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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Psalms 115

 

 

Verses 1-18

False Religions

Psalm 115:8

Thus our manhood comes out of our religion. Whether that religion is false or true, it shows itself in the quality of manhood which it creates. We may therefore begin our religious arguments from the human side. All men cannot begin from the metaphysical points. Only a few human minds really care anything for pure metaphysics. Abstract preachers, therefore, preach to emptiness: concrete preachers may get at least an occasional hearing. In the Christian religion, and in every religion, we start the point from the concrete or human side, the question simply being, What kind of men does our religion make? Without inquiring into the metaphysics of our faith, how does it come out in manhood? If it makes really pure, noble, magnanimous, beneficent men, it is a true faith, however many of its documents it may have lost, and however much it may have been perverted in statement by its most devoted apologists. Here we seem to be upon a rock. That is the only test of religion, of orthodoxy, of doctrine. How does our faith incarnate itself? What sort of man does it make? How does it affect the shop, the counting-house, the family, the conscience, the individual, and the variously-related life? We take our stand upon that solemn, practical doctrine. If the religious faith should result in little men, invisible souls in an other than physical sense, we cannot have a very cheering estimate of the faith. If the religious belief result in sectarianism, narrowness, bitterness, then the true God is not believed in. He may be accepted intellectually; serial literature may have been created in his name, and all the machinery may be orthodox; but if the soul be poor, weazened, sapless, musicless, although the right God may be believed in in name, the faith is only nominal, there has been no participation in the divine nature, and the men who profess God without living God are idolaters, to whatever church they may belong. Reasoning of this kind throws a very solemn responsibility upon believers. If we find them narrow and little, conceited and pompous, selfish and sordid, what do we care for their catechism? We say, "If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" A catalogue of orthodox doctrines matched by a heterodox series of moral contradictions,—there is no irony so grim!

Retiring from the pronouns of the text in order to come to the substantive and particular, we find that the Psalmist is discoursing about false gods whom he denominates "idols": concerning them, he says, "They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat" ( Psalm 115:5-7).

A false religion has all the outward signs of importance. A false religion could not live if it showed only its lying side. Even a lie could not live but for the one grain of truth that may be in it: it may be a grain of probability only, or even of possibility, but the lie owes its life, however brief, to the element of at least seeming truth, or possible truth, that may be in it. So with false religions: enumerate them, set them all out in a line, and one looks very much like another as to outward appearance. How long would a piece of lead be in the marketplace if offered as a coin? Not one moment But if treated, if smelted, minted, stamped, drilled, and made to look like a coin, it might deceive somebody, it might live a little while. To what would it owe its life? Not to its intrinsic quality, but to its appearance. So when you cite the religions of the world, and set them all in a line, you are perfectly right in saying, Behold them, and see how very strikingly they resemble one another. The counterfeit coin lives in its resemblance: take away this resemblance, and you take away its whole value; its similitude is its life. What wonder, then, that we find men deceived by religions that are superficial, and merely human inventions, that have nothing to live upon that is of an eternal and divine nature? It is quite possible that the counterfeit coin may be more brilliant than the real coin. How did the five-pound note pass? Because it was like a five-pound note: the paper was the same, the mill mark was the same, the writing was the same; the resemblance was the reason of the successful deception. A piece of plain paper never would have done the work. No man ever took a piece of plain paper for a five-pound note. It is only when we come into the region or district of resemblances, minute particulars, that we are deceived. Sometimes even the eye of an expert is misled. The expert says, I think this is genuine. Afterwards it is proved to be counterfeit: how was the expert misled? By appearances. So you may take a false religion and a true religion, and if you go only by appearances the one may be strikingly like the other, and you may even say, What possible difference can it make which of them I take? It makes no difference, except the difference between falsehood and truth. Young minds, inventive, imaginative, audacious minds may be strongly tempted when health is good and fortune is prosperous to take up any religion that looks good. This is the continual and the subtle temptation that is addressed to all hearts. True religion cares nothing for appearances unless they represent realities. Religion does not value hands that cannot handle: the hand is judged by the handling. True religion does not say, Behold, here is a religion with eyes, therefore it must be a good religion: true religion holds up some object before those eyes and says, What is this? and the eye being so to say deaf and dumb, what is the use of it as a mere figure or outline or artistic success? Truth being real itself will only be content with realities.

