corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Psalms 16

 

 

Verse 5-6

Psalms

MAN’S TRUE TREASURE IN GOD

Psalms 16:5 - Psalms 16:6.

We read, in the law which created the priesthood in Israel, that ‘the Lord spake unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them. I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel’ [Numbers 18:20]. Now there is an evident allusion to that remarkable provision in this text. The Psalmist feels that in the deepest sense he has no possession amongst the men who have only possessions upon earth, but that God is the treasure which he grasps in a rapture of devotion and self-abandonment. The priest’s duty is his choice. He will ‘walk by faith and not by sight.’

Are not all Christians priests? and is not the very essence and innermost secret of the religious life this-that the heart turns away from earthly things and deliberately accepts God as its supreme good, and its only portion? These first words of my text contain the essence of all true religion.

The connection between the first clause and the others is closer than many readers perceive. The ‘lot’ which ‘Thou maintainest,’ the ‘pleasant places,’ the ‘goodly heritage,’ all carry on the metaphor, and all refer to God as Himself the portion of the heart that chooses and trusts Him. ‘Thou maintainest my lot’-He who is our inheritance also guards our inheritance, and whosoever has taken God for his possession has a possession as sure as God can make it. ‘The lines are fallen to me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage’-the heritage that is goodly is God Himself. When a man chooses God for his portion, then, and then only, is he satisfied-’satisfied with favour, and full of the goodness of the Lord.’ Let me try to expand and enforce these thoughts, with the hope that we may catch something of their fervour and their glow.

I. The first thought, then, that comes out of the words before us is this: all true religion has its very heart in deliberately choosing God as my supreme good.

‘The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup.’ The two words which are translated in our version ‘portion’ and ‘inheritance’ are substantially synonymous. The latter of them is used continually in reference to the share of each individual, or family, or tribe in the partition of the land of Canaan. There is a distinct allusion, therefore, to that partition in the language of our text; and the two expressions, part or ‘portion,’ and ‘inheritance,’ are substantially identical, and really mean just the same as if the single expression had stood-’The Lord is my Portion.’

I may just notice in passing that these words are evidently alluded to in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Colossians, where Paul speaks of God ‘having made us meet for our portion of the inheritance of the saints in light.’

And then the ‘portion of my cup’ is a somewhat strange expression. It is found in one of the other Psalms, with the meaning ‘fortune,’ or ‘destiny,’ or ‘sum of circumstances which make up a man’s life.’ There may be, of course, an allusion to the metaphor of a feast here, and God may be set forth as ‘the portion of my cup,’ in the sense of being the refreshment and sustenance of a man’s soul. But I should rather be disposed to consider that there is merely a prolongation of the earlier metaphor, and that the same thought as is contained in the figure of the ‘inheritance’ is expressed here {as in common conversation it is often expressed} by the word ‘cup,’ namely, ‘that which makes up a man’s portion in this life.’ It is used with such a meaning in the well-known words, ‘My cup runneth over,’ and in another shape in ‘The cup which My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?’ It is the sum of circumstances which make up a man’s ‘fortune.’ So the double metaphor presents the one thought of God as the true possession of the devout soul.

Now, how do we possess God? We possess things in one fashion and persons in another. The lowest and most imperfect form of possession is that by which a man simply keeps other people off material good, and asserts the right of disposal of it as he thinks proper. A blind man may have the finest picture that ever was painted; he may call it his, that is to say, nobody else can sell it, but what good is it to him? A lunatic may own a library as big as the Bodleian, but what use is it to him? Does the man who collects the rents of a mountain-side, or the poet or painter to whom its cliffs and heather speak far-reaching thoughts, most truly possess it? The highest form of possession, even of things, is when they minister to our thought, to our emotion, to our moral and intellectual growth. We possess even them really, according as we know them and hold communion with them. But when we get up into the region of persons, we possess them in the measure in which we understand them, and sympathise with them, and love them. Knowledge, intercourse, sympathy, affection-these are the ways by which men can possess men, and spirits, spirits. A disciple who gets the thoughts of a great teacher into his mind, and has his whole being saturated by them, may be said to have made the teacher his own. A friend or a lover owns the heart that he or she loves, and which loves back again; and not otherwise do we possess God.

Such ownership must be, from its very nature, reciprocal. There must be the two sides to it. And so we read in the Bible, with equal frequency: the Lord is the inheritance of His people, and His people are the inheritance of the Lord. He possesses me, and I possess Him-with reverence be it spoken-by the very same tenure; for whoso loves God has Him, and whom He loves He owns. There is deep and blessed mystery involved in this wonderful prerogative, that the loving, believing heart has God for its possession and indwelling Guest; and people are apt to brush such thoughts aside as mystical. But, like all true Christian mysticism, it is intensely practical.

We have God for ours, first, in the measure in which our minds are actively occupied with thoughts of Him. We have no merely mystical or emotional possession of God to preach. There is a real, adequate knowledge of Him in Jesus Christ. We know God, His character, His heart, His relations to us, His thoughts of good concerning us, sufficiently for all intellectual and for all practical purposes.

