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THE SHELTERING WING
We remember the magnificent image in Moses’ song, of God’s protection and guidance as that of the eagle who stirred up his nest, and hovered over the young with his wings, and bore them on his pinions. That passage may possibly have touched the imagination of this psalmist, when he here employs the same general metaphor, but with a distinct and significant difference in its application. In the former image the main idea is that of training and sustaining. Here the main idea is that of protection and fostering. On the wing and under the wing suggest entirely different notions, and both need to be taken into account in order to get the many-sided beauties and promises of these great sayings. Now there seems to me here to be a very distinct triad of thoughts. There is the covering wing; there is the flight to its protection; and there is the warrant for that flight. ‘He shall cover thee with His pinions’; that is the divine act. ‘Under His wings shalt thou trust’; that is the human condition. ‘His truth shall be thy shield and buckler’; that is the divine manifestation which makes the human condition possible.
I. A word then, first, about the covering wing.
Now, the main idea in this image is, as I have suggested, that of the expanded pinion, beneath the shelter of which the callow young lie, and are guarded. Whatever kites may be in the sky, whatever stoats and weasels may be in the hedges, the brood are safe there. The image suggests not only the thought of protection but those of fostering, downy warmth, peaceful proximity to a heart that throbs with parental love, and a multitude of other happy privileges realised by those who nestle beneath that wing. But while these subsidiary ideas are not to be lost sight of, the promise of protection is to be kept prominent, as that chiefly intended by the Psalmist.
This psalm rings throughout with the truth that a man who dwells ‘in the secret place of the Most High’ has absolute immunity from all sorts of evil; and there are two regions in which that immunity, secured by being under the shadow of the Almighty, is exemplified here. The one is that of outward dangers, the other is that of temptation to sin and of what we may call spiritual foes. Now, these two regions and departments in which the Christian man does realise, in the measure of his faith, the divine protection, exhibit that protection as secured in two entirely different ways.
The triumphant assurances of this psalm, ‘There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling,’-’the pestilence shall smite thousands and ten thousands beside thee, but not come nigh thee,’-seem to be entirely contradicted by experience which testifies that ‘there is one event to the evil and the good,’ and that, in epidemics or other widespread disasters, we all, the good and the bad, God-fearers and God-blasphemers, do fare alike, and that the conditions of exemption from physical evil are physical and not spiritual. It is of no use trying to persuade ourselves that that is not so. We shall understand God’s dealings with us, and get to the very throbbing heart of such promises as these in this psalm far better, if we start from the certainty that whatever it means it does not mean that, with regard to external calamities and disasters, we are going to be God’s petted children, or to be saved from the things that fall upon other people. No! no! we have to go a great deal deeper than that. If we have felt a difficulty, as I suppose we all have sometimes, and are ready to say with the half-despondent Psalmist, ‘My feet were almost gone, and my steps had well-nigh slipped,’ when we see what we think the complicated mysteries of divine providence in this world, we have to come to the belief that the evil that is in the evil will never come near a man sheltered beneath God’s wing. The physical external event may be entirely the same to him as to another who is not covered with His feathers. Here are two partners in a business, the one a Christian man, and the other is not. A common disaster overwhelms them. They become bankrupts. Is insolvency the same to the one as it is to the other? Here are two men on board a ship, the one putting his trust in God, the other thinking it all nonsense to trust anything but himself. They are both drowned. Is drowning the same to the two? As their corpses lie side by side among the ooze, with the weeds over them, and the shell-fish at them, you may say of the one, but only of the one, ‘There shall no evil befall thee, neither any plague come nigh thy dwelling.’
For the protection that is granted to faith is only to be understood by faith. It is deliverance from the evil in the evil which vindicates as no exaggeration, nor as merely an experience and a promise peculiar to the old theocracy of Israel, but not now realised, the grand sayings of this text. The poison is all wiped off the arrow by that divine protection. It may still wound but it does not putrefy the flesh. The sewage water comes down, but it passes into the filtering bed, and is disinfected and cleansed before it is permitted to flow over our fields.
And so, brethren! if any of you are finding that the psalm is not outwardly true, and that through the covering wing the storm of hail has come and beaten you down, do not suppose that that in the slightest degree impinges upon the reality and truthfulness of this great promise, ‘He shall cover thee with His feathers.’ Anything that has come through them is manifestly not an ‘evil.’ ‘Who is he that will harm you if ye be followers of that which is good?’ ‘If God be for us who can be against us?’ Not what the world calls, and our wrung hearts feel that it rightly calls, ‘sorrows’ and ‘afflictions,’-these all work for our good, and protection consists, not in averting the blows, but in changing their character.
Then, there is another region far higher, in which this promise of my text is absolutely true-that is, in the region of spiritual defence. For no man who lies under the shadow of God, and has his heart filled with the continual consciousness of that Presence, is likely to fall before the assaults of evil that tempt him away from God; and the defence which He gives in that region is yet more magnificently impregnable than the defence which He gives against external evils. For, as the New Testament teaches us, we are kept from sin, not by any outward breastplate or armour, nor even by the divine wing lying above us to cover us, but by the indwelling Christ in our hearts. His Spirit within us makes us ‘free from the law of sin and death,’ and conquerors over all temptations.
I say not a word about all the other beautiful and pathetic associations which are connected with this emblem of the covering wing, sweet and inexhaustible as it is, but I simply leave with you the two thoughts that I have dwelt upon, of the twofold manner of that divine protection.
