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A Faithful Witness
Do we not say that there are some subjects upon which only men of experience are qualified to speak? Is that law in the marketplace, in the court of justice, in the family circle? Surely it ought to be. It seems to be charged with reason which the very dullest eye can instantly perceive. Are there not some subjects with regard to which, as to their exposition and application, nearly everything depends upon the character of the expositor and the witness? In some cases we say, What is said? But in other instances we say, Who has said it? There are abstract subjects, mere matters of fancy or opinion, regarding which any passing judgment may be taken into account, but there are other subjects practical, patent, earnest, about which no one has a right to speak but the man of lofty character and ample and genuine experience.
In this psalm a man undertakes to testify who pledges his age and his honour to every declaration which he makes. It is satisfactory to have to deal with such a witness. Ingenuousness is marked upon his face; honesty is in the ring of his voice; he has his life-books with him his diary, written day by day patiently and carefully, and he says he is willing to testify anywhere concerning great issues of life, concerning instances which puzzle the imagination and stun the conscience. It will be agreeable to talk with this old man. We shall pluck rich fruit from this well-grown tree; there is about him ripeness, maturity, solidity, and withal a fascinating kind of spiritual music, which makes even his judgment and his anger instructive as to moral issues. He is not a harsh man; he is not rabid, acrid, hard, but quite a genial old witness, most solid and yet most radiant, now so solemn as if he were conscious of the oath that is upon him, and now full of delight as if sudden Sabbath had quieted the tumult of the week and lifted him up into heaven's joy. He gains our confidence at once by recognising the difficulty of the case. If he had come to undervalue the case, saying, It is largely imaginary, this is but an invention of an intoxicated or perverted fancy, we should have put him out of court altogether, because the facts are not to be commented upon in that tone: they are black facts, they are painful facts, they are facts upon which we can lay our own hand, and laying it on such facts, we feel as if we had laid the hand upon sharp spears and edged instruments. The Psalmist says: I entirely take that view of the case; they are awful and bewildering facts; I cannot reconcile them with any theory of natural reason; they upset all the deductions of probability; likelihood stands aghast at the spectacle: there, however, the facts are patent, visible, demonstrated beyond all dispute, black witnesses speaking in favour of evil, and by so much discountenancing the government which we call good. The Psalmist says: There are evildoers, there are workers of iniquity, there are men who spread themselves like a green bay tree, there are liars, there are men whose whole heart is full of evil; they are not to be counted by ones and twos, but by great throngs and masses. Were they all to be gathered upon a hillside they would make it black; not one green thing could be seen amid the shadows that would be cast upon the mountain. Yes, it is quite right to take a black view of the case; the wicked are millions strong; they are fat and well-to-do, they are borne down by weights of gold, and they edge out men who pray and think, and who love God. So far we like the old man's talk. When we are conscious of great pain and utter weariness we do not wish to consult a physician who trifles with our conscious disease. He gains upon our confidence as he enters into our feeling; if he can suggest words for some feeling we have not hitherto expressed, even the suggestion of words will help us to confide in his judgment: we say, This man follows the case; he is gifted with strong piercing sight; nothing escapes him; he is determined to make out the case first before he talks anything about his cure. We honour him for this; he is a wise healer. So it is with the Psalmist If we ourselves had been called upon to find words to express the position of the wicked, in many instances we could not have chosen words so exquisite, so fit, so adequate, and all-embracing. So far, good.
Now many a man can tell the disease who cannot tell the cure. What will he say in relation to this awful condition of affairs? He boldly takes his stand upon certain great principles. He does not palter with the case. Looking at the great wall that is to be thrown down, he does not attempt to throw cherry stones at it, or small pebbles; he says, This wall must be shaken down by the thunder of heaven, and by nothing else. Hear him. Mark the mellowness of his tone, the dignity of his posture:
"Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass. And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday. Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass" ( Psa 37:3-7 ).
