By Clovis G. Chappell
"But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped." (Psalm 73:2)
Clovis G. Chappell: This valiant climber is sharing with us some of the experiences that he has met along the pilgrim's road. He has come at last to where he walks with a certain sureness of step. He feels the road firm and solid beneath his feet because he has learned the secret and source of strength. But it has not always been so. As he looks back over his yesterdays he sees one stretch of road in particular that he found very difficult. In fact, at this spot he came very near to tripping and falling headlong. Here he escaped, by the narrowest margin, losing his footing and slipping into the chasm that skirted the way, where he might have been seen and heard no more. He recalls the experience after these years with mingled terror and gratitude. "I almost slipped. I nearly lost my footing."
This is a bit of the spiritual biography of a man who struggled and triumphed many centuries ago. Yet his story is amazingly modern and up-to-date. How thoroughly at home it is in these perplexing days in which we live! Some of us are saying sadly: "I know exactly what the psalmist is talking about. His experience differs from mine only in this: He managed somehow to keep his footing, but I lost mine altogether. I went down. I fell prostrate. Since then I have about quit trying. I have become afraid of that which is high. Christ's promises are still wonderfully beautiful and appealing, but for me at least they have not worked out, and I fear they never will. My feet have slipped, and I have given up the fight."
Then there are others for whom these words represent a present experience. Though you have not altogether lost your footing, yet you are painfully aware that you walk in slippery places. You feel that any moment may bring collapse. You have come out to God's house this morning, not with any great confidence. You are not at all sure that you will find here anything to steady you and to enable you to stand firmly upon your feet. But at any rate you are here, dimly hoping that such may be the case; that perchance there may come some word of strength; that there may be somehow a hand stretched out to help. You are in sore and desperate need and know not where else to turn. May God grant that your fainting faith may be richly rewarded, and that you may go away with a firm sense of the undergirding of the Everlasting Arms. (Deut. 33:27)
What was it that came so near to tripping this man of the long ago? Over what did he stumble? It is evident that he was greatly bewildered at God's perplexing ordering of things. He could not for the life of him understand how an infinite and holy God could govern the world in the manner in which he felt that the world of his day was being governed. The faith in which he had been reared and to which he clung made his difficulties in this respect only the greater. He had been taught that the good always prosper and that the wicked always go to the wall. That was the faith that was prevalent among all pious Jews at that time. It was old when this psalmist was born and continued long after he had gone to his reward.
For instance, when Job was overwhelmed by one crushing blow after another, there were three men who loved him well enough to undertake to share his sorrow with him. But they assumed at once that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, Job was being punished for his sin. "It simply cannot be otherwise," they declared emphatically. "Who ever suffered being innocent? Such a thing is simply unthinkable in a God-ordered world. Prosperity is a sure indication of the smile of God; adversity is no less a sure indication of his displeasure and biting indignation." (Job 4:7)
With this faith also the disciples of Jesus were in hearty agreement. One day, with their Master, they came upon a blind man. This man had been blind from his birth. They asked Jesus: "Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2) They could not conceive of any form of calamity, any sorrow, any suffering that was not born directly of the anger and displeasure of God. They believed that without exception the good are prosperous and happy, while the wicked always fail and are always wretched.
There are those who cling to this faith in some measure to this very hour. It is often a very comfortable faith and is therefore one that dies hard. There are those still who believe that God rewards us in the here and now with material and temporal blessings for being good. If he fails to do this, they feel that they have not been treated quite fairly. When they ask for bread, they are rather shocked and disappointed because God refuses to give them a stone. I received a letter only last week telling me of a man who had been a tither all his life, but who, in spite of that fact, had been overtaken by financial disaster. The writer seemed to feel that God should have paid him in dollars and cents for his faithfulness. Now there is no doubt that honesty is in the long run the best policy, and that, all things being equal, a good man stands a better chance at worldly prosperity than a bad man. But even then the good do not always prosper, and when they do, this prosperity is not given in payment for faithful service. We seem to forget that while the devil pays wages, God never does. "The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 6:23)
Now it was when this psalmist began to test his faith by the plain facts of experience that he found himself slipping. For when he looked with open eyes upon the world he saw that it simply could not be true. Doubtless there was a neighbor of his that lived not a block away, who despised the worship of the temple and lived in utter disregard of God. This neighbor declared emphatically that he was not in business for his health, that he was in it solely for the money. And there was no denying the fact that he was succeeding amazingly. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Not only so, but both he and his family enjoyed the best of health and to all appearances were finding life exceedingly livable. He was not in trouble like other men; neither was he plagued like other men.
