"And David spake unto the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord had delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, and out of the hand of Saul: And he said, The Lord is my rock, and my fortress and my deliverer; the God of my rock; in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour; thou savest me from violence."--2 SAM. xxii. 1-3.
This is the death song of David; the last words of the great man--warrior, statesman, king, poet, prophet. A man of many joys and many sorrows, many virtues, and many crimes; but through them all, every inch a man. A man--heaped by God with every gift of body, and mind, and heart, and especially with strong and deep intense feeling. Right or wrong, he is never hard, never shallow, never light-minded. He is in earnest. Whatever happens to him, for good or evil, goes to his heart, and fills his whole soul, till it comes out again in song.
This it is which makes David the Psalmist. This it is which makes the Psalter a text book still for every soldier or sailor, for all men who have human hearts in them. This it is which will make his psalms live for ever. Because they are full of humanity, of the spirit of man, awakened and enlightened, and ennobled, by the Spirit of God.
Looking through these psalms of David, one is struck with astonishment at their variety. At what is called the versatility of his mind, that is, his ability to turn himself to every kind of subject, as it comes before him, and to sing of it--as man has never sung since. And one is the more astonished, when one remembers that many of the most beautiful of these Psalms must have been written while David was still a very young man. Though we have them, of course, only in a translation--though many of the words and phrases in them are difficult, sometimes impossible to understand, though they were written in a kind of verse which would give our English ears no pleasure, and were set to a music so utterly different from our own, that it would not sound like music to us. Yet, with all these disadvantages, they are beautiful as they stand, they sink into the ear, and into the heart, as what they are, the words of one inspired by God, who found beauty in every sight which he beheld, in every event which happened, even in every sorrow and every struggle in his own soul, and could sing of each and all of them in words and thoughts fresh from God, the fountain of all beauty and all truth.
But the peculiarity of David's psalms, after all, is from his intense faith in God. God is in all his thoughts. God is near him, guiding him, trying him, educating him, punishing him, sometimes he thinks for a moment, deserting him. But even then his mind is still full of God. It is God he wants, and the light of God's countenance, without which he cannot live, and leaving him in misery, and shame, and darkness, and out of the darkness he cries--My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? And, therefore, everything which happens to him shapes itself not into mere poetry, but into a prayer, or a hymn.
It is this which has made David for Christians now, as well as for Jews of old, the great master and teacher of heart religion. In the early church, in the middle ages, as now, Catholic alike and Protestant, whosoever has feared God and sought after righteousness; whosoever has known and sorrowed over the sinfulness and weakness of his own heart; whosoever has believed that the Lord God was dealing with him as with a son, educating him, chastening him, purifying him and teaching him, by the chances and changes of his mortal life; whosoever, I say, has had any real taste of vital experimental religion--to David's Psalms he has gone, as to a treasure house, to find there his own feelings, his own doubts, his own joys, his own thoughts of God and His providence--reflected as in a glass; everything which he would say, said for him already, in words which will never be equalled on earth.
There are psalms among them of bitter agony, cries as of a lost child, like that 6th psalm--"Oh Lord, rebuke me not in Thine anger, neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure," &c. And yet ending like that, with a sudden flash of faith, and hope, and joy, which is a peculiar mark of David's character, faith in God triumphing over all the chances and changes of mortal life. "The Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord will receive my prayer, all mine enemies shall be confounded and sore vexed. They shall be turned back and put to shame."
There are psalms again which are prayers for guidance and teaching like the 5th Psalm--"Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies: make thy way plain before my face."
There are psalms, again, of Natural Religion, such as the 8th and the 19th and the 29th, the words of a man who had watched and studied nature by day and night, as he kept his sheep upon the mountains, and wandered in the desert with his men. "I will consider thy heavens, the works of thy hand, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained . . . the fowls of the air and the fishes of the sea" . . . (Ps. viii. 3-8). "The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handi- work" (Ps. xix. 1-6). "It is the Lord that commandeth the water: it is the glorious God that maketh the thunder: it is the Lord that ruleth the sea: the voice of the Lord breaketh the cedar trees: the voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire: the voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness: the Lord sitteth above the water flood," &c. (Ps. xxix.).
There are psalms of deep religious experience like the 32d.--"Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven, and whose sin is covered . . . Thou art a place to hide me in. . . . Thy hand is heavy upon me day and night . . . I will acknowledge my sin unto Thee."
There are psalms, and these are almost the most important of all, such as the 9th, the 24th and 36th Psalms, which declare the providence and the kingdom of the Living God, with that great and prophetic 2d Psalm (ver. 1- 5): "Why do the heathen so furiously rage together, and the people imagine vain things. The kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against his anointed," &c.
There are psalms of deep repentance, of the broken and the contrite heart, like that famous 51st Psalm, which is used in all Christian churches to this day, as the expression of all true repentance, and which, even in our translation, by its awful simplicity, its slow sadness, expresses in its very sound the utterly crushed and broken heart. "Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness, according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences. . . . Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive. . . . The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. . . ." Then there are psalms, like the 26th, of a manful and stately confidence. The words of one who is determined to do right, who feels that on the whole he is doing it, and is not ashamed to say so. "Be thou my judge, for I have walked innocently. . . . Examine and prove me: try out my reins and my heart. I have not dwelt with vain persons, neither will I have fellowship with the deceitful. . . . I have hated the congregation of the wicked. I have loved the habitation of thy house." There are political psalms, full of weighty advice, to his sons after him, like the 115th Psalm.