II. And now a word, in the second place, about the flight of the shelterless to the shelter.
The word which is rendered in our Authorised Version, ‘shalt thou trust,’ is, like all Hebrew words for mental and spiritual emotions and actions, strongly metaphorical. It might have been better to retain its literal meaning here instead of substituting the abstract word ‘trust.’ That is to say, it would have been an improvement if we had read with the Revised Version, not, ‘under His wings shalt thou trust,’ but ‘under His wings shalt thou take refuge.’ For that is the idea which is really conveyed; and in many of the psalms, if you will remember, the same metaphor is employed. ‘Hide me beneath the shadow of Thy wings’; ‘Beneath Thy wings will I take refuge until calamities are overpast’; and the like. Many such passages will, no doubt, occur to your memories.
But what I wish to signalise is just this, that in this emblem of flying into a refuge from impending perils we get a far more vivid conception, and a far more useful one, as it seems to me, of what Christian faith really is than we derive from many learned volumes and much theological hair-splitting. ‘Under His wings shalt thou flee for refuge.’ Is not that a vivid, intense, picturesque, but most illuminative way of telling us what is the very essence, and what is the urgency, and what is the worth, of what we call faith? The Old Testament is full of the teaching-which is masked to ordinary readers, but is the same teaching as the New Testament is confessedly full of-of the necessity of faith as the one bond that binds men to God. If only our translators had wisely determined upon a uniform rendering in Old and New Testament of words that are synonymous, the reader would have seen what is often now reserved for the student, that all these sayings in the Old Testament about ‘trusting in God’ run on all fours with ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’
But just mark what comes out of that metaphor; that ‘trust,’ the faith which unites with God, and brings a man beneath the shadow of His wings, is nothing more or less than the flying into the refuge that is provided for us. Does that not speak to us of the urgency of the case? Does that not speak to us eloquently of the perils which environ us? Does it not speak to us of the necessity of swift flight, with all the powers of our will? Is the faith which is a flying into a refuge fairly described as an intellectual act of believing in a testimony? Surely it is something a great deal more than that. A man out in the plain, with the avenger of blood, hot-breathed and bloody-minded, behind him might believe, as much as he liked, that there would be safety within the walls of the City of Refuge, but unless he took to his heels without loss of time, the spear would be in his back before he knew where he was. There are many men who know all about the security of the refuge, and believe it utterly, but never run for it; and so never get into it. Faith is the gathering up of the whole powers of my nature to fling myself into the asylum, to cast myself into God’s arms, to take shelter beneath the shadow of His wings. And unless a man does that, and swiftly, he is exposed to every bird of prey in the sky, and to every beast of prey lurking in wait for him.
The metaphor tells us, too, what are the limits and the worth of faith. A man is not saved because he believes that he is saved, but because by believing he lays hold of the salvation. It is not the flight that is impregnable, and makes those behind its strong bulwarks secure. Not my outstretched hand, but the Hand that my hand grasps, is what holds me up. The power of faith is but that it brings me into contact with God, and sets me behind the seven-fold bastions of the Almighty protection.
So, brethren! another consideration comes out of this clause: ‘Under His wings shalt thou trust.’ If you do not flee for refuge to that wing, it is of no use to you, however expanded it is, however soft and downy its underside, however sure its protection. You remember the passage where our Lord uses the same venerable figure with modifications, and says: ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not .’ So our ‘would not’ thwarts Christ’s ‘would.’ Flight to the refuge is the condition of being saved. How can a man get shelter by any other way than by running to the shelter? The wing is expanded; it is for us to say whether we will ‘flee for refuge to the hope set before us.’
III. Now, lastly, the warrant for this flight.
‘His truth shall be thy shield.’ Now, ‘truth’ here does not mean the body of revealed words, which are often called God’s truth, but it describes a certain characteristic of the divine nature. And if, instead of ‘truth,’ we read the good old English word ‘troth,’ we should be a great deal nearer understanding what the Psalmist meant. Or if ‘troth’ is archaic, and conveys little meaning to us; suppose we substitute a somewhat longer word, of the same meaning, and say, ‘His faithfulness shall be thy shield.’ You cannot trust a God that has not given you an inkling of His character or disposition, but if He has spoken, then you ‘know where to have him.’ That is just what the Psalmist means. How can a man be encouraged to fly into a refuge, unless he is absolutely sure that there is an entrance for him into it, and that, entering, he is safe? And that security is provided in the great thought of God’s troth. ‘Thy faithfulness is like the great mountains.’ ‘Who is like unto Thee, O Lord! or to Thy faithfulness round about Thee?’ That faithfulness shall be our ‘shield,’ not a tiny targe that a man could bear upon his left arm; but the word means the large shield, planted in the ground in front of the soldier, covering him, however hot the fight, and circling him around, like a wall of iron.
God is ‘faithful’ to all the obligations under which He has come by making us. That is what one of the New Testament writers tells us, when he speaks of Him as ‘a faithful Creator.’ Then, if He has put desires into our hearts, be sure that somewhere there is their satisfaction; and if He has given us needs, be sure that in Him there is the supply; and if He has lodged in us aspirations which make us restless, be sure that if we will turn them to Him, they will be satisfied and we shall be at rest. ‘God never sends mouths but He sends meat to fill them.’ ‘He remembers our frame,’ and measures His dealings accordingly. When He made me, He bound Himself to make it possible that I should be blessed for ever; and He has done it.
