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THIS is "a psalm of complaint, closely parallel to Psalms 74:1-23." (Cheyne), and must, like that psalm, be referred to the time of the Babylonian conquest. It shows us the Holy Land occupied by the heathen, the temple desecrated, Jerusalem laid in ruins, the special servants of God put to death, and the whole nation of the Israelites become an object of scorn and reproach to their neighbours (Psalms 74:1-4). Some critics have supposed that it might have been written after the invasion of Shishak; but the condition of things is far worse than can be reasonably supposed to have been reached at that period. Others incline to assign it to the age of the Maccabees; but Jerusalem was not then destroyed, much less "laid on heaps" (Psalms 74:1). Hence the general voice of commentators is in favour of the date here advocated.
The psalm consists of four strophes of four verses each, together with an epilogue consisting of one verse only. In Psalms 74:1-4 the situation is described. In Psalms 74:5-8 and Psalms 74:9-12 prayer is made to God for deliverance, and for vengeance upon the cruel enemy. Psalms 74:13 is an expression of confidence in God, and a promise of perpetual thankfulness.
O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance (comp. Psalms 74:2; Psalms 78:62). Israel—alike the people and the land—is "God's inheritance." Thy holy temple have they defiled. The Babylonians defiled the temple by breaking into it, seizing its treasures and ornaments (Jeremiah 52:17-23), and finally setting fire to it (Jeremiah 52:13). They have laid Jerusalem on heaps. This was certainly not done either by Shishak or by Antiochus Epiphanes; but was done, as prophesied (Jeremiah 9:11; Jeremiah 26:18; Micah 3:12), by the Babylonians.
The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to Be meat unto the fowls of the heaven. A common incident of warfare (see the Assyrian sculptures, passim). The flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth; or, of the land. Hyaenas and jackals would dispute the flesh of the slain with vultures and crows.
Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem. During the long siege (eighteen months) the number slain in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem would be very large. And there was none to bury them (compare the prophecy of Jeremiah, Jeremiah 14:16). The population being for the most part carried into captivity, and but few left in the land (Jeremiah 52:15, Jeremiah 52:16), the bodies of the slain lay unburied, the few left not being able to bury them. Compare the preceding verse.
We are become a reproach to our neighbours.
How long, Lord? i.e. "How long, O Lord, is this condition of things to endure?" (comp. Psalms 6:5; Psalms 90:13; Revelation 6:10). An ellipse after "how long?" is common. Wilt thou be angry forever? (see Psalms 13:1; Psalms 74:12; Lamentations 5:20). Shall thy jealousy burn like fire? It was their worship of other gods that God especially visited on his people by the Babylonish captivity (see Jeremiah, passim).
Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known thee. It is not the heathen that had never heard of God who are intended, but those who, having heard of him, had refused to "know" him (comp. Exodus 5:2), as was the case with all the nations round about Canaan. And upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy Name. Now that we are punished, go on to punish those who have persecuted us, and who are at least as guilty as ourselves. "The prayer rests," as Hengstenberg remarks, "upon what God does constantly. Judgment begins at the house of God; but it proceeds thence to those whom God has employed as the instrument of his punishment. The storm of the wrath of God always remains to fall at last upon the world at enmity with his Church."
For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place. This and the preceding verso occur also, almost word for word, in Jeremiah 10:25. It is difficult to say which writer has quoted from the other.
O remember not against us former iniquities; or, the iniquities of our forefathers (so Professor Cheyne and the Revised Version); comp. Leviticus 26:45, "I will remember to them the covenant of their ancestors"—where the same word (רִאשֹׁגִים) is used. Let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us; or, come to meet us (Kay, Cheyne). For we are brought very low (comp. Psalms 111:6; Psalms 142:6).
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy Name. The calamities suffered have not extinguished all faith or hope. God is still the God of Israel's salvation, i.e. the God from whom alone salvation can be obtained and may be expected. He is entreated to come to Israel's aid, not for their sakes, as they are wholly undeserving, but for his own glory (comp. Exodus 32:12; Numbers 14:13; Deuteronomy 9:28; and Deuteronomy 32:27). And deliver us, and purge away our sins; literally, make atonement for our sins (Exodus 30:15); i.e. "cancel them" (Cheyne), or "forgive them" (Hengstenberg, Kay). For thy Name's sake (comp. Psalms 23:3; Psalms 25:11; Psalms 34:3; Ezekiel 36:22).
Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is their God? (so Joel 2:17). A triumph over a foreign nation was always regarded in the ancient world as a triumph over their gods. Their gods were bound to protect them, and, if they did not, must either have been absent or powerless. Let him be known among the heathen in our sight by the revenging of the blood of thy servants which is shed; rather, let there be shown forth among the heathen in our sight vengeance for the blood of thy servants that has been shed; or, in other words, "Let an evident judgment, visible to us, fall upon the heathen who have shed the blood of our brethren, thy true servants." An immediate judgment is prayed for; but it did not please God to send the judgment till after the expiration of a long term of years.
Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee; or, the groaning, as in Exodus 2:24. The Babylonians treated their Jewish captives variously. Some, like Daniel and the "Three Children," were favoured, and exalted to high places. But the bulk of them were afflicted and oppressed (see Lamentations 1:3-5; Lamentations 5:18, etc.). But, whether well or ill treated, all sighed to return (comp. Psalms 137:1-6). According to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die; literally, that are children of death, which may have the meaning assigned to it in our version, or may simply signify, "those whose death is imminent"—who cannot live long now that they are torn from their country. The phrase recurs in Psalms 102:20.
And render unto our neighbours sevenfold into their bosom their reproach, wherewith they have reproached thee, O Lord. (For the "reproach" intended, see Psalms 79:10.) The whole passage means, "Punish them seven times as much as thou hast punished us." Then their reproach will be seven times as great.
So we thy people and sheep of thy pasture (see Psalms 74:1; and comp. Psalms 78:52). Will give thee thanks forever. When thou hast punished our enemies, and delivered us, we will give thee thanks perpetually, and show forth thy praise to all generations. An instance of identical parallelism.
For the glory of thy Name.
The mariner throws out his heaviest anchor when the storm rages; if that will not hold, nothing else can save. So the psalmist puts out this plea. The tempest of judgment was sweeping over the land. The future was dark. Israel's unfaithfulness had forfeited God's promises. We have no certain clue to the exact occasion of this psalm. The Spirit who spake by the prophets would not tie it up to one time of trial, but let it stand ready for the Church's use. Serious difficulties beset the explanations that it belongs to the time either of Nebuchadnezzar or of the Maccabees. Much may be said for referring it to the Egyptian invasion in the time of Rehoboam; which, if not equally calamitous with the Assyrian and Babylonian, must have appeared unspeakably terrible, following close on the glories of David and Solomon; flinging over the heads of devout Israelites the deadly fear that God was about to annul his covenant and forsake his people. "If the foundations," etc. (Psalms 11:3). He can take refuge in God. So Jeremiah (Jeremiah 14:21).
I. WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS PLEA? A name stands for much or little, according to whose it is. A stranger's palls on our ear as empty sound. A great man's—Milton, Wren, Howard, Wilberforce—stands not only for the man himself, but his work. We think of 'Paradise Lost,' St. Paul's, the lightening of the prisoners' misery, the freedom of the slave. A friend's name sets a thousand echoes ringing, the heart beating; brings roses to the cheek or tears to the eye. A man's name stands for his character, credit, faith. The banker looks what name is at the back of the paper. "Give us your name," say the promoters of an enterprise, "and we are certain of success." Proverbs 22:1 true in more senses than one. When a man gives his name, he pledges his honour. So, then, God's name stands for his honour, promise, character—in a word, for his very self; and for all that we know concerning him (see Exodus 3:13; Exodus 6:3 £). When Moses asked to see God's glory, the Lord answered that he would proclaim his Name (Exodus 33:19; Exodus 34:5; cf. Exodus 23:21). Our Saviour sums up his work on earth thus (John 17:6). The "glory" of God's Name, then, corresponds, humanly speaking, with what every honest man holds dearer than life—his character. On God's part it stands for his claim to love, trust, obedience, gratitude, reverence, adoration. On ours, when we exercise all these, we are said to "give glory to God," "the glory due unto his Name."