This is the way in which all things must be tested. What is your religion doing? It is criticising, it is finding fault, it is living upon mischief; it is energetic in wrong ways, its purpose is to spoil the lives of others: then it is not the true religion. What is your church doing? Enjoying itself; curtaining itself in luxury, making a velvet path for its feet; seeing that the very air which it breathes is perfumed: the church hates everything that is noisy, sensational, aggressive; it is a contemplative and slumbrous church. Then the true religion says, It is no church at all, and I now at God"s altar excommunicate it—make room for it in the wilderness! Even a five-pound note, to recur to the homely illustration, is nothing in itself; it must represent something behind, it must stand in the place of solid bullion; it can only be a convenience, being lighter to carry than the metal: but if there be not an equivalent value in metal behind it, itself, though genuine, is a lie for practical purposes. So a man may boast of his faith, whereupon James will say, Can faith save him? unless it be representing something behind, something of intrinsic and divine value. Much is mistaken for faith that is not faith, that is mere intellectual assent, or mere intellectual indifference. A man does not believe things which he simply names with his mouth. He only believes those things for which he would die. What havoc this makes in the professed beliefs of the Church! Yet everything must be judged by the degree in which it realises its own pretensions. To pretend to have hands means power of handling, or it is a lie: to profess to have feet and yet to be unable to walk is to contradict your own statement: to have ears carved by an Angelo which yet cannot hear a thunderburst is to have ears that are visible falsehoods. Where we find hands we have a right to expect handling: where we find faith we have a right to expect morality, or service, or action: and if we with all Christian profession of an intellectual kind are not balancing that profession by actual, living, useful service, then let all the mockers of the universe taunt us, saying, They have hands, but they handle not. The taunt is not a mere taunt; it is a sneer justified by reason. If there were no hands we should pity the sufferer. Who expects to refresh himself from the branches of an oak tree? Yet if the hungry soul should come to a fig tree in the time of figs, and should find upon the tree nothing but leaves, hunger has priestly rights of cursing, hunger may excommunicate that tree from the trees of the garden, because it pretended to be a fruit tree and yet it grew nothing but leaves. There comes a time when the world"s hunger will curse every pulpit that does not give to it the bread of life. That bread is substantial; that bread needs no argument to recommend it: let hunger and the bread meet, and certain sacred results will follow. We must not lessen the quality of the bread. I know nothing about the "divinity" of Christ. I take that expression and nail it to the counter, and condemn it. It can be used by all sorts of people; it can mean various and totally different things. I believe in the Godhead of Christ. That can only mean one thing. Divinity! I have seen the word given out to poet, and philosopher, and dreamer, and seer: but Godhead, Deity, that must be a personal and undistributed term. So when men preach the Cross, I must know what cross it is that is preached. There are many crosses: there is only one true Cross, on which the Priest of creation died that he might save every soul of man. The cross that will not save is an idol that having hands handles not; having a mouth, speaks not; that looks its lie.