I wish to ask you a plain question: Do you ever think about Him? There is only one way of getting God for yours, and that is by bringing Him into your life by frequent meditation upon His sweetness, and upon the truths that you know about Him. There is no other way by which a spirit can possess a spirit, that is not cognisable by sense, except only by the way of thinking about him, to begin with. All else follows that. That is how you hold your dear ones when they go to the other side of the world. That is how you hold God, who dwells on the other side of the stars. There is no way to ‘have’ Him, but through the understanding accepting Him, and keeping firm hold of Him. Men and women that from Monday morning to Saturday night never think of His name-how do they possess God? And professing Christians that never remember Him all the day long-what absurd hypocrisy it is for them to say that God is theirs!

Yours, and never in your mind! When your husband, or your wife, or your child, goes away from home for a week, do you forget them as utterly as you forget God? Do you have them in any sense if they never dwell in the ‘study of your imagination,’ and never fill your thoughts with sweetness and with light?

And so again when the heart turns to Him, and when all the faculties of our being, will, hope, and imagination, and all our affections and all our practical powers, when they all touch Him, each in its proper fashion, then and then only can we in any reasonable and true sense be said to possess God.

Thought, communion, sympathy, affection, moral likeness, practical obedience, these are the way-and not by mystical raptures only-by which, in simple prose fact, it is possible for the finite to grasp the infinite, and for a man to be the owner of God.

Now there is another consideration very necessary to be remembered, and that is that this possession of God involves, and is possible only by, a deliberate act of renunciation. The Levite’s example, that is glanced at in my text, is always our law. You must have no part or inheritance amongst the sons of earth if God is to be your inheritance. Or, to put it into plain words, there must be a giving up of the material and the created if there is to be a possession of the divine and the heavenly. There cannot be two supreme, any more than there can be two pole-stars, one in the north and the other in the south, to both of which a man can be steering. You cannot stand with

‘One foot on land, and one on sea,

To one thing constant never.’

If you are to have God as your supreme good, you must empty your heart of earth and worldly things, or your possession of Him will be all words, and imagination, and hypocrisy. Brethren! I wish to bring that message to your consciences to-day.

And what is this renunciation? There must be, first of all, a fixed, deliberate, intelligent conviction lying at the foundation of my life that God is best, and that He and He only is my true delight and desire. Then there must be built upon that intelligent conviction that God is best, the deliberate turning away of the heart from these material treasures. Then there must be the willingness to abandon the outward possession of them, if they come in between us and Him. Just as travellers in old days, that went out looking for treasures in the western hemisphere, were glad to empty their ships of their less precious cargo in order to load them with gold, you must get rid of the trifles, and fling these away if ever they so take up your heart that God has no room there. Or rather, perhaps, if the love of God in any real measure, howsoever imperfectly, once gets into a man’s soul, it will work there to expel and edge out the love and regard for earthly things. Just as when the chemist collects oxygen in a vessel filled with water, as it passes into the jar it drives out the water before it; the love of God, if it come into a man’s heart in any real sense, in the measure in which it comes, will deliver him from the love of the world. But between the two there is warfare so internecine and endless that they cannot co-exist: and here, to-day, it is as true as ever it was that if you want to have God for your portion and your inheritance you must be content to have no inheritance amongst your brethren, nor part amongst the sons of earth.

Men and women! are you ready for that renunciation? Are you prepared to say, ‘I know that the sweetness of Thy presence is the truest sweetness that I can taste; and lo! I give up all besides and my own self’?

‘O God of good, the unfathomed Sea!

Who would not yield himself to Thee?’

And remember, that nothing less than these is Christianity-the conviction that the world is second and not first; that God is best, love is best, truth is best, knowledge of Him is best, likeness to Him is best, the willingness to surrender all if it come in contest with His supreme sweetness. He that turns his back upon earth by reason of the drawing power of the glory that excelleth, is a Christian. The Christianity that only trusts to Christ for deliverance from the punishment of sin, and so makes religion a kind of fire insurance, is a very poor affair. We need the lesson pealed into our ears as much as any generation has ever done, ‘Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’ A man’s real working religion consists in his loving God most and counting His love the sweetest of all things.

II. Now let me turn to the next point that is here, viz. that this possession is as sure as God can make it. ‘Thou maintainest my lot.’ Thou art Thyself both my heritage and the guardian of my heritage. He that possesses God, says the text, by implication, is lifted above all fear and chance of change.

The land, the partition of which amongst the tribes lies at the bottom of the allusive metaphor of my text, was given to them under the sanction of a supernatural defence; and the law of their continuance in it was that they should trust and serve the unseen King. It was He, according to the theocratic theory of the Old Testament, and not chariots and horses, their own arm and their own sword, that kept them safe, though the enemies on the north and the enemies on the south were big enough to swallow up the little kingdom at a mouthful.

And so, says the Psalmist allusively, in a similar manner, the Divine Power surrounds the man who chooses God for his heritage, and nothing shall take that heritage from him.

The lower forms of possession, by which men are called the owners of material goods, are imperfect, because they are all precarious and temporary. Nothing really belongs to a man if it can be taken from him. What we may lose we can scarcely be said to have. They are mine, they were yours, they will be somebody else’s to-morrow. Whilst we have them we do not have them in any deep sense; we cannot retain them, they are not really ours at all. The only thing that is worth calling mine is something that so passes into and saturates the very substance of my soul that, like a piece of cloth dyed in the grain, as long as two threads hold together the tint will be there. That is how God gives us Himself, and nothing can take Him out of a man’s soul. He, in the sweetness of His grace, bestows Himself upon man, and guards His own gift in the heart, which is Himself. He who dwells in God and God in him lives as in the inmost keep and citadel. The noise of battle may roar around the walls, but deep silence and peace are within. The storm may rage upon the coasts, but he who has God for his portion dwells in a quiet inland valley where tempests never come. No outer changes can touch our possession of God. They belong to another region altogether. Other goods may go, but this is held by a different tenure. The life of a Christian is lived in two regions: in the one his life has its roots, and its branches extend to the other. In the one there may be whirling storms and branches may toss and snap, whilst in the other, to which the roots go down, may be peace. Root yourselves in God, making Him your truest treasure, and nothing can rob you of your wealth.

We here in this commercial community see many examples of great fortunes and great businesses melting away like yesterday’s snow. And surely the certain alternations of ‘booms’ and bad times might preach to some of you this lesson: Set not your hearts on that which can pass, but make your treasure that which no man can take from you.

Then, too, there is the other thought. God will help us so that no temptations shall have power to make us rob ourselves of our treasure. None can take it from us but ourselves, but we are so weak and surrounded by temptations so strong that we need Him to aid us if we are not to be beguiled by our own treacherous hearts into parting with our highest good. A handful of feeble Jews were nothing against the gigantic might of Assyria, or against the compacted strength of civilised Egypt; but there they stood, on their rocky mountains, defended, not by their own strength, but by the might of a present God. And so, unfit to cope with the temptations round us as we are, if we cast ourselves upon His power and make Him our supreme delight, nothing shall be able to rob us of that possession and that sweetness.

And there is just one last point that I would refer to here on this matter of our stable possession of God. It is very beautiful to observe that this psalm, which, in the language of my text, rises to the very height of spiritual and, in a good sense, mystical devotion, recognising God as the One Good for souls, is also one of the psalms which has the clearest utterance of the faith in immortality. Just after the words of my text we read these others, in which the Old Testament confidence in a life beyond the grave reaches its very climax: ‘Thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol, neither wilt Thou suffer Thine holy one to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life; in Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.’

That connection teaches us that the measure in which a man feels his true possession of God here and now, is the measure in which his faith rises triumphant over the darkness of the grave, and grasps, with unfaltering confidence, the conviction of an immortal life. The more we know that God is our portion and our treasure, the more sure, and calmly sure, we shall be that a thing like death cannot touch a thing like that, that the mere physical fact is far too small and insignificant a fact to have any power in such a region as that; that death can no more affect a man’s relation to God, whom he has learned to love and trust, than you can cut thought or feeling with a knife. The two belong to two different regions. Thus we have here the Old Testament faith in immortality shaping itself out of the Old Testament enjoyment of communion with God, with a present God. And you will find the very same process of thought in that seventy-third psalm, which stands in some respects side by side with this one as attaining the height of mystical devotion, joined with a very clear utterance of the faith in immortality: ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee, and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee! Thou wilt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory.’

So Death himself cannot touch the heritage of the man whose heritage is the Lord. And his ministry is not to rob us of our treasures as he robs men of all treasures besides {for ‘their glory shall not descend after them’}, but to give us instead of the ‘earnest of the inheritance’-the bit of turf by which we take possession of the estate-the broad land in all the amplitude of its sweep, into our perpetual possession. ‘Thou maintainest my lot.’ Neither death nor life ‘shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

III. And then the last thought here is that he who thus elects to find his treasure and delight in God is satisfied with his choice. ‘The lines’-the measuring-cord by which the estate was parted off and determined-’are fallen in pleasant places; yea!’-not as our Bible has it, merely ‘I have a goodly heritage,’ putting emphasis on the fact of possession, but-’the heritage is goodly to me,’ putting emphasis on the fact of subjective satisfaction with it.

I have no time to dwell upon the thoughts that spring from these words. Take them in the barest outline. No man that makes the worse choice of earth instead of God, ever, in the retrospect, said: ‘I have a goodly heritage.’ One of the later Roman Emperors, who was among the best of them, said, when he was dying: ‘I have been everything, and it profits me nothing.’ No creature can satisfy your whole nature. Portions of it may be fed with their appropriate satisfaction, but as long as we feed on the things of earth there will always be part of our being like an unfed tiger in a menagerie, growling for its prey, whilst its fellows are satisfied for the moment. You can no more give your heart rest and blessedness by pitching worldly things into it, than they could fill up Chat Moss, when they made the first Liverpool and Manchester Railway, by throwing in cartloads of earth. The bog swallowed them and was none the nearer being filled.