II. WHAT IS THIS PLEA WORTH? Wherein lies its force and value? "For men to search their own glory is not glory." Some minds are perplexed by the thought that what is wrong for us cannot be right for God; and so God cannot make his glory the object of his dealings. This is for want of clear thought. Eternal principles of right and wrong are the same with God as with us, else no mortal likeness to God possible. But duties change with relationships; parental not the same as filial; or a king's as a private citizen's. That God is what he is is the eternal foundation of all happiness, life, being. That he should be known to be what he is, and receive the love, obedience, worship, due to him, is indispensable to the order and well being of his children. If all men glorified God perfectly, this would be a happy and glorious world. Just because it is possible for us to glorify God, it is degrading and unhappy to live for lower ends. To live for self is lowest of all, self-worship the worst idolatry. To live for others—for your family, your profession, your country, your fellow men,—this is noble as far as it goes. But high above all other aims (like the snow peak above lower heights) rises this crowning achievement. The highest life was his who could say John 17:4. If this is true of each, it must be true of all. And God must act according to truth. "He cannot deny himself;" cannot abdicate, or "give his glory to another." Impossible! If we try to imagine such an impossibility, we see it would be an infinite wrong to all creatures no less than to the Creator. Clouds in the sky do not hinder the sun's rays from filling space; but they shut them out from earth. Life is depressed; were they dense enough permanently and completely to shut out the sunlight, it would perish. So all that hides God's glory is deadly to man's true life.
III. WHEN AND BY WHOM MAY THIS PLEA BE USED? By all God's children at all times. It ought to be the prayer of all men. Our Saviour sets it in the forefront of our prayer, "Hallowed," etc. If our hearts beat true, no selfish desire will compete with this; God's honour will be dearer than life. Yet our best welfare is comprehended (Proverbs 18:10; Psalms 25:11). But this plea specially fits times of public distress and danger, as in this psalm; and the position and work of God's Church in the world. Moses urged it (Exodus 32:1-35.; Numbers 14:1-45.); Joshua (Joshua 7:9). These two petitions are inseparable, "Hallowed be thy Name; thy kingdom come."
IV. THE GOSPEL IS THE GREAT ANSWER TO THIS PRAYER. This was the angels' song (Luke 2:14); our Saviour's prayer, and God's answer (John 12:28). This is the gospel message—our sins are forgiven for his Name's sake (1 John 2:12). The glory of God's Name consists, above all, in righteousness and love. It is often said, and the saying is often blamed, that the gospel reconciles these. Where no discord is, there is no room for reconciliation. Yet, to our view, justice requires punishment; love, pardon. The gospel shows these, not in discord or contrast, but unity (Romans 1:17, Romans 1:18; Romans 3:25, Romans 3:26; Romans 6:23; 1 John 1:9).
HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY
An imprecatory psalm.
We need not be at pains to fix the date of this psalm, whether it belongs to the period of the Exile or of Antiochus Epiphanes. The words to some extent suit either. But we note in it—
I. WHAT IS RIGHT FOR EVERY ONE. The writer is in sore trouble, but he takes his trouble to God. One purpose of all such trouble has already been won—the heart has been brought nearer God.
II. WHAT WAS NATURAL AND NOT WRONG FOR ISRAEL, BUT WOULD BE VERY WRONG FOR US. We refer especially to the vengeful utterances which we find in Psalms 79:6, Psalms 79:10, Psalms 79:12, Psalms 79:13. Now, concerning them we note:
1. That there are very many such in the Psalms. The comminatory, and especially the imprecatory psalms, have ever been a stumbling block to Christian readers. But there they are, and we cannot get rid of them.
2. They are very natural. The spirit of resentment and revenge is a definite part of human nature; it may manifest itself in varied forms, more or less barbaric, according to the degree of civilization which has been reached, but it exists in all.
3. And in Israel of old it was not wrong. For it must ever be remembered that to them no revelation of the future life, still less of the future judgment, had been given. Had there been any Scripture plainly teaching this doctrine which Christians know so well from the New Testament, our Lord, in showing to the Sadducees who believed no such doctrine, would not have appealed to a text which, unless he had told us so, we should never have regarded as teaching that doctrine at all. Before our Lord so explained it, it had not been recognized that the oft-repeated words, "I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac," etc; involved the truth of the future life. But there was no more evident text, or it would have been appealed to. Hence, and for many other reasons, we conclude that the truth of the future life and immortality, still less of judgment to come, had not been brought to light when these psalms were written. If this were so, then such as the psalmist could only vindicate the righteousness of God by appealing to his visible acts of judgment and retribution here and now. Were they not seen, who would believe in a righteous God at all? Hence was it that so often, and so prominently, not to say so fiercely, the ancient psalmists and prophets appealed to God as in this psalm. Had they known what we do, there would have been no such appeals made. It was not mere personal revenge or national hate, but jealousy for the honour of God's Name, and therefore we say that, however wrong such sentiments would be for us, in them they were not wrong.
