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Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Psalms 27



Verse 4



Psalms 27:4.

We shall do great injustice to this mystical aspiration of the Psalmist, if we degrade it to be the mere expression of a desire for unbroken residence in a material Temple. He was no sickly, sentimental seeker after cloistered seclusion. He knew the necessities and duties of life far better than in a cowardly way to wish to shirk them, in order that he might loiter in the temple, idle under the pretence of worship. Nor would the saying fit into the facts of the case if we gave it that low meaning, for no person had his residence in the temple. And what follows in the next verse would, on that hypothesis, be entirely inappropriate. ‘In the secret of His tabernacle shall He hide me.’ No one went into the secret place of the Most High, in the visible, material structure, except the high priest once a year. But this singer expects that his abode will be there always; and that, in the time of trouble, he can find refuge there.

Apart altogether from any wider considerations as to the relation between form and spirit under the Old Covenant, I think that such observations compel us to see in these words a desire a great deal nobler and deeper than any such wish.

I. Let us, then, note the true meaning of this aspiration of the Psalmist.

Its fulfilment depends not on where we are, but on what we think and feel; for every place is God’s house, and what the Psalmist desires is that he should be able to keep up unbroken consciousness of being in God’s presence and should be always in touch with Him.

That seems hard, and people say, ‘Impossible! how can I get above my daily work, and be perpetually thinking of God and His will, and consciously realising communion with Him?’ But there is such a thing as having an undercurrent of consciousness running all through a man’s life and mind; such a thing as having a melody sounding in our ears perpetually, ‘so sweet we know not we are listening to it’ until it stops, and then, by the poverty of the naked and silent atmosphere, we know how musical were the sounds that we scarcely knew that we heard, and yet did hear so well high above all the din of earth’s noises.

Every man that has ever cherished such an aspiration as this knows the difficulties all too well. And yet, without entering upon thorny and unprofitable questions as to whether the absolute, unbroken continuity of consciousness of being in God’s presence is possible for men here below, let us look at the question, which has a great deal more bearing upon our present condition-viz. whether a greater continuity of that consciousness is not possible than we attain to to-day. It does seem to me to be a foolish and miserable waste of time and temper and energy for good people to be quarrelling about whether they can come to the absolute realisation of this desire in this world, when there is not one of them who is not leagues below the possible realisation of it, and knows that he is. At all events, whether or not the line can be drawn without a break at all, the breaks might be a great deal shorter and a great deal less frequent than they are. An unbroken line of conscious communion with God is the ideal; and that is what this singer desired and worked for. How many of my feelings and thoughts to-day, or of the things that I have said or done since I woke this morning, would have been done and said and felt exactly the same, if there were not a God at all, or if it did not matter in the least whether I ever came into touch with Him or not? Oh, dear friends! it is no vain effort to bring our lives a little nearer that unbroken continuity of communion with Him of which this text speaks. And God knows, and we each for ourselves know, how much and how sore our need is of such a union. ‘One thing have I desired, that will I seek after; that I, in my study; I, in my shop; I, in my parlour, kitchen, or nursery; I, in my studio; I, in my lecture-hall-’may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.’ In our ‘Father’s house are many mansions.’ The room that we spend most of our lives in, each of us, at our tasks or our work-tables may be in our Father’s house, too; and it is only we that can secure that it shall be.

The inmost meaning of this Psalmist’s desire is that the consciousness of God shall be diffused throughout the whole of a man’s days, instead of being coagulated here and there at points. The Australian rivers in a drought present a picture of the Christian life of far too many of us-a stagnant, stinking pool here, a stretch of blinding gravel there; another little drop of water a mile away, then a long line of foul-smelling mud, and then another shallow pond. Why! it ought to run in a clear stream that has a scour in it and that will take all filth off the surface.

The Psalmist longed to break down the distinction between sacred and secular; to consecrate work, of whatsoever sort it was. He had learned what so many of us need to learn far more thoroughly, that if our religion does not drive the wheels of our daily business, it is of little use; and that if the field in which our religion has power to control and impel is not that of the trivialities and secularities of our ordinary life, there is no field for it at all.

‘All the days of my life.’ Not only on Wednesday nights, while Tuesday and Thursday are given to the world and self; not only on Sundays; not for five minutes in the morning, when I am eager to get to my daily work, and less than five minutes at night, when I am half asleep, but through the long day, doing this, that, and the other thing for God and by God and with God, and making Him the motive and the power of my course, and my Companion to heaven. And if we have, in our lives, things over which we cannot make the sign of the cross, the sooner we get rid of them the better; and if there is anything in our daily work, or in our characters, about which we are doubtful, here is a good test: does it seem to check our continual communion with God, as a ligature round the wrist might do the continual flow of the blood, or does it help us to realise His presence? If the former, let us have no more to do with it; if the latter, let us seek to increase it.

II. And now let me say a word about the Psalmist’s reason for this aspiration.

The word which he employs carries with it a picture which is even more vividly given us by a synonymous word employed in the same connection in some of the other psalms. ‘That I may dwell in the house of the Lord’-now, that is an allusion, not only, as I think, to the Temple, but also to the Oriental habit of giving a man who took refuge in the tent of the sheikh, guest-rites of protection and provision and friendship. The habit exists to this day, and travellers among the Bedouins tell us lovely stories of how even an enemy with the blood of the closest relative of the owner of the tent on his hands, if he can once get in there and partake of the salt of the host, is safe, and the first obligation of the owner of the tent is to watch over the life of the fugitive as over his own. So the Psalmist says, ‘I desire to have guest-rites in Thy tent; to lift up its fold, and shelter there from the heat of the desert. And although I be dark and stained with many evils and transgressions against Thee, yet I come to claim the hospitality and provision and protection and friendship which the laws of the house do bestow upon a guest.’ Carrying out substantially the same idea, Paul tells the Ephesians, as if it were the very highest privilege that the Gospel brought to the Gentiles: ‘Ye are no more strangers, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God’; incorporated into His family, and dwelling safely in His pavilion as their home.

That is to say, the blessedness of keeping up such a continual consciousness of touch with God is, first and foremost, the certainty of infallible protection. Oh! how it minimises all trouble and brightens all joys, and calms amidst all distractions, and steadies and sobers in all circumstances, to feel ever the hand of God upon us! He who goes through life, finding that, when he has trouble to meet, it throws him back on God, and that when bright mornings of joy drive away nights of weeping, these wake morning songs of praise, and are brightest because they shine with the light of a Father’s love, will never be unduly moved by any vicissitudes of fortune. Like some inland and sheltered valley, with great mountains shutting it in, that ‘heareth not the loud winds when they call’ beyond the barriers that enclose it, our lives may be tranquilly free from distraction, and may be full of peace, of nobleness, and of strength, on condition of our keeping in God’s house all the days of our lives.

There is another blessing that will come to the dweller in God’s house, and that not a small one. It is that, by the power of this one satisfied longing, driven like an iron rod through all the tortuosities of my life, there will come into it a unity which otherwise few lives are ever able to attain, and the want of which is no small cause of the misery that is great upon men. Most of us seem, to our own consciousness, to live amidst endless distractions all our days, and our lives to be a heap of links parted from each other rather than a chain. But if we have that one constant thought with us, and if we are, through all the variety of occupations, true to the one purpose of serving and keeping near God, then we have a charm against the frittering away of our lives in distractions, and the misery of multiplicity; and we enter into the blessedness of unity and singleness of purpose; and our lives become, like the starry heavens in all the variety of their motions, obedient to one impulse. For unity in a life does not depend upon the monotony of its tasks, but upon the simplicity of the motive which impels to all varieties of work. So it is possible for a man harassed by multitudinous avocations, and drawn hither and thither by sometimes apparently conflicting and always bewildering, rapidly-following duties, to say, ‘This one thing I do,’ if all his doings are equally acts of obedience to God.

III. So, lastly, note the method by which this desire is realised.

‘One thing have I desired, . . . that will I seek after’ There are two points to be kept in view to that end. A great many people say, ‘One thing have I desired,’ and fail in persistent continuousness of the desire. No man gets rights of residence in God’s house for a longer time than he continues to seek for them. The most advanced of us, and those that have longest been like Anna, who ‘departed not from the Temple,’ day nor night, will certainly eject ourselves unless, like the Psalmist, we use the verbs in both tenses, and say, ‘One thing have I desired . . . that will I seek after.’ John Bunyan saw that there was a back door to the lower regions close by the gates of the Celestial City. There may be men who have long lived beneath the shadow of the sanctuary, and at the last will be found outside the gates.

But the words of the text not only suggest, by the two tenses of the verbs, the continuity of the desire which is destined to be granted, but also by the two verbs themselves-desire and seek after-the necessity of uniting prayer and work. Many desires are unsatisfied because conduct does not correspond to desires. Many a prayer remains unanswered because its pray-ers never do anything to fulfil their prayers. I do not say they are hypocrites; certainly they are not consciously so, but I do say that there is a large measure of conventionality that means nothing, in the prayers of average Christian people for more holiness and likeness to Jesus Christ.

Dear friends! if we truly wish this desire of dwelling in the house of the Lord to be fulfilled, the day’s work must run in the same direction as the morning’s petition, and we must, like the Psalmist, say, ‘I have desired it of the Lord, so I, for my part, will seek after it.’ Then, whether or not we reach absolutely to the standard, which is none the less to be aimed at, though it seems beyond reach, we shall arrive nearer and nearer to it; and, God helping our weakness and increasing our strength, quickening us to ‘desire,’ and upholding us to ‘seek after,’ we may hope that, when the days of our life are past, we shall but remove into an upper chamber, more open to the sunrise and flooded with light; and shall go no more out, but ‘dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’

Verse 8-9



Psalms 27:8 - Psalms 27:9.

We have here a report of a brief dialogue between God and a devout soul. The Psalmist tells us of God’s invitation and of his acceptance, and on both he builds the prayer that the face which he had been bidden to seek, and had sought, may not be hid from him. The correspondence between what God said to him and what he said to God is even more emphatically expressed in the original than in our version. In the Hebrew the sentence is dislocated, at the risk of being obscure, for the sake of bringing together the two voices. It runs thus, ‘My heart said to Thee,’ and then, instead of going on with his answer, the Psalmist interjects God’s invitation ‘Seek ye My face,’ and then, side by side with that, he lays his response, ‘Thy face, Lord, will I seek.’ The completeness and swiftness of his answer could not be more vividly expressed. To hear was to obey: as soon as God’s merciful call sounded, the Psalmist’s heart responded, like a harp-string thrilled into music by the vibration of another tuned to the same note. Without hesitation, and in entire correspondence with the call, was his response. So swiftly, completely, resolutely should we respond to God’s voice, and our ready ‘I will’ should answer His commandment, as the man at the wheel repeats the captain’s orders whilst he carries them out. Upon such acceptance of such an invitation we, too, may build the prayer, ‘Hide not Thy face far from me.’

Now, there are three things here that I desire to look at-God’s merciful call to us all; the response of the devout soul to that call; and the prayer which is built upon both.

I. We have God’s merciful call to us all.

‘Thou saidst, Seek ye My face.’ Now, that expression, ‘the face of God,’ though highly metaphorical, is perfectly clear and defined in its meaning. It corresponds substantially to what the Apostle Paul calls, in speaking of the knowledge of God beyond the limits of revelation, ‘that which may be known of God’; or, in more modern language, the side of the divine nature which is turned to man; or, in plainer words still, God, in so far as He is revealed. It means substantially the same thing as the other Scriptural expression, ‘the name of the Lord.’ Both phrases draw a broad distinction between what God is, in the infinite fulness of His incomprehensible being, and what He is as revealed to man; and both imply that what is revealed is knowledge, real and valid, though it may be imperfect.

This, then, being the meaning of the phrase, what is the meaning of the invitation: ‘Seek ye My face’? Have we to search for that, as if it were something hidden, far off, lost, and only to be recovered by our effort? No: a thousand times no! For the seeking, to which God mercifully invites us, is but the turning of the direction of our desires to Him, the recognition of the fact that His face is more than all else to men, the recognition that whilst there are many that say, ‘Who will show us any good?’ and put the question impatiently, despairingly, vainly, they that turn the seeking into a prayer, and ask, ‘Lord! lift Thou the light of Thy countenance upon us,’ will never ask in vain. To seek is to desire, to turn the direction of thought and will and affection to Him and to take heed that the ordering of our daily lives is such as that no mist rising from them shall come between us and that brightness of light, or hide from us the vision splendid. They who seek God by desire, by the direction of thought and will and love, and by the regulation of their daily lives in accordance with that desire, are they who obey this commandment.

Next we come to that great thought that God is ever sounding out to all mankind this invitation to seek His face. By the revelation of Himself He bids us all sun ourselves in the brightness of His countenance. One of the New Testament writers, in a passage which is mistranslated in our Authorised Version, says that God ‘calls us by His own glory and virtue.’ That is to say, the very manifestation of the divine Being is such that there lies in it a summons to behold Him, and an attraction to Himself. So fair is He, that He but needs to withdraw the veil, and men’s hearts rejoice in that countenance, which is as the sun shining in his strength; ‘nor know we anything more fair than is the smile upon His face.’ If we see Him as He really is, we cannot choose but love. By all His works He calls us to seek Him, not only because the intellect demands that there shall be a personal Will behind all these phenomena, but because they in themselves proclaim His name, and the proclamation of His name is the summons to behold.

By the very make of our own spirits He calls us to Himself. Our restlessness, our yearnings, our movings about as aliens in the midst of things seen and visible, all these bid us turn to Him in whom alone our capacities can be satisfied, and the hunger of our souls appeased. You remember the old story of the Saracen woman who came to England seeking her lover, and passed through these foreign cities, with no word upon her tongue that could be understood of those that heard her except his name whom she sought. Ah! that is how men wander through the earth, strangers in the midst of it. They cannot translate the cry of their own hearts, but it means, ‘God-my soul thirsteth for Thee’; and the thirst bids us seek His face.

He summons us by all the providences and events of our changeful lives. Our sorrows by their poignancy, our joys by their incompleteness and their transiency, alike call us to Him in whom alone the sorrows can be soothed and the joys made full and remain. Our duties, by their heaviness, call us to turn ourselves to Him, in whom alone we can find the strength to fill the role that is laid upon us, and to discharge our daily tasks.

But, most of all, He summons us to Himself by Him who is the Angel of His Face, ‘the effulgence of His glory, and the express image of His person.’ In the face of Jesus Christ, ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’ beams out upon us, as it never shone on this Psalmist of old. He saw but a portion of that countenance, through a thick veil which thinned as faith gazed, but was never wholly withdrawn. The voice that he heard calling him was less penetrating and less laden with love than the voice that calls us. He caught some tones of invitation sounding in providences and prophecies, in ceremonies and in law; we hear them more full and clear from the lips of a Brother. They sound to us from the cradle and the cross, and they are wafted down to us from the throne. God’s merciful invitation to us poor men never has taken, nor will, nor can, take a sweeter and more attractive form than in Christ’s version of it: ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Friend! that summons comes to us; may we deal with it as the Psalmist did!

II. That brings me to note, secondly, the devout soul’s response to the loving call from God.

I have already pointed out how beautifully and vividly the contrast between the two is expressed in our text: ‘Seek ye My face’-’Thy face will I seek.’ The Psalmist takes the general invitation and converts it into an individual one, to which he responds. God’s ‘ye’ is met by his ‘I.’ The Psalmist makes no hesitation or delay-’When Thou saidst . . . my heart said to Thee.’ The Psalmist gathers himself together in a concentrated resolve of a fixed determination-’Thy face will I seek.’ That is how we ought to respond.

Make the general invitation thy very own. God summons all, because He summons each. He does not cast His invitations out at random over the heads of a crowd, as some rich man might fling coins to a mob, but He addresses every one of us singly and separately, as if there were not another soul in the universe to hear His voice but our very own selves. It is for us not to lose ourselves in the crowd, since He has not lost us in it; but to appropriate, to individualise, to make our very own, the universality of His call to the world. It matters nothing to you what other men may do; it matters not to you how many others may be invited, and whether they may accept or may refuse. When that ‘Seek ye’ comes to my heart, life or death depends on my answering, ‘Whatsoever others may do, as for me I will seek Thy face.’ We preachers that have to stand and address a multitude sound out the invitation, and it loses in power, the more there are to listen to us. If I could get you one by one, the poorest words would have more weight with you than the strongest have when spoken to a crowd. Brother! God individualises us, and God speaks to Thee, ‘Wilt thou behold My face?’ Answer, ‘As for me, I will.’