But how about himself? He was trying desperately hard to be a good man. He was diligent in his religious duties. He tithed, he went to the synagogue, he sought earnestly to please God. But what was he getting out of it? Less than nothing. In spite of it all, he was not prosperous. On the contrary, everything he touched seemed to turn to dust and ashes. He declared in bewilderment, not mixed with hot indignation, that he was plagued all day long and that some new chastening came to him every morning. More than once, while in darkness he was sobbing out his perplexities to God, he had been disturbed and half angered by the noise of joyful revelry that had come from the house of his godless and prosperous neighbor.
"It is not fair," he cried hotly into his tear-soaked pillows. "What is the good of my loyalty to my convictions? Surely in vain have I cleansed my heart and washed my hands in innocency. Goodness does not pay, and since goodness does not pay, how can there be a God who cares about our loyalty? How can we be sure that there is a righteous God on the throne when all about us we see the good suffer and the wicked enjoying prosperity? How can any man under such circumstances be sure that because right is right, to follow right were wisdom in the scorn of consequence?' Is it not possible after all for one to gather grapes of thorns and figs of thistles? Would it not be far wiser for me to follow my neighbor, fling away from God, quit trying to be right, take the cash, and let the credit go?"
And if every one who has at times felt sympathy with the views of this psalmist were to say "Amen," it would shake like an earthquake. There are some of you as indignant over God's amazing ordering of things as was this psalmist. You, too, have tried to be right as God gave you to see the right. But there have been financial losses, sickness, death. So many have been your reverses that at times you doubt the real worth of righteousness. You have chosen to play the game fairly and have lost, while those who played unfairly are winners and are acclaimed for their victory. You had an opportunity for a questionable business adventure, but for conscientious reasons you turned it down. Others without your scruples entered the enterprise and now live in handsome residences on the avenue. "Their eyes stand out with fatness" while you are having a desperate struggle to keep the wolf from the door. Therefore, like this psalmist, you are questioning whether it pays to be true to God or not. You are even questioning whether there is a God who concerns himself about us and our petty affairs. You, too, can say: "My feet are almost gone; my steps are on the point of slipping." Yet it is heartening to know that this psalmist came safely through and ended by finding a firm footing for his feet. So may we, if we are only willing.
How did he keep from falling? What was it that steadied him?
He did not find new strength by abandoning all religious faith. He did not find it by flinging away from God altogether. It may be that in your perplexity you feel sorely tempted to do this. It may be that you feel that there is no hope, even in God. But, even assuming that you are right, this is surely true: If there is no hope in him, there is none anywhere. There is certainly nothing to steady us in the thought of a godless world. There is a poem that I have often heard quoted with appreciation, and I am not denying that it has a quantity of desperate courage about it, yet to my mind it is of the very essence of despair.
"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll;
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul."
W. E. Henley, 1849-1903
But how pathetically little his captaincy has accomplished! It has only brought him into a night as "black as the pit from pole to pole." It has given him no larger hope for the future than the "horror of the shade." Certainly there is nothing in the renouncing of religious faith to steady our feet.
What then did the psalmist do? The answer to some will seem perfectly childish. He went to church. "I went into the sanctuary of God." Oh, I know the Church of his day was not perfect. No more is it in our day. Sometimes church services can be very disappointing. Sometimes the preacher contributes but little, and the congregation less. I am afraid that I have preached more than once when the hungry sheep looked up and were not fed. I am afraid that more than once I have darkened counsel with words (Job 38:2).
Yet it is my conviction that if one turns to God's house with a hungry heart, God will break through a stupid sermon and past the personality of a very commonplace preacher, to the soul that really longs to know him. Just what others got out of this service we are not told. But the psalmist came into possession of certain gripping convictions that steadied him and enabled him to walk in the after days with firmness and assurance.