4. But for us they would be wrong, being altogether opposed to the Spirit of Christ.
5. All this does not condemn either national or personal self-defence.
III. HOW WE MAY LAWFULLY ADOPT FOR OURSELVES THIS WHOLE PSALM AND ALL SUCH PSALMS. By turning all these prayers for the destruction of enemies against the hosts of spiritual wickedness, "the gates of hell" which do sore assail, and seek to prevail over the people of God. They are the heathen, the defilers, the destroyers, the shedders of blood, the mockers, the oppressors. Not against our fellow men, but against them, we may and should thus pray. The devil and his angels are no mere myth or superstition, but terrible realities, and every faithful soul knows sadly well their cruel tyranny, and seemingly invincible might.—S.C.
Brought very low.
I. THIS A CONDITION VERY COMMON. Sometimes it is through:
1. Mental distress, helplessness, sorrow, despair.
2. Or sickness of body, as Hezekiah.
3. Or outward disaster, as in this psalm.
II. ITS CAUSES GENERALLY TRACEABLE:
1. To ourselves—our own sin or folly.
2. To others with whom we are associated.
See this verse, where "former iniquities" mean the iniquities of people who have lived before us. Parents, ancestors. We all are members one of another, and if one suffer, all others suffer with him. Hence it may be their sin or folly rather than our own.
3. To God. He, as with Job, may see fit to let us be brought very low.
III. ITS REASONS VARIOUS.
3. For the drawing of the soul nearer God.
4. For opportunity of testifying to God's sustaining grace.
5. To teach sympathy.
IV. BESET WITH PERIL. The devil loves to hit a man when he is down. Hence he assails the mind with thoughts hard, bitter, unbelieving, desperate. Shipwreck of faith and good conscience lies near at hand.
V. BUT MAY BECOME THE MEANS OF GREAT SPIRITUAL ATTAINMENT. Even our Lord "learned obedience" so.—S.C.
The heathen taunt.
I. THE HEATHEN DID SAY THIS—Where is their God? The Jew had talked so much of his God, how great and glorious he was, what wonderful works he had done, the victories he had given them, that now, in view of their burning city, their desecrated temple, the heaps of slain in their streets, the heathen in pride and scorn flung this taunt in their face—Where is your God?
II. AND THE HEATHEN SAY IT STILL. Missionaries go to them, and tell them of God, so holy, merciful, righteous, that many of them are won for God; but lo! there come, soon after, fellow countrymen of the missionaries—traders, sailors, and others, who bring vile alcoholic drinks, murderous weapons, vices unnamable, and much else with them, and do their bad best to make the heathen's home a hell: what wonder if they should ask, as they do—Where is your God?
III. AND MEN GODLESS AS HEATHENS SAY IT HERE IN OUR OWN LAND.
1. So called scientific men. One of them, the other day, contemptuously declared that he had been looking down a microscope for some thirty years, and he hadn't found God yet; and he was sure he should have found him if there was a God to be found. And many others scoff at the idea of God, and deny his existence, or, at any rate, defy you to prove it.
2. Others, because of the problems of moral and physical evil, refuse to believe in God.
3. Others under the pressure of trial and earthly care: hence they have become bitter and hard, and so east off all Faith.
4. Many others, as they mark the glaring inconsistencies of professed Christians. They condemn them all as false, hypocritical, and insincere.
IV. But we ask—WHEREFORE SHOULD THEY SAY THIS?
1. Wherefore the man of science? For God is known by the spirit, not the intellect.
2. Or the mind baffled by moral problems? Our children trust us, when they cannot understand: should not God's children trust him?
3. Or the care-embittered soul? Does the denial of God make care lighter? Would it not be better to humble one's self before God, and to hide in the shelter of his love?
4. And the declaimer against the inconsistencies of the Church? He exaggerates them, and ignores the mass of true-hearted believers.
CONCLUSION. But let us take care to give no occasion for the heathen to say—Where, etc.?—S.C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
Times of persecution.
Such times have been repeated over and over again. They must be recognized as parts of the Divine administration, and we must inquire how they are made to bear on the spiritual interests of God's Church in the world. They are not merely historical incidents. They are not merely isolated calamities. They are only seen and apprehended aright when they are seen to be Divine permissions, and even taken up and used for high moral ends by Divine power. They are one form in which God's Church is disciplined, and, through discipline, perfected. Illustrate from the Book of Revelation, which deals so largely with the persecution of Christ's Church, but shows us the Church being sanctified through its tribulation. Illustrative cases of persecution may be taken from
(1) Old Testament history; e.g. the times of Jezebel.