God is faithful to His word, according to that great saying in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the writer tells us that by ‘God’s counsel,’ and ‘God’s oath,’ ‘two immutable things,’ we might have ‘strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.’ God is faithful to His own past. The more He has done the more He will do. ‘Thou hast been my Help; leave me not, neither forsake me.’ Therein we present a plea which God Himself will honour. And He is faithful to His own past in a yet wider sense. For all the revelations of His love and of His grace in times that are gone, though they might be miraculous in their form, are permanent in their essence. So one of the Psalmists, hundreds of years after the time that Israel was led through the wilderness, sang: ‘There did we’-of this present generation-’rejoice in Him.’ What has been, is, and will be, for Thou art ‘the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.’ We have not a God that lurks in darkness, but one that has come into the light. We have to run, not into a Refuge that is built upon a ‘perhaps,’ but upon ‘Verily, verily! I say unto thee.’ Let us build rock upon Rock, and let our faith correspond to the faithfulness of Him that has promised.
THE HABITATION OF THE SOUL
Psa_91:9 - Psa_91:10 .
It requires a good deal of piecing to make out from the Hebrew the translation of our Authorised Version here. The simple, literal rendering of the first words of these verses is, ‘Surely, Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge’; and I do not suppose that any of the expedients which have been adopted to modify that translation would have been adopted, but that these words seem to cut in two the long series of rich promises and blessings which occupy the rest of the psalm. But it is precisely this interruption of the flow of the promises which puts us on the right track for understanding the words in question, because it leads us to take them as the voice of the devout man, to whom the promises are addressed, responding to them by the expression of his own faith.
The Revised Version is much better here than our Authorised Version, for it has recognised this breach of continuity of sequence in the promises, and translated as I have suggested; making the first words of my text, ‘Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge,’ the voice of one singer, and ‘Because thou hast made the Most High thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any evil come nigh thy dwelling,’ the voice of another.
Whether or no it be that in the Liturgical service of the Temple this psalm was sung by two choirs which answered one another, does not matter for our purpose. Whether or no we regard the first clause as the voice of the Psalmist speaking to God, and the other as the same man speaking to himself, does not matter. The point is that, first, there is an exclamation of personal faith, and that then that is followed and answered, as it were, by the further promise of continual blessings. One voice says, ‘Thou, Lord! art my Refuge,’ and then another voice-not God’s, because that speaks in majesty at the end of the psalm-replies to that burst of confidence, ‘Thou hast made the Lord thy habitation’ as thou hast done by this confession of faith, ‘there shall no evil come nigh thy dwelling.’
I. We have here the cry of the devout soul.
I observed that it seems to cut in two the stream of promised blessings, and that fact is significant. The psalm begins with the deep truth that ‘He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’ Then a single voice speaks, ‘I will say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress, my God, in Him will I trust.’ Then that voice, which thus responds to the general statement of the first verse, is answered by a stream of promises. The first part of our text comes in as the second speech of the same voice, repeating substantially the same thing as it said at first.
Now, notice that this cry of the soul, recognising God as its Asylum and Home, comes in response to a revelation of God’s blessing, and to large words of promise. There is no true refuge nor any peace and rest for a man unless in grasping the articulate word of God, and building his assurance upon that. Anything else is not confidence, but folly; anything else is building upon sand, and not upon the Rock. If I trust my own or my brother’s conception of the divine nature, if I build upon any thoughts of my own, I am building upon what will yield and give. For all peaceful casting of my soul into the arms of God there must be, first, a plain stretching out of the hands of God to catch me when I drop. So the words of my text, ‘Thou art my Refuge,’ are the best answer of the devout soul to the plain words of divine promise. How abundant these are we all know, how full of manifold insight and adaptation to our circumstances and our nature we may all experience, if we care to prove them.
But let us be sure that we are hearkening to the voice with which He speaks through our daily circumstances as well as by the unmistakable revelation of His will and heart in Jesus Christ. And then let us be sure that no word of His, that comes fluttering down from the heavens, meaning a benediction and enclosing a promise, falls at our feet ungathered and unregarded, or is trodden into the dust by our careless heels. The manna lies all about us; let us see that we gather it. ‘When Thou saidst, Seek ye My Face, my heart said unto Thee, Thy Face, Lord, will I seek.’ When Thou saidst, ‘I will be thy Strength and thy Righteousness,’ have I said, ‘Surely, O Jehovah! Thou art my Refuge’? Turn His promises into your creed, and whatever He has declared in the sweet thunder of His voice, loud as the voice of many waters, and melodious as ‘harpers harping with their harps,’ do you take for your profession of faith in the faithful promises of your God.
Still further, this cry of the devout soul suggests to me that our response ought to be the establishment of a close personal relation between us and God. ‘Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge.’ The Psalmist did not content himself with saying ‘Lord! Thou hast been our Dwelling-place in all generations,’ or as one of the other psalmists has it, ‘God is our Refuge and our Strength.’ That thought was blessed, but it was not enough for the Psalmist’s present need, and it is never enough for the deepest necessities of any soul. We must isolate ourselves and stand, God and we, alone together-at heart-grips-we grasping His hand, and He giving Himself to us-if the promises which are sent down into the world for all who will make them theirs can become ours. They are made payable to your order; you must put your name on the back before you get the proceeds. There must be what our good old Puritan forefathers used to call, in somewhat hard language, ‘the appropriating act of faith,’ in order that God’s richest blessings may be of any use to us. Put out your hand to grasp them, and say, ‘Mine,’ not ‘Ours.’ The thought of others as sharing in them will come afterwards, for he who has once realised the absolute isolation of the soul and has been alone with God, and in solitude has taken God’s gifts as his very own, is he who will feel fellowship and brotherhood with all who are partakers of like precious faith and blessings. The ‘ours’ will come; but you must begin with the ‘mine’-’ my Lord and my God.’ ‘He loved me , and gave Himself for me .’
