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Sermons from the Psalms, 10 - The Great Thirst

By Clovis G. Chappell

      "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." Psalm 42:1


      Clovis G. Chappell: YEARS ago as a lad I was working one day in a field on the back side of my father's farm. This field was washed by the songful waters of the Buffalo River. Away in the distance on the opposite side of the farm stood a range of rugged and majestic hills. Suddenly from among these hills I heard the baying of a pack of hounds. My attention was all the more alert because we ourselves did not keep hounds. As I listened the baying became more and more distinct. By this I knew that the pack was coming toward me. Then as I waited in expectation I was startled to see a deer suddenly come into view. The pursuing hounds were dreadfully close upon his heels. It was easy to see that the poor creature was almost spent. But on he came, running desperately for his life. Then as he saw me in his path, in an effort to turn, he dropped to his knees. Immediately the hounds had their cruel fangs at his throat and the long chase was over.

      Why was this deer running in my direction? It was not that he expected any help at my hands. He was as fearful of me as of the hounds that hung upon his heels. He was running toward me because he was making for the river that lay just behind me. That brook offered everything to this poor spent creature. It offered escape from the deadly foes that were thirsting for his blood. It offered rest for his body that was wearied by long hours of desperate running. It offered satisfaction for his burning thirst. It offered life itself. "If I can only reach this brook," he might have said to himself, "I shall live. I shall again have an opportunity to realize my destiny in the glad freedom of my native hills." No wonder, therefore, that this poor, pursued hart was panting for the water brook.

      Now the psalmist tells us that his own pathetic plight is close akin to that of this hounded deer. He, too, is being pursued by bitter foes. They have chased him into exile. Even now they are taunting him with the derisive question, "Where is thy God?" (Psa. 42:3) And the bitterest heartache of it all is that he can give no answer to their question that is satisfying even to himself.

      Once he feels that he could have done so. In those glad yesterdays when he was privileged to take part in the religious festivities of his people he was quite sure of God. But it is not so now. His realization of Him is no longer vivid. And since sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier days, his soul is cast down within him. In his bitterness he tells us that his tears have been his food day and night. He feels that he must have help. He simply cannot get on without it.

      But where does he turn in his hour of desperation? What fountain does he seek for the slaking of his thirst? He turns to One that he believes can do for him what the water brook can do for the deer, and far more. What place does the brook fill in the program of the deer? It is a great luxury, but it is more than a luxury. It is an absolute necessity. And what place does God fill in the program of the psalmist? He leaves us in no doubt as to the answer to that question. He counts God as an absolute necessity. There is simply no getting on without him. Therefore he cries after him as a hungry, frightened child might cry after its mother: "My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?" (Psa. 42:2)


      Now according to the Bible, the thirst of this poet is not unique. On the contrary, it is universal. It belongs to all mankind. Just as these bodies of ours are not self-sustaining, but must be watered and fed from resources external to themselves, even so it is with our souls. If our bodies do not have physical bread and water, they will hunger and thirst and die. Just so, if our souls do not have God, the Bread of Life and the Water of Life, they, too, will hunger and thirst and die. Jesus says very plainly, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again." (John 4:13) That is, no man can be satisfied by a well of his own contriving. No water that this world has to offer can meet the needs of these transcendent spirits of ours. Every man, therefore, is either consciously or unconsciously thirsting after God. This is a characteristic of the human race.

      Jesus discovers to us this thirst for God on the part of men and women that we should have considered the least likely to possess it. For instance, he tells of a youth that once grew sick and tired of the restraints of home (Luke 15:11). He became disgusted with the very things that should have been his keenest joy. Finally he ruthlessly shook the gentle hand of his father from his shoulder, flung away from it all, and went into a far country. But somehow he did not find what he expected to find. His adventure did not turn out well. Instead of winning satisfaction he only won the opposite. He was reduced to utter want. In his dire poverty he was forced to accept the lowly position of swineherd. The hogs that he tended were quite contented. They were well satisfied with the husks that he fed them. But no such satisfaction was possible for himself. He had hungers that these husks could not satisfy. He had thirsts that no fountains of the far country could slake. He was tormented by the memory of dear dead dreams and of old loved faces. At last he could stand it no longer. His very hungers and thirsts scourged him back into his father's arms.

      Then one day when Jesus was resting upon an old well curb, he saw a woman coming to him through the noonday heat (John 4:6). She had made a ghastly wreck of life, poor soul. Perhaps she had been beautiful once. Even yet she is witty and well able to give a good account of herself in an argument. But she has squandered her supreme treasure and is now seemingly nothing more than an utter moral and spiritual bankrupt. She is coming to the well at this sultry and unseemly hour, doubtless because she dreads the hot rays of the sun less than the hot words of her more decent and respectable sisters. Of course she is hopeless. Everybody said as much. She is not only a thing of shame in the eyes of those who know her best, but she is content to be so.