(2) New Testament history; e.g. the time succeeding Stephen's martyrdom.
(3) Early Church history; e.g. the persecution under Diocletian.
(4) Middle Age history: give some account of the work of the Inquisition in Spain.
(5) Modern Age history: see the persecution of the native Christians in Madagascar, under the Queen Ranavalona.
The historical associations of this psalm with the seventy-fourth, which is singularly like it, cannot be certainly assured. It is generally agreed that it must refer to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, or to the sack of the city by Antiochus Epiphanes. If the latter is referred to, we must recognize that some of the psalms belong to the Maccabean period. The details of these two sieges may be given, and the psalm treated as helping us to realize the misery and distress of God's people at such a time. The points which may be opened out profitably are these:
1. Judgments on the wicked bring disabilities on the righteous. The invasion of Nebuchadnezzar was a distinct Divine judgment on the Israelite nation. The Babylonians did but execute the Divine judgment, as Israel itself had, in previous ages, executed the Divine judgments on the Canaanites. Sometimes God was pleased to spare the few faithful ones, as in the case of Noah; the prophets preserved by Obadiah; and the Christians at the Roman siege of Jerusalem. But usually the judgments affected the pious and the wicked; and the attitude of the pious under the judgment became an appeal and an example. It should, however, be noticed that judgments on the wicked are only chastisements to the righteous.
2. The trouble of the righteous is the insult offered to God, rather than the damage done to themselves. Here the defiling of God's temple is the chief complaint. This better suits an association with Antiochus Epiphanes. In all times of public calamity, the good man is chiefly concerned about God's honour, as Joshua was when he cried, "What wilt thou do unto thy great Name?" Such concern for God's honour is one of the surest signs of right heartedness.—R.T.
Expected limitations of the Divine wrath.
"How long, O Jehovah, wilt thou be angry forever?" The duration of Divine judgment may seem long to pious feeling; it is known not to be long, when faith begins to read it aright. The Divine wrath is ever in the control of the Divine righteousness and the Divine love. There is no personal feeling in it. When its ends are reached, the Divine wrath is satisfied. God's people may comfort themselves with the assurance that there are three limitations always being put on the Divine wrath.
I. THE DIVINE HONOUR. Of that honour God is jealous. We may be quite sure that he will never act, or continue to act, in such ways as would reasonably give men wrong thoughts concerning him. Take one thing: the good man may be quite sure that God will never so act as to produce impressions of personal vindictiveness. We may not think of God as "hating" anything that he has made. His judgments are official, parts of the wise ordering of his kingdom. No man could have high ideas of the Divine honour who failed to realize the strict limitations of the Divine wrath. Judgments on frail men could not honour the God of righteousness and love, if they were continued forever. They end when their object is gained.
II. THE DIVINE PURPOSE. This too must be seen to be official, not personal. The well being of the creature, not his own pleasure, we are to regard as the purpose ever set before God. It is, however, a moral purpose concerning a moral being; and call be best represented by the aims cherished in the family life. Parents hold ever before them the good manhood and womanhood of their children; and in their efforts to secure these things, strict limitations have to be put on times of wrath and judgment. If God's purpose is to fit us to be with him, and to have us with him, his anger can but be a "hiding of his face for a little moment;" it cannot be forever. If God's purpose is our betterment, no agency used by him can be unduly continued. If it were, "our souls would fail before him." Illustrate from the Church in the wilderness; the times of the prophets; such Christian times as the age of our Queen Mary. The Divine purpose of dispensations of wrath must be fully accomplished; and therefore troubles, calamities, and persecutions may have to stay wearyingly long, until the souls of the martyred cry out, "How long, O Lord, how long!" But God has the long ages to work in, and his purposes are ever "ripening fast, unfolding every hour."
III. THE DIVINE PITY. The psalmist found comfort in thinking of this. "He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust." His judgments and his chastisements are always strictly limited to that which we are able to bear. There is something very like untrustfulness in the plaint of our text. He who is sure of the Divine pity and love has no voice in which to utter the fear that his judgments can be forever."—R.T.
Psalms 79:6, Psalms 79:7
Praying against our enemies.