What were these convictions that he glimpsed in the house of the Lord and that he came to hold with clearer vision and with firmer grip through all his later years?
1. He discovered that he had greatly exaggerated the prosperity of the wicked. We constantly tend to think the lot of our neighbor better than our own, especially if we are in trouble. Distance does "lend enchantment to the view." During those dark days of famine in the city of Samaria there is little doubt that the people looked with envy upon the king as he passed by upon the wall. But one day they chanced to see through a rent in his royal garment, and lo, he wore sackcloth within upon his flesh. He had his own secret sorrow. And when this troubled singer looked with clearer and calmer eyes, his hot fever cooled somewhat, for he saw that his wicked neighbor was not so prosperous as he had supposed. It was not that his house was not so fine as he had thought. It was not that his financial adventures had failed. He saw that though he was still prosperous in things, it was in things only. He had no inner wealth. He was not really joyous and care free, but was "utterly consumed with terrors." (Psa. 73:19) Therefore his seeming prosperity was only a hollow sham. It failed utterly to satisfy and thus to make him truly rich.
Then he discovered that the prosperity of the wicked, even though it were ever so satisfying, is fleeting. It simply will not last. The wealth that is ours to-day will belong to another to-morrow. The names that fill the headlines in our papers to-day will have slipped into oblivion to-morrow. "The world passeth away and the lust thereof." (1 John 2:17) "What is needed," an officer asked of Alexander the Great as he looked upon a wonderful pageant, "what is needed to make this perfect?" "It won't last," answered the brilliant young general; "it won't last." The prizes for which we barter our lives slip from our clutching fingers almost as soon as we grasp them. In spite, therefore, of all appearances to the contrary, this world is builded upon a basis of righteousness, and the prosperity of evil is at once superficial and fleeting.
2. He came to realize his own wealth as he came into possession of certain bracing convictions about God. He became sure, first of all, of God's constant presence. "Nevertheless, I am continually with thee." (Psa. 73:23) His was not a God afar off who took no interest in the struggles, the sorrows, the heartaches of his child. He was a God at hand. He was "closer than breathing and nearer than hands and feet."(Tennyson) He was at his very side. He was there always. He was near in the sunshine and near in the shadow. He was near when his eyes were sparkling with joy. He was near also when his eyes were blinded by tears. "I have found God," he tells us, "to be a present God. I am with him continually."
Not only was God always present, but he was present to help. "Thou hast holden me by the right hand." The other day I saw a mother going down the street with her little child. For a few steps the little fellow walked alone, but he came to where a crossing was to be made. He then reached up and the mother took his hand and he went forward without fear. "So it has been in my case," says the psalmist. "When the way grew rugged and treacherous and I was in danger of losing my footing, I reached up my hand. And when I did so I did not clutch the thin air. Instead, there was One who seized my hand and held it fast, and who steadied me and gave me guidance."
"Finally I have discovered," says this psalmist, "that God satisfies. If I possess him, I can weather all gales, I can breast all tempests. If I have him, I have enough for time and for eternity." "Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee." (Psa. 73:25) To have all else but God is to be forever poor and restless and dissatisfied. To have God is to have all. "Lord show us the Father and it is enough." (John 14:8) And because the psalmist has found that God satisfies in the here and now, he believes that he will do so forever. He is firm in his conviction that he will guide him by his counsel and afterwards receive him into glory. That though his flesh and heart fail, as they were sure to do, though the house in which he lived should tumble into ruins, that God would surely be his strength and his portion forever.
In the power of this faith the psalmist was able to keep his feet. In its power he walked bravely forward and so came through his terrible struggle with horror. Such a faith will also steady ourselves. Do we really possess such faith? Do we know in our hearts that there is One infinitely near who is ready to grip our hands in our desperate hours? Do we believe that he abides the same through all the changing years? Are we sure that though friends and health and all else may fail and disappoint, that he never disappoints? Are we fully persuaded that nothing we put into his hand can ever be lost? Such is the conviction of this radiant singer, and those most deeply schooled in the things of God say, "Amen." "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." (1 Cor. 15:58)