Just as when the Israelites gathered on the banks of the Red Sea, and Miriam and the maidens came out with songs and timbrels, though their hearts throbbed with joy, and music rang from their lips for national deliverance, their hymn made the whole deliverance the property of each, and each of the chorus sang, ‘The Lord is my Strength and my Song, He also is become my Salvation,’ so we must individualise the common blessing. Every poor soul has a right to the whole of God, and unless a man claims all the divine nature as his, he has little chance of possessing the promised blessings. The response of the individual to the worldwide promises and revelations of the Father is, ‘Thou, O Lord! art my Refuge.’
Further, note how this cry of the devout soul recognises God as He to whom we must go because we need a refuge. The word ‘refuge’ here gives the picture of some stronghold, or fortified place, in which men may find security from all sorts of dangers, invasions by surrounding foes, storm and tempest, rising flood, or anything else that threatens. Only he who knows himself to be in danger bethinks himself of a refuge. It is only when we know our danger and defencelessness that God, as the Refuge of our souls, becomes precious to us. So, underlying, and an essential part of, all our confidence in God, is the clear recognition of our own necessity. The sense of our own emptiness must precede our grasp of His fulness. The conviction of our own insufficiency and sinfulness must precede our casting ourselves on His mercy and righteousness. In all regions the consciousness of human want must go before the recognition of the divine supply.
II. Now, note the still more abundant answer which that cry evokes.
I said that the words on which I have been commenting thus far, seem to break in two the continuity of the stream of blessings and promises. But there may be observed a certain distinction of tone between those promises which precede and those which follow the cry. Those that follow have a certain elevation and depth, completeness and fulness, beyond those that precede. This enhancing of the promises, following on the faithful grasp of previous promises, suggests the thought that, when God is giving, and His servant thankfully accepts and garners up His gifts, He opens His hand wider and gives more. When He pours His rain upon the unthankful and the evil, and they let the precious, fertilising drops run to waste, there comes after a while a diminution of the blessing; but they who store in patient and thankful hearts the faithful promises of God, have taken a sure way to make His gifts still larger and His promises still sweeter, and their fulfilment more faithful and precious.
But now notice the remarkable language in which this answer is couched. ‘Thou hast made the Most High thy Habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.’
Did you ever notice that there are two dwelling-places spoken of in this verse? ‘Thou hast made the Most High thy Habitation’; ‘There shall no plague come nigh thy dwelling.’ The reference of the latter word to the former one is even more striking if you observe that, literally translated, as in the Revised Version, it means a particular kind of abode-namely, a tent. ‘Thou hast made the Most High thy habitation.’ The same word is employed in the 90th Psalm: ‘Lord, Thou hast been our Dwelling-place in all generations.’ Beside that venerable and ancient abode, that has stood fresh, strong, incorruptible, and unaffected by the lapse of millenniums, there stands the little transitory canvas tent in which our earthly lives are spent. We have two dwelling-places. By the body we are brought into connection with this frail, evanescent, illusory outer world, and we try to make our homes out of shifting cloud-wrack, and dream that we can compel mutability to become immutable, that we may dwell secure. But fate is too strong for us, and although we say that we will make our nest in the rocks, and shall never be moved, the home that is visible and linked with the material passes and melts as a cloud. We need a better dwelling-place than earth and that which holds to earth. We have God Himself for our true Home. Never mind what becomes of the tent, as long as the mansion stands firm. Do not let us be saddened, though we know that it is canvas, and that the walls will soon rot and must some day be folded up and borne away, if we have the Rock of Ages for our dwelling-place.
Let us abide in the Eternal God by the devotion of our hearts, by the affiance of our faith, by the submission of our wills, by the aspiration of our yearnings, by the conformity of our conduct to His will. Let us abide in the Eternal God, that ‘when the earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved,’ we may enter into two buildings ‘eternal in the heavens’-the one the spiritual body which knows no corruption, and the other the bosom of the Eternal God Himself. ‘Because thou hast made Him thy Habitation,’ that Dwelling shall suffer no evil to come near it or its tenant.
Still further, notice the scope of this great promise. I suppose there is some reference in the form of it to the old story of Israel’s exemption from the Egyptian plagues, and a hint that that might be taken as a parable and prophetic picture of what will be true about every man who puts his trust in God. But the wide scope and the paradoxical completeness of the promise itself, instead of being a difficulty, point the way to its true interpretation. ‘There shall no plague come nigh thy dwelling’-and yet we are smitten down by all the woes that afflict humanity. ‘No evil shall befall thee’-and yet ‘all the ills that flesh is heir to’ are dealt out sometimes with a more liberal hand to them who abide in God than to them who dwell only in the tent upon earth. What then? Is God true, or is He not? Did this psalmist mean to promise the very questionable blessing of escape from all the good of the discipline of sorrow? Is it true, in the unconditional sense in which it is often asserted, that ‘prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament, and adversity of the New’? I think not, and I am sure that this psalmist, when he said, ‘there shall no evil befall thee, nor any plague come nigh thy dwelling,’ was thinking exactly the same thing which Paul had in his mind when he said, ‘All things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.’ If I make God my Refuge, I shall get something a great deal better than escape from outward sorrow-namely, an amulet which will turn the outward sorrow into joy. The bitter water will still be given me to drink, but it will be filtered water, out of which God will strain all the poison, though He leaves plenty of the bitterness in it; for bitterness is a tonic. The evil that is in the evil will be taken out of it, in the measure in which we make God our Refuge, and ‘all will be right that seems most wrong’ when we recognise it to be ‘His sweet will.’
Dear brother! the secret of exemption from every evil lies in no peculiar Providence, ordering in some special manner our outward circumstances, but in the submission of our wills to that which the good hand of the Lord our God sends us for our good; and in cleaving close to Him as our Refuge. Nothing can be ‘evil’ which knits me more closely to God; and whatever tempest drives me to His breast, though all the four winds of the heavens strive on the surface of the sea, it will be better for me than calm weather that entices me to stray farther away from Him.
We shall know that some day. Let us be sure of it now, and explain by it our earthly experience, even as we shall know it when we get up yonder and ‘see all the way by which the Lord our God has led us.’
THE ANSWER TO TRUST
There are two voices speaking in the earlier part of this psalm: one that of a saint who professes his reliance upon the Lord, his Fortress; and another which answers the former speaker, and declares that he shall be preserved by God. In this verse, which is the first of the final portion of the psalm, we have a third voice-the voice of God Himself, which comes in to seal and confirm, to heighten and transcend, all the promises that have been made in His name. The first voice said of himself, ‘ I will trust’; the second voice addresses that speaker, and says, ‘ Thou shalt not be afraid’; the third voice speaks of him, and not to him, and says, ‘Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him.’
Why does this divine voice speak thus indirectly of this blessing of His servant? I think partly because it heightens the majesty of the utterance, as if God spake to the whole universe about what He meant to do for His friend who trusts Him; and partly because, in that general form of speech, there is really couched an ‘whosoever’; and it applies to us all. If God had said, ‘Because thou hast set thy love upon Me, I will deliver thee,’ it had not been so easy for us to put ourselves in the place of the man concerning whom this great divine voice spoke; but when He says, ‘Because he hath set his love upon Me,’ in the ‘he’ there lies ‘everybody’; and the promise spoken before the universe as to His servants is spoken universally to His servants.
So, then, these words seem to me to carry two thoughts: the first, what God delights to find in a man; and the second, what God delights to give to the man in whom He finds it.
I. Note, first, what God delights to find in man.
There is, if we may reverently say so, a tone of satisfaction in the words, ‘Because he hath set his love upon Me,’ and ‘because he hath known My name.’ Thus, then, there are two things that the great Father’s heart seeks, and wheresoever it finds them, in however imperfect a degree, He is glad, and lavishes upon such a one the most precious things in His possession.
What are these two things? Let us look at each of them. Now the word rendered ‘set his love’ includes more than is suggested by that rendering, beautiful as it is. It implies the binding or knitting oneself to anything. Now, though love be the true cement by which men are bound to God, as it is the only real bond which binds men to one another, yet the word itself covers a somewhat wider area than is covered by the notion of love. It is not my love only that I am to fasten upon God, but my whole self that I am to bind to Him. God delights in us when we cling to Him. There is a threefold kind of clinging, which I would urge upon you and upon myself.
Let us cling to Him in our thoughts, hour by hour, moment by moment, amidst all the distractions of daily life. Whilst there are other things that must legitimately occupy our minds, let us see to it that, ever and anon, we turn ourselves away from these, and betake ourselves, with a conscious gathering in of our souls, to Him, and calm and occupy our hearts and minds with the bright and peaceful thoughts of a present God ever near us, and ever gracious to us. Life is but a dreary stretch of wilderness, unless all through it there be dotted, like a chain of ponds in a desert, these moments in which the mind fixes itself upon God, and loses sorrows and sins and weakness and all other sadnesses in the calm and blessed contemplation of His sweetness and sufficiency. The very heavens are bare and lacking in highest beauty, unless there stretch across them the long lines of rosy-tinted clouds. And so across our skies let us cast a continuous chain of thoughts of God, and as we go about our daily work, let us try to have our minds ever recurring to Him, like the linked pools that mirror heaven in the midst of the barren desert, and bring a reflection of life into the midst of its death. Cleave and cling to God, brother! by frequent thoughts of Him, diffused throughout the whole continuity of the busy day.
Then again, we might say, let us cleave to Him by our love, which is the one bond of union, as I said, between man and God, as it is the one bond of union between man and man. ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength,’ was from the beginning the Alpha, and until the end will be the Omega, of all true religion; and within the sphere of that commandment lie all duty, all Christianity, all blessedness, and all life. The heart that is divided is wretched; the heart that is consecrated is at rest. The love that is partial is nought; the love that is worth calling so is total and continuous. Let us cling to Him with our thoughts; let us cling to Him with the tendrils of our hearts.
Let us cleave to Him, still further, by the obedient contact of our wills with His, taking no commandments from men, and no overpowering impressions from circumstances, and no orders from our own fancies and inclinations and tastes and lusts, but receiving all our instructions from our Father in heaven. There is no real contact between us and God, no real cleaving to Him, howsoever the thought of God may be in our minds, and some kind of imperfect love to Him may be supposed to be in our hearts, unless there be the absolute submission of our wills to His authority; and only in the measure in which we are able to say, What He commands I do, and what He sends I accept, and my will is in His hands to be moulded, do we really get close and keep close to our Father in the heavens. He that hath brought himself into loving touch with God, and clings to Him in that threefold fashion, by thought, love, and submission, he, and only he, is so joined to the Lord as to be one Spirit.
Now that is not a state to be won and kept without much vigorous, conscious effort. The nuts in a machine work loose; the knots in a rope ‘come untied,’ as the children say. The hand that clasps anything, by slow and imperceptible degrees, loses muscular contraction, and the grip of the fingers becomes slacker. Our minds and affections and wills have that same tendency to slacken their hold of what they grasp. Unless we tighten up the machine it will work loose; and unless we make conscious efforts to keep ourselves in touch with God, His hand will slip out of ours before we know that it is gone, and we shall fancy that we feel the impression of the fingers long after they have been taken away from our negligent palms.
Besides our own vagrancies, and the waywardness and wanderings of our poor, unreliable natures, there come in, of course, as hindrances, all the interruptions and distractions of outside things, which work in the same direction of loosening our hold on God. If the shipwrecked sailor is not to be washed off the raft he must tie himself on to it, and must see that the lashings are reliable and the knots tight; and if we do not mean to be drifted away from God without knowing it, we must make very sure work of anchor and cable, and of our own hold on both. Effort is needed, continuous and conscious, lest at any time we should slide away from Him. And this is what God delights to find: a mind and will that bind themselves to Him.
There is another thing in the text which, as I take it, is a consequence of that close union between man in his whole nature and God: ‘I will set him on high because he hath known My name.’ Notice that the knowledge of the name comes after, and not before, the setting of the love or the fixing of the nature upon God. God’s ‘name’ is the same thing as His self-revelation or His manifested character. Then, does not every one to whom that revelation is made know His name? Certainly not. The word ‘know’ is here used in the same deep sense in which it is employed all but uniformly in the New Testament-the same sense in which it is used in the writings of the Apostle John. It describes a knowledge which is a great deal more than a mere intellectual acquaintance with the facts of divine revelation. Or, to put the thought into other words, this is a knowledge which comes after we have set our love upon God, a knowledge which is the child of love. We forget sometimes that it is a Person, and not a system of truth, whom the Bible tells us we are to know. And how do you know people? Only by familiar acquaintance with them. You might read a description of a man, perfectly accurate, sufficiently full, but you would not therefore say you knew him. You might know about him, or fancy you did, but if you knew him, it would be because you had summered and wintered with him, and lived beside him, and were on terms of familiar acquaintance with him. As long as it is God and not theology, the knowledge of whom makes religion, so long it will not be the head, but the heart or spirit, that is the medium or organ by which we know Him. You have to become acquainted with Him and be very familiar with Him-that is to say, to fix your whole self upon Him-before you ‘know’ Him; and it is only the knowledge which is born of love and familiarity that is worth calling knowledge at all. Just as with our earthly relationships and acquaintances, only they who love a man or a woman know such a one right down to the very depth of their being, so the one way to know God’s name is to bind myself to Him with mind and heart and will, as friends cleave to one another. Then I shall know Him and be known of Him.
Still further, this knowledge which God delights to find in us men, is a knowledge which is experience. There is all the difference between reading about a foreign country and going to see it with your own eyes. The man that has been there knows it; the man that has not knows about it. And only he knows God to whom the commonplaces of religion have turned into facts which he verifies by his own experiences.
It is a knowledge, too, which influences life. Obviously the words of my text look back to what the saint was represented as saying in an earlier portion of the psalm. Why does God declare that the man has set his love upon Him, and knows His name? Because the saint professed this, ‘I will say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress.’ These are His name. The man knows it; he has it not only upon his lips, but in his heart, and feels that it is true, and acts accordingly. ‘He is my Refuge and my Fortress; my God, in Him will I trust.’ The knowledge which God regards as knowledge of Him is one based upon experience and upon familiar acquaintance, and issuing in joyful recognition of my possession of Him as mine, and the outgoing of my confidence to Him. These are the things that God desires and delights to find in men.
II. Note, secondly, what God gives to the man in whom He finds such things.
‘I will deliver him’; ‘I will set him on high.’ These two clauses are substantially parallel, and yet there is a difference between them, as is the nature of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, where the same ideas are repeated with a shade of modification, and the second of them somewhat surpassing the first. ‘I will deliver him,’ says the promise. That confirms the view that the promise in the previous verse, ‘There shall no plague come nigh thy dwelling,’ does not mean exemption from sorrow and trial because, if so, there would be no relevancy or blessedness in the promise of deliverance. He who needs ‘deliverance’ is the man who is surrounded by evils, and God’s promise is not that no evil shall come to the man who trusts Him, but that he shall be delivered out of the evil that does come, and that it will not be truly evil.
And why is he to be delivered? ‘Because he has bound himself to Me,’ says God, ‘therefore will I deliver him.’ Of course, if I am fastened to God, nothing that does not hurt Him can hurt me. If I am knit to Him as closely as this psalm contemplates, it is impossible but that out of His fulness my emptiness shall be filled, and with His rejoicing strength my weakness will be made strong. It is just the same idea as is given to us in the picture of Peter upon the water, when the cold waves are up to his knees, and the coward heart says, ‘I am ready to sink,’ but yet, with the faith that comes with the fear, he puts out his hand and grasps Christ’s hand, and as soon as he does, and the two are united, he is buoyant, and rises again, and the water is beneath the soles of his feet. ‘He sent from above, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.’ Whoever is joined to God is lifted above all evil, and the evil that continues to eddy about him will change its character, and bear him onwards to his haven. For he who is thus knit to God in the living, pulsating bond of thought and affection and submission, will be delivered from sin.
When a boy first learns to skate, he needs some one to go behind him and hold him up whilst he uses his unaccustomed limbs; and so, when we are upon the smooth, treacherous ice of this wicked world, it is by leaning on God that we are kept upright. ‘He hath set himself close to Me, I will deliver him,’ says God. ‘Yea! he shall not fall, for the Lord is able to make him stand.’
Still further, we have another great promise, which is the explanation and extension of the former, ‘I will set him on high, because he hath known My name.’ That is more than lifting a man up above the reach of the storms of life by means of any external deliverance. There is a better thing than that-namely, that our whole inward life be lived loftily. If it is true of us that we know His name, then our lives are ‘hid with Christ in God,’ and far below our feet will be all the riot of earth and its noise and tumult and change. We shall live serene and uplifted lives on the mount, if we know His name and have bound ourselves to Him, and the troubles and cares and changes and duties and joys of this present will be away down below us, like the lowly cottages in some poor village, seen from the mountain top, the squalor out of sight, the magnitude diminished, the noise and tumult dimmed to a mere murmur that interrupts not the sacred silence of the lofty peak where we dwell with God. ‘I will set him on high because he knows My name.’
Then, perhaps, there is a hint in the words, as there is in subsequent words of the verse, of an elevation even higher than that, when, life ended and earth done, He shall receive into His glory those whom He hath guided by His counsel. ‘I will set him on high, because he hath known My name,’ says the Jehovah of the Old Covenant. ‘To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me on My throne,’ says the Jesus of the New, who is the Jehovah of the Old.
WHAT GOD WILL DO FOR US
Psa_91:15 - Psa_91:16 .
When considering the previous verses of this psalm, I pointed out that at its close we have God’s own voice coming in to confirm and expand the promises which, in the earlier portion of it, have been made in His name to the devout heart. The words which we have now to consider cover the whole range of human life and need, and may be regarded as being a picture of the sure and blessed consequences of keeping our hearts fixed upon our Father, God. He Himself speaks them, and His word is true.
The verses of the text fall into three portions. There are promises for the suppliant, promises for the troubled, promises for mortals. ‘He shall call upon Me and I will answer him’; that is for the suppliant. ‘I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honour him’; that is for the distressed. ‘With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation’; that is for the mortal. Now let us look at these three.
I. The promise to the suppliant.
‘He will call upon Me and I will answer.’ We may almost regard the first of these two clauses as part of the promise. It is not merely a Hebrew way of putting a supposition, ‘If he calls upon Me, then I will answer him,’ nor merely a virtual commandment, ‘Call, if you expect an answer,’ but itself is a part of the blessing and privilege of the devout and faithful heart. ‘He shall call upon Me’; the King opens the door of His chamber and beckons us within.
In these great words we may see set forth both the instinct, as I may call it, of prayer, and the privilege of access to God. If a man’s heart is set upon God, his very life-breath will be a cry to His Father. He will experience a need which is not degraded by being likened to an instinct, for it acts as certainly as do the instincts of the lower creatures, which guide them by the straightest possible road to the surest supply of their need. Any man who has learned in any measure to love God and trust Him will, in the measure in which he has so learned, live in the exercise and habit of prayer; and it will be as much his instinct to cry to God in all changing circumstances as it is for the swallows to seek the sunny south when the winter comes, or the cold north when the sunny south becomes torrid and barren. So, then, ‘He shall call upon Me’ is the characteristic of the truly God-knowing and God-loving heart, which was described in the previous verse. ‘Because he has clung to Me in love, therefore will I deliver him; because he has known My name, therefore will I set him on high,’ and because he has clung and known therefore it is certain that He will ‘call upon Me.’
My friend! do you know anything of that instinctive appeal to God? Does it come to your heart and to your lips without your setting yourself to pray, just as the thought of dear ones on earth comes stealing into our minds a hundred times a day, when we do not intend it nor know exactly how it has come? Does God suggest Himself to you in that fashion, and is the instinct of your hearts to call upon Him?
Again, we see here not only the unveiling of the very deepest and most characteristic attribute of the devout soul, but also the assurance of the privilege of access. God lets us speak to Him. And there is, further, a wonderful glimpse into the very essence of true prayer. ‘He shall call upon Me.’ What for? No particular object is specified as sought. It is God whom we want, and not merely any things that even He can give. If asking for these only or mainly is our conception of what prayer is, we know little about it. True prayer is the cry of the soul for the living God, in whom is all that it needs, and out of whom is nothing that will do it good. ‘He shall call upon Me,’ that is prayer.
‘I will answer him.’ Yes! Of course the instinct is not all on one side. If the devout heart yearns for God, God longs for the devout heart. If I might use such a metaphor, just as the ewe on one side of the hedge hears and answers the bleating of its lamb on the other, so, if my heart cries out for the living God, anything is more credible than that such a cry should not be answered. You may not get this, that, or the other blessing which you ask, for perhaps they are not blessings. You may not get what you fancy you need. We are not always good at translating our needs into words, and it is a mercy that there is Some One that understands what we do want a great deal better than we do ourselves. But if below the specific petition there lies the cry of a heart that calls for the living God, then whether the specific petition be answered or dispersed into empty air will matter comparatively little. ‘He shall call upon Me,’ and that part of his prayer ‘I will answer’ and come to him and be in him. Is that our experience of what it is to pray, and our notion of what it is to be answered?
II. Further, here we have a promise for suppliants.
I take the next three clauses of the text as being all closely connected. ‘I will be with him in trouble. I will deliver him and honour him’-in trouble, His presence; from trouble, His deliverance; after trouble, glorifying and refining. There are the whole theory and process of the discipline of the devout man’s life.
‘I will be with him in trouble.’ The promise is not only that, when trials of any kind, larger or smaller, more grave or more slight, fall upon us, we shall become more conscious, if we take them rightly, of God’s presence, but that all which is meant by God’s presence shall really be more fully ours, and that He is, if I may say so, actually nearer us. Though, of course, all words about being near or far have only a very imperfect application to our relation to Him, still the gifts that are meant by His presence-that is to say, His sympathy, His help, His love-are more fully given to a man who in the darkness is groping for his Father’s hand, and yet not so much groping for as grasping it. He is nearer us as well as felt to be nearer us, if we take our sorrows rightly. The effect of sorrow devoutly borne, in bringing God closer to us, belongs to it, whether it be great or small; whether it be, according to the metaphor of an earlier portion of this psalm, ‘a lion or an adder’; or whether it be a buzzing wasp or a mosquito. As long as anything troubles me, I may make it a means of bringing God closer to myself.
Therefore, there is no need for any sorrowful heart ever to say, ‘I am solitary as well as sad.’ He will always come and sit down by us, and if it be that, like poor Job upon his dunghill, we are not able to bear the word of consolation, yet He will wait there till we are ready to take it. He is there all the same, though silent, and will be near all of us, if only we do not drive Him away. ‘He will call upon Me and I will answer him’; and the beginning of the answer is the real presence of God with every troubled heart.
Then there follows the next stage, deliverance from trouble; ‘I will deliver him.’ That is not the same word as is employed in the previous verse, though it is translated in the same way in our Bibles. The word here means lifting up out of a pit, or dragging up out of the midst of anything that surrounds a man, and so setting him in some place of safety. Is this promise always true, about people who in sorrow of any kind cast themselves upon God? Do they always get deliverance from Him? There are some sorrows from the pressure of which we shall never escape. Some of us have to carry such. Has this promise no application to the people for whom outward life can never bring an end of the sorrows and burdens that they carry? Not so. He will deliver us not only by taking the burden off our backs, but by making us strong to carry it, and the sorrow, which has changed from wild and passionate weeping into calm submission, is sorrow from which we have been delivered. The serpent may still wound our heel, but if God be with us He will give us strength to press the wounded heel on the malignant head, and we can squeeze all the poison out of it. The bitterness remains; be it so, but let us be quite sure of this, that though sorrow be lifelong, that does not in the least contradict the great and faithful promise, ‘I will be with him in trouble and deliver him,’ for where He is there is deliverance.
Lastly, there is the third of these promises for the troubled. ‘I will honour him.’ The word translated ‘honour’ is more correctly rendered ‘glorify.’ Is not that the end of a trouble which has been borne in company with Him; and from which, because it has been so borne, a devout heart is delivered even whilst it lasts? Does not all such sorrow hallow, ennoble, refine, purify the sufferer, and make him liker his God? ‘He for our profit, that we should be partakers of His holiness.’ Is not that God’s way of glorifying us before heaven’s glory? When a blunt knife is ground upon a wheel, the sparks fly fast from the edge held down upon the swiftly-revolving emery disc, but that is the only way to sharpen the dull blade. Friction, often very severe friction, and heat are indispensable to polish the shaft and turn the steel into a mirror that will flash back the sunshine. So when God holds us to His grindstone, it is to get a polish on the surface. ‘I will deliver him and I will glorify him.’
III. Last of all, we have the promise for mortals.
‘With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation.’ I do not know whether by that first clause the Psalmist meant, as people who sometimes like to make the Psalmist mean as little as possible tell us that he did mean, simply ‘length of days.’ For my own part I do not believe that he did. He meant that, no doubt, for longevity was part of the Old Testament promises for this life. But ‘length of days’ does not ‘satisfy’ all old people who attain to it, and that ‘satisfaction’ necessarily implies something more than the prolongation of the physical life to old age. The idea contained in this promise may be illustrated by the expression which is used in reference to a select few of the Old Testament saints, of whom it is recorded that they died ‘full of days.’ That does not merely mean that they had many days, but that, whatever the number, they had as many as they wished, and departed unreluctantly, having had enough of life. They looked back, and saw that all the past had been very good, and that goodness and mercy had determined and accompanied all their days, and so they did not wish to linger longer here, but closed their eyes in peace, with no hungry, vain cravings for prolonged life. They had got all out of the world which it could give, and were contented to have done with it all.
So this promise assures us that, if we are of those who, in the midst of fleeting days, lay hold on the ‘Ancient of Days’ and live by Him, we shall find a table spread in the wilderness, and like travellers in an inn, having eaten enough, shall willingly obey the call to leave the meal provided on the road, and pass into the Father’s house, and sit at the bountiful feast there.
The heart that lives near God, whether its years be few or many, will find in life all that life is capable of giving, and when the end comes will not be unwilling that it should come, nor hold on desperately to the last fag-end and fragment of life that it can keep within its clutches, but will be satisfied to have lived and be contented to die.
Nor is this all, for says the Psalmist, ‘I will show him My salvation.’ That sight comes after he is satisfied with length of days here. And so I think the fair interpretation of the words, in their place in this psalm, is, that however dimly, yet certainly, here the Psalmist saw something beyond. It was not a black curtain which dropped at death. He believed that, yonder, the man who here had been living near God, calling to Him, realising His presence, and satisfied with the fatness of His house upon earth, would see something that would satisfy him more. ‘I shall be satisfied when I awake in Thy likeness.’ That is satisfaction indeed, and the vision, which is possession, of that perfected salvation is the vision that makes the blessedness of heaven.
So, dear friends! we, if we will, may have access to God’s chamber at every moment, and may have His presence, which will make it impossible that we should ever be alone. We may have Him to deliver us from all the evil that is in evil, and to turn it into good. We may have Him to purge, and cleanse, and uplift, and change us into His likeness, even by the ministry of our trials. We may get out of life the last drop of the sweetness that He has put in it; and when it comes to a close, may say, ‘It is enough! Let Thy servant depart in peace; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,’ and then we may go to see it better in that world where we shall all, if we attain thither, be ‘satisfied’ when we ‘awake in His likeness.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Psalms 91". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18