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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Psalms 77

 

 

Verses 1-20

Troubled By Thoughts of God

Psalm 77:3

All great doctrines seem to be proved by consciousness and by experience, rather than by mere texts, and certainly rather than by mental expertness and enterprise. If called upon to prove the immortality of the soul we should not think of referring to any book for a proof of it. Whatever belongs to man is best proved by man himself; man on all such subjects is himself the book. If there are external declarations of man"s immortality, they must find an answer in the man himself, or they will be but so many starting-points of wordy and angry controversy. When, therefore, challenged to produce a text which asserts the immortality of the soul, we produce the soul itself. Why this discontent with time? Why this restlessness in the face, and even in the possession, of all the treasures which earth can afford? Why this thirst which rivers cannot slake? Why this hunger that eats up all the fatlings of the earth and all the banquets of time, and then is as keen and unappeased as if nothing had been devoured? It is in that dissatisfaction with time, sense, earth, space, and all that is comprehended under the word "finiteness," that I find my proof, because my "consciousness" of immortality. You can argue down a text, but you have to argue down yourself before you can dismiss, as the supreme thought of your mind, your spiritual dignity and your kinship with God. This much illustratively. The immediate subject is not the immortality, but the apostacy of man. Why should there be any theological warfare about a Fall? We do not need a text to prove it; a text may confirm it, but the proof, in the deeper sense of that term, is at the very core of the heart. We know, we feel, we cannot argue, we need not inquire—in ourselves is the tragical and sublime demonstration. It is just here that the whole Church has been in danger of getting wrong. It has been referring to a book outside Prayer of Manasseh , rather than to a book written in the very heart of man. I have not to be told that I am fallen; I know it; I am but revealed to myself. Revelation in all such matters is but a mirror held up to the heart"s own vision, and in so far as the heart sees itself in revelation is revelation confirmed in its inspiration and authority. You cannot get hold of the whole world by anything that is written in a book, if there be not in the heart to which the book addresses itself confirmatory and unanswerable evidence. Were I now to make a business of fashioning the most complete and trenchant phrases which the English language would enable me to construct in proof of human depravity, you might escape my argument and my appeal. It is easy to get out of words, however intricate the network, however complete the entanglement. The mind swiftly cuts its way out of all this metaphysical twine and cordage, and rejoices in a freedom sometimes roughly, but always certainly, secured. But you cannot escape from your own consciousness. How our hearts condemn us! When a man says, "Thinking of God gives me trouble," we find in that confession the doctrine which he would never allow to be proved by subtle argument or Scriptural quotation. That a creature can be afraid of its Creator, that a child on remembering its parent can be troubled—these are ironies and contradictions which we cannot for a moment tolerate without explanation. That is unnaturalness, that is irrationalism with completeness and appalling emphasis. Find a child who says, "I remembered my father, and was troubled," and such an assertion carries with it one of two things—either something is wrong with the child, or something is wrong with the parent. There is wrong somewhere. Carry this illustration to its ultimate point in religious thinking, "I remembered God, and was troubled." Then there is something wrong in God, or something wrong in man. That there is something wrong in God we resent as a blasphemy; the wrong, therefore, is in us, and in that wrong we find the proof that we have not only stumbled and halted here and there, but have fallen, and are before God depraved and helpless.

This appeal gives strength to the Christian preacher; he is not standing upon so many sharp stones of technicality and theological phrase; his Bible is the human heart, his evidence is human life, his illustrations are in human experience. Where, then, is the Bible? It occupies the position of revealing a man to himself, and of proceeding upon a basis of facts. Revelation does not create an airy world, it reveals the world to itself exactly as it is. That is inspiration. Do not fret yourselves with difficult and recondite inquiries about inspiration; find it in the fact that the Bible has anticipated all history, outrun all competitors in pursuit of the destiny of the race, has answered all inquiries, covered all ground, and is waiting our progress that it may advance still further and allure us on by the persuasion of light to other advances and broader conquests. Any book that told a white man he was black would not be regarded as a Revelation , but as a lie. When the Bible tells us that we are by nature the children of wrath, we are not to fly off into metaphysical self-defences, but to come unto such a text as this: "I remembered God, and was troubled," and there we find a fact which cannot be accounted for on any other hypothesis than that man and God have broken asunder at some point the one from the other. If all great Biblical doctrines which involve human experience could be treated in this way, should liberate religious thinking from fanaticism and superstition and bigotry, and should find in the human heart the echo of the divine voice, and in human experience the best commentary ever written upon Biblical history and doctrine.

"I remembered God, and was troubled;" not intellectually, that must always be the case. Asaph is not speaking of intellectual engimas; his knife, as we have already seen in his Psalm , had cut infinitely deeper than any merely intellectual riddle can ever go. Sir William Hamilton said that if God could be understood he would not be God. Certainly not. If the finite can grasp the infinite it is no longer finite. To be God is to be unknowable, incomprehensible, vaster than the mind seeking to know. Who can find out the Almighty unto perfection? Who can by searching find out God? No man hath seen God at any time. God is great, and we know him not. Other subjects deliver themselves up to our inquiry and solicitude, but we make no progress in our penetration of the One Mystery. What we suppose to be progress in that direction is not an outward advance, but an inward chastening and humbling; even the creation of the childlike spirit and the pure heart. Intellectually we make no advance towards God. In every other direction we seem to be climbing high and running far, but towards God, intellectually, we have not advanced one iota. Morally we have; thanks to moral cleansing, to the purification of the heart, to the chastening of the spirit, and to its higher education in spiritual sympathy and in spiritual prayer, we have come nearer God. But the mind has always been kept in its right place—searching, never finding, asking questions of the wind and having its questions carried away, but no reply brought back.

Asaph, then, is not talking about intellectual trouble, he is talking about moral distress. Intellect and Conscience take a very different course in this great matter. Intellect clamorously demands satisfaction; Conscience secretly fears the word of judgment, and would often keep intellect back and ask it to be quiet, and not to knock so loudly upon doors which may open and cause a Presence to appear that would affright the inquirer. Intellect says, Where is God? Conscience desires that the question may never be answered. Wrong always fears Right. We may take that as part of the common law of the universe. Guilt does not want to be discovered by being brought into visible contrast with Innocence. Guilt is bold in its own den, quite heroic indeed, when goading and leading its own vile kin to some blacker outrage; but the moment it sees Purity, it blinks and retires like an owl in sudden sunlight. "Conscience makes cowards of us all." No bad man can think of God and be comfortable. It is the one thought which he is anxious to avoid. Spare him that, and his wickedness will become his happiness.

Look a little closer into the matter. This moral dread of God is the highest tribute that can be paid to the Almighty; when it is felt by the evildoer, such dread is itself a kind of worship. When we publicly say, "Let us worship God," many join in that act who are not nominally included in it. When a bad man thinks he has found a darkness so dense that surely even God"s eye cannot pierce it, that sevenfold night is itself a kind of altar at which Guilt offers its reluctant homage to Holiness. When you want to do some bad deed in secret, in the very act of avoiding God you unconsciously worship him! Why fear the law? Why fear the noontide of light? Why not rejoice in the whitening east, and wait till the whole firmament gleams with ineffable splendour, in order to go forth and work out all the purpose of your life? It is because some things must not see the light. We love darkness rather than light only because our deeds are evil. How should the bad man know that the night is the black church in which he worships the God he fears. Thus God maketh the wrath of man to praise him; thus hell itself is a kind of annex of heaven; thus believing and trembling devils offer a negative worship, where they have refused a positive allegiance. The fact that bad men are troubled when they think about God, that they fear God and would expel him from their thoughts, should stimulate good men the more emphatically and constantly to proclaim the existence of God. Tell the tyrant that there is no God, and he throws down his whip of cords that he may take up a scourge of scorpions. Tell the base and cruel man that there is no White Throne, no Judges , no hereafter, no responsibility—in a word, no God, and he redoubles his baseness, and adds a keener accent to his; cruelty, and rejoices with a wilder glee in the agony of his victims. Tell the sufferer that there is no God, and he ceases to be a martyr, and is only a murdered man. Tell him that God and the angels are waiting for his liberated spirit, and he feels nor stoning, nor fire, nor sword, nor saw, for his spirit is already in the light. When you proclaim atheism, you are not proclaiming a merely metaphysical theory which men may hold or not hold apart from moral consequences. When you declare atheism, you say practically to the tyrant, "You have nothing to fear, strength wins, the race is to the swift, take what you can, there is no law hereafter, you see everything, carry out your own will." Any theory that would say that to Prayer of Manasseh , knowing man to be what he is—the savagest of beasts—is a vile theory, is a licentious theory, a diabolical theory. Do not treat atheism as one answer, amongst many, to the problem of the universe. Atheism has a moral side, and on that moral side it says that "you are only limited by social considerations. Science is Providence, the Magistrate is God, the prison is hell, you see everything, there is nothing more beyond the visual line." We know, of course, that we may be referred to sundry suggestions about social prudence, and personal preservation, and the fear of society, and the dread of public contempt, but we feel that all these suggestions placed side by side with the great thought that life is a probation and there is a judgment to come, cease to demand or deserve respect, and call down our most vehement denunciation and contempt.

