By Charles Kingsley
PSALM CXIX. 33, 34.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, and I shall keep it unto the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep Thy Law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart.
This 119th Psalm has been valued for many centuries, by the wisest and most devout Christians, as one of the most instructive in the Bible; as the experimental psalm. And it is that, and more. It is specially a psalm about education. That is on the face of the text. Teach me, O Lord, Thy statutes, and I shall keep them to the end. These are the words of a man who wishes to be taught, and therefore to learn; and to learn not mere book-learning and instruction, but to acquire a practical education, which he can keep to the end, and carry out in his whole life.
But it is more. It is, to my mind, as much a theological psalm as it is an experimental psalm; and it is just as valuable for what it tells us concerning the changeless and serene essence of God, as for what it tells us concerning the changing and struggling soul of man.
Let us think a little this morning--and, please God, hereafter also--of the Psalm, and what it says. For it is just as true now as ever it was, and just as precious to those who long to educate themselves with the true education, which makes a man perfect, even as his Father in heaven is perfect.
The Psalm is a prayer, or collection of short prayers, written by some one who had two thoughts in his mind, and who was so full of those two thoughts that he repeated them over and over again, in many different forms, like one who, having an air of music in his head, repeats it in different keys, with variation after variation; yet keeps true always to the original air, and returns to it always at the last.
Now what two thoughts were in the Psalmist's mind?
First: that there was something in the world which he must learn, and would learn; for everything in this life and the next depended on his learning it. And this thing which he wants to learn he calls God's statutes, God's law, God's testimonies, God's commandments, God's everlasting judgments. That is what he feels he must learn, or else come to utter grief, both body and soul.
Secondly: that if he is to learn them, God Himself must teach them to him. I beg you not to overlook this side of the Psalm. That is what makes it not only a psalm, but a prayer also. The man wants to know something. But beside that, he prays God to teach it to him.
He was not like too many now-a-days, who look on prayer, and on inspiration, as old-fashioned superstitions; who believe that a man can find out all he needs to know by his own unassisted intellect, and then do it by his own unassisted will. Where they get their proofs of that theory, I know not; certainly not from the history of mankind, and certainly not from their own experience, unless it be very different from mine. Be that as it may, this old Psalmist would not have agreed with them; for he held an utterly opposite belief. He held that a man could see nothing, unless God shewed it to him. He held that a man could learn nothing unless God taught him; and taught him, moreover, in two ways. First taught him what he ought to do, and then taught him how to do it.
Surely this man was, at least, a reasonable and prudent man, and shewed his common-sense. I say--common-sense.
For suppose that you were set adrift in a ship at sea, to shift for yourself, would it not be mere common-sense to try and learn how to manage that ship, that you might keep her afloat and get her safe to land? You would try to learn the statutes, laws, and commandments, and testimonies, and judgments concerning the ship, lest by your own ignorance you should sink her, and be drowned. You would try to learn the laws about the ship; namely the laws of floatation, by fulfilling which vessels swim, and by breaking which vessels sink.
You would try to learn the commandments about her. They would be any books which you could find of rules of navigation, and instruction in seamanship.
You would try to learn the testimonies about the ship. And what would they be? The witness, of course, which the ship bore to herself. The experience which you or others got, from seeing how she behaved--as they say--at sea.
And from whom would you try to learn all this? from yourself? Out of your own brain and fancy? Would you invent theories of navigation and shipbuilding for yourself, without practice or experience? I trust not. You would go to the shipbuilder and the shipmaster for your information. Just as--if you be a reasonable man--you will go for your information about this world to the builder and maker of the world--God himself.
And lastly; you would try to learn the judgments about the ship: and what would they be? The results of good or bad seamanship; what happens to ships, when they are well-managed or ill-managed.
It would be too hard to have to learn that by experience; for the price which you would have to pay would be, probably, that you would be wrecked and drowned. But if you saw other ships wrecked near you, you would form judgments from their fate of what you ought to do. If you could find accounts of shipwrecks, you would study them with the most intense interest; lest you too should be wrecked, and so judgment overtake you for your bad seamanship.
For God's judgment of any matter is not, as superstitious people fancy, that God grows suddenly angry, and goes out of His way to punish those who do wrong, as by a miracle. God judges all things in heaven and earth without anger--ay, with boundless pity: but with no indulgence. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The ship that cannot swim, it must sink. That is the law of the judgments of God. But He is merciful in this; that He rewardeth every man according to his work. His judgment may be favourable, as well as unfavourable. He may acquit, or He may condemn. But whether He acquits or condemns, we can only know by the event; by the result. If a ship sinks, for want of good sailing or other defect, that is a judgment of God about the ship. He has condemned her. She is not seaworthy. But if the ship arrives safe in port, that too is God's judgment. He has tried her and acquitted her. She is seaworthy; and she has her reward.
How simple this is. And yet men will not believe it, will not understand it, and therefore they wreck so often each man his own ship--his own life and immortal soul, and sink and perish, for lack of knowledge.
For each one of us is at sea, each in his own ship; and each must sail her and steer her, as best he can, or sink and drown for ever.
For the sea which each of us is sailing over is this world, and the ship in which each of us sails, is our own nature and character; what St Paul, like a truly scientific man, calls our flesh; and what modern scientific men, and rightly, call our organisation. And the land to which we are sailing is eternal Life. Shall we make a prosperous voyage? Shall we fail, or shall we succeed? Shall we founder and drown at sea, and sink to eternal death? Or shall we, as the clergyman prayed for us when we were baptized, so pass through the waves of this troublesome world, that finally we may come to the land of everlasting life? Which shall it be, my friends? Shall we sink, or shall we swim? Certain is one thing--that we shall sink, and not swim, if we do not learn and keep the law, and commandments, and testimonies, and judgments of God, concerning this our mortal life. If we do not, then we shall go through life, without knowing how to go through life, ignorantly and blindly; and the end of that will be failure, and ruin, and death to our souls. If we do not know and keep the Laws of God, the Laws of God will keep themselves, in spite of us, and grind us to powder. Do not fancy that you may do wrong without being punished; and break God's Law, because you are not under the law, but under grace. You are only under grace, as long as you keep clear of God's Law. The moment you do wrong you put yourself under the Law, and the Law will punish you. Suppose that you went into a mill; and that the owner of that mill was your best friend, even your father. Would that prevent your being crushed by the machinery, if you got entangled in it through ignorance or heedlessness? I think not. Even so, though God be your best of friends, ay, your Father in heaven, that will not prevent your being injured, it may be ruined, not only by wilful sins, but by mere folly and ignorance. Therefore your only chance for safety in this life and for ever, is to learn God's laws and statutes about your life, that you may pass through it justly, honourably, virtuously, successfully. And the man who wrote the 119th Psalm knew that, and said, "Oh that my ways were made so direct, that I might keep thy statutes."
But moreover, you must learn God's commandments. He has laid down certain commands, certain positive rules which must be kept if you do not intend to die the eternal death. So says our Lord. "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul, and thy neighbour as thyself." There the ten commandments are, and kept they must be; and if you break one of them, it will punish you, and you cannot escape. And the man who wrote the 119th Psalm knew that, and said, "With my whole heart have I sought thee: oh let me not go wrong out of Thy commandments."
Moreover, you must learn God's testimonies: what He has witnessed and declared about Himself, and His own character, His power and His goodness, His severity and His love. And where will you learn that, as in the Bible? The Bible is full of testimonies of God in Christ about Himself; who He is, what He does, what He requires; and of testimonies of holy men of old, concerning God and concerning duty; concerning God's dealings with their souls, and with other men, and with all the nations of the old world, and with all nations likewise to the end of time. And if people will not read and study their Bibles, they cannot expect to know the way to eternal life. That too the man who wrote the 119th Psalm knew, and said, "I have had as great delight in Thy testimonies, as in all manner of riches."
Moreover, you must learn God's judgments; the way in which He rewards and punishes men. And those too you will learn in the Bible, which is full of accounts of the just and merciful judgments of God. And you may learn them too from your own experience in life; from seeing what actually happens to those whom you know, when they do right things; and what happens again, when they do wrong things. If any man will open his eyes to what is going on around him in a single city, or in the mere private circle of his own kinsfolk and acquaintance; if he will but use his common sense, and look how righteousness is rewarded, and sin is punished, all day long, then he might learn enough and to spare about God's judgments: but men will not. A man will see his neighbour do wrong, and suffer for it: and then go and do exactly the same thing himself; as if there were no living God; no judgments of God; as if all was accident and chance; as if he was to escape scot-free, while his neighbour next door has brought shame and misery on himself by doing the same thing. For it was well written of old, "The fool hath said in his heart--though he is afraid to say it with his lips--There is no God." And the man who wrote the 119th Psalm knew that, and said, "I remembered Thine everlasting judgments, O Lord, and received comfort; for I was horribly afraid for the ungodly who forsake Thy law."
I say again: that the only way to attain eternal life is to know, and keep, and profit by God's laws, God's commandments, God's testimonies, God's judgments; and therefore it is that the Psalmists say so often, that these laws and commandments are Life. Not merely the way to eternal life; but the Life itself, as it is written in the Prayer-Book, "O God, whom truly to know is everlasting life."
But some will say, How shall I learn? I am very stupid, and I confess that freely. And when I have learnt, how shall I act up to my lesson? For I am very weak; and that I confess freely likewise.
How indeed, my friends? Stupid we are, the cleverest of us; and weak we are, the strongest of us. And if God left us to find out for ourselves, and to take care of ourselves, we should not sail far on the voyage of life without being wrecked; and going down body and soul to hell.
But, blessed be God, He has not left us to ourselves. He has not only commanded us to learn: He has promised to teach. And--as I said in the beginning of my Sermon--he who wrote the 119th Psalm knew that well. He knew that God would teach him and strengthen him; enlightening his dull understanding, and quickening his dull will; and therefore his Psalm, as I said, is a prayer, a prayer for teaching, and a prayer for light; and he cries to God--My soul cleaveth to the dust. I am low-minded, stupid, and earthly at the best. Oh quicken Thou me; that is--Oh give me life--more life--according to Thy word.
Thy Word. The Word of God, of whom the Psalmist says--O Lord, Thy Word endureth for ever in heaven. Even the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of Man who is in heaven; and who, because He is in heaven, both God and man, can and will give us light and life, now and for ever.
And now take home with you this one thought. There is one education which we must all get; one thing which we must all learn, and learn to obey, or come to utter shame and ruin, either in this world or the world to come; and that is the laws, and commandments, and testimonies of God,--God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; for only by keeping them can we enter into eternal life. And if we wish to know them, God himself will teach us them. And if we wish, to keep them, God himself will give us strength to keep them. Amen.