      But Jesus sees with different eyes. As he looks into her empty life he discovers what would doubtless have been a bit of a surprise even to herself. He sees that she is really hungry and thirsty for God. He tells her frankly that the one reason that she does not change that well curb into an altar of penitence and prayer is, not that she is satisfied to be the thing that she is, but rather that she is not sure that she can ever be different. If she could only be made to see the door that is open before her, with what amazing eagerness she would rush out of her sordid prison into the freedom of a new life. "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water" (John 4:10). Yes, even in this outcast woman, who was looked upon by the respectable Jew as lower than a street dog, there was a deathless hunger after God.

      Again Jesus tells of a certain farmer of his acquaintance who had made a great success (Luke 12:16). Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. This year his crops are so abundant that he does not have room in which to store them. He has to tear down his old barns and build greater. Surely life for him is full. To the onlooker there seems nothing to be desired. But no, he is not content. He discovers, as millions of others have done, that things never satisfy. Full barns may prove sufficient for his donkeys, but they are not quite enough for himself. Therefore we find him saying fretfully and peevishly to himself, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; ... eat, drink, and be merry" (Luke 12:19). But his soul turns from it all with loathing and disgust. And here again we find tormenting hungers and burning thirsts.

      This contention on the part of the Scriptures that thirst for God is universal is also supported by the facts of experience. What is more evident to-day than the restlessness and the discontent of the vast majority of the people we know? We can read it in their very faces as we pass them on the street. How few there are out of whose eyes looks "the peace of a great discovery." Poor people are discontented, but the rich are quite as much so. The ignorant are discontented, but often the cultured are even more so. This fretful fever belongs to no one class. It belongs to all classes, to the old and to the young, to those in harsh circumstances and to those who live upon the sunny side of the street.

      "We look before and after,
      And pine for what is not;
      Our sincerest laughter
      With some pain is fraught;
      Our sweetest songs are those
      That tell of saddest thought."
      (Shelley, To a Skylark)

      "Vanity of vanities," says Thackeray as he brings his greatest novel to its close, "Vanity of vanities! Who of us gets his desire, or getting it, is satisfied." (Vanity Fair)

      But, in saying that thirst for God is universal, we do not mean to declare that every man is conscious of the fact that he is thirsting for God. This is by no means the case. Should you suggest as much to many a feverish soul, there would be a quick and hot denial. Such a one fancies that God is the very least and last object of his thirst. What he is really thirsting for is for something tangible, solid, substantial. What he needs to satisfy him is a better position or a better house or a faster car. What he needs is to get a divorce, or to get the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) repealed or to get "somewhere east of Suez where the best is like the worst" (Kipling, Mandalay). What he needs is success, more money, a heaven made up of things. But the fact that such a one does not know that for which he thirsts does not discount the fact that his real thirst is for God.

      Here is a wee laddie asleep in his bed. By and by, he wakens and begins to wail. We come at once to his assistance and give him one toy after another in an effort to quiet him. But in spite of our well-meaning efforts he only wails the louder. "What is the matter?" we cry in desperation. He does not tell us. He simply wails louder still. Now the real trouble is that the little fellow is hungry. He does not know what the matter is himself, nor does he know for what he hungers. But in spite of his ignorance the moment he finds his way into his mother's arms his outcry ceases. Now, the fact that he did not know that for which he hungered did not lessen his discomfort in the least, nor did it prevent his satisfaction when his wants were met.

      That was a rather queer and ugly creature that a mother hen hatched along with her brood of normal and respectable chicks. The egg from which it came had been found on the side of a rugged mountain. He seemingly did his best to satisfy himself with the tame, unexciting life of the barnyard. But somehow it did not work. His crooked beak was out of place there, and his great wings seemed utterly useless. So the poor, awkward thing looked on his drab world with lackluster eyes. He did not fit in and was very evidently not at home. But one day he heard a wild scream above him. He looked up, and his eyes kindled. He saw a great bird like himself, an eagle. Then he realized what he had been thirsting for all the while. Therefore he spread his burnished brown wings and was away to the freedom of his larger world. He was made for the cloudland and for the crags of the mountains. Therefore he could not be satisfied in the barn yard. No more can we be satisfied with less than God. This is true whether we ever recognize it or not.

