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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Psalms 31

 

 

Verse 2-3

Psalms

‘BE . . . FOR THOU ART’

Psalms 31:2 - Psalms 31:3.

It sounds strange logic, ‘Be . . . for Thou art,’ and yet it is the logic of prayer, and goes very deep, pointing out both its limits and its encouragements. The parallelism between these two clauses is even stronger in the original than in our Version, for whilst the two words which designate the ‘Rock’ are not identical, their meaning is identical, and the difference between them is insignificant; one being a rock of any shape or size, the other being a perpendicular cliff or elevated promontory. And in the other clause, ‘for a house of defence to save me,’ the word rendered ‘defence’ is the same as that which is translated in the next clause ‘fortress.’ So that if we were to read thus: ‘Be Thou a strong Rock to me, for a house, a fortress, for Thou art my Rock and my Fortress,’ we should get the whole force of the parallelism. Of course the main idea in that of the ‘Rock,’ and ‘Fortress’ is only an exposition of one phase of the meaning of that metaphor.

I. So let us look first at what God is.

‘A rock, a fortress-house.’ Now, what is the force of that metaphor? Stable being, as it seems to me, is the first thought in it, for there is nothing that is more absolutely the type of unchangeableness and steadfast continuance. The great cliffs rise up, and the river glides at their base-it is a type of mutability, and of the fleeting generations of men, who are as the drops and ripples in its course-it eddies round the foot of the rocks to which the old man looks up, and sees the same dints and streaks and fissures in it that he saw when he was a child. The river runs onwards, the trees that root themselves in the clefts of the rock bear their spring foliage, and drop their leaves like the generations of men, and the Rock is ‘the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.’ And God the Unchangeable rises, if I may so say, like some majestic cliff, round the foot of which rolls for ever the tide of human life, and round which are littered the successive layers of the leaves of many summers.

Then besides this stable being, and the consequences of it, is the other thought which is attached to the emblem in a hundred places in Scripture, and that is defence. ‘His place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks.’ When the floods are out, and all the plain is being dissolved into mud, the dwellers on it fly to the cliffs. When the enemy’s banners appear on the horizon, and the open country is being harried and burned, the peasants hurry to the defence of the hills, and, sheltered there, are safe. And so for us this Name assures us that in Him, whatever floods may sweep across the low levels, and whatever foes may storm over the open land and the unwalled villages, there is always the fortress up in the hills, and thither no flood can rise, and there no enemy can come. A defence and a sure abode is his who dwells in God, and thus folds over himself the warm wings that stretch on either side, and shelter him from all assault. ‘Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.’

But the Rock is a defence in another way. If a hard-pressed fugitive is brought to a stand and can set his back against a rock, he can front his assailants, secure that no unseen foe shall creep up behind and deal a stealthy stab and that he will not be surrounded unawares. ‘The God of Israel shall be your rearward,’ and he who has ‘made the Most High his habitation’ is sheltered from ‘the pestilence that walketh in darkness,’ as well as from ‘the destruction that wasteth at noon-day,’ and will be cleansed from ‘secret faults’ if he keeps up unbroken his union with God, for the ‘faults’ which are not recognised as faults by his partially illuminated conscience are known to God. But the Rock is a defence in yet another way, for it is a sure foundation for our lives. Whoso builds on God need fear no change. When the floods rise, and the winds blow, and the rain storms down, the house that is on the Rock will stand.

And, then, in the Rock there is a spring, and round the spring there is ‘the light of laughing flowers,’ amidst the stern majesty of the cliff. Just as the Law-giver of old smote the rock, and there gushed out the stream that satisfied the thirst of the whole travelling nation, so Paul would have us Christians repeat the miracle by our faith. Of us, too, it may be said, they drank ‘of that Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.’ Stable being, secure defence, a fountain of refreshment and satisfaction: all these blessings lie in that great metaphor.

II. Now, note our plea with God, from what He is.

‘Be Thou to me a Rock . . . for Thou art a Rock.’ Is that not illogical? No, for notice that little word, ‘to me’-be Thou to me what Thou art in Thyself, and hast been to all generations.’ That makes all the difference. It is not merely ‘Be what Thou art,’ although that would be much, but it is ‘be it to me,’ and let me have all which is meant in that great Name.

But then, beyond that, let me point out to you how this prayer suggests to us that all true prayer will keep itself within God’s revelation of what He is. We take His promises, and all the elements which make up His name or manifestation of His character to the world, whether by His acts or by the utterances of this Book, or by the inferences to be drawn from the life of Jesus Christ, the great Revealer, or by what we ourselves have experienced of Him. The ways by which God has revealed Himself to the world define the legitimate subjects, and lay down the firm foundation, of our petitions. In all His acts God reveals Himself, and if I may so say, when we truly pray, we catch these up, and send them back again to heaven, like arrows from a bow. It is only when our desires and prayers foot themselves upon God’s revelation of Himself, and in essence are, in various fashions, the repetition of this prayer of my text: ‘Be . . . for Thou art,’ that we can expect to have them answered. Much else may call itself prayer, but it is often but petulant and self-willed endeavour to force our wishes upon Him, and no answer will come to that. We are to pray about everything; but we are to pray about nothing, except within the lines which are marked out for us by what God has told us, in His words and acts, that He Himself is. Catch these up and fling them back to Him, and for every utterance that He has made of Himself, ‘I am’ so-and-so, let us go to Him and say ‘Be Thou that to me,’ and then we may be sure of an answer.

So then two things follow. If we pray after the pattern of this prayer, ‘Be Thou to me what Thou art,’ then a great many foolish and presumptuous wishes will be stifled in the birth, and, on the other hand, a great many feeble desires will be strengthened and made confident, and we shall be encouraged to expect great things of God. Have you widened your prayers, dear friend!-and I do not mean by that only your outward ones, but the habitual aspiration and expectation of your minds-have you widened these to be as wide as what God has shown us that He is? Have you taken all God’s revelation of Himself, and translated it into petition? And do you expect Him to be to you all that He has ever been to any soul of man upon earth? Oh! how such a prayer as this, if we rightly understand it and feel it, puts to shame the narrowness and the poverty of our prayers, the falterings of our faith, and the absence of expectation in ourselves that we shall receive the fulness of God.

God owns that plea: ‘Be . . . what Thou art.’ He cannot resist that. That is what the Apostle meant when he said, ‘He abideth faithful, He cannot deny Himself.’ He must be true to His character. He can never be other than He always has been. And that is what the Psalmist meant when he goes on, after the words that I have taken for my text, and says, ‘For Thy Name’s sake lead me and guide me,’ What is God’s Name? The collocation of letters by which we designate Him? Certainly not. The Name of God is the sum total of what God has revealed Himself as being. And ‘for the sake of the Name,’ that He may be true to that which He has shown Himself to be, He will always endorse this bill that you draw upon Him when you present Him with His own character, and say ‘Be to me what Thou art.’

III. Lastly, we have here the plea with God drawn from what we have taken Him to be to us.

That is somewhat different from what I have already been dwelling upon. Mark the words: ‘Be Thou to me a strong Rock, for Thou art my Rock and my Fortress.’ What does that mean? It means that the suppliant has, by his own act of faith, taken God for his; that he has appropriated the great divine revelation, and made it his own. Now it seems to me that that appropriation is, if not the point, at least one of the points, in which real faith is distinguished from the sham thing which goes by that name amongst so many people. A man by faith encloses a bit of the common for his very own. When God says that He ‘so loved the world that He gave His . . . Son,’ I should say, ‘He loved me, and gave Himself for me.’ When the great revelation is made that He is the Rock of Ages, my faith says: ‘My Rock and my Fortress.’ Having said that, and claimed Him for mine, I can then turn round to Him and say, ‘Be to me what I have taken Thee to be.’

And that faith is expressed very beautifully and strikingly in one of the Old Testament metaphors, which frequently goes along with this one of the Rock. For instance, in a great chapter in Isaiah we find the original of that phrase ‘the Rock of Ages.’ It runs thus, ‘Trust ye in the Lord for ever, for in the Lord JEHOVAH is the Rock of Ages.’ Now the word for trust there literally means, to flee into a refuge, and so the true idea of faith is ‘to fly for refuge,’ as the Epistle to the Hebrews has it, ‘to the Hope set before us,’-that is {keeping to the metaphor}, to the cleft in the Rock.

That act of trust or flight will make it certain that God will be to us for a house of defence, a fortress to save us. Other rock-shelters may crumble. They may be carried by assault; they may be riven by earthquakes. ‘The mountains shall depart, and the hills shall be removed,’ but this Rock is impregnable, and all who take refuge in it are safe for ever.

And so the upshot of the whole matter is that God will be to us what we have faith to believe that He is, and our faith will be the measure of our possession of the fulness of God. If we can only say in the fulness of our hearts-and keep to the saying: ‘Be Thou to me a Rock, for Thou art my Rock,’ then nothing shall ever hurt us; and ‘dwelling in the secret place of the Most High’ we shall be kept in safety; our ‘abode shall be the munitions of rocks, our bread shall be given us, and our water shall be made sure.’


Verse 5

Psalms

‘INTO THY HANDS’

Psalms 31:5.

The first part of this verse is consecrated for ever by our Lord’s use of it on the Cross. Is it not wonderful that, at that supreme hour, He deigned to take an unknown singer’s words as His words? What an honour to that old saint that Jesus Christ, dying, should find nothing that more fully corresponded to His inmost heart at that moment than the utterance of the Psalmist long ago! How His mind must have been saturated with the Old Testament and with these songs of Israel! And do you not think it would be better for us if ours were completely steeped in those heart-utterances of ancient devotion?

But, of course, the Psalmist was not thinking about his death. It was an act for his life that he expressed in these words:-’Into Thine hands I commit my spirit.’ If you will glance over the psalm at your leisure, you will see that it is the heart-cry of a man in great trouble, surrounded by all sorts of difficulties, with his very life threatened. He was down in the very depths of darkness, and ringed about by all sorts of enemies at that moment, not sitting comfortably, as you and I are here, but in the midst of the hurly-burly and the strife, when by a dead lift of faith he flung himself clean out of his disasters, and, if I might so say, pitched himself into the arms of God. ‘Into Thine hands I commit my spirit,’ as a man standing in the midst of enemies, and bearing some precious treasure in his hand might, with one strong cast of his arm, fling it into the open hand of some mighty helper, and so baulk the enemies of their prey. That is the figure.

I. Now, let me say a word as to where to lodge a soul for safe keeping.

‘Into Thine hands’-a banker has a strong room, and a wise man sends his securities and his valuables to the bank and takes an acknowledgment, and goes to bed at night, quite sure that no harm will come to them, and that he will get them when he wants them. And that is exactly what the Psalmist does here. He deposits his most precious treasure in the safe custody of One who will take care of it. The great Hand is stretched out, and the little soul is put into it. It closes, and ‘no man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand.’

Now that is only a picturesque way of putting the most threadbare, bald, commonplace of religious teaching. The word faith, when it has any meaning at all in people’s minds when they hear it from the pulpit, is extremely apt, I fear, to create a kind of, if not disgust, at least a revulsion of feeling, as if people said, ‘Ah, there he is at the old story again!’ But will you freshen up your notions of what faith it means by taking that picture of my text as I have tried to expand and illuminate it a little by my metaphor? That is what is meant by ‘Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.’ There are two or three ways in which that is to be done, and one or two ways in which it is not to be done.

We do it when we trust Him for the salvation of our souls. There are a great many good Christian people who go mourning all their days, or, at least, sometimes mourning and sometimes indifferent. The most that they venture to say is, ‘But I cannot be sure.’ Our grandfathers used to sing:-

‘‘Tis a point I long to know,

Oft it causes anxious thought.’

Why should it cause anxious thought? Take your own personal salvation for granted, and work from that. Do not work towards it. If you have gone to Christ and said, ‘Lord, I cannot save myself; save me. I am willing to be saved,’ be sure that you have the salvation that you ask, and that if you have put your soul in that fashion into God’s hands, any incredible thing is credible, and any impossible thing is possible, rather than that you should fail of the salvation which, in the bottom of your hearts, you desire. Take the burden off your backs and put it on His. Do not be for ever questioning yourselves, ‘Am I a saved man?’ You will get sick of that soon, and you will be very apt to give up all thought about the matter at all. But take your stand on the fact, and with emancipated and buoyant hearts, and grateful ones, work from it, and because of it. And when sin rises up in your soul, and you say to yourselves, ‘If I were a Christian I could not have done that,’ or, ‘If I were a Christian I could not be so-and-so’; remember that all sin is inconsistent with being a Christian, but no sin is incompatible with it; and that after all the consciousness of shortcomings and failure, we have just to come back to the old point, and throw ourselves on God’s love. His arms are open to clasp us round. ‘Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.’

Further, the Psalmist meant, by committing himself to God, trusting Him in reference to daily life, and all its difficulties and duties. Our act of trust is to run through everything that we undertake and everything that we have to fight with. Self-will wrenches our souls out of God’s hands. A man who sends his securities to the banker can get them back when he likes. And if we undertake to manage our own affairs, or fling ourselves into our work without recognition of our dependence upon Him, or if we choose our work without seeking to know what His will is, that is recalling our deposit. Then you will get it back again, because God does not keep anybody’s securities against his will-you will get it back again, and much good it will do you when you have got it! Self-will, self-reliance, self-determination-these are the opposites of committing the keeping of our souls to God. And, as I say, if you withdraw the deposit, you take all the burden and trouble of it on your own shoulders again. Do not fancy that you are ‘living lives of faith in the Son of God,’ if you are not looking to Him to settle what you are to do. You cannot expect that He will watch over you, if you do not ask Him where you are to go.

But now there is another thing that I would suggest, this committing of ourselves to God which begins with the initial act of trust in Him for the salvation of our souls, and is continued throughout life by the continual surrender of ourselves to Him, is to be accompanied with corresponding work. The Apostle Peter’s memory is evidently hovering round this verse, whether he is consciously quoting it or not, when he says, ‘Let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to Him in welldoing,’ which has to go along with the act of trust and dependence. There must come the continual ordering of the life in accordance with His will; for ‘well-doing’ does not mean merely some works of beneficence and ‘charity,’ of the sort that have monopolised to themselves the name in latter days, but it means the whole of righteous conduct in accordance with the will of God.

So Peter tells us that it is vain for us to talk about committing the keeping of our soul to God unless we back up the committing with consistent, Christlike lives. Of course it is vain. How can a man expect God to take care of him when he plunges himself into something that is contrary to God’s laws? There are many people who say, ‘God will take care of me; He will save me from the consequences.’ Not a bit of it-He loves us a great deal too well for that. If you take the bit between your teeth, you will be allowed to go over the precipice and be smashed to pieces. If you wish to be taken care of, keep within the prescribed limits, and consult Him before you act, and do not act till you are sure of His approval. God has never promised to rescue man when he has got into trouble by his own sin. Suppose a servant had embezzled his master’s money through gambling, and then expected God to help him to get the money to pay back into the till. Do you think that would be likely to work? And how dare you anticipate that God will keep your feet, if you are walking in ways of your own choosing? All sin takes a man out from the shelter of the divine protection, and the shape the protection has to take then is chastisement. And all sin makes it impossible for a man to exercise that trust which is the committing of his soul to God. So it has to be ‘in welldoing,’ and the two things are to go together. ‘What God hath joined let not man put asunder.’ You do not become a Christian by the simple exercise of trust unless it is trust that worketh by love.

But let me remind you, further, that this committing of our souls into God’s hands does not mean that we are absolved from taking care of them ourselves. There is a very false kind of religious faith, which seems to think that it shuffles off all responsibility upon God. Not at all; you lighten the responsibility, but you do not get rid of it. And no man has a right to say ‘He will keep me, and so I may neglect diligent custody of myself.’ He keeps us very largely by helping us to keep our hearts with all diligence, and to keep our feet in the way of truth.