The gravest difficulties in treating the Book of Psalms concern the entire psalms, and the passages in the psalms, which seem to be invocations of wrath on personal enemies. This is reasonably felt to be wholly contrary to the spirit of Christianity. It is not, however, usually noticed, that it is a hopeful sign for a man to speak his bad feelings out to God. He will do mischief if he speaks them out to his fellow men. He will do no mischief if he speaks them out to God. Before him the man will soon grow calm, and begin to think more kindly. Illustrate by the relief it is, when we feel very strongly about a matter, to speak out quite freely to some one who, we are sure, will not make mischief of it. We feel better when we have got it out. The psalmists were wise in this—that when they felt disagreeably towards their fellows, they told God, and not their fellows. It is also pointed out that most, if not all, the imprecatory psalms represent official rather than personal feelings; and a king or governor may pray against the national enemies, as Hezekiah might properly pray against the Assyrians. From a person acting officially, we presume that the element of temper is excluded. The mischief done by the invaders was distinctly national—the desecration of the temple, the reduction of the city to a heap of ruins, the exposure of the dead, the captivity of multitudes. Prayer for the turning of God's judgments on the nation's enemies could not be regarded as improper, seeing that exactly this God had done over and over again, notably in the case of Sennacherib. What God would do it could not be wrong to pray him to do. And seeing God says, "Avenge not yourselves;" "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord;" it may even be regarded as an act of virtue and piety to restrain our vengeance, and commit our vindications unto the Lord. He who prays against his enemies will not take upon himself his own vindications. The following thoughts may be opened and illustrated.
I. We had better pray against our enemies than fight against them.
II. When we pray we commit all the times and ways of judgment on them to the infinitely wise and gracious Lord. In even this prayer we should say, "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt."
III. If we pray about persons, we soon begin to change our feelings towards them.
IV. But it is the height to which Christian principle raises us, when we pray for our enemies rather than against them. The older religion prayed for vengeance on them, the newer religion prays for mercy towards them. "If thine enemy hunger, feed him: if he thirst, give him drink."—R.T.
The trouble of our old sins.
Prayer book Version, "Oh remember not our old sins." Because a man cannot forget his old sins, he is very disposed to think that God cannot forget them either. And this he will do in face of the repeated assurances of God's Word, that his forgiving includes his forgetting. Three very striking figures are used to assure us that God will not keep the memory of the sins which he has forgiven and blotted out.
1. It is as if they were thrown "behind his back."
2. It is as if they were "cast into the depths of the sea."
3. It is as if they were removed from us "far as the east is from the west." We can never really think that God will bring up against us what he has forgiven. The fear that he will only tells of the state of our own hearts. We may, therefore, consider—
I. THE REASONABLE USE WE MAY MAKE OF THE MEMORY OF PAST SINS. This may be applied to both national and family sins. Israel was required to keep in memory the sins of its forefathers, and prophets made it part of their work to remind Israel of those bygone iniquities. So we may be sure that some moral value lies in such memories. This much we can see: they keep us
(1) impressed with the sovereignty of Divine grace; and they bring us
(2) the safeguard of a proper fear of ourselves. In view of the sins of the past, we are plainly the monuments of Divine grace; all boasting is excluded. We can have no claim before God. He must mercifully have passed by transgression and sin in order to "clear the guilty." He loved us because he loved us, and no more can be said. Divine grace triumphed in bringing salvation to such as we were. See St. Paul's plea: "Such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). And the thought of our past sins brings a worthy humbling, and a holy fear. What we have been we might fall back upon again; and we can only be kept steadfast by the sustainings of Divine grace (comp. Psalms 78:8). Nothing checks self confidence, the self-trusting that destroys dependence, like recalling our wilful past. We have fallen—the thought makes us fear lest we should fall again; and forces from us the cry, "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe."
II. THE UNREASONABLE USE WE MAY MAKE OF THE MEMORY OF PAST SINS. Dwell chiefly on one point. We are always wrong, and we always act unworthily, when we think of our past sins without thinking also that they are forgiven, blotted out, put away; so far as God is concerned, done with, irrecoverable. It honours God for us to use the memory of our past sins in order to make us more watchful and humble; but it never honours God for us to worry over sins that he has forgiven, and put wholly away from him. We ought to enter into the full joy of his forgiveness.—R.T.
Purging away sins.
"Deliver us, and purge away our sins;" "Cover our sins." The figure is evidently one familiar to those brought up under the old covenant system. In it the atonement idea was prominent, as a "covering over" of transgression. The two words are distinct, but closely related; and they suggested the two things which man needs to have done to his sin. It must
(1) be covered over;
(2) it must be purged away.