      Nor are we to assume that, because this thirst for God is universal, it is always the same in its intensity. Such is not the case. There are some sluggish souls for whom this longing may be quite vague. There are those, who, while discontented with the barnyard life, manage to get through on such low levels, with at least a partial degree of satisfaction. But there are other fine, sensitive souls for whom this thirst is a gnawing agony, a poignant pain. Such was the case with our author. Such has been the case with an innumerable company. But whether we thirst consciously or unconsciously, whether vaguely or intensely, God has planted within every human heart a deathless hunger and thirst for himself.


      Now just as universal as is this thirst after God, just so universal is the satisfaction offered for it through the riches of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is largely to emphasize and compel our faith in this great truth, it would seem, that the Bible was written. One witness after another comes forward to bear eager testimony to the fact that God has fully met his needs. Here, for instance, is the author of the one hundred and seventh Psalm. He has known something of the agony of a burning thirst, even as you and I. But he has found his way to the spring. Therefore he shouts the good news to you and me. "He satisfieth the longing soul." (Psa. 107:9)

      And Isaiah in his day saw the hot and restless crowds about him hurry from one booth to another and buy and buy, only to come away in the end the more restless and dissatisfied. At last, when he could endure the tragedic sight no longer, he cried after them:

      "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? Harken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness." (Isa. 55:1-2)

      "Why pay your last penny for what can never satisfy," he asks in bewilderment, "when he who meets your needs may be had for the taking?" Why indeed? But with a veritable passion for being cheated, we keep up the sorry business from generation to generation.

      "Earth gets its price for what Earth gives us,
      The beggar is taxed for a corner to die in,
      The priest hath his pay who comes and shrives us,
      We bargain for the graves we lie in;
      At the devil's booth are all things sold,
      Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold;
      For a cap and bells our lives we pay,
      Bubbles we buy with a whole soul's tasking,
      'Tis heaven alone that is given away,
      'Tis only God may be had for the asking."
      (James Russell Lowell, The Vision of Sir Launfal)

      This claim that God can satisfy every man's need becomes, if possible, even more emphatic upon the pages of the New Testament. It reaches its climax in the magnificent and daring appeals of Jesus. With what sublime audacity he flings out this invitation, "If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink" (John 7:37). If any man - there is no single exception. He claims to be able to meet every man's need regardless of who that man is or what his circumstances may be. "I am the bread of life," (John 6:35) he declares again, "he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. ... But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life."

      And those who have accepted this invitation have never been disappointed. Countless millions through the centuries have been able to sing out of their own experiences:

      "I heard the voice of Jesus say,Behold, I freely give
      The living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.'
      I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life-giving stream;
      My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in him."

      And mark you, this satisfaction means something more than individual salvation. It means that of course. "Thou shalt be like a watered garden," sings the prophet (Isa. 58:11). A garden - that is, something that is cultivated, fenced in, cared for. It must be watered from without. It is not sufficient to water itself. Its flowers wither, its beauties die unless it is watered. And man is that garden. And God is the One who supplies him with water.

      But that is not all. This same prophet adds, "He shall be like a spring whose waters fail not." (Isa. 58:11) That is, the heart that has found satisfaction in God becomes a means of bringing that same benediction to others. Jesus was speaking to the same purpose when he said: "If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."

      Now the poor, spent deer, of which I spoke at the beginning of my message, never reached the brook. He was too tired. The hounds were too near. The brook was too far away. Then, too, there was some body in his way. So he died with his goal unreached, his thirst unsatisfied. But it need not be so with you and me. Our God is not far away. He is infinitely near. He is closer than our foes. He is as near as our burning thirst. Nor do we have to wait for some far-off to-morrow to find him. He is ready to meet our needs in the here and now. And nobody can rob us of our finding him but ourselves. This is his amazing claim. Shall we take him seriously and drink and live, or shall we go on our feverish way feeling that his promise is altogether too good to be true?

      There is an old story of a derelict ship whose crew was starving for water. At last another ship came into sight. This distressed crew signaled, "Water, water; we are starving for water." "Let down your buckets where you are," came back the surprising answer. But such an answer seemed to these starving men nothing less than bitter mockery. So they signaled again, "Water, water; we are starving for water." Again there came back the same answer, "Let down your buckets where you are." At last they complied, not at all sure that anything would come of it, but with a dim hope that possibly they were not being mocked. And something did come of it. They found a supply of fresh water that to them was measureless. For, unknown to themselves, they had been driven into the wide mouth of the Amazon, whose waters freshen the sea for many miles from the shore. And this is Christ's call to you and me. He is not mocking. Let down your buckets where you are, and you, too, will find that he satisfieth the longing soul.

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