Worship and Confidence
"Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer" ( Psalm 61:1).
The Book of Psalm illustrates in a most varied and striking manner the religious side of human life. Setting aside for the moment all theories of inspiration, and indeed ignoring inspiration altogether, we have a book full of the most passionate and reverent utterances addressed to a Being supposed to be worthy of all homage and to be the fountain of all blessing. This we have simply as a matter of fact, and no history of the human mind would be complete which omitted the most explicit notice of this circumstance. It will be observed, too, that the Psalmists and suppliants seldom allow the slightest doubt to mar the purity and wholeness of their worship; God is present,—close at hand,—brighter than light, clothed with power, girded with majesty! Sometimes there is familiarity, as of friend talking with friend; sometimes there is a cry of pain, as if God had turned away his face; sometimes a moan of contrition, as if penitence were rending the heart; sometimes a shout of triumph, as if the observer had caught the King"s smile. Yet, throughout the whole, all is intensely religious. In passing from page to page of this book we pass as it were through the aisles of a temple, or through solemn cloisters where men are engaged in prayer.
Let us dwell upon this side of the book as affording the most impressive evidence of the intense Religiousness of the human heart; and in doing so we feel that there is no chasm between the ancient Psalmists and ourselves. Their words, stripped of all local references, might have been our own; they express the common passions of the heart; they set to music the most elevated feelings of the world. The very first words of this psalm have often been wrung from our own spirits; in the troubled night, in the doubtful day, in affliction, in disappointment, and sometimes even in joy, we too have said, "Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer." Any other words would not have been equal to the feeling of the moment; they would have been cold, narrow, barren,—unworthy of the soul"s paroxysm or ecstasy. In the highest spiritual moods we realise our kinship with the whole world. We know all men when we kneel in worship; the Mohammedan is no longer a stranger to us, nor are men who use gestures and expressions which we cannot adopt. Centrally, we are one; the Great Interpreter, to whom all languages are but variations of one speech, knows what the heart is saying, and sees in worship what can be seen in no other exercise of the soul,—sees the unity and moral identity of all men. In the first verse of this psalm it is not the Jew, but the Prayer of Manasseh, that speaks. The same idea can be found in all languages. When David speaks thus, he speaks for the whole world.
There is no doubt the most intense Personality in the petition; it is my cry, it is my prayer. What then? Even when the man individualises himself most carefully, he does but mingle most familiarly with all other men. Picture the scene; see David separating himself from the companionship of his most trusted friends, seeking out the most obscure retirement, kneeling alone in some deeply shadowed forest or in the cleft of a far-off rock; yet the moment he says, "Hear my cry, O God," he gives expression to the sigh of the universal heart. But we cannot be indifferent to the pathetic aspect of this petition. Though all men pray, yet each man has his own prayer. The heart has its own way of telling its own tale, and cannot be satisfied with paraphrase or generalisation. With minuteness which cuts it as a sharp instrument, the heart must tell all its sins, and set forth in order its troubles, its plagues, and its high desires; with brokenness of speech, which is often the most perfect of eloquence, it must recite the number of its failures, and tell of all its groping and stumbling along the path of life. No man will it accept as a hired advocate; no voice could do it justice; it must utter my cry, and my prayer, and where it cannot find words it will heave the sigh or the groan which asks God to be his own interpreter. We may have great helps in prayer, the spirit may accept the choicely wise and tender words of other men; yet there is a point at which the heart breaks away to hold secret intercourse with the Father and Saviour of men.
"From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I" ( Psalm 61:2).