I. OUR SIN MUST BE "COVERED OVER." The Mosaic idea of the word "atonement" is very clearly defined. It always means "to cover." An "atonement" is exactly this, "a sin cover." It is something that covers sin over; puts it out of sight; bides it from view; removes it from consideration; puts something before God in its place. To "make atonement" is really to "make a sin cover;" and that is but a quaint Hebrew figure for "to make reconciliation," or to provide a basis or persuasion for reconciliation; "the conception being that sin is thereby covered up, hidden from sight and memory. Exactly the same thing is meant when, using a different figure, it is said to be purged, cleansed, taken away. When the transgressor is said to be atoned or reconciled, the being covered is taken subjectively in the same way; as if something had come upon him to change his unclean state and make him ceremonially or, it may be, spiritually pure. But the subject thus atoned is not only covered or cleansed in himself, he is figured as put in a new relation with God, and God with him; and it is as if God were somehow changed towards him—newly inclined, propitiated, or made propitious" (H. Bushnell). As a New Testament illustration of this term, we may be reminded of the words of St. James, "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him, let him know that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." St. James was an apostle of the most Judaic type, and he evidently had in mind the Old Testament idea of covering sin by some conspicuous act of goodness, and so making atonement for it. As an Old Testament illustration, the striking words of Ezekiel may be taken, tie says, in the name of Jehovah, "If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done, he shall live." That is, his full, hearty return to God shall be graciously regarded as a sin cover, it shall hide from God those former sins which, if God saw, would demand his judgments. There are three very striking historical incidents in the Old Testament which illustrate this "covering over of sin." They are Moses' intercession with God in the matter of the golden calf. The atonement made by Aaron in connection with the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And the vindication of Phinehas, when Balaam's bad advice had brought moral woes on Israel. These were but preparatory illustrations of the way in which man's sin is "covered over" by the great atonement, the great vindication of the Divine righteousness, made by the Lord Jesus Christ. He is God himself covering over human sin.
II. OUR SIN MUST BE "PURGED AWAY." We must not for one moment think of the atonement as if it were some device or deception. It is no "covering over" that merely keeps from view. There is another truth that must be clearly seen. Along with the "covering over" goes a "purging away." It is not covered up and kept, but covered over until it can get purged away. The Word of God is ever trying to help us in apprehending that sin is not the mere act we do, but the state of mind and heart out of which the act comes, and of which it finds the expression. The sin is, as it were, in the stuff, like a stain; so it must be washed, cleansed, purged away. And this is done by Divine discipline. And this the true-hearted man desires to have done in him, and lovingly yields himself to the Divine cleansing. He even makes it a matter of devout and earnest prayer, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." In this passage national calamity is seen as the consequence of national sins; but the psalmist seems almost able to take the truer, deeper view, that those national calamities are doing God's purging work, and delivering the nation from the power of the old sins. We want our sins covered over, but that cannot content us. We also want them purged away. And this is but another way of saying that we need Jesus the Justifier, and Jesus the Sanctifier.—R.T.
The cry of the prisoner.
"The sighing of the prisoner." The prisoner here is not the man under the penalty of his crime. It is the captive placed under wearying limitations, not for personal faults, but as sharing the national disabilities. The case of such may be treated from three points of view. We have the sigh of the captive, the exile, and the oppressed.
I. THE SIGH OF THE CAPTIVE. The restraint of personal liberty is a most grievous distress. Man loves his freedom, and cannot endure bondage. There is the captivity of the body, but there is also a captivity of opinion, and a captivity of habits. When men are awakened, they begin to sigh under these bondages. "He is the free man whom the truth makes free, and all are slaves besides." Illustrate by the condition of captive Israel in Babylon. One psalmist pictures their distress in a very touching way (Psalms 137:1, Psalms 137:2), "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof." Not captives in the bodily or in the national sense, we may be captives to sin; then what is the sigh we breathe, and the cry we make, and into whose ears will our cry enter? There is One whose work concerns the "freeing of them that are bound." There is a trumpet voice which proclaims for all who sigh and cry in the prison house—
"The year of jubilee is come,
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home."
II. THE SIGH OF THE EXILE. Where patriot feeling is strong, it is an inconceivable distress to be away from one's own land. At least it is to be compelled to be away. We may leave home pleasantly at our own will; we never leave home pleasantly against our will. Illustrate by the passionate yearning of the Babylonian exiles for Jerusalem. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." See Daniel, the exile, praying with his window open toward Jerusalem. And yet here is a most strange and unnatural thing—so many souls are exiled by the compulsions of sin and self-will from their true home in God, and yet they neither sigh nor cry for their return. For all who do sigh there is a Divine Zerubbabel, ever ready to lead them back.