This dislike of God is the true secret of aversion to divine things. If the Church were a lyceum in which we could discuss upon equal terms, we might come now and then to talk things over and exchange notions. If the Bible were one volume of five hundred of equal authority we might now and then condescend to look into it, and to compare it with other volumes and pass an opinion upon it and so conclude the case. But God has revealed in the Bible and embodied in Christ means—righteousness, holiness, truth in the inward parts, sincerity in the soul, right balances, right measures; it is a moral word. It involves a moral claim, it applies a moral law. We need not wonder that men should have sometimes felt inclined to give up certain theological conceptions; it would be a fortune to some men if they could give up God, they could steal more—they could steal with both hands. They could lie more eloquently. Now there is an ugly halt in their lying, it drags and pitches to and fro, here and there; but if they could get rid of God, they could lie with oily fluency; they could smile at the man whom they were deceiving by their falsehoods; but the consciousness that God sees, hears, and will at last Judges , has at least a deterrent effect upon such audacity. If you, therefore, ask of me great charity in relation to atheists, and to say to them, "Of course you are honest doubters, intellectual inquirers, you are groping in the dark, and I hope you will one day find the light," I decline the opportunity to show the base charity. God, to me, is not a metaphysical quantity, he is not part of some philosophical conception and argument, he is Law, Righteousness, Justice! When the bad man has his foot upon me I can cry to the watching One to bear me witness and to take my part, and I can refer my case to his arbitrament and leave my vengeance with him. Understand, therefore, that whilst loving charity, and welcoming the sweet-faced, bright-eyed angel always, and standing in her presence with uncovered head, and hailing her as heaven"s chiefest beauty, I cannot, in her name, say to the atheist, "You are as good as any other man." I distrust the Prayer of Manasseh , and hate his doctrine. Did not bad people sometimes come round Jesus Christ? Yes, they sometimes came intellectually to him, but not sympathetically. Did not bad people often come to Christ? Yes, penitently when not intellectually. They came because they could cry in his presence, and they were not ashamed to let him see their tears. They never cried in the presence of the priest, they never shed tears under the gaze of the haughty Pharisee; but, somehow, Christ gives to the very worst of us a chance of crying, and such tears seem to cleanse the very beast. We are at least the lighter in spirit after such penitential tears. If you want to know Christ"s relation to evildoers, hear what the devils said. When they saw him, they cried out, "Art thou come to trouble us before the time? What have we to do with thee, thou Jesus, Son of God?" The light that struck them, shot them through and through, punctured them as with spears and arrows, and hell cried with pain. But as for bad people like ourselves—we could go quite up to him and stand at least behind him, and touch the hem of his garment, and if he caught us, it were heaven upon heaven, for if the touch healed us, the look would give us immortality. Oh, thou worst of men, poor, shattered one, come penitently—hard, intellectual Prayer of Manasseh , Christ has nothing to say to thee, he will treat thee as a conjuring-loving Herod, and will not do any miracle in thy sight. But oh, prodigal heart, wayward, wilful—wilful sinning Prayer of Manasseh , come and say to Christ, "God be merciful to me a sinner," and he will perform the sublimest of his miracles—the giving of a new heart!

Note

Psalm of Asaph.—The Psalm of Asaph (whatever be the exact meaning of the title) have certainly marked characteristics of their own. They use the general name Elohim, instead of the deeper and more awful name Jehovah. They dwell especially (see Psalm 77:15; Psalm 81:5; Psalm 80:1) on "Joseph" and Israel, as distinct from Judah, and in the last case on "Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasses," the tribes of the western camp in the wilderness, close to which the Gershonite Levites pitched (see Numbers 2:18-24; Numbers 3:23); and in Psalm 78:67-68 on the transference of the supremacy from Ephraim to Judah. They seem to have a meditative and thoughtful cast; as in Psalm 73 , putting before us the great problem of God"s moral government, which forms the subject of the Book of Job; and in the grand Psalm 50 , urging the true spirituality of sacrifice and of covenant with God. They have frequently a national character, of lamentation in Psalm 74 , Psalm 79 , Psalm 80 , of triumph in Psalm 75 , Psalm 76 , Psalm 81. One is the first great historical psalm ( Psalm 78), surveying the story of Israel from the Exodus to the choice of David. Similarly Psalm 83 , in prayer against a confederacy of enemies, chronicles God"s deliverance from Sisera and from Midian in the ancient days of Gideon. Another is a grave didactic admonition ( Psalm 82) to the judges of Israel. If they have not the depth and vigour of the Psalm of David, they suit well the grave authoritative character of the chief of the Levites and "the seer."—Bishop Barry.

Prayer

Almighty God, thou hast led the blind by a way that they know not, but thou hast led them to peace and security and joy. All men are blind with regard to the future; it is as if we had no vision at all; we may not boast of to-morrow, because we know not what one day may bring forth. We know the history of the day that is gone, but what is coming in the morning not the wisest man can tell. Thou keepest to-morrow in thine own hand; but this we know, that we shall be led and upheld and comforted; our perplexity shall be relieved, the crooked places shall be made straight, the rough places plain, and even the valleys shall be exalted; a new song will be in our mouth at the close of the day; if we have to sing of judgment we shall also have to sing of mercy, for thy way towards us is one of judgment and of love. If thou dost criticise us, it is that we may be amended; if thou dost smite us and wound us, it is that we may be healed with an immortal healing. Help us to believe this; deliver us from the folly of thinking that life is chance, a game of fortune, a conjuror"s trick; give us to feel that life is a divine philosophy, a wondrous plan, having relation in the individual to all other individuals, so that we are a commonwealth, a brotherhood, one great family, part of us in heaven, part on earth, but still claiming the same Father, walking by the same law, and looking forward to the same glorious destiny. Wherein we have been frivolous and foolish, the Lord pity us, for we are often the sport of the wind, and are driven before it like dry leaves; wherein we have said, This shall be as we wish it, the Lord pardon us, for our conceit is often profane. Enable us henceforward to have no will but thine, never to consult ourselves except in the spirit of the sanctuary; then shall wisdom be given to us, the eternal lamp, the glory from on high, and at nighttime we shall walk in splendour, and the light of the noontide shall be sevenfold. We have taken our life into our own hand, and we are ashamed of the issue; whenever we have given ourselves to thee for government, inspiration, direction, comfort, healing, behold at eventime we have been filled with a new and rapturous gladness. Pity us wherein our lives are hard; the gates are many, and the keys are lost; the roads are steep, and the wind is bleak, and the clouds are lull of threatening, and there is no voice of music in the air,—the Lord help us in that day of sevenfold gloom; when the house is bare, empty, silent, the loved ones all out, or gone, or dead, when we hear nothing but the awful stillness, the Lord cause us to hear his own going in that wilderness; and wherein the future is troubled, without certainty of sign or token, so that we know not whether to go to the right hand or to the left, help us to stand still like men who are expecting a voice from heaven. This we are enabled to say, because we have been with Jesus and learned of him. Until we knew him we knew nothing of this prayer; we were always seeking for solutions of the enigma of life, and always thinking we had found them; sometimes we cast ourselves into the darkness of despair, and said, Let come what will come, it can bring with, it nothing but death and annihilation; but now we have seen the Cross, we have communed with the Son of God, we have known somewhat of the mystery of his priesthood; we see the Father above all things, ruling, reigning, governing, shaping, and directing all life; so we are happy, yea, glad, we are strong, and our security is so complete that we have perfect peace. Praised be the Triune God for this ineffable joy! Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 77:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/psalms-77.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, September 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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