This is the voice of an exile,—a man far from the city which he loves most; yet even at the extremity of the land he says he will cry unto God. Why not? God can give the exile a home! Wherever God reveals himself in loving pity and all the riches of his grace, the soul may take its rest, knowing that no lion shall be there, neither shall any ravenous beast go up thereon. David cried from the end of the land! We have cried from the same extremity. By processes too subtle for us to comprehend, God has often caused our misfortunes to become our blessings. While we stood at the centre our souls were unsteady; but when we were driven to the outside, far away to some bleak place where the cutting winds struck us, and the stranger made us a gazing-stock and a reproach, we turned towards the holy hill and desired to be led to the high rock. Who can say how much of our wealth we owe to our poverty? Who can tell how trouble has been the minister of God, sent to show us the way to great joy? David said that his heart was overwhelmed,—what a strong expression! Great floods had broken upon it; strong tempests had poured their fury upon his spirit; night and day the storm had laid siege to his heart; for long weeks he had been unable to make himself heard through the roar of the assault, and when there was a lull in the wind, he said "my heart is overwhelmed." Does sorrow estrange him from us, so that we cannot understand his speech? Is the word "overwhelmed" not in our vocabulary? We know few words better! We have often seen the ominous cloud gather; it has spread into a great blackness; a few drops have been suddenly lashed against the panes, and then with terrific violence the floods have come, shower on shower, river on river, wild winds whirling the seas with terrific force against our dwelling-place until our home was ruined, our pride broken down, and the last joy savagely engulfed. Oh, the roar; the cold, pitiless, hollow roar! There was a sound of mockery in it, and a sound of doom; it was a voice without speech, a desolation more desolate than death. No man of overwhelmed heart is a stranger to us. Tears talk all languages. David would be at home with us today!
In the midst of the Psalmist"s trouble there rises an aspiration,—"Lead me to the rock that is higher than I." The self-helplessness expressed in this prayer moves our entire sympathy. "Lead me,"—what a blind man who had wandered from the accustomed path would say; "lead me,"—what a lame man would say who had fallen by reason of his great weakness; "lead me,"—what a terrified man would say who had to pass along the edge of a bottomless abyss. It is in such extremities that men best know themselves. Before the floods they account themselves as gods, but afterwards they feel themselves to be but men. David wished to be led to the rock; he wished to stand firmly, to stand above the flood-line, to have rest after so great disquietude. Then there is a rock, is there, a rock higher than we? We have heard of Jesus Christ by this strange name; we have heard of him as the Rock of ages; we have heard of him as the Rock in the wilderness; we have heard of him as the Stone rejected of the builders but elected of God to the chief place. Truly, a man is driven by overwhelming floods to feel that he needs something higher than himself, and to feel that is to feel oneself on the way to heaven. "Higher than I,"— more to be relied upon, nearer God, stronger than Prayer of Manasseh, equal to all the exigencies of life! Man naturally likes strength, and is stirred into wonder, and often into ambition, by eminence; his natural condition is to be satisfied only by him who created it. Stop at yourself, and you become an idolater; ascend to God, and you become a true worshipper. To stop at yourself is to hide your head in the dust while the great universe is shining around you; to ascend to the High Rock is to catch the light and the inspiration of heaven. God of David, hear our prayer! Keep us from self-trust, which is self-worship, and lead us to the Rock!
The aspiration is succeeded by a recollection:—
"For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy" ( Psalm 61:3).
History is rightly used when it becomes the guide of hope. The days of a man"s life seem to be cut off from each other by the nights which intervene; but they are continuous when viewed from the altitude of divine providence. Yesterday enriches today. All the historic triumphs of the divine arm stimulate us in the present battle. We may say of God—What thou hast been, thou wilt be; because thou hast inclined thine ear unto us, therefore will we call upon thee as long as we live. David was accustomed to turn memory into hope. We remember how the recollection of one victory transfigured him into Israel"s greatest hero,—"The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and put of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine." Few of us would be doubtful of the future if we would make a right use of the past. We may be very uncertain about to-morrow, but yesterday is a great fact; it is behind us, a monument of mercy, a witness of God"s integrity, the last page of God"s continual revelation; and if we read carefully what is written upon it, our spirits will rise with a great hope,—we shall say each to his own soul, "Wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation: he is my defence; I shall not be moved."