We know the right answer when we hear it. Instantly about some replies we say, They lack dignity; they are sharp, not broad; they are clever, not inspired; they will serve for a momentary satisfaction, but because there is no deepness of earth they will soon wither away. The suddenness of this man's action is pleasing when the agony is so acute. He does not proceed slowly. He no sooner states his case than he instantly surrounds it with all heaven's light and grace. To have kept us waiting would have been to have increased our misery. We must know in the very first sentence the tone which the man is going to adopt and the doctrine which he is about to establish by illustration. So far we are satisfied. He invokes the Lord's name not as a name significant of leisurely contemplation, but as associated with infinite activity, and as pledged to certain issues. The Psalmist does not hesitate to pledge God's name to the conclusion, so not only will he be convicted of a slip in logic, he will be convicted of a crime in religion, if his predictions be falsified by events. But how is the Lord to be treated? Granted that he is in heaven, and granted that his eyes are upon the children of men, and granted that there will be a final judgment when, no one can forecast, how is God to be treated amid all this tumult, darkness, difficulty, and horrible stress? First of all the Psalmist says he is to be trusted: "Trust in the Lord": lean upon him; do not touch him with one finger, as if by way of symbol, or acknowledgment, or temporary lien, but cast thyself upon him body, soul, and spirit, the full weight, no ounce taken out of the heavy burden. That is a summons to faith; that is a challenge to reason. We must take time to consider that: the demand is so exhaustive and imperative. Who can all at once relinquish himself, and cast his whole personality and estate upon the divine name? Not only trust him, God must be enjoyed: "Delight thyself also in the Lord" ( Psa 37:4 ). Do not let the trusting be a discipline, a hard work of penance, a hard and severe thing to do, but a positive joy, delight, passion of gladness. Who can answer that daring challenge? It tears us to pieces; it shakes us in our fancied securities; it bids us look at and trust and enjoy him who is not seen. Not only so. God must not only be trusted and enjoyed, he must be waited for: "Wait patiently for him" ( Psa 37:7 ). Are we prepared for these conditions? They all go dead against us; they are not in the line of usage; they are not in the line of desire. We are impatient, petulant, self-asserting, we cannot wait. All this is a sign of incompleteness. The mature person can wait longer than the little child. The little child must have what it wants at once. The man can smile at the little child's impatience; he can wait a day or two, but even his power of endurance is soon exhausted. Impatience becomes unbelief; unbelief becomes disbelief; disbelief becomes atheism. There is a short course to the devil!
What does the Psalmist proceed to teach? Having laid down certain great principles, he sets up certain positive standards of reckoning. He says in effect: We must call time into this judgment: we must alter the whole field of vision. Some things are not to be seen if they are too near. You must stand back from some pictures before you will see all their meaning and all their music and mystery. In some instances you must let time elapse before you form a judgment. So we are told that history will judge the time in which we ourselves are living; in other words, men who are not now born, but who will be born a century hence, will pronounce a judgment upon the century in which we now live. If we allow that in history, surely we cannot disallow it in morals and theology. Wise men say, This is not the time to judge the events which are going on around us; there is a great tumult, a great excitement; political passion is roused; religious feeling is irritated: we must commit the issue to history; posterity will tell the value of what we are now doing. When the same claim is set up on the part of providence, surely it cannot be haughtily disallowed or frivolously rejected. The Psalmist, therefore, says in ver. 10, "A little while"; and in ver. 16, "A little that a righteous man hath." He has altered the weights and standards of the country. He has come in with a great authority to say, What you have been counting much is little: you are wrong in your theory of weights and measures; your standards need rectification: you must take the whole of your mechanical judgments into the sanctuary to be rectified by God; you must bring your chronometers into the temple to be adjusted by the eternal and infinite meridian. Now we begin to see a little light upon the bad man's prosperity. To be told, first of all, that it is for a little while, alters the entire complexion of the case. The spendthrift says: I have ten pounds a week income, that is five hundred and twenty a year; let me spend fifty pounds the first week, and see what it is like to live at the rate of two thousand six hundred a year. The fool is burning the candle at both ends; he is eating up his seed-corn the very corn that he ought to be garnering to throw into the arid soil at the next sowing-time. "A little while" a flash, and all is dark again; a bubble bursting in a moment, and leaving nothing behind but a frail reflection of its hue and tint; a little flutter, and all is over. A most ingenuous reply, and as profound as ingenuous. The Psalmist fixes upon the evanescence of all worldly pomp, and says: Really it is not worth fighting for; it perishes in the using; it is a momentary gilt which will soon peel off, or it will be cankered and destroyed.
Now he turns aside to the righteous man's "little," and taking it up in his hand he says: This outweighs the riches of many wicked. So then, if men have been proceeding by a false arithmetic, what is the value of all their numerical reasoning? Though they may have carried out their cubing and squaring and extraction of roots to a thousand decimal points, they were wrong at the start, and the further they have carried their decimals the further they have prolonged their condemnation. The unit was wrong, the method of multiplication was wrong, and therefore to continue it is to aggravate the guilt which will be charged upon the mistaken calculator. Some "littles" cannot be exhausted; some sovereigns cannot be changed; they are always growing into more and more, not in arithmetical value, but in some sense in real practical uses. Many a time we have seen the end of our barrel of flour; we have put our thin fingers through the meal; we have said, This cannot last more than two days; and behold the next time we have gone to it, it is still sufficient to last two days longer; and again we have returned, after having satisfied our hunger amply, and we have said, Really we must have made a mistake in the first instance; there is quite a week's meal left now. If this were fancy we have common-sense enough to despise it; but having lived it we have honesty enough to avow it.
So the Psalmist is encompassing his case in a masterly way. Having set up certain great principles, and shown how God is to be treated in the midst of providential mysteries, and having changed the whole scheme of weights, measures, and standards, he next pledges his word as an eye-witness. He says ( Psa 37:23 ), "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way"; and again ( Psa 37:35-36 ), "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found"; and again ( Psa 37:37 ), "I have marked the perfect man, I have beheld the upright, and I am here to say that the end of that man is peace." This is not indirect testimony; this is not collateral witness; this is not incidental statement: it constitutes the broad line, first, of the accusation, and, secondly, of the defence. Now have we not seen precisely the same providences, the same allotments, and the same issues? Let us think a little. Where are the men whom we once counted great and strong and terrible when they took up a policy of opposition? With closed eyes, looking back some thirty years, we see them all: we see many of them, as we then thought, well-dressed, refined, well-to-do, influential; they sneered at Bethels, and Ebenezers, Rehoboths, and other sanctuaries; they curled their lip at praying-men, and had secret and too subtle jokes at the expense of those who kept the Sabbath and read the Bible; they had white hands unstained by work, fair faces unripped and unploughed by grief, and their laugh was their chief argument against all theology, their sneer was the one arm which they used in assaulting the citadel of God. Where are they? We cannot tell; they have left no name, fame, inspiration. Their names are never mentioned. They have built nothing, endowed nothing, consecrated nothing. If some memory should challenge the recollection of others, saying, Can you recall so-and-so? the challenged recollection is puzzled "no," or a reluctant or hesitant "yes." But they have gone shadows, mockeries, the little laughers, the puny sneerers, the men whose church was in their pockets, whose altar was at the bank, they have gone; and where are many of the other class, that prayed, and taught the young, and sacrificed with the poor, and visited the lonely; they live in many a heart; they are named with tears; they are blessed by the generation following.
Then two courses are before us: we can rank ourselves amongst the wicked have a short life and a merry one, dance to hell's music down to hell's fire we are at perfect liberty to join them: it belongs to manhood to deny or defy the living God; or we can, by the grace of the living God, join the other class join those who trust in the Lord, who delight themselves in the Lord, who commit their way unto the Lord, rest in the Lord, wait patiently for the Lord. That is followed by immediate loss of a certain kind. That is followed by the laughter of society. That means the forfeiture of many an invitation an invitation to talk nonsense and to eat and drink poison. That means the cutting off of many expenses. Some are not prepared to live at such a rate. It is too cheap, too poor; they want to splash and dash, and foam and rush, and churn the passing time into froth. Poor fools; why were they born? We can be students, worshippers, philanthropists, fountains of water in the wilderness, and lights like beacons on hilltops in the nighttime to guide poor wanderers; we can live in the soul rather than in the body; we can advance along the high spiritual line, asking great questions, considering great subjects, breathing great prayers, rather than asking frivolous questions and contenting ourselves with frivolous replies. But if we take this second course the Psalmist insists upon morality. Thus he says ( Psa 37:3 ), not only "trust in the Lord," but "do good"; then ( Psa 37:27 ) he says, "depart from evil, and do good." This is no fancy heaven; this is no poetic paradise: those who are serving God have coats off and both hands stretched out in labour, and how to be good in God's sight without attracting the attention of men is the supreme inquiry of the soul. So, then, the Christian religion is no pastime. We are to be faithful, watchful, painstaking. The Apostle says: I keep my body under, lest, having published the names of intending competitors in the race or wrestle lest, after having acted as a herald, saying, So-and-so will run today, wrestle today, I myself having heralded them should become a castaway not in the list at all myself, a mere announcer of other athletes, but an outcast myself. From the beginning of the Bible to the end the great exhortation is: Cease from evil; learn to do well; wash you, make you clean; do good; be watchful; observe the laws of discipline; for only in so doing is there safety. The idle man is caught at odds; the sleeping man is slain in his slumber; only the watchful servant will be ready, come when his Lord may, at the cock-crowing, at the dawn, at high noon, or in solemn midnight
Almighty God, our souls thirst for thee: thou art the living water: the river of God is full of water! We know that thou alone canst quench the thirst of the soul; we hear the voice of Jesus Christ thy Son saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink: we hear the voice of the prophets crying, Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters: we hear many voices saying, Come: the Spirit and the Bride say, Come; let him that heareth say, Come; let him that is athirst come; yea, come, let him drink freely of the water of life. We bless thee for this burning thirst; we thank thee that having drunk up all the rivers of time and pleasure we are still athirst for water beyond. It is for the living water that we thirst; if any man drink of the wells of earth he shall thirst again, but if any man drink of the water of Christ he shall never thirst, but the water which Christ giveth the man shall be in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life. Lord, give unto us this spring water, this water that comes up from the rocks, and which never can be dried by scorching suns. Even in the wilderness thou wilt find water for us, and pools in desert places. Regard us as those who are now subjected to the wear and tear of life. Thou knowest how cruel this life of ours must needs be, chased and hunted and persecuted, and affrighted by evil presences every hour, tested by loss and pain, and brought oftentimes into utterest despair: Lord Jesus, help us; Saviour of the world, open our eyes, open our ears, that we may see and hear the living messenger of God. Specially help those to whom life is a daily burden; hold thou the lamp above the page when they read of whom thou hast elected to be thy ministers and evangels. Be with those who have to find what joy they can in loneliness, for the world knoweth them not. The Lord heal our afflictions, dry our tears, direct our way, and at the end cause us to say, Blessed be God for sorrow, because but for this sorrow we had not known the truest, tenderest joy. Behold us at the Cross, where no man ever prayed in vain. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 37". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30