No man who takes the world for his portion ever said, ‘The lines are fallen to me in pleasant places.’ For the make of your soul as plainly cries out ‘God!’ as a fish’s fins declare that the sea is its element, or a bird’s wings mark it out as meant to soar. Man and God fit each other like the two halves of a tally. You will never get rest nor satisfaction, and you will never be able to look at the past with thankfulness, nor at the present with repose, nor into the future with hope, unless you can say, ‘God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.’ But oh! if you do, then you have a goodly heritage, a heritage of still satisfaction, a heritage which suits, and gratifies, and expands all the powers of a man’s nature, and makes him ever capable of larger and larger possession of a God who ever gives more than we can receive, that the overplus may draw us to further desire, and the further desire may more fully be satisfied.

The one true, pure, abiding joy is to hold fellowship with God and to live in His love. The secret of all our unrest is the going out of our desires after earthly things. They fly forth from our hearts like Noah’s raven, and nowhere amid all the weltering flood can find a resting-place. The secret of satisfied repose is to set our affections thoroughly on God. Then our wearied hearts, like Noah’s dove returning to its rest, will fold their wings and nestle fast by the throne of God. ‘All the happiness of this life,’ said William Law, ‘is but trying to quench thirst out of golden empty cups.’ But if we will take the Lord for ‘the portion of our cup,’ we shall never thirst.

Let me beseech you to choose God in Christ for your supreme good and highest portion; and having chosen, to cleave to your choice. So shall you enter on possession of good that truly shall be yours, even ‘that good part, which shall not be taken away from’ you.

And, lastly, remember that if you would have God, you must take Christ. He is the true Joshua, who puts us in possession of the inheritance. He brings God to you-to your knowledge, to your love, to your will. He brings you to God, making it possible for your poor sinful souls to enter His presence by His blood; and for your spirits to possess that divine Guest. ‘He that hath the Son, hath the Father’; and if you trust your souls to Him who died for you, and cling to Him as your delight and your joy, you will find that both the Father and the Son come to you and make their home in you. Through Christ the Son you will receive power to become sons of God, and ‘if children, then heirs, heirs of God,’ because ‘joint heirs with Christ.’


Verse 8

Psalms

ONE SAYING FROM THREE MEN

GOD WITH US, AND WE WITH GOD

Psalms 16:8, Psalms 16:11.

There are, unquestionably, large tracts of the Old Testament in which the anticipation of immortality does not appear, and there are others in which its presence may be doubtful. But here there can be no hesitation, I think, as to the meaning of these words. If we regard them carefully, we shall not only see clearly the Psalmist’s hope of immortal life, but shall discern the process by which he came to it, and almost his very act of grasping at it; for the first verse of our text is manifestly the foundation of the second; and the facts of the one are the basis of the hopes of the other. That is made plain by the ‘therefore’ which, in one of the intervening verses, links the concluding rapturous anticipations with the previous expressions.

If, then, we observe that here, in these two verses which I have read, there is a very remarkable parallelism, we shall get still more strikingly the connection between the devout life here and the perfecting of the same hereafter. Note how, even in our translation, the latter verse is largely an echo of the former, and how much more distinctly that is the case if we make a little variation in the rendering, which brings it closer to the original. ‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ says the one,-that is the present. ‘In Thy presence is fulness of joy,’ says the other,-that is the consequent future. And the two words, which are rendered in the one case ‘before me’ and in the other case ‘in Thy presence,’ are, though not identical, so precisely synonymous that we may take them as meaning the same thing. So we might render ‘I have set the Lord always before my face’: ‘Before Thy face is fulness of joy.’ The other clause is, to an English reader, more obviously parallel: ‘Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved’-shall be steadied here. ‘At Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore’-the steadfastness here merges into eternal delights hereafter.

So then, we have two conditions set before us, and the link between them made very plain. And I gather all that I have to say about these words into two statements. First, life here may be God’s presence with us, to make us steadfast. And secondly, if so, life hereafter will be our presence with God to make us glad. That is the Psalmist’s teaching, and I will try to enforce it.

I. First, then, life here may be God’s presence with us, to make us steadfast.

Mark the Psalmist’s language. ‘I have set the Lord always in front of me-before my face.’ Emphasis is placed on ‘set’ and ‘always.’ God is ever by our sides, but we may be very far away from Him, ‘though He be not far off from every one of us,’ and if we are to have Him blazing, clear and unobscured above and beyond all the mists and hubbub of earth, we shall need continual effort in order to keep Him in our sight. ‘I have set the Lord’-He permits me to put out my hand, as it were, and station Him where I want Him, that I may always have Him in my sight, and be able to look at Him and be calm and blessed.

You cannot do that, if you let the world, and wealth, and business, and anxieties, and ambitions, and cares, and sorrows, and duties, and family responsibilities, jostle and hustle Him out of your minds and hearts. You cannot do it if, like John Bunyan’s man with the muckrake, you keep your eyes always down on the straw at your feet, and never lift them to the crown above. How many men in Manchester walk its streets from year’s end to year’s end, and never look up to the sky except to see whether they must take their umbrellas with them or not? And so all the magnificence and beauty of the daily heavens, and the nightly gemming of the empty places with perpetually burning stars, are lost to them! So, God is blazing there in front of us, but unless we set ourselves to it, we shall never see Him. You have to look, by a conscious effort, over and away from the things that are ‘seen and temporal’ if you want to see the things that are ‘unseen and eternal.’

But if you disturb the whole tenor of your being by agitations and distractions and petty cares, or if you defile it by sensual and fleshly lusts, and animal propensities gratified, and poor, miserable, worldly ambitions and longings filling up your souls, then God can no more be visible before your face than the blessed sun can mirror himself in a storm-tossed sea or in a muddy puddle. The heart must be pure, and the heart must be still, and the mind must be detached from earth, and glued to Heaven, and the glasses of the telescope must be sedulously cleansed from dust, if we are to be blessed with the vision of God continuously before our face.

Then note, still further, that if thus we have made God present with us, by realising the fact of His presence, when He comes, He comes with His hands full. ‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ says the Psalmist. And then he goes on to say, ‘Because He is at my right hand.’ Not only in front of you, then, David, to be looked at, but at your side! What for? What do we summon some one to come and stand beside us for? In order that from his presence there may come help and succour and courage and confidence. And so God comes to the right hand of the man who honestly endeavours through all the confusions and bustles of life to realise His sweet and calming presence. Where He comes He comes to help; not to be a spectator, but an ally in the warfare; and whoever sets the Lord before him will have the Lord at his right hand.

And then, note, still further, the steadfastness which God brings. I have spoken of the effort which brings God. I speak now of the steadfastness which He brings by His coming. The Psalmist’s anticipation is a singularly modest one. ‘Because He is at my right hand I shall’-What? Be triumphant? No! Escape sorrows? No! Have my life filled with serenity? No! ‘I shall not be moved.’ That is the best I can hope for. To be able to stand on the spot, with steadfast convictions, with steadfast purposes, with steadfast actions-continuously in one direction; ‘having overcome all, to stand’-that is as much as the best of us can desire or expect, in this poor struggling life of ours.

What a profound consciousness of inward weakness and of outward antagonism there breathes in that humble and modest hope, as being the loftiest result of the presence of Omnipotence for our aid: ‘I shall not be moved’! When we think of our inner weakness, when we remember the fluctuations of our feelings and emotions, when we compare the ups and downs of our daily life, or when we think of the larger changes covering years, which affect all our outlooks, our thoughts, our plans; and how

‘We all are changed by still degrees,

All but the basis of the soul,’

it is much to say, ‘I shall not be moved.’ And when we think of the obstacles that surround us, of the storms that dash against us, how we are swept by surges of emotion that wash away everything before their imperious onrush, or swayed by blasts of temptation that break down the strongest defences, or smitten by the shocks of change and sorrow that crush the firmest hearts, it is much to say, in the face of a world pressing upon us with the force of the wind in a cyclone, that our poor, feeble reed shall stand upright and ‘not be moved’ in the fiercest blast. ‘What went ye out for to see?’ ‘A reed shaken with the wind’-that is humanity. ‘Behold! I have made thee an iron pillar and brazen walls, and they shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail’-that is weak man, stiffened into uprightness, and rooted in steadfastness by the touch of the hand of a present God.

And, brother! there is nothing else that will stay a man’s soul. The holdfast cannot be a part of the chain. It must be fastened to a fixed point. The anchor that is to keep the ship of your life from dragging and finding itself, when the morning breaks, a ghastly wreck upon the reef, must be outside of yourself, and the cable of it must be wrapped round the throne of God. The anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast, which will neither break nor drag, can only be firm when it ‘enters into that within the veil.’ God, and God only, can thus make us strong! So, dear friends, let us see to it that we fasten our aims and purposes, our faith and love, our submission and obedience, upon that mighty Helper who will be with us and make us strong, that we may ‘stand fast in the Lord and in the power of His might.’

II. Now, secondly, notice how, if so, life hereafter will be our presence with God, to make us glad.

I have already pointed out briefly the connection between these two portions of my text, and I need only remark here that the link which holds them together is very obvious. If a man loves God, and trusts Him, and ‘walks with Him,’ after the fashion described in our former verse, then there will spring up, irrepressible and unconquerable, a conviction in that man’s soul that this sweet and strong communion, which makes so much of the blessedness of life, must last after death. Anything is conceivable rather than that a man who walks with God shall cease to be! Rather, when he ‘is not’ any more ‘found’ among men, it is only because ‘God took him.’ Thus the emotions and experiences of a truly devout soul are {apart from the great revelation in Jesus Christ which hath brought ‘life and immortality to light’} the best evidence and confirmation of the anticipation of immortal life. It cannot be, unless our whole intellectual faculties are to be put into utter confusion, that such an experience as that of the man who loves God, and tries to trust Him, and walk before Him, is destined to be brought to nothingness with the mere dissolution of this earthly frame. The greatness and the smallness, the achievements and the failures, of the religious life as we see it here, all bear upon their front the mark of imperfection, and in their imperfection prophesy and proclaim a future completion. Because it is so great in itself, and because, being so great, its developments and influence are so strangely and sadly checked, the faith that knits a man to Christ demands eternity for its duration, and infinitude for its perfection. Thus, he that says ‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ goes on to say, with an undeniable accuracy of inference, ‘Therefore Thou wilt not leave my soul in the under world.’ God is not going to forget the soul that clave to Him, and anything is believable sooner than that.