It is inexpressibly important to keep the mind up to a full realisation of all that God has done in one"s personal history. When a man"s own history goes for nothing with him, he may be regarded as having sunk below the level of a man; but if he will watch how God has developed his life, how wondrously he has turned it, how gently he has withdrawn it into "shelter" when the storm was coming, how graciously he has placed it in the "strong tower" when sounds of war shook the air, he will be moved from thankfulness to eloquence, and will say to those who doubtfully look on—"In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us." And is not such a course in strict accordance with what may be termed the logic of the heart? Can any man who thus closely accompanies the unfolding of divine purposes in his life resist the inference that where so much has been done for him he should do something for God? The testimony would be more explicit if the reflection were more accurate; but we are all more or less exposed to the temptation of practical atheism, and we fall into it when we cease to associate God"s name with the "shelter" and the "strong tower" to which we owe the protection of our lives.
"I will abide in thy tabernacle: for ever: I will trust in the covert of thy wings" ( Psalm 61:4).
How much we desire the tabernacle when we are excluded from its privileges! Some of us have been in foreign lands, where at least our form of worship was almost unknown; the Sabbath has returned, but its face has been unfamiliar, for it has come as if it were but a common day; there has been no friendly challenging to "go into the house of the Lord;" the influence of the world has been strong upon us, yet we have been conscious of a great want. In course of time this experience takes a definite turn; either we cease to care for Sabbatic ordinances and give ourselves up to the current of dissipation in which we have been caught, or the heart sickens for its wonted fellowship with those that keep holyday, and then we say bitterly, yet hopefully, "My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God;" "My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is;" thus we come by a painful process to know what David meant when he said, "I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever: I will trust in the covert of thy wings." Here is a beautiful combination,—worship and confidence! The relation is not only beautiful, but strictly sequential; for worship is confidence, and confidence is worship. Truly to kneel before God is to express trust in him, and truly to express trust in him is to bow down and worship at his footstool. This is the complete idea of worship: not prayer only, not hope only, not adoration only, not a blind dependence only; but all combined, all rounded into one great act of life.
"Under the covert of thy wings,"—how tender the figure! The bird spreads her wings over the nest where her young ones lie, and thus gives them warmth, and affords them all the little protection in her power. What a beautiful image of unity, defence, completeness, safety, is so frail a thing as the nest of a bird! Multiply that image by infinitude; carry it far above all the mischances which may befall the little home of the bird, and then see how full of comfort is the idea. "In the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast;" "He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust,"
This course of reflection obviates the necessity of a formal application. We have heard of an "overwhelmed heart;" we have also heard of a "high rock;" it only remains to say with Jeremiah, "Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains," and to add with the Psalmist, "Who is God, save the Lord? or who is a rock, save our God?" We have heard of a "shelter," and a "tower," and a "tabernacle,"—words which have much meaning for the heart when its distresses are not to be numbered, and which reach their full explanation only in that great Saving Man who was wounded for our transgressions.
God be merciful unto us sinners! The priest has sinned, and the ruler, and the whole congregation, and the common people. There is none righteous, no, not one. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. There is no Pharisee standing here to challenge the scrutiny of Heaven. We are bowed down in broken-hearted-ness, in simple penitence and contrition of soul. In our right hand is no virtue, in our left hand is no price; on our tongue there is no plea or self-defence. We put our hand upon our mouth, and we put our mouth in the dust, and we say: Unprofitable! unclean! God be merciful unto us sinners! We do not stand back one for the other saying: I am holier than thou. There is no holy man without having upon him stains and marks which tell of the great apostacy and the personal fault The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin. We welcome that sweet gospel as we would welcome an angel of light in trouble and darkness. It is the voice of God; it is the music of the Eternal Heart. Let it come into our spirits mightily, ruling them with sovereign power into peace, and rest, and hope. We thank thee for such words as we read in the gospels of thy Son. We need them every one; there is not one syllable too many. We need all the tones of thy persuasion, all the voices of thine appeal; for, verily, we knew not how far we were from home until by thy grace we were persuaded to return home and come to our Father"s house. Behold! then we knew that we had in very deed taken our journey into a far country. The Lord pity us; the Lord himself stoop down to us, and teach us to look for new heavens and a new earth, brighter eras, grander opportunities of service—maybe of suffering also. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 61". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany