A Psalm of David when he fled from Saul in the cave.
Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in Thee, and under the shadow of Thy wings shall be my refuge, until this tyranny be over-past. I will call unto the most high God, even unto the God that shall perform the cause which I have in hand. He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproof of him that would eat me up. God shall send forth His mercy and truth: my soul is among lions. And I lie even among the children of men, that are set on fire, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword. Set up Thyself, O God, above the heavens, and Thy glory above all the earth. They have laid a net for my feet, and pressed down my soul: they have digged a pit before me, and are fallen into the midst of it themselves. My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing, and give praise. Awake up, my glory; awake, lute and harp: I myself will awake right early. I will give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, among the people, and I will sing unto Thee among the nations. For the greatness of Thy mercy reacheth unto the heavens, and Thy truth unto the clouds. Set up Thyself, O God, above the heavens, and Thy glory above all the earth.
Some people now-a-days would call this poetry; and so it is. But what poetry! They would call it a Hebrew song, a Hebrew lyric; and so it is. But what a song! There is something in us, if we be truly delicate and high-minded people, which will surely make us feel a deep difference between it and common poetry, or common songs; which made our forefathers read or chant it in church, and use it, as many a pious soul has ere now, in private devotion.
David did not compose it in church or in temple. He never meant it, perhaps, to be sung in public worship. He little dreamed that we, and millions more, in lands of which he had never heard, should be repeating his words in a foreign tongue in our most sacred acts of worship. He was thinking, when he composed it, mainly of himself and his own sorrows and dangers. He intends, he says, to awake early, and sing it to lute and harp. Perhaps he had composed it in the night, as he lay either in the cave of Adullam or Engedi, hiding from Saul among the cliffs of the wild goats; and meant to go forth to the cave's mouth, and there, before the sun rose over the downs, he would, to translate his words exactly, "awake the dawning" with his song in the free air and the clear sky, singing to his little band of men.
And to some one more than man, my friends. For his poetry was poetry concerning God. His song was a song to God. He does not sing of his own sorrows to himself, as too many poets have done ere now. He does not sing to his men; though he no doubt wished them to hear him, and learn from him, and gain faith and comfort and courage from his song. He sings of his sorrows to God Himself; to the God who made heaven and earth; the God who is above the heavens, and His glory above all the earth.
This is the secret, the virtue, the charm of the song; that it sings to God. This is why it has passed into many lands, into many languages, through hundreds and hundreds of years, and is as fresh, and mighty, and full of meaning and of power, now, here, to us in England, as it was to David, when he was a poor outlaw, wandering in the hills of the little country of Judaea, more than 2000 years ago.
The poet says,
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,
and this psalm is most beautiful, and a joy for ever to delicate and noble intellects. But more, a thing of truth is a help for ever. And this psalm is most true, and a help for ever to all sorrowing and weary hearts. For the Spirit of truth it was, who put this psalm into David's heart and brain; and taught him to know and say what was true for him, and true for all men; what was true then, and will be true for ever.
And what in it is true for ever? The very figures, the metaphors of the psalm are true for ever. "Under the shadow of Thy wings shall be my refuge"--that is a noble figure; can we not feel its beauty? And more. Do none of us know that it is true? David did not believe any more than we do, that God had actual wings. But David knew--and it may be some of us know too--that God does at times strangely and lovingly hide us; keep us out of temptation; keep us out of harm's way; as it is written, "Thou shall hide them privately in Thy presence from the provoking of all men. Thou shall keep them in Thy tabernacle from the strife of tongues." Ah, my dear friends, in such a time as this, when the strife of tongues is only too loud, have you never had reason to thank God for being, by some seemingly mere accident, kept out of the strife of tongues and out of your chance of striving too, and of making a fool of yourself like too many others? The image of the mother bird, hiding her brood under her wings, seemed to David just to express that act of God's fatherly love, in words which will be true for ever, as long as a brooding bird is left on the earth, to remind us of David's song; and of One greater than David, too, who said--"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not." God grant that we all may do, when our time comes, that which those violent conceited Jews would not do; and therefore paid the awful penalty of their folly.
And the darker and more painful figures of the psalm: are they not true still? Is not a man's soul, even in this just and peaceful land, and far oftener in lands which are still neither just nor peaceful--Is not a man's soul, I say, sometimes among lions?--among greedy, violent, tyrannous persons, who are ready to entangle him in a quarrel, shout him down, ay, or shoot him down; literally ready to eat him up? Are not the children of men still too often set on fire; on fire with wild party cries, with superstitions which they do not half understand, with brute excitements which pander to their basest passions, running like fire from head to head, and heart to heart, till whole classes, whole nations sometimes, are on fire, ready like fire to consume and destroy all they touch; and like fire, to consume and destroy themselves likewise?
Are there none now, too, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword? Such use the pen now, rather than the tongue: but they know, as well as those whom David met, how to handle the spears and arrows of slander, and the sharp sword of insult. Are there none left, who set nets for their neighbours' feet, by gambling, swindling, puffing, by tricks of trade and tricks of party?--none who, like the Scribes of old, try to entangle men in their talk, and make them offenders for a word; and who, like David's enemies, fall now and then into the very pit which they have digged, and ruin themselves in trying to ruin others?
My friends, such men will be, as long as there is sin upon the earth. Their weapons are very different now from what they were in David's time: but their hearts are the same as they were then. "The works of the flesh they do, which are manifest;" and a very ugly list they make; as all who read St Paul's Epistles know full well.
But such men have their wages. God is merciful in this; that He rewards every man according to his work. And He is merciful to the whole human race, in rewarding such men according to their work. To the flesh they sow, and of the flesh they shall reap corruption. Of old it was written--"The wages of sin are death;" and that, like all God's words, is a Gospel and good news to poor human beings. For if the wages of sin were not death, what end could there be to sin, and therefore to misery?
But while such men exist, how shall a man escape them? How shall he defend himself from them? Not by craft and falsehood, not by angry replies, not by fighting them with their own weapons. The honest man is no match for them with those. The man who has a conscience is no match for the man who has none. The man who has no conscience does what he wills; everything is fair to him in war; and there--in his unscrupulousness--lies his evil strength. The man who has a conscience dares not do what he likes. His scruples--in plain words, his fear of God--hamper him, and put him at a disadvantage, which will always defeat him, as often as he borrows the devil's tools to do God's work withal.
He must give up those weapons, as David threw off Saul's armour, when he went to fight the giant. It was strong enough, doubt not: but he could not go in it, he said; he was not accustomed to it. He would take simpler weapons, to which he was accustomed; and fight his battle with them, trusting not in armour, but in the name of the living God.
In the name of the living God. That is the only sure weapon, and the only sure defence. In that David trusted, when he went to fight the giant. In that he trusted, when he was hid in the cave. And because he trusted in God, he prayed to God. He spoke to God. Remember that, and understand how much it means. David, the simple yeoman's son, the outlaw, the wanderer, despised and rejected by men, one who was no scholar either, who very probably could neither read nor write, and knew neither sciences nor arts, save how to play, in some simple way, upon his harp--this man found out that, however oppressed, miserable, ignorant he was in many respects, he had a right to speak face to face with the Almighty and Infinite God, who had made heaven and earth. He found out that that great God cared for him, protected him, and would be true to him, if only he would be true to God and to himself. What a discovery was that! Worth all the wealth and power, ay, worth all the learning and science in the world.--To have found the pearl of great price, the secret of all secrets; I, David, may speak to God.
Ah, my friends, consider the meaning of that. Consider it, I say. For when that great thought has once flashed across a man's mind, he is a new creature thenceforth. He need speak to no father-confessor or director; to no saints or angels; to no sages or philosophers. For he can speak to God Himself, and he need speak to no one else. Nay, at times he dare speak to no one else. If he can tell his story to God, why tell it to any of God's creatures?
He is in the presence of God Himself, God his Father, God his Saviour, God his Comforter; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. God is listening to him. To God he can tell all his sorrows, all his wrongs, all his doubts, all his sins, all his weaknesses, as David told his; and God will hear him; and instead of striking him dead for his presumption or for his sinfulness, will comfort him; comfort him with a feeling of peace, of freedom, of being right, and of being safe, such as he never had before; till all the troubles and dangers of this life shall seem light to him. Let the world rage. Let the foolish people deal foolishly, and the treacherous ones treacherously. For if God be with a man, who can be against him? He has no fears left now. He has nothing to do, save to thank God for his boundless condescension; and to trust on. To trust on. If he has set his heart on the Lord, he need not fear what man will do to him. If his heart is fixed; if he is sure that God cares for him, he will, as it were by instinct, sing and give praise to God, as the bird sings when the rain is past, and the sun shines out once more.
But I think that when a man has reached that state of mind, as David reached it, he will rise, as David rose, to a higher state of mind still. He will rise, as David rises in this psalm, from thoughts about his own soul, to thoughts about God. In one word, he will rise from religion to that which is above even religion, namely theology.
His first cry to God was somewhat selfish. He went to God about himself; about his own sorrows and troubles. That is natural and harmless. The child in pain and terror cries to its mother selfishly to be helped out of its own little woes. But when it is helped, and comforted, and safe in its mother's bosom, and its sobbing is over, then it forgets itself, and looks up into its mother's face, and thinks of her, and her alone.
And so it should be with the man whom God has comforted. When the deliverance has come; when the peace of mind has come; then surely, if he be worthy of the name of man, he will forget himself, and his own petty sorrows; and look up to God, to God Himself, and say within his heart--This great awful Being, eternal, infinite, omnipotent, who yet condescends to take care of a tiny creature like me, who am, in comparison with Him, less than the worm which crawls upon the ground, less than the fly which lives but for an hour--This God, so mighty and yet so merciful: who is He? What is He like? He is good to me. Is He not good to all? He is merciful to me. Is not His mercy over all His works? Nay, is he not good in Himself? The One Good? Must not God be The One Good, who is the cause and the fountain of all other goodness in man, in angels, in all heaven and earth? But if so--what a glorious Being He must be. Not merely a powerful, not merely a wise, but a glorious, because perfect, God. Then will he cry, as David cries in this very psalm--"Oh that men could see that. Oh that men could understand that. Oh that they would do God justice; and confess His glorious Name. Oh that He would teach them His Name, and shew them His glory, that they might be dazzled by the beauty of it, awed by the splendour of it. Oh that He would gladden their souls by the beatific vision of Himself, till they loved Him, worshipped Him, obeyed Him, for His own sake; not for anything which they might obtain from Him, but solely because He is The perfectly Good. Oh that God would set up Himself above the heavens, and His glory above all the earth; and that men would lift up their eyes above the earth, and above the heavens likewise, to God who made heaven and earth; and would cry--Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power; for Thou hast made all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created; and Thy pleasure is, Peace on Earth, and Goodwill toward men. Thou art the High and Holy One, who inhabitest eternity. Yet Thou dwellest with him that is of a contrite spirit, to revive the heart of the feeble, and to comfort the heart of the contrite. We adore the glory of Thy power; we adore the glory of Thy wisdom: but most of all we adore the glory of Thy justice, the glory of Thy condescension, the glory of Thy love."
And now, friends--almost all friends unknown--and alas! never to be known by me--you who are to me as people floating down a river; while I the preacher stand upon the bank, and call, in hope that some of you may catch some word of mine, ere the great stream shall bear you out of sight--oh catch, at least, catch this one word--the last which I shall speak here for many months, and which sums up all which I have been trying to say to you of late.
Fix in your minds--or rather, ask God to fix in your minds--this one idea of an absolutely good God; good with all forms of goodness which you respect and love in man; good as you, and I, and every honest man, understand the plain word good. Slowly you will acquire that grand and all-illuminating idea; slowly, and most imperfectly at best: for who is mortal man that he should conceive and comprehend the goodness of the infinitely good God? But see then whether, in the light of that one idea, all the old-fashioned Christian ideas about the relations of God to man; whether a Providence, Prayer, Inspiration, Revelation; the Incarnation, the Passion, and the final triumph, of the Son of God--whether all these, I say, do not begin to seem to you, not merely beautiful, not merely probable; but rational, and logical, and necessary, moral consequences from the one idea of An Absolute and Eternal Goodness, the Living Parent of the Universe.