Our texts not only assert this connection and base the confidence of immortality on the present experiences of the spirit that trusts in God, but also give the outline, at least, of the correspondences between the imperfections of the present and the perfectnesses of the future. And I cast this into two or three words before I close.

This is the first of them. If you will turn your faces to God, amidst all the flaunting splendours and vain shows and fleeting possessions of this present, His face will dawn on you yonder. We can say but little of what is meant by such a hope as that. But only this we can say, that there will be, as yet unimaginable, new wealths of revelation of the Father, and to match them, as yet unimaginable new inlets of apprehension and perception upon our parts, so that the sweetest, clearest, closest, most satisfying vision of God that has ever dawned on sad souls here, shall be but ‘as in a glass darkly’ compared with that face to face sight. We live away out on the far-off outskirts of the system where those great planets plough along their slow orbits, and turn their languid rotations at distances that imagination faints in contemplating, and the light and the heat and the life that reach them are infinitesimally small. We shall be shifted into the orb that is nearest the sun; and oh! what a rapture of light and life and heat will come to our amazed spirits: ‘I have set the Lord always before me.’ Twilight though the light has been, I have tried to keep it. I shall be of the sons of light close to the Throne and shall see Thy face. I shall be satisfied when I wake out of this sleep of life into Thy likeness.

Then, again, if you will keep God at your right hand here, He will set you on His hereafter. Keep Him here for your Companion, for your Ally, for your Advocate, to breathe strength into you by the touch of His hand, as some feeble man, leaning upon a stronger arm, may be upheld. If you will do that, then the place where the favoured servants stand will be yours; the place where trusted counsellors stand will be yours; the place where the sheep stand will be yours; the place where the Shepherd sits will be yours; for He to whom it is said, ‘Sit Thou at My right hand till I make Thine enemies Thy footstool,’ says to us, ‘Where I am there shall also My servant be.’ Keep God by your sides, and you will be lifted to Christ’s place at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Lastly, if we let ourselves be stayed by God amidst the struggle and difficulty, we shall be gladdened by Him with perpetual joys. The emphasis of the last words of my text is rather on the adjectives than on the nouns-full joy, eternal pleasure. And how both characteristics contradict the experiences of earth, even the gladdest, which we fain would make permanent! For I suppose that no earthly joy is either central, reaching the deepest self, or circumferential, embracing the whole being of a man, but that only God can so go into the depths of my soul as that from His throne there He can flood the whole of my nature with felicity and peace. In all other gladnesses there is always in the landscape one bit of sullen shadow somewhere or other, unparticipant of the light, while all around is blazing. And we need that He should come to make us blessed.

Joys here are no more lasting than they are complete. As one who only too sadly proved the truth of his own words, burning out his life before he was six-and-thirty, has said-

‘Pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flower, its bloom is shed!

Or like the snowflake in the river.

A moment white-then gone for ever.’

Oh! my friend, ‘why do ye spend your money for that which is not bread?’ The life of faith on earth is the beginning, and only the beginning, of that life of calm and complete felicity in the heavenly places.

I have shown you the ladder’s foot, ‘I have set the Lord always before me.’ The top round reaches the throne of God, and whoever begins at the bottom, and holds fast the beginning of his confidence firm unto the end, for him the great promise of the Master will come true, and Christ’s ‘joy will remain in him and his joy shall be full.’


Verse 11

Psalms

GOD WITH US, AND WE WITH GOD

Psalms 16:8, Psalms 16:11.

There are, unquestionably, large tracts of the Old Testament in which the anticipation of immortality does not appear, and there are others in which its presence may be doubtful. But here there can be no hesitation, I think, as to the meaning of these words. If we regard them carefully, we shall not only see clearly the Psalmist’s hope of immortal life, but shall discern the process by which he came to it, and almost his very act of grasping at it; for the first verse of our text is manifestly the foundation of the second; and the facts of the one are the basis of the hopes of the other. That is made plain by the ‘therefore’ which, in one of the intervening verses, links the concluding rapturous anticipations with the previous expressions.

If, then, we observe that here, in these two verses which I have read, there is a very remarkable parallelism, we shall get still more strikingly the connection between the devout life here and the perfecting of the same hereafter. Note how, even in our translation, the latter verse is largely an echo of the former, and how much more distinctly that is the case if we make a little variation in the rendering, which brings it closer to the original. ‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ says the one,-that is the present. ‘In Thy presence is fulness of joy,’ says the other,-that is the consequent future. And the two words, which are rendered in the one case ‘before me’ and in the other case ‘in Thy presence,’ are, though not identical, so precisely synonymous that we may take them as meaning the same thing. So we might render ‘I have set the Lord always before my face’: ‘Before Thy face is fulness of joy.’ The other clause is, to an English reader, more obviously parallel: ‘Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved’-shall be steadied here. ‘At Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore’-the steadfastness here merges into eternal delights hereafter.