Again, the Psalmist ‘made haste, and delayed not, but made haste’ to respond to the merciful summons. Ah! how many of us, in how many different ways, fall into the snare ‘by-and-by’! ‘not now’; and all these days, that slip away whilst we hesitate, gather themselves together to be our accusers hereafter. Friend! why should you limit the blessedness that may come into your life to the fag end of it when you have got tired and satiated, or tired and disappointed with the world and its good? ‘Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near.’ It is poor courtesy to show to a merciful invitation from a bountiful host if I say; ‘After I have looked to the oxen I have bought, and tested them, and measured the field that I have acquired; after I have drunk the sweetness of wedded life with the wife that I have married, then I will come. But, for the present, I pray thee, have me excused.’ And that is what many are doing, more or less.

The Psalmist gathered himself together in a fixed resolve, and said, ‘I will.’ That is what we have to do. A languid seeker will not find; an earnest one will not fail to find. But if half-heartedly, now and then, when we are at leisure in the intervals of more important and pressing daily business, we spasmodically bethink ourselves, and for a little while seek for the light of God’s felt presence to shine upon us, we shall not get it. But if we lay a masterful hand, as we ought to do, on these divergent desires that draw us asunder, and bind ourselves, as it were, together, by the strong cord of a resolved purpose carried out throughout our lives, then we shall certainly not seek in vain.

Alas! how strange and how sad is the reception which this merciful invitation receives from so many of us! Some of you never hear it at all. Standing in the very focus where the sounds converge, you are deaf, as if a man behind the veil of the falling water of Niagara, on that rocky shelf there, should hear nothing. From every corner of the universe that voice comes; from all the providences and events of our lives that voice comes; from the life and death of Jesus Christ that voice comes; and not a sound reaches your ears. ‘Having ears, they hear not,’ and some of us might take the Psalmist’s answer, with one sad word added, as ours-’When Thou saidst, Seek ye My face, my heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I not seek.’

Brethren! it is heaven on earth to say, ‘Thou dost call, and I answer. Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.’ Yet you shut yourselves up to, and with, misery and vanity, if you so deal with God’s merciful summons as some of us are dealing with it, so that He has to say, ‘I called, and ye refused; I stretched out My hand, and no man regarded.’

III. Lastly, we have here a prayer built upon both the invitation and the acceptance.

‘Hide not Thy face far from me.’ That prayer implies that God will not contradict Himself. His promises are commandments. If He bids us seek He binds Himself to show. His veracity, His unchangeableness, are pledged to this, that no man who yields to His invitation will be balked of his desire. He does not hold out the gift in His hand, and then twitch it away when we put out encouraged and stimulated hands to grasp it. You have seen children flashing bright reflections from a mirror on to a wall, and delighting to direct them away to another spot, when a hand has been put out to touch them. That is not how God does. The light that He reveals is steady, and whosoever turns his face to it will be irradiated by its brightness.

The prayer builds itself on the assurance that, because God will not contradict Himself, therefore every heart seeking is sure to issue in a heart finding. There is only one region where that is true, brethren! there is only one tract of human experience in which the promise is always and absolutely fulfilled:-’Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find.’ We hunt after all other good, and at the best we get it in part or for a time, and when possessed, it is not as bright as when it shone in the delusive colours of hope and desire. If you follow other good, and are drawn after the elusive lights that dance before you, and only show how great is the darkness, you will not reach them, but will be mired in the bog. If you follow after God’s face, it will make a sunshine in the shadiest places of life here. You will be blessed because you walk all the day long in the light of His countenance, and when you pass hence it will irradiate the darkness of death, and thereafter, ‘His servants shall serve Him, and shall see His face,’ and, seeing, shall be made like Him, for ‘His name shall be in their foreheads.’

Brethren! we have to make our choice whether we shall see His face here on earth, and so meet it hereafter as that of a long-separated and long-desired friend; or whether we shall see it first when He is on His throne, and we at His bar, and so shall have to ‘call on the rocks and the hills to fall on us, and cover us from the face of Him who is our Judge.’


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Psalms 27:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture.

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