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Sermons from the Psalms, 9 - A New Song

By Clovis G. Chappell


      "He hath put a new song in my mouth." Psalm 40:3

      Clovis G. Chappell: HERE is a word to interest the most listless. However drowsy we are, this text ought to rouse us into eager wakefulness. However hopeless we are, it ought to startle us into glad expectation. It is a word that is needed in every age. It is especially needed by the jaded generation of which we are a part. Life has grown old for many of us. In spite of all our facilities for thrills, we are finding the business of living rather stale and unexciting. "What has been will be, and there is no new thing under the sun," (Eccl. 1:9) said a tired and bored cynic many years ago. To this pessimistic declaration many of us are ready to give a hearty "Amen."

      Instead of finding new songs we have found old yawns. Or if there has been any music at all, too often it has been a jarring jazz that has left us the more weary and disillusioned. But here is one who has discovered a new song. Life for him is not in the sear [withered] and yellow leaf; it is in the full flush of spring. He has therefore a story to tell that we greatly need to hear.

      I

      What is the source of this new song? From what fountain of inspiration does it flow?

      This song is not a child of chance. No more is it a creature of circumstances. It is not merely a song of youth, for instance. There is nothing to indicate that this poet is singing simply because he is brushing the dewy flowers of life's morning. Even though such were the case, we know well enough that youth cannot always be depended upon to be an inspirer of song. Sometimes youth sings, but very often it does not. Many of our youth to-day seem to find life quite as drab and insipid as those of us who are in middle life, or as those who are nearing the sunset. In fact, some of the most weary and listless souls that I meet are young men and women who have not yet got out of their twenties. Some even seem thoroughly "fed up" on life who are on the springtime side of twenty. Therefore, to look to youth as a sure inspiration of song is to look to a source that is thoroughly unreliable.

      No more does this song have its rise in the hills of prosperity and worldly success. There is no slightest hint, in the first place, that this poet had found either fame or fortune. Nor is there anywhere proof that the prosperous find life more songful than the failures. Some years ago I was entertained in the home of a man whose wealth amounted to many millions. During the afternoon the husband and wife took me for a drive over the city. When we came back, as we were getting out of the car, in spite of the fact that company was present, the wife burst into tears. She was a woman of an assured place in society. She seemed to possess all that heart could wish. She lived in a palace, yet, as I have thought of that home in after years, I have thought of it not so much as a place of songs as a place of sobs. We can safely say, therefore, that the song of this psalmist is not born of circumstances. No abiding song ever is.

      Neither is he singing because he is possessed of a rugged determination. There are times that we sing from a sense of duty. We feel that for the sake of others it is the helpful thing to do, and in this we are right. There is something finely heroic about the man that refuses to parade his sorrow, but rather locks it all in his heart and smiles on the world. It requires a high type of courage to keep a song upon the lips while there is a sob in the heart. Yet there are those big and brave enough for this taxing task. This was a practice that we urged with great enthusiasm during the stressful days of the [First] World War. We sang lustily, "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile" (Asaf, song). And some of us did it, though the smile sometimes changed into a grimace the moment we were alone.

      That is an appealing picture that Thomas Moore (1779-1852) gives of the young woman who loved the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet. Emmet, as you know, was executed in his early manhood for his too great zeal for his native land. But he died like a hero, and the girl who loved him tried hard to show herself as courageous in the bearing of her sorrow as he had been in the laying down of his life. The task, however, was too heavy for her. She went away to Italy to recover her failing health. There, in spite of all her heroic efforts, she faded like a flower.

      "She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
      And lovers around her are sighing;
      But sadly she turns from their gaze and weeps,
      For her heart in the grave is lying.

      She sings the wild songs of her dear native plains,
      Every note that he loved awaking;
      Ah! little they think who delight in her strains
      How the heart of the minstrel is breaking.

      He had lived for his love, for his country he died,
      They were all that to life had entwined him;
      Nor soon shall the tears of his country be dried,
      Nor long shall his love stay behind him.

      Oh! Make her a home where the sunbeams rest,
      When they promise a glorious to-morrow;
      They'll shine o'er her sleep like a smile from the west,
      From her own loved island of sorrow."

      She sang, but while her song concealed her broken heart it did not heal it. This new song of our psalmist is born of something even finer than a heroic determination.

      What, then, is the source of his song? It is a gift of God. "He hath put a new song in my mouth," (Psa. 40:3) declares this poet joyously. Then his song has a fountain source that is abiding. His music need never be hushed into silence nor changed into discord.

      On the farm where I lived as a boy there is one of the loveliest springs that ever sang its way out of the hills. We call it the Basin Spring. "The trees fold their green arms around it, trees a century old, and the winds go whispering through them and the sunbeams drop their gold." The waters of this spring used to flow over a large flat rock. But one day hands that have probably been dust for centuries chiseled a basin upon the face of this rock. That basin, even in times of severest drought, is always filled to overflowing. This is the case because it has water constantly flowing into it from an unfailing reservoir among the great hills. And so it is with the music of this joyous singer. His song is born of the inexhaustible resources that are locked in the heart of God.