III. THE SIGH OF THE OPPRESSED. For the captive life in Babylon was a life of stern trials and hardships. There were even some "appointed to die," placed in peril of life. To whom should they cry in their time of sore need, save to the God of their fathers? Like Samson, blind and oppressed, they could find a way to God. And sin is an oppression and humiliation. They who live in sin find it, as the prodigal son did, a hard lot; and presently they cry for home and father and God, even as he did.—R.T.
Divine relationships our best plea in prayer.
"We thy people and sheep of thy pasture." This verse gives a gleam of hope and confidence at the end of the long cry of anguish. Compare a New Testament cry, "Though we believe not, yet he abideth faithful; he cannot deny himself." Illustrate by our Lord's distress on the cross. In extreme anguish, he yet could say, "My God, my God!" We may set in order three possible pleas which we are permitted to use in prayer.
(1) Our needs;
(2) God's Name;
(3) God's relations.
He must be consistent with himself.
I. OUR NEEDS. This may seem the most persuasive plea from our point of view. It is, indeed, our best plea in asking from our fellow men. With them we must make out a clear case of need. And God graciously allows it to be our plea with him. But in our family life we know that the children's wanting a thing is not a sufficient reason for giving it to them; because their wants and desires are not necessarily their real needs. There are some considerations on which their needs must be estimated. True, we ought to speak quite freely our thoughts about our needs when we draw near to God; and it is equally true that a Divine and gracious consideration of our needs guides the Divine decisions and the Divine doings; but we must not think of this as the supreme persuasion with God.
II. GOD'S NAME. In the Old Testament it is impressively presented to us that the supreme motive urging God is jealousy of his own Divine Name. All good for man is bound up in keeping the honour of the Divine Name. Man has no anchorage for his trust and hope if God be not infinitely good. For our sakes he must do nothing, give nothing, withhold nothing, if these things imperil his Name, make us question his Divine integrity. Ezekiel is the prophet who puts this point most forcibly. "Thus saith the Lord God, I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy Name's sake" (Ezekiel 36:22). Apply to God's Name as the Almighty One, the All-holy One, the All-saving One. There must always be consistency between the Divine doings and the Divine Name. Good men, like Joshua, are jealous of the Divine Name.
III. GOD'S RELATIONS. Not what he abstractly is, but what he relatively is to us. God has been pleased to come into relations with us; to set himself in relations. He has therefore limited himself, conditioned himself, placed himself under honourable obligations. And so our supreme plea in prayer has come to be, reminding God of the honourable obligations involved in his relationships to us. We may be sure of this—he must be true to himself. This may be fully opened out in connection with the most blessed relationship of Fatherhood.—R.T.
HOMILIES BY C. SHORT
Prayer for deliverance from suffering.
"Written in a time of the deepest distress; the city is desolate and the whole nation oppressed by the cruel thraldom of their heathen oppressors. They are apparently deserted by God, and their bitterness enhanced by the feeling that God was exacting from them the penalty for the iniquity of their forefathers."
1. God's Church seemed in danger of being entirely overthrown. (Psalms 79:1-5.) Nothing causes profounder sadness to good men than the apparent triumph of the cause of unrighteousness and injustice.
2. This seemed a retributive penalty for the sins of themselves and their forefathers. (Psalms 79:8.) Nothing aggravates our sufferings so much as the knowledge that we, and those connected with us, have been the real causes of them; that they are Divine punishments.
II. THE PRAYER FOR DELIVERANCE. (Psalms 79:8, Psalms 79:9, Psalms 79:12.) Contains three pleas.
1. Their own misery. "We are brought very low;" we are come to great misery (Psalms 79:8, Psalms 79:12). It is the cry for mercy to a compassionate Father; and God has taught us to make this appeal.
2. For the sake of God's own Name. His Name or nature is that he is the God of salvation, and that for his own sake, as well as for the sake of his guilty sons and daughters, he will , deliver. It is his nature to help and save; his glory is his goodness, as we are taught in Exodus 34:6, Exodus 34:7. But this is more wonderfully brought out in the incarnation and the life and death of Christ. God's Name or nature is love.
3. Because of their close relation to God. (Exodus 34:13.) They are his people, nourished and cared for and led by him. The Lord will not abandon those that are so closely related to him. "The Lord is my Shepherd; therefore I shall not want." Christ, as the good Shepherd, is his Representative.—S.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 79". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25