So then, we have two conditions set before us, and the link between them made very plain. And I gather all that I have to say about these words into two statements. First, life here may be God’s presence with us, to make us steadfast. And secondly, if so, life hereafter will be our presence with God to make us glad. That is the Psalmist’s teaching, and I will try to enforce it.

I. First, then, life here may be God’s presence with us, to make us steadfast.

Mark the Psalmist’s language. ‘I have set the Lord always in front of me-before my face.’ Emphasis is placed on ‘set’ and ‘always.’ God is ever by our sides, but we may be very far away from Him, ‘though He be not far off from every one of us,’ and if we are to have Him blazing, clear and unobscured above and beyond all the mists and hubbub of earth, we shall need continual effort in order to keep Him in our sight. ‘I have set the Lord’-He permits me to put out my hand, as it were, and station Him where I want Him, that I may always have Him in my sight, and be able to look at Him and be calm and blessed.

You cannot do that, if you let the world, and wealth, and business, and anxieties, and ambitions, and cares, and sorrows, and duties, and family responsibilities, jostle and hustle Him out of your minds and hearts. You cannot do it if, like John Bunyan’s man with the muckrake, you keep your eyes always down on the straw at your feet, and never lift them to the crown above. How many men in Manchester walk its streets from year’s end to year’s end, and never look up to the sky except to see whether they must take their umbrellas with them or not? And so all the magnificence and beauty of the daily heavens, and the nightly gemming of the empty places with perpetually burning stars, are lost to them! So, God is blazing there in front of us, but unless we set ourselves to it, we shall never see Him. You have to look, by a conscious effort, over and away from the things that are ‘seen and temporal’ if you want to see the things that are ‘unseen and eternal.’

But if you disturb the whole tenor of your being by agitations and distractions and petty cares, or if you defile it by sensual and fleshly lusts, and animal propensities gratified, and poor, miserable, worldly ambitions and longings filling up your souls, then God can no more be visible before your face than the blessed sun can mirror himself in a storm-tossed sea or in a muddy puddle. The heart must be pure, and the heart must be still, and the mind must be detached from earth, and glued to Heaven, and the glasses of the telescope must be sedulously cleansed from dust, if we are to be blessed with the vision of God continuously before our face.

Then note, still further, that if thus we have made God present with us, by realising the fact of His presence, when He comes, He comes with His hands full. ‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ says the Psalmist. And then he goes on to say, ‘Because He is at my right hand.’ Not only in front of you, then, David, to be looked at, but at your side! What for? What do we summon some one to come and stand beside us for? In order that from his presence there may come help and succour and courage and confidence. And so God comes to the right hand of the man who honestly endeavours through all the confusions and bustles of life to realise His sweet and calming presence. Where He comes He comes to help; not to be a spectator, but an ally in the warfare; and whoever sets the Lord before him will have the Lord at his right hand.

And then, note, still further, the steadfastness which God brings. I have spoken of the effort which brings God. I speak now of the steadfastness which He brings by His coming. The Psalmist’s anticipation is a singularly modest one. ‘Because He is at my right hand I shall’-What? Be triumphant? No! Escape sorrows? No! Have my life filled with serenity? No! ‘I shall not be moved.’ That is the best I can hope for. To be able to stand on the spot, with steadfast convictions, with steadfast purposes, with steadfast actions-continuously in one direction; ‘having overcome all, to stand’-that is as much as the best of us can desire or expect, in this poor struggling life of ours.

What a profound consciousness of inward weakness and of outward antagonism there breathes in that humble and modest hope, as being the loftiest result of the presence of Omnipotence for our aid: ‘I shall not be moved’! When we think of our inner weakness, when we remember the fluctuations of our feelings and emotions, when we compare the ups and downs of our daily life, or when we think of the larger changes covering years, which affect all our outlooks, our thoughts, our plans; and how

‘We all are changed by still degrees,

All but the basis of the soul,’

it is much to say, ‘I shall not be moved.’ And when we think of the obstacles that surround us, of the storms that dash against us, how we are swept by surges of emotion that wash away everything before their imperious onrush, or swayed by blasts of temptation that break down the strongest defences, or smitten by the shocks of change and sorrow that crush the firmest hearts, it is much to say, in the face of a world pressing upon us with the force of the wind in a cyclone, that our poor, feeble reed shall stand upright and ‘not be moved’ in the fiercest blast. ‘What went ye out for to see?’ ‘A reed shaken with the wind’-that is humanity. ‘Behold! I have made thee an iron pillar and brazen walls, and they shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail’-that is weak man, stiffened into uprightness, and rooted in steadfastness by the touch of the hand of a present God.

And, brother! there is nothing else that will stay a man’s soul. The holdfast cannot be a part of the chain. It must be fastened to a fixed point. The anchor that is to keep the ship of your life from dragging and finding itself, when the morning breaks, a ghastly wreck upon the reef, must be outside of yourself, and the cable of it must be wrapped round the throne of God. The anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast, which will neither break nor drag, can only be firm when it ‘enters into that within the veil.’ God, and God only, can thus make us strong! So, dear friends, let us see to it that we fasten our aims and purposes, our faith and love, our submission and obedience, upon that mighty Helper who will be with us and make us strong, that we may ‘stand fast in the Lord and in the power of His might.’

