By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached March 30, 1851
"As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, 0 God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God ?"-Psalm x1ii. 1-3.
The value of the public reading of the Psalms in our service is, that they express for us indirectly those deeper feelings which there would be a sense of indelicacy in expressing directly.
Example of Joseph: asking after his father, and blessing his brothers, as it were, under the personality of another.
There are feelings of which we do not speak to each other; they are too sacred and too delicate. Such are most of our feelings to God. If we do speak of them, they lose their fragrance: become coarse: nay, there is even a sense of indelicacy and exposure.
Now the Psalms afford precisely the right relief for this feeling: wrapped up in the forms of poetry, metaphor, etc., that which might seem exaggerated is excused by those who do not feel it; while they who do can read them, applying them, without the suspicion of uttering their own feelings. Hence their soothing power, and hence, while other portions of Scripture may become obsolete, they remain the most precious parts of the Old Testament. For the heart of man is the same in all ages.
This forty-second Psalm contains the utterance of a sorrow of which men rarely speak. There is a grief worse than lack of bread or loss of friends. Men in former times called it spiritual desertion. But at times the utterances of this solitary grief are, as it were, overheard, as in this Psalm. Read verses 6, 7. And in a more august agony, "My God. my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
I. Causes of David's despondency.
II. The consolation.
I. Causes of David's despondency.
1. The thirst for God. "My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?"
There is a desire in the human heart best described as the cravings of infinitude. We are so made that nothing which has limits satisfies. Hence the sense of freedom and relief which comes from all that suggests the idea of boundlessness: the deep sky, the dark night, the endless circle, the illimitable ocean.
Hence, too, our dissatisfaction with all that is or can be done. There never was the beauty yet than which we could not conceive something more beautiful. None so good as to be faultless in our eyes. No deed done by us, but we feel we have it in us to do a better. The heavens are not clean in our sight, and the angels are charged with folly.
Therefore to never rest is the price paid for our greatness. Could we rest, we must become smaller in soul. Whoever is satisfied with what he does has reached his culminating point: he will progress no more. Man's destiny is to be not dissatisfied, but forever unsatisfied.
Infinite goodness-a beauty beyond what eye hath seen or heart imagined, a justice which shall have no flaw, and a righteousness which shall have no blemish-to crave for that, is to be "athirst for God."
2. The temporary loss of the sense of God's personality.
"My soul is athirst for the living God."
Let us search our own experience. What we want is, we shall find-not infinitude, but a boundless One; not to feel that love is the law of this universe, but to feel One whose name is love.
For else, if in this world of order there be no One in whose bosom that order is centred, and of whose Being it is the expression; in this world of manifold contrivance, no personal affection which gave to the skies their trembling tenderness, and to the snow its purity, then order, affection, contrivance, wisdom, are only horrible abstractions, and we are in the dreary universe alone.
Foremost in the declaration of this truth was the Jewish religion. It proclaimed-not "Let us meditate on the Adorable Light, it shall guide our intellects"-which is the most sacred verse of the Hindoo sacred books-but "Thus saith the Lord, I am, that I am." In that word "I am" is declared personality; and it contains, too, in the expression, "Thus saith," the real idea of a revelation, viz., the voluntary approach of the Creator to the creature.
Accordingly, these Jewish Psalms are remarkable for that personal tenderness towards God-those outbursts of passionate individual attachment which are in every page. A person, asking and giving heart for heart-inspiring love, because feeling it-that was the Israelite's Jehovah.
Now distinguish this from the God of the philosopher and the God of the mere theologian.
The God of the mere theologian is scarcely a living God-He did live; but for some eighteen hundred years we are credibly informed that no trace of His life has been seen. The canon is closed. The proofs that He was are in the things that He has made, and the books of men to whom He spake; but He inspires and works wonders no more. According to the theologians, He gives us proofs of design instead of God-doctrines instead of the life indeed.
Different, too, from the God of the philosopher. The tendency of philosophy has been to throw back the personal Being farther and still farther from the time when every branch and stream was believed a living power, to the period when "principles" were substituted for this belief; then "laws;" and the philosopher's God is a law into which all other laws are resolvable.
Quite differently to this speaks the Bible of God. Not as a law, but as the life of all that is-the Being who feels, and is felt-is loved, and loves again-feels my heart throb into His-counts the hairs of my head: feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies: hears my prayers, and interprets them through a Spirit which has affinity with my spirit.
It is a dark moment when the sense of that personality is lost: more terrible than the doubt of immortality. For of the two-eternity without a personal God, or God for seventy years without immortality-no one after David's heart would hesitate, "Give me God for life, to know and be known by Him." No thought is more hideous than that of an eternity without Him. "My soul is athirst for God." The desire for immortality is second to the desire for God.
3. The taunts of scoffers. "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, 0 God." Now the hart here spoken of is the hart hunted, at bay, the big tears rolling from his eyes, and the moisture standing black upon his side. Let us see what the persecution was. "Where is now thy God?" (ver. 3). This is ever the way in religious perplexity: the unsympathizing world taunts or misunderstands. In spiritual grief they ask, Why is he not like others? In bereavement they call your deep sorrow unbelief. In misfortune they comfort you, like Job's friends, by calling it a visitation. Or like the barbarians at Melita when the viper fastened on Paul's hand, no doubt they call you an infidel, though your soul be crying after God. Specially in that dark and awful hour, when He called on God, "Eloi, Eloi," they said, "Let be: let us see whether Elias will come to save Him."
Now this is sharp to bear. It is easy to say Christian fortitude should be superior to it; but in darkness to have no sympathy; when the soul gropes for God, to have the hand of man relax its grasp! Forest-flies, small as they are, drive the noble war-horse mad: therefore David says, "As a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me: while they say daily unto me, Where is thy God?" (ver. 10). Now, observe, this feeling of forsakenness is no proof of being forsaken. Mourning after an absent God is an evidence of love as strong as rejoicing in a present one. Nay, further, a man may be more decisively the servant of God and goodness while doubting His existence, and in the anguish of his soul crying for light, than while resting in a common creed, and coldly serving Him. There has been One at least whose apparent forsakenness and whose seeming doubt bears the stamp of the majesty of faith. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
II. David's consolation.
1. And first, in hope (see verse 5): distinguish between the feelings of faith that God is present, and the hope of faith that He will be so.
There are times when a dense cloud veils the sunlight: you can not see the sun, nor feel him. Sensitive temperaments feel depression, and that unaccountably and irresistibly. No effort can make you feel. Then you hope. Behind the cloud the sun is; from thence he will come; the day drags through, the darkest and longest night ends at last. Thus we bear the darkness and the otherwise intolerable cold, and many a sleepless night. It does not shine now, but it will.
So too, spiritually. There are hours in which physical derangement darkens the windows of the soul; days in which shattered nerves make life simply endurance; months and years in which intellectual difficulties, pressing for solution, shut out God. Then faith must be replaced by hope. "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter." "Clouds and darkness are roundabout Him: but righteousness and truth are the habitation of His throne." "My soul, hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance and my God."
2. This hope was in God.
The mistake we make is to look for a source of comfort in ourselves: self-contemplation, instead of gazing upon God. In other words, we look for comfort precisely where comfort never can be.
For first, it is impossible to derive consolation from our own feelings, because of their mutability: to-day we are well, and our spiritual experience, partaking of these circumstances, is bright; but to-morrow some outward circumstances change-the sun does not shine, or the wind is chill, and we are low, gloomy, and sad. Then if our hopes were unreasonably elevated, they will now be unreasonably depressed; and so our experience becomes flux and reflux, ebb and flow; like the sea, that emblem of instability.
Next, it is impossible to get comfort from our own acts; for though acts are the test of character, yet in a low state no man can judge justly of his own acts. They assume a darkness of hue which is reflected on them by the eye that contemplates them. It would be well for all men to remember that sinners can not judge of sin-least of all, can we estimate our own sin.
Besides, we lose time in remorse. I have sinned; well, by the grace of God I must endeavor to do better for the future. But if I mourn for it overmuch all to-day, refusing to be comforted, to-morrow I shall have to mourn the wasted to-day; and that again will be the subject of another fit of remorse.
In the wilderness, had the children of Israel, instead of gazing on the serpent, looked down on their own wounds to watch the process of the granulation of the flesh, and see how deep the wound was, and whether it was healing slowly or fast, cure would have been impossible: their only chance was to look off the wounds. Just so, when giving up this hopeless and sickening work of self-inspection, and turning from ourselves in Christian self-oblivion, we gaze on God, then first the chance of consolation dawns.
He is not affected by our mutability, our changes do not alter Him. When we are restless, He remains serene and calm; when we are low, selfish, mean, or dispirited, He is still the unalterable I AM. The same yesterday, to-day, and forever, in whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. What God is in Himself, not what we may chance to feel Him in this or that moment to be, that is our hope "My soul, hope thou in God."