      II

      What is the nature of this poet's song?

      1. His is a song of deliverance. "He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay." (Psa. 40:2) How he ever got into this pit we are not told. He may have been plunged into it through some great and devastating calamity. He may have fallen into it through his own willfulness or carelessness or spiritual stupidity. But regardless of how he had come to be there, there he was, and there was no shutting his eyes to his tragic situation. He could never forget the stark horror of it all. The place was dark and cold. It was unspeakably lonely and as silent as death itself. And that which brought his awful plight to the very climax of hopelessness and despair was that he could find no solid resting place for his feet. For this pit did not have firm masonry for its floor. It did not even have water. It only had stenchful mire that gripped him with tenacious fingers and slowly dragged him into a ghastly grave.

      It is Victor Hugo, I think, that tells the story of a man caught in the quicksand. One moment this man is walking in safety. Then his path begins to cling to his feet a bit. A few more steps and he is bogged down to his knees. He then begins to struggle frantically. But the more he struggles, the deeper he sinks. Soon the treacherous sand has reached his waist. By this time the unfortunate victim has become desperate. He now realizes that he is being slowly swallowed by a hideous, blind mouth that is absolutely without mercy. He cries for help, but there is no response. He looks at the clouds floating in the blue and the birds as they soar above his head, and they seem to mock him. He; prays, he shrieks, he curses. He struggles with every ounce of his energy, but the implacable mouth still swallows him only the faster. At last his final wild wail ends in a gulp. The cruel sand has filled his mouth, and the futile struggle is over.

      Now the singer tells us that he was like this man, that he, too, was sinking and was horribly sure that all was over, that he, too, cried desperately for help. But here he has a different story to tell. There was One that answered his cry. He stretched up a helpless hand, and that hand was seized by One that was mighty, and he felt himself lifted to safety. Since then he has had a song upon his lips. It is a song of deliverance. Some of us can join him in the singing of it, for such a song befits the lips of every man who has greatly sinned and who has been greatly saved.

      Such a song is even more fitting for the lips of those who, through being reared in Christian homes and through the guidance of Christian parents, have been spared the agony of falling into the horrible pit out of which this poet had to be rescued, at what a cost both to himself and to his Lord.

      2. Then this song of our poet is a song of security. "He hath set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings." (Psa. 40:2) This marvelously delivered man walks to-day with an assured confidence. His confidence, however, is not born of his faith in himself, but of his faith in God. It is God who has enabled him to say with the prophet, "He hath made my feet like hinds' feet." (Hab. 3:19) He has given him a bracing sense of security. He has made it possible for him to sing with the author of the twenty-third Psalm, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." His footing is firm and secure. He does not look to tomorrow with feverish fear as he once did. The old horror is gone, and he can now look ahead with quiet eyes, knowing that the God who keeps him to-day will be sufficient for him to-morrow.

      3. This song is also a song of gratitude. In the consciousness of the deliverance and security that God in his goodness had given him he could not withhold his praise. He burst into song as naturally as the bird that "lets his illumined being o'errun, with the deluge of summer it receives." (Lowell, The Vision of Sir Launfal)

      We are not so grateful as we ought to be, any of us. One day Jesus healed ten lepers (Luke 17:12). Having been healed, nine of them hurried upon their separate ways, utterly forgetful of the healer. Only one came back with a song of praise upon his lips. Too often we join the nine. Too rarely we join the one. This psalmist is among those who came back. His is a song of thanksgiving.

      4. Finally this song is winsomely and fascinatingly new. Its newness, however, is not born of the fact that this singer is saying something that has never been said before. It is not a bizarre song; it is a new song.

      I am glad that this is the case. There is no real virtue however, in mere novelty. Neither new songs nor new gospels are needed, if by new we mean only the unusual and the novel. I recently heard a wise preacher say to a group of theological graduates: "My young friends, when you begin to preach and one comes forward at the close of the service to say to you, That was a new thought you gave me to-day, I never thought of that before,' don't be too elated over it. The chances are that he will never think of it again." This song is new, not because it is merely queer, but because it is born of experiences that are new and vital to the singer.

      Yesterday a hearse passed you on the street. You only gave it a brief glance. A hearse is such a common sight. Yet to some who followed, that journey to the cemetery was as new and poignant as if they were the first who had ever been called upon to bury their dead out of their sight.

      The other day I heard a young mother talking to her first baby. She was saying the same sweet, ungrammatical nothings that generations of mothers have said. Yet they were fascinatingly new and lovely. They were born of experience.

      And here is a man and a maiden who have come to love each other. In their own ears how amazingly new and startling are the things they say. Yet they have been said over and over again countless millions of times. Recently a mother found an old letter that was so sentimental that she told her daughter frankly she was ashamed of her for writing such a letter. But when the daughter looked it over she found to her delight it was not her letter at all, but her mother's. Love talks the same language through the centuries, but it is always fascinatingly new.