Religions that can be fully explained are inventions and quackeries. The Psalmist says so in Psalm 115:4"the work of men"s hands." Great power has no agencies that can be traced. We want to account for the power of this poet, or the power of that preacher, and power of that kind does not admit of exhaustive analysis. It is when we get to the point of mystery that we get to the point of explanation, paradoxical as the expression may seem to be. The work of men"s hands is measurable work: what one man has done another man may do; what man has done man may undo: there is no security or permanence in the work of men"s hands. Man no sooner builds his palace than nature begins to take the roof off. "The work of men"s hands," so we say about catechisms and standards and creeds and idolised formularies; we encounter them with scornful laughter if they be pressed beyond a given and definite point:—Who wrote them? What right had their authors to formulate them? Who knows whether they will always continue in the same belief? Who can tell what the men who lived three centuries ago would say today if they were living? Let my faith go back upon the Bible itself, and rest upon that as upon a secure foundation; and let me be sure of this one thing, that if I go into the Bible in a prayerful, teachable spirit, saying, "Lord, help me to find thyself here, and thy way and thy will and thy love," though I be no priest or cunningly-instructed Prayer of Manasseh , though I be but plain reader, yet I shall by the might of the Spirit of God be brought into divine fellowship, and I shall come out of that Bible understanding if not its letter yet its holy saving spirit. Do not let us put the work of our own hands as an equivalent to God"s thought. Who would be content to put down upon paper on which he worked an intricate calculation the first line as "Finite equal to Infinite"? Reason would decline to go further; reason would take its stand in opposition and say, Your fundamental proposition is an impossibility and a contradiction and a lie. Who shall say "Church equal to God," meaning by Church a building or an institution differing from other institutions of the kind? If you say," The invisible Church, the redeemed Church, equal to the Cross," you begin to see the meaning of the deepest mysteries: for the Church is the Bride, the Lamb"s Wife,—wondrous things hath he done for his Bride that he might present her unto himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing,—pure with heaven"s pureness, radiant with the beginning of day. Wondrous are the operations of the human mind in this matter of finding possible or nominal equals in human reason, especially peculiar is the ecclesiastical mind. Was there ever a mind like Cardinal Newman"s? He lives in a. region into which some of us have never ventured to set foot; he has conducted controversies which most men would regard as more or less of the nature of cobwebs. He has been in extreme mental agony about things that we have hardly ever spent a thought upon. He says in his wonderful story, his Apologia pro Vitâ Suâ, that he was in the greatest possible perplexity about Romanism and Anglicanism until he saw the words of Augustine, "Securus judicat orbis terrarum," and in a moment, he says, the light fell upon him and the Anglican theory was proved to be a delusion. Many of us could read these words of Augustine, and feel quite comfortable after having done Song of Solomon , but they tortured Newman. He says, "They sounded in my ears day by day, and at last I clearly saw that they pulverised (his own word) the Anglican theory of the faith."

Let us therefore take care how we put up theory against reality, invention against Scripture, and suggestion against revelation. I want to live within the four corners of God"s word. I believe that there is no resting-place, except inconsistency, between individualism and Popery. I would live so intimately with my Father that I can my very self, without priest, or minister, or teacher even, if I cannot avail myself of their services, find out what he means me to be and to do; I would be as a little child that could take my book and say, Father, I cannot read this but in thy light and under the power of thy Spirit, now let us read it together. And out of that perusal I would come richly laden with spiritual influence and spiritual blessing; yea, grammar itself should not keep me back from seizing by certain powers of the soul the inmost thought and sublimest purpose of God. Remember there always comes a testing time. We shall one day know which are true and which are false conceptions and views. We cannot always live in the region of conjecture. The true religion is not one guess superior to another guess, one conjecture overflowing and exceeding another. There must somewhere be the true religion, the real thought of God. Our progress upon earth must be a progress towards that inner ultimate truth. One man is a thousand miles ahead of another in his quest after that truth, but if all the men be in line then the last shall be as the first, and the first as the last, in thought, in sincerity, in purpose. Here is a field beautiful with golden wheat; the sun seems to linger upon it; it would seem as if the sun were amazed at its own creation, and saying as God said of the sun itself, "It is very good." Here is another field sown at the same time and by the same Prayer of Manasseh , and there is nothing to be seen in it. How is this? Is nature eccentric? Is nature capricious? The reason is that one field was sown with wheat, and the other with sawdust, and sawdust never comes up. They were both sown? Certainly; but, oh! what shall the harvest be? So you have your theories. I say to agnostics and materialists and others who are not Christians,—I say you have your theories, inventions, suggestions, hypotheses: sow them, but, O sirs, what shall the harvest be? By that harvest let truth and falsehood be judged!

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 115:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/psalms-115.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, September 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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