There are psalms of the most exquisite tenderness, like the 23d Psalm, written perhaps while he himself was still a shepherd boy, and he looked upon his flocks feeding on the downs of Bethlehem, and sang, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," &c. And lastly, though I should not say lastly, for the variety of this wonderful man's psalms is past counting, there are psalms of triumph and thanksgiving, which are miracles of beauty and grandeur. Take, for instance, the 34th, one of the earliest, when David was not more than twenty-five years old, when Abimelech drove him away, and he departed and sang, "I will bless the Lord at all times. . . . My soul shall make her boast in the Lord. . . . I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me out of all my fear. Lo the poor man crieth and the Lord heareth him. . . . The angel of the Lord tarrieth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them." And, as the grandest of all, as, indeed, it was meant to be, that wonderful 18th Psalm which David, the servant of the Lord, spake to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies. "I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my strong rock and defence: my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge." This is, indeed, David's masterpiece. The only one which comes near it is the 144th. The loftiest piece of poetry, taken as mere poetry, though it is more, much more, in the whole world. Even in our translation, it rushes on with a force and a swiftness, which are indeed divine. Thought follows thought, image image, verse verse, before the breath of the Spirit of God, as wave leaps after wave before a mighty wind. Even now, to read that psalm rightly, should stir the heart like a trumpet. What must it have been like when sung by David himself? No wonder that those brave old Jews hung upon the lips of their warrior-poet and felt that the man who could sing to them of such thoughts, and not only sing them, but feel them likewise, was indeed a king and a prophet sent to them by God. A prophet, I say. They loved his songs not merely on account of the beauty of their poetry. Indeed, one hardly likes to talk of David's psalms as beautiful poetry. It seems unfair to them. For though they are beautiful poetry, they are far more, they are prophecy and preaching concerning God. They preach and declare to the Jews the Living God. They are the speech of a man whose thoughts and works were begun, continued, and ended in God. A man who knew that God was about his path, and about his bed, and spying out all his ways. A man whose one fixed idea was, that God was leading and guiding him through life. That idea, "The Lord leads me," is the key-note of David's psalms, and makes them what they are, an inspired revelation of Almighty God.
But is that idea true? Of course, you answer, it is true, because it is in the Bible. But that is not the question. That is rather putting the question aside, which is, Do we believe it to be true, and find it to be true? We believe that God was leading David because we read it in the Bible. But do we believe that God is leading us? If not, what is the use of our reading David's psalms, either in private or publicly in church every Sunday? You all know how largely we use them, but why? If we are not in the same case as David was, what right have we to take David's words into our mouths? We do not fancy that there is any magical virtue in repeating the same words, as foolish people used to repeat charms and spells. Our only right, our only excuse for saying or singing David's psalms in public or in private, must be, that as David was, so are we in this world, under the continual guidance of God.
And therefore it is that the Church bids us to use these psalms in our devotions, day by day, all the year round--that we may know that our God is David's God, our temptations David's temptations, our fears David's fears, our hopes David's hopes, our struggles and triumphs over what is wrong in our hearts and in the world around us, are the same as David's. That we are not to fancy, because David was an inspired prophet, that therefore he was in a different case from us, of different passions from ours, or that his words are too sacred and holy for us to use. Not so, we are to believe the very contrary. We are to believe that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation--that is--has not merely to do with the man who spoke it first--but that because David spoke by the Spirit of God, who is no respecter of persons, therefore his words apply to you, and to me, and to every human being--that David is revealing to us the everlasting laws of God's Spirit, and of God's providence, whereby He works alike in every Christian soul, and then, therefore, whatever our sin may be, whatever our sorrows may be, whatever our station in life may be, we have a right to offer up to God our repentance, our doubts, our fears, our hopes, our thanksgivings, in the very words which David used two thousand years and more ago, certain that they are the right words, better words than we can find for ourselves, exactly fitting our own souls, and fitting too the mind and will of Almighty God, because they are inspired by the same Spirit of God who descended on us, when we were baptized unto Christ's Church.
And for that, my friends, we have an example--as we have for everything else--in our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. For He, in the hour of His darkest agony, when He hung upon the cross for our sins, and the sin of all mankind, and when (worse than all other agony, or shame), there came over Him the deepest horror of all--the feeling, but for a moment, that God had forsaken Him--even then, He who spake as never man spake, did not disdain to use the words of David, and cry, in the opening verse of that 22d psalm, every line of which applies so strangely to Him himself, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" So did our Lord bequeath, as it were, with His dying breath, to all Christians for ever, as the fit and true expression of all that they should ever experience, the psalms of His great earthly ancestor, David, the sweet singer of Israel.
My friends, neglect not that precious bequest of your dying Lord. Read those psalms, study them, tune your hearts and minds to them more and more; and you will find in them an inexhaustible treasury of wisdom, and comfort, and of the knowledge of God, wherein standeth your eternal life.