      Jesus said: "Every scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old." (Matt. 13:52) That is what this psalmist is doing. That is what we can do. If we have a fresh, vital experience of God, our song will be as new and fresh as the first rose of June, yet as old as the ordered coming of the seasons. It will be as new as the first smile that dimples the cheek of the mother's first baby boy, yet it will be as old as motherhood. That was an old sky into which Shelley's skylark flew, but the bird looked at it as if his were the first eyes that had ever seen it, and as he looked he sang a song so new that the poet had to exclaim,

      "Teach me half the gladness
      That thy brain must know,
      Such harmonious madness
      From my lips would flow,
      The world should listen then,
      As I am listening now."
      (Shelley, To a Skylark)

      Just so long as we are making new discoveries in God, so long will our song be enchantingly new.

      III

      Now what is the good of this new song? Why should we covet it ourselves?

      1. It is an unspeakable benediction to him who possesses it. Song means joy, laughter, gladness. Our present-day religion is a bit short on joy. Therefore it is short on power. "The joy of the Lord is your strength." (Neh. 8:10) It is a source of strength in our hours of bereavement. It is a source of strength when our dreams fail to come true. It is a steady staff upon which to lean when the rain is on the roof and the light has gone out of the skies. It is a strong anchor when the fierce tempest toys with our bark [self-advertisement] and "sorrow sits sobbing like a troubled ghost in every chamber of the heart." (???)

      Then it is a source of strength in our times of temptation. There are those who, in some measure, can resist the downward tug through sheer force of will. There are others who may be able to get past the death-haunted shores where the sirens sing by the poor expedient of stuffing wool into their ears. But the method of Ulysses was far better (Homer, The Odyssey). He took on board with him one whose song was so much more winsome than that of the sirens that the music of those death-dealing creatures lost its spell. This is a sure way of victory for ourselves. The most luring songs that the world can sing will lose their spell and become mere jarring discord if we have singing in our hearts the new song of the psalmist.

      2. This new song is not only a benediction to the singer, but to his fellows as well. "Many shall see it," sings our poet, "and fear, and shall trust in the Lord." (Psa. 40:3) "Many shall see it." Does not the poet use the wrong word? Should he not have said, "Many shall hear it"? Who sees a song? Yet so it stands written. And you doubtless recall the wise conclusion that John Milton reached when, as a lad, he dreamed of writing a poem that the world would not willingly let die. He declared that he who would write a great poem must himself be a poem (Milton, Apology for Smectymnuus). And our singer has attained in some measure the high standard set by Milton.

      With this new song upon his lips that is but an echo of the song within his heart, he has himself become a song. There is a winsomeness and charm about his life that may be seen as well as heard. He is so in tune with the Infinite that those whose lives he touches cannot resist his spell. They yearn to know his secret, and, knowing it, they, too, come to trust in the Lord.

      We who profess to be Christians are often dreadfully short on winsomeness. We read of some of the early saints that great grace was upon them. That is, they were gracious, fascinating, appealing. To associate with them was to become keen and eager to find what they had found. But when the Pharisee had finished thanking God that he was not as other men, I wonder who followed him home to ask him about the deep things of the soul. I wonder who went to him to inquire wistfully how they, too, might separate themselves from the unwashed crowd of "extortioners, unjust, adulterers" (Luke 18:11) and become faultless and unstained like himself. I wonder what man came with eager step and with an impassioned appeal that would take no denial to learn how he might rise to the sublime height of fasting twice a week. You know! No man came. And it was not because this Pharisee was not religious. It was rather because he was horribly religious. He was not in tune with God, and there was no wooing harmony in his life.

      Ole [Bornemann] Bull [Norwegian violin virtuoso, 1810-1880], you remember, had a friend, Leif Ericson by name, who claimed that he had no ear for music. The fact that the violin of his fellow countryman had an angel-choir hidden within it mattered nothing to him. The fact that Ole Bull could change his bow into a magic wand and make tempests crash and thunder, or birds sing, or brooks leap and prattle as songfully as the laughter of a happy child, did not interest Leif Ericson in the least. He even refused to go and hear Ole Bull play. But the great violinist won him in the end. How did he go about it? He did not crash his violin over his friend's head. He did not lecture him. He did not tell what the man who is not moved by concord of sweet sounds is fit for. He went down to where Leif was working and played for him; played with all the power of his compelling genius. And what was the result? It is easy to guess. Leif's heart became warm, his face softened, and his eyes grew big with tears. And then and there the soul of this scientist and inventor was taken captive by the charm of music.

      It is even so that this singer of the new song seeks to take captive the hearts of men. He knows that we are not going to win the world by our wails. We are not going to win by our complaints. We are not going to win by persistently prating about what is wrong with the Church. We are not going to win by proclaiming what a distressingly hard time we are having as we try to serve the Lord. We are not going to win by discordant lives that clash like violins played out of tune. But we can win through the appealing winsomeness of lives in tune with the Christ.

      If there is a harmony about our lives that the world cannot give and cannot take away, somebody is going to ask the secret. We are very short on inner music. We are sadly lacking in freshness and newness. If we show the way to the new song by the beauty and charm of our lives, "many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord."

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