II. Now, secondly, notice how, if so, life hereafter will be our presence with God, to make us glad.

I have already pointed out briefly the connection between these two portions of my text, and I need only remark here that the link which holds them together is very obvious. If a man loves God, and trusts Him, and ‘walks with Him,’ after the fashion described in our former verse, then there will spring up, irrepressible and unconquerable, a conviction in that man’s soul that this sweet and strong communion, which makes so much of the blessedness of life, must last after death. Anything is conceivable rather than that a man who walks with God shall cease to be! Rather, when he ‘is not’ any more ‘found’ among men, it is only because ‘God took him.’ Thus the emotions and experiences of a truly devout soul are {apart from the great revelation in Jesus Christ which hath brought ‘life and immortality to light’} the best evidence and confirmation of the anticipation of immortal life. It cannot be, unless our whole intellectual faculties are to be put into utter confusion, that such an experience as that of the man who loves God, and tries to trust Him, and walk before Him, is destined to be brought to nothingness with the mere dissolution of this earthly frame. The greatness and the smallness, the achievements and the failures, of the religious life as we see it here, all bear upon their front the mark of imperfection, and in their imperfection prophesy and proclaim a future completion. Because it is so great in itself, and because, being so great, its developments and influence are so strangely and sadly checked, the faith that knits a man to Christ demands eternity for its duration, and infinitude for its perfection. Thus, he that says ‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ goes on to say, with an undeniable accuracy of inference, ‘Therefore Thou wilt not leave my soul in the under world.’ God is not going to forget the soul that clave to Him, and anything is believable sooner than that.

Our texts not only assert this connection and base the confidence of immortality on the present experiences of the spirit that trusts in God, but also give the outline, at least, of the correspondences between the imperfections of the present and the perfectnesses of the future. And I cast this into two or three words before I close.

This is the first of them. If you will turn your faces to God, amidst all the flaunting splendours and vain shows and fleeting possessions of this present, His face will dawn on you yonder. We can say but little of what is meant by such a hope as that. But only this we can say, that there will be, as yet unimaginable, new wealths of revelation of the Father, and to match them, as yet unimaginable new inlets of apprehension and perception upon our parts, so that the sweetest, clearest, closest, most satisfying vision of God that has ever dawned on sad souls here, shall be but ‘as in a glass darkly’ compared with that face to face sight. We live away out on the far-off outskirts of the system where those great planets plough along their slow orbits, and turn their languid rotations at distances that imagination faints in contemplating, and the light and the heat and the life that reach them are infinitesimally small. We shall be shifted into the orb that is nearest the sun; and oh! what a rapture of light and life and heat will come to our amazed spirits: ‘I have set the Lord always before me.’ Twilight though the light has been, I have tried to keep it. I shall be of the sons of light close to the Throne and shall see Thy face. I shall be satisfied when I wake out of this sleep of life into Thy likeness.

Then, again, if you will keep God at your right hand here, He will set you on His hereafter. Keep Him here for your Companion, for your Ally, for your Advocate, to breathe strength into you by the touch of His hand, as some feeble man, leaning upon a stronger arm, may be upheld. If you will do that, then the place where the favoured servants stand will be yours; the place where trusted counsellors stand will be yours; the place where the sheep stand will be yours; the place where the Shepherd sits will be yours; for He to whom it is said, ‘Sit Thou at My right hand till I make Thine enemies Thy footstool,’ says to us, ‘Where I am there shall also My servant be.’ Keep God by your sides, and you will be lifted to Christ’s place at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Lastly, if we let ourselves be stayed by God amidst the struggle and difficulty, we shall be gladdened by Him with perpetual joys. The emphasis of the last words of my text is rather on the adjectives than on the nouns-full joy, eternal pleasure. And how both characteristics contradict the experiences of earth, even the gladdest, which we fain would make permanent! For I suppose that no earthly joy is either central, reaching the deepest self, or circumferential, embracing the whole being of a man, but that only God can so go into the depths of my soul as that from His throne there He can flood the whole of my nature with felicity and peace. In all other gladnesses there is always in the landscape one bit of sullen shadow somewhere or other, unparticipant of the light, while all around is blazing. And we need that He should come to make us blessed.

Joys here are no more lasting than they are complete. As one who only too sadly proved the truth of his own words, burning out his life before he was six-and-thirty, has said-

‘Pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flower, its bloom is shed!

Or like the snowflake in the river.

A moment white-then gone for ever.’

Oh! my friend, ‘why do ye spend your money for that which is not bread?’ The life of faith on earth is the beginning, and only the beginning, of that life of calm and complete felicity in the heavenly places.

I have shown you the ladder’s foot, ‘I have set the Lord always before me.’ The top round reaches the throne of God, and whoever begins at the bottom, and holds fast the beginning of his confidence firm unto the end, for him the great promise of the Master will come true, and Christ’s ‘joy will remain in him and his joy shall be full.’

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Psalms 16:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/psalms-16.html.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology