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Westminster Sermons, 13 - THE ONE ESCAPE

By Charles Kingsley

      PSALM CXIX. 67.

      Before I was troubled, I went wrong: but now have I kept Thy Word.

      Let me speak this afternoon once more about the 119th Psalm, and the man who wrote it.

      And first: he was certainly of a different opinion from nine persons out of ten, I fear from ninety-nine out of a hundred, of every country, every age, and every religion.

      For, he says--Before I was troubled, I went wrong: but now have I kept Thy Word. Whereas nine people out of ten would say to God, if they dared--Before I was troubled, I kept Thy Word. But now that I am troubled; of course I cannot help going wrong.

      He makes his troubles a reason for doing right. They make their troubles an excuse for doing wrong.

      Is it not so? Do we not hear people saying, whenever they are blamed for doing what they know to be wrong--I could not help it? I was forced into it. What would you have a man do? One must live; and so forth. One finds himself in danger, and tries to lie himself out of it. Another finds himself in difficulties, and begins playing ugly tricks in money matters. Another finds himself in want, and steals. The general opinion of the world is, that right-doing, justice, truth, and honesty, are very graceful luxuries for those who can afford them; very good things when a man is easy, prosperous, and well off, and without much serious business on hand: but not for the real hard work of life; not for times of ambition and struggle, any more than of distress and anxiety, or of danger and difficulty. In such times, if a man may not lie a little, cheat a little, do a questionable stroke of business now and then; how is he to live? So it is in the world, so it always was; and so it always will be. From statesmen ruling nations, and men of business "conducting great financial operations," as the saying is now, down to the beggar- woman who comes to ask charity, the rule of the world is, that honesty is not the best policy; that falsehood and cunning are not only profitable, but necessary; that in proportion as a man is in trouble, in that proportion he has a right to go wrong.

      A right to go wrong. A right to make bad worse. A right to break God's laws, because we are too stupid or too hasty to find out what God's laws are. A right, as the wise man puts it, to draw bills on nature which she will not honour; but return them on a man's hands with "No effects" written across them, leaving the man to pay after all, in misery and shame. Truly said Solomon of old--The foolishness of fools is folly.

      But the Psalmist, because he was inspired by the Spirit of God, was of quite the opposite opinion. So far from thinking that his trouble gave him a right to go wrong, he thought that his trouble laid on him a duty to go right, more right than he had ever gone before; and that going right was the only possible way of getting out of his troubles.

      "Take from me," he cries, "the way of lying, and cause Thou me to make much of Thy law.
      "I have chosen the way of truth, and Thy judgments have I laid before me.
      "Incline mine heart unto Thy testimonies, and not unto covetousness.
      "Oh turn away mine eyes, lest they behold vanity, and quicken Thou me in Thy way.
      "Thy word is my comfort in my trouble; for Thy word hath quickened me.
      "The proud have had me exceedingly in derision, yet have I not shrunk from Thy law.
      "For I remembered Thine everlasting judgments, O God, and received comfort.
      "Thy statutes have been my songs, in the house of my pilgrimage.
      "I have thought upon Thy name, O Lord, in the night-season, and have kept Thy law."

      This was the Psalmist's plan for delivering himself out of trouble. A very singular plan, which very few persons try, either now, or in any age. And therefore it is, that so many persons are not delivered out of their troubles, but sink deeper and deeper into them, heaping new troubles on old ones, till they are crushed beneath the weight of their own sins.

      What the special trouble was, in which the Psalmist found himself, we are not told. But it is plain from his words, that it was just that very sort of trouble, in which the world is most ready to excuse a man for lying, cringing, plotting, and acting on the old devil's maxim that "Cunning is the natural weapon of the weak." For the Psalmist was weak, oppressed and persecuted by the great and powerful. But his method of defending himself against them was certainly not the way of the world.

      Princes, he says, sat and spoke against him. But; instead of fawning on them, excusing himself, entreating their mercy: he was occupied in God's statutes.

      The proud had him exceedingly in derision--as I am afraid too many worldly men, poor as well as rich, working men as well as idlers, would do now--seeing him occupied in God's statutes, when he might have been occupied in winning money, and place, and renown for himself.

      But he did not shrink from God's law. If it was true, he could afford to be laughed at for obeying it.

      The congregation of the ungodly robbed him. But he did not forget God's law. If they did wrong, that was no reason why he should do wrong likewise.

      The proud imagined a lie against him. But he would keep God's commandments with his whole heart, instead of breaking God's commandments, and justifying their slander, and making their lie true.

      Still, it went very hard with him. His honour and his faith were sorely tried. He was dried up like a bottle in the smoke. It seems to have been with him at times a question of life and death; till he had hardly any hope left. He had to ask, almost in despair--How many are the days of Thy servant? When wilt Thou be avenged of them that persecute me? The proud dug pits for him, contrary to the law of God; contrary to honour and justice; and almost made an end of him upon earth. The ungodly laid wait to destroy him.

      But against them all he had but one weapon, and one defence. However much afraid he might be of his enemies, he was still more afraid of doing wrong. His flesh, he said, trembled for fear of God; and he was afraid of God's judgments. Therefore his only safety was, in pleasing God, and not men. I deal, he says, with the thing that is lawful and right. Oh give me not over to my oppressors. Make Thy servant to delight in what is good, that the proud do me no wrong. If he could but keep right, he would be safe at last.

      I will consider Thy testimonies, O Lord. I see that all things come to an end. Bad times, and bad chances, and still more bad men, and bad ways for escaping out of trouble--they all come to an end. But Thy commandment is exceeding broad. Exceeding broad. There are depths below depths of meaning in that true saying; depths which you will find true, if you will but read your Bibles, and obey your Bibles. For in them, I tell you openly, you will find rules to guide you in every chance and change of this mortal life. Truly said the good man that there were in the Bible "shallows where a lamb may drink, and deeps wherein an elephant may swim."

      There are no possible circumstances, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, in which you can find yourselves, be you rich or poor, young or old, without finding in the Bible sound advice, and a clear rule, as to how God would have you behave under those circumstances. For God's commandments are exceeding broad, and take in all cases of conscience, all details of duty; saying to each and every one of us, at every turn--"This is the way, walk ye in it."

      At least this is the teaching, this is the testimony, this is the life- experience, of a true hero, namely, the man who wrote the 119th Psalm; a hero according to God, but not according to the world, and the pomp and glory of the world.

      No great statesman was he, nor conqueror, nor merchant, nor financier passing millions of money through his hands yearly; and all fancying that they, and not God, govern the nations upon earth, and decide the fate of empires.

      He was a man who made no noise in the world: though the world, it seems, made a little noise at him in his time, as it does often bark and yell at those who will not go its way; as it barked at poor Christian, when he went through Vanity Fair, and would not buy its wares, or join in its frivolities. Such a man was this Psalmist; for whom the world had nothing but scorn first, and then forgetfulness. We do not know his name, or where he lived. We do not even know, within a few hundred years, when he lived. I picture him to myself always as a poor, shrivelled, stooping, mean-looking old man; his visage marred more than any man, and his figure more than the sons of men; no form nor comeliness in him, nor beauty that men should desire him; despised and rejected of men: a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, even as his Master was after him.

      And all that he has left behind him--as far as we can tell--is this one psalm which he wrote, as may be guessed from its arrangement, slowly, and with exceeding care, as the very pith and marrow of an experience spread over many painful years of struggle and of humiliation.

      I say of humiliation. For there is not a taint of self-conceit, not even of self-satisfaction, in him. He only sees his own weakness, and want of life, of spirit, of manfulness, of power. His soul cleaveth to the dust. He is tempted, of course, again and again, to give way; to become low- minded, cowardly, time-serving, covetous, worldly. But he dares not. He feels that his only chance is to keep his honour unspotted; and he cries--Whatever happens,--I must do right. I must learn to do right. Teach me to do right. Teach me, O Lord, teach me; and strengthen me, O Lord, strengthen me, and then all must come right at last. That was his cry. And, be you sure, he did not cry in vain.

      For this man had one precious possession; which he determined not to lose, not though he died in trying to hold it fast; namely, the Eternal Spirit of God; the Spirit of Righteousness, and Truth, and Justice, which leads men into all truth. By that Spirit he saw into the Eternal Laws of God. By that Spirit he saw who made and who administers those Eternal Laws, even the Eternal Word of God, who endureth for ever in heaven. By that Spirit he saw that his only hope was to keep those eternal laws. By that Spirit he vowed to keep them. By that Spirit he had strength to keep them. By that Spirit, when he failed he tried again; when he fell he rose and fought on once more, to keep the commandments of the Lord.

      And where is he now? Where is he now? Where those will never come--let false preachers and false priests flatter them as they may--who fancy that they can get to heaven without being good and doing good. Where those will never come, likewise, who, when they find themselves in trouble, try to help themselves out of it by false and mean methods; and so begin worshipping the devil, just when they have most need to worship God. He is where the fearful and unbelievers and all liars can never come. He is with the Word of the Lord, who endureth for ever in heaven.

      With the Word of the Lord, who endured awhile on earth, even as he the Psalmist endured. Who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession, and endured the cross, despising the shame, because He cared neither for riches, nor for pleasure, for power, nor for glory; but simply for His Father's will, and His Father's law, that He might do to the uttermost the will of His Father who sent Him, and keep to the uttermost that Law of which His Father says to Him for ever--"Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten Thee."

      Into His presence may we all come at last! But we shall never come thither, unless we keep our honour bright, our courage unbroken, and ourselves unspotted from the world. For so only will be fulfilled in us the sixth Beatitude--Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Unto which may God of His free mercy bring us all. Amen.

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