourable surroundings in which it is possible for his life to be cast, a distinctly lovely, loyal, and holy Christian life. Many Christians have their lot in life amongst surroundings which, so far from being helpful to the development of Christian character, are distinctly unpropitious and adverse to it. The point is this these surroundings, if we have the Christian heart and the Christian will, and the Christian grace, need not destroy the Christian life. Though you may have lien among the pots in the shop, or the wharf, or the works, or the school, or the kitchen, or the warehouse, in the most uncongenial and unpromising business you can possibly think of, you may have, if you want to have that is the point a soul as clear as the dove's wing.
II. Living in the Sunlight. It is in the sunlight that the wings of the dove show a silver and golden colour; in no other light. It is only in the transfiguring presence of the Lord Jesus Christ that the believer can shine, living with Him in daily life, living always in His presence, and never leaving it.
The Ascent of the Soul
Psalms 68:13 (Prayer book Version).
Go where we will the pestilential vapour of sin is ever with us. But like the doves in the sunlight we may rise above our surroundings, and our wings even give forth a glittering effulgence. Now, there are certain common pictures which assist in the soul's uplifting, without which, indeed, it must remain a dead weight in the body.
I. The first is that man's soul should feel after God and know Him as He has revealed Himself to mankind. There is cause for rejoicing, after all, in the soul's longing after God, for here is evidence that the spirit has commenced its upward flight. There is no life so hopeless and so blank, there is no death so cold and dreary, there is no soul so held fast in misery and iron as that of the poor mortal whose spirit never reaches Godwards. And we may rest assured that there is no other power so able to lift us and transport us to heights away from the world and the worldly life, as the realization first of all of God's Being and continual Presence.
II. And the second factor is worship. The spirit of worship is part of ourselves. As well try to root it out as to tear the hearts from our breasts. Herein is the second great power to carry the soul upwards, namely, that after we have come to know God as He has revealed Himself to us, we worship Him. It is the private uplifting of the soul, as well as our public expression, which has such immense power to carry us upwards to God.
III. Business. By business I mean busy-ness. Be a worker; be always doing something. There is no condition of life so calculated to destroy the soul as idleness. And so the converse is true. There is nothing in life which helps to elevate more surely than legitimate work. Christ has set us His example. And when work is done in His Name there can be no drudgery. There is the way heavenwards: to know God, to worship Him, and to fulfil the daily duties allotted to us.
J. A. Craigie, The Country Pulpit, p. 105.
References. LXVIII. 13. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in a Religious House, vol. i. p. 147. LXVIII. 18. J. Keble, Sermons from Ascension Day to Trinity, p. 12. A. R. Ashwell, God in His Work and Nature, p. 76.
God's Work for Us (A Sermon to Citizen Soldiers)
This Psalm reconciles, interprets, enforces with most instructive power the contrasted thoughts which are pressed upon us by the festival and by the unwonted gathering here today.
I. At first sight there is something strange and incongruous in the assembling within these walls of an armed force when we are commemorating the mission of the Spirit of peace. But if I understand the two things rightly, this strangeness, this incongruity, is only on the surface. The festival may help us to feel that a citizen army is a true expression of Christian faith. For we have a noble inheritance to be kept at all costs for the sake of the whole family of God. In our national character, in our national situation, in our national opportunities we have received a gift from God; a gift which we are bound to use and to develop; a gift which we are bound to guard and consecrate; a gift which we are bound to administer in unselfish devotion for the good of all who are made one in Christ.
II. I do not forget that there are forces at work among us which tend to separate class from class, and to set one against another in fratricidal rivalry. I do not forget that some would represent loyal homage to rank and blood as derogatory to the generous Spirit which it purifies. But I am sure that the great heart of England is sound still. We believe the whole framework of our life helps, nay forces us to believe that our manhood is one, and, at the same time, in order that the whole may be one, differentiated in countless fragments of which each fulfils its proper office.
III. If Europe is to learn that manifold service is the true condition of unity, that order is the one foundation of progress, England must be the teacher. No one can recognize more gladly than I do the priceless benefits which the great nations of the Continent have conferred upon mankind at large and upon ourselves. But now they in turn are looking to us. They want what we have been trained to offer, if we have not wasted the heritage of our fathers, in the example of an energetic, a multiform, a harmonious national life. We have our own dangers great and terrible, but we shall meet them most effectively by striving as best we can to keep the charge which God has been pleased to give us for others. And for this reason the citizen soldier offers in his free-will service the image of the character which God now requires us to foster. He shows to us by the arms which he carries, and by the uniform which he wears, that there is something worth living for more precious than life itself; that the softness of luxury is a poorer thing in every way than patient effort. Endurance, obedience, self-sacrifice, these three express the teachings of his work; and those who love England best, and trust her future most boldly, will know whether it is not these three which must be with us if the nation is to fulfil its appointed task.
B. F. Westcott, Peterborough Sermons, p. 361.
References. LXVIII. 28. Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 322. J. M. Neale, Readings for the Aged (3rd Series), p. 248. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. ii. p. 342. LXVIII. 28, 29. J. M. Neale, Sermons on Passages of the Psalms, p. 190.
A Saint of God
The idea contained in the statement of the Psalmist is the wonderful ways of God in all that He does, in His dealings with the holy places of the unseen world or in those places most holy of all, in His saints.
I. Consider what a revelation of God's wonderful way is to be found in that great saint, St. John the Baptist. God was wonderful in his birth, St. John was born contrary to the usual Divine arrangements of nature. God was wonderful not only in the birth and commission of His servant but in the formation of his character. The height of that character was indomitable courage, a courage of the highest kind, to teach the truth whether men liked it or no. John tore away the cover that even the most plausible and exalted had made for themselves and showed them themselves.
II. St. John's highest call was that fearless loyalty to truth, to bury his own miserable self in the thought of his great commission and the marvellous vision of God that had been opened out before him. It was because of this wonderful courage and unselfish loyalty and strong conviction that there has been about all the saints as there was about St. John a strange fascination. And then there is one more point that perhaps may help us to see how wonderful God was in this saint He was wonderful in allowing his apparent failure. And yet he had fulfilled his mission, he had prepared for Christ and for the Gospel of universal truth.
What appeared to us so tragic a close to so promising a beginning of the great saint was really part of the Divine work to complete a magnificent character that He had formed to prepare for the coming of the Master.
III. How shall we allow ourselves to think and to feel about such things? Shall we not, indeed, think of life with its joys, its brightness, its happy days, kind friends, dear relations, its unselfishness, or its clouds, perplexities, weariness, distresses, shall we not think of it as God's guidance for the best? We shall not sit down with our hands folded. We shall strive to retrieve in the world any failure by our courage: we shall remember that God calls us to work, not necessarily to success. We see something of God's mysterious wonderfulness in the image that He places before us in His saints.
W. J. Knox-Little, Homiletic Review, 1906, vol. LII. p. 292.
References. LXVIII. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 94. LXIX. 10. J. Keble, Sermons for Holy Week, p. 77.
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Nicol, W. Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 68". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/