So let me now just say a word in regard to the blessedness of thus living in an atmosphere of continual dependence on, and reference to, God, about great things and little things. Whenever a man is living by trust, even when the trust is mistaken, or when it is resting upon some mere human, fallible creature like himself, the measure of his confidence is the measure of his tranquillity. You know that when a child says, ‘I do not need to mind, father will look after that,’ he may be right or wrong in his estimate of his father’s ability and inclination; but as long as he says it, he has no kind of trouble or anxiety, and the little face is scarred by no deep lines of care or thought. So when we turn to Him and say, ‘Why should I the burden bear?’ then there comes-I was going to say ‘surging,’ but ‘trickling’ is a better word-into my heart a settled peacefulness which nothing else can give. Look at this psalm. It begins, and for the first half continues, in a very minor key. The singer was not a poet posing as in affliction, but his words were wrung out of him by anguish. ‘Mine eyes are consumed with grief; my life is spent with grief’; ‘I am . . . as a dead man out of mind’; ‘I am in trouble.’ And then with a quick wheel about, ‘But I trusted in Thee, O Lord! I said, Thou art my God.’ And what comes of that? This-’O how great is Thy goodness which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee!’ ‘Blessed be the Lord, for He hath showed me His marvellous kindness in a strong city.’ And then, at the end of all, his peacefulness is so triumphant that he calls upon ‘all His saints’ to help him to praise. And the last words are ‘Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart.’ That is what you will get if you commit your soul to God. There was no change in the Psalmist’s circumstances. The same enemy was round about him. The same ‘net was privily laid for him.’ All that had seemed to him half an hour before as wellnigh desperate, continued utterly unaltered. But what had altered? God had come into the place, and that altered the whole aspect of matters. Instead of looking with shrinking and tremulous heart along the level of earth, where miseries were, he was looking up into the heavens, where God was; and so everything was beautiful. That will be our experience if we will commit the keeping of our souls to Him in well doing. You can bring June flowers and autumn fruits into snowy January days by the exercise of this trust in God. It does not need that our circumstances should alter, but only that our attitude should alter. Look up, and cast your souls into God’s hands, and all that is round you, of disasters and difficulties and perplexities, will suffer transformation; and for sorrow there will come joy because there has come trust.

I need not say a word about the other application of this verse, which, as I have said, is consecrated to us by our Lord’s own use of it at the last. But is it not beautiful to think that the very same act of mind and heart by which a man commits his spirit to God in life may be his when he comes to die, and that death may become a voluntary act, and the spirit may not be dragged out of us, reluctant, and as far as we can, resisting, but that we may offer it up as a libation, to use one metaphor of St. Paul’s, or may surrender it willingly as an act of faith? It is wonderful to think that life and death, so unlike each other, may be made absolutely identical in the spirit in which they are met. You remember how the first martyr caught up the words from the Cross, and kneeling down outside the wall of Jerusalem, with the blood running from the wounds that the stones had made, said, ‘Lord Jesus! receive my spirit.’ That is the way to die, and that is the way to live.

One word is all that time permits about the ground upon which this great venture of faith may be made. ‘Thou hast redeemed me, Lord God of Truth.’ The Psalmist, I think, uses that word ‘redeemed’ here, not in its wider spiritual New Testament sense, but in its frequent Old Testament sense, of deliverance from temporal difficulties and calamities. And what he says is, in effect, this: ‘I have had experience in the past which makes me believe that Thou wilt extricate me from this trouble too, because Thou art the God of Truth.’ He thinks of what God has done, and of what God is. And Peter, whom we have already found echoing this text, echoes that part of it too, for he says, ‘Let them commit the keeping of their souls to Him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator,’ which is all but parallel to ‘Lord God of Truth.’ So God will continue as He has begun, and finish what He has begun.

‘A faithful Creator-’ He made us to need what we do need, and He is not going to forget the wants that He Himself has incorporated with our human nature. He is bound to help us because He made us. He is the God of Truth, and He will help us. But if we take ‘redeemed’ in its highest sense, the Psalmist, arguing from God’s past mercy and eternal faithfulness, is saying substantially what the Apostle said in the triumphant words, ‘Whom He did foreknow, them He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son . . . and whom He did predestinate them He also . . . justified, and whom He justified them He also glorified.’ ‘Thou hast redeemed me.’ ‘Thou art the God of Truth; Thou wilt not lift Thy hand away from Thy work until Thou hast made me all that Thou didst bind Thyself to make me in that initial act of redeeming me.’

So we can say, ‘He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’ You have experiences, I have no doubt, in your past, on which you may well build confidence for the future. Let each of us consult our own hearts, and our own memories. Cannot we say, ‘Thou hast been my Help,’ and ought we not therefore to be sure that He will not ‘leave us nor forsake us’ until He manifests Himself as the God of our salvation?

It is a blessed thing to lay ourselves in the hands of God, but the New Testament tells us, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ The alternative is one that we all have to face,-either ‘into Thy hands I commit my spirit,’ or into those hands to fall. Settle which of the two is to be your fate.


Verse 19

Psalms

GOODNESS WROUGHT AND GOODNESS LAID UP

Psalms 31:19.

The Psalmist has been describing, with the eloquence of misery, his own desperate condition, in all manner of metaphors which he heaps together-’sickness,’ ‘captivity,’ ‘like a broken vessel,’ ‘as a dead man out of mind.’ But in the depth of desolation he grasps at God’s hand, and that lifts him up out of the pit. ‘I trusted in Thee, O Lord! Thou art my God.’ So he struggles up on to the green earth again, and he feels the sunshine; and then he breaks out-’Oh! how great is Thy goodness which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee.’ So the psalm that began with such grief, ends with the ringing call, ‘Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.’

Now these great words which I have read for my text, and which derive even additional lustre from their setting, do not convey to the hasty English reader the precise force of the antithesis which lies in them. The contrast in the two clauses is between goodness laid up and goodness wrought; and that would come out a little more clearly if we transposed the last words of the text, and instead of reading, as our Authorised Version does, ‘which Thou hast wrought for them that trusted in Thee before the sons of men,’ read ‘which Thou hast wrought before the sons of men for them that trusted in Thee.’

So I think there are, as it were, two great masses of what the Psalmist calls ‘goodness’; one of them which has been plainly manifested ‘before the sons of men,’ the other which is ‘laid up’ in store. There are a great many notes in circulation, but there is far more bullion in the strong-room. Much ‘goodness’ has been exhibited; far more lies concealed.

If we take that antithesis, then, I think we may turn it in two or three directions, like a light in a man’s hand; and look at it as suggesting-

I. First, the goodness already disposed-’wrought before the sons of men’; and that ‘laid up,’ yet to be manifested.

Now, that distinction just points to the old familiar but yet never-to-be-exhausted thought of the inexhaustibleness of the divine nature. That inexhaustibleness comes out most wondrously and beautifully in the fundamental manifestation of God on which the Old Testament revelation is built-I mean the vision given to Moses prior to his call, and as the basis of his message, of the bush that burned and was not consumed. That lowly shrub flaming and not burning out was not, as has often been supposed, the symbol of Israel which in the furnace of affliction was not destroyed. It meant the same as the divine name, then proclaimed; ‘I AM THAT I AM,’ which is but a way of saying that God’s Being is absolute, dependent upon none, determined by Himself, infinite, and eternal, burns and is not burned up, lives and has no proclivity towards death, works and is unwearied, ‘operates unspent,’ is revealed and yet hidden, gives and is none the poorer.

And as we look upon our daily lives, and travel back in thought, some of us over the many years which have all been crowded with instances and illustrations of divine faithfulness and favouring care, we have to grasp both these exclamations of our text, ‘Oh! how great is Thy goodness which Thou hast wrought,’ how much greater ‘is Thy goodness which is laid up!’ The table has been spread in the wilderness, and the verities of Christian experience more than surpass the legends of hungry knights finding banquets prepared by unseen hands in desert places. It is as when Jesus made the multitude sit down on the green grass and feast to the full, and yet abundance remained undiminished after satisfying all the hungry applicants. The bread that was broken yielded more basketfuls for to-morrow than the original quantity in the lad’s hands. The fountain rises, and the whole camp, ‘themselves and their children and their cattle,’ slake their thirst at it, and yet it is full as ever. The goodness wrought is but the fringe and first beginnings of the mass that is laid up. All the gold that has been coined and put into circulation is as nothing compared with the wedges and ingots of massive bullion that lie in the strong room. God’s riches are not like the world’s wealth. You very soon get to the bottom of its purse. Its ‘goodness,’ is very soon run dry; and nothing will yield an unintermittent stream of satisfaction and blessing to a poor soul except the ‘river of the water of life that proceedeth out of the Throne of God and of the Lamb.’

So, dear brethren! that contrast may suggest to us how quietly and peacefully we may look forward to all the unknown future; and hold up to it so as to enable us to scan its general outlines, the light of the known and experienced past. Let our trustful prayer be; ‘Thou hast been my help: leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation!’ and the answer will certainly be: ‘I will not leave thee, till I have done unto thee that which I have spoken to thee of.’ Our Memory ought to be the mother of our Hope; and we should paint the future in the hues of the past. Thou hast goodness ‘laid up,’ more than enough to match ‘the goodness Thou hast wrought.’ God’s past is the prophecy of God’s future; and my past, if I understand it aright, ought to rebuke every fear and calm every anxiety. We, and only we, have the right to say, ‘To-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.’ That is delusion if said by any but by those that fear and trust in the Inexhaustible God.

II. Now let us turn our light in a somewhat different direction. The contrast here suggests the goodness that is publicly given and that which is experienced in secret.

If you will notice, in the immediate neighbourhood of my text there come other words which evidently link themselves with the thought of the goodness laid up: ‘Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy presence.’ That is where also the ‘goodness’ is. ‘Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion . . . blessed be the Lord! for He hath shewed me His marvellous kindness in a strong city.’ So, then, the goodness which is wrought, and which can be seen by the sons of men, dwindles in comparison with the goodness which lies in that secret place, and can only be enjoyed and possessed by those who dwell there, and whose feet are familiar with the way that leads to it. That is to say, if you wish the Psalmist’s thought in plain prose, all these visible blessings of ours are but pale shadows and suggestions of the real wealth that we can have only if we live in continual communion with God. The spiritual blessings of quiet minds and strength for work, the joys of communion with God, the sweetness of the hopes that are full of immortality, and all these delights and manifestations of God’s inmost love and sweetness which are granted only to waiting hearts that shut themselves off from the tumultuous delights of earth as the bases of their trust or the sources of their gladness-these are fuller, better than the selectest and richest of the joys that God’s world can give. God does not put His best gifts, so to speak, in the shop-windows; He keeps these in the inner chambers. He does not arrange His gifts as dishonest traders do their wares, putting the finest outside or on the top, and the less good beneath. ‘Thou hast kept the good wine until now.’ It is they who inhabit ‘the secret place of the Most High,’ and whose lives are filled with communion with Him, realising His presence, seeking to know His will, reaching out the tendrils of their hearts to twine round Him, and diligently, for His dear sake, doing the tasks of life; who taste the selected dainties from God’s gracious hands.

How foolish, then, to order life on the principle upon which we are all tempted to do it, and to yield to the temptation to which some of us have yielded far too much, of fancying that the best good is the good that we can touch and taste and handle and that men can see! No! no! Deep down in our hearts a joy that strangers never intermeddle with nor know, a peace that passes understanding, a present Christ and a Heaven all but present, because Christ is present-these are the good things for men, and these are the things which God does not, because He cannot, fling broadcast into the world, but which He keeps, because He must, for those that desire them, and are fit for them. ‘He causeth His sun to shine, and His rain to fall on the unthankful and on the disobedient,’ but the goodness laid up is better than the sunshine, and more refreshing and fertilising and cleansing than the rain, and it comes, and comes only, to them that trust Him, and live near Him.

III. And so, lastly, we may turn our light in yet another direction, and take this contrast as suggesting the goodness wrought on earth, and the goodness laid up in heaven.

Here we see, sometimes, the messengers coming with the one cluster of grapes on the pole. There we shall live in the vineyard. Here we drink from the river as it flows; there we shall be at the fountain-head. Here we are in the vestibule of the King’s house, there we shall be in the throne room, and each chamber as we pass through it is richer and fairer than the one preceding. Heaven’s least goodness is more than earth’s greatest blessedness. All that life to come, all its conditions and everything about it, are so strange to us, so incapable of being bodied forth or conceived by us, and the thought of Eternity is, it seems to me, so overwhelmingly awful that I do not wonder at even good people finding little stimulus, or much that cheers, in the thought of passing thither. But if we do not know anything more-and we know very little more-let us be sure of this, that when God begins to compare His adjectives He does not stop till He gets to the superlative degree and that good begets better, and the better of earth ensures the best of Heaven. And so out of our poor little experience here, we may gather grounds of confidence that will carry our thoughts peacefully even into the great darkness, and may say, ‘What Thou didst work is much, what Thou hast laid up is more.’ And the contrast will continue for ever and ever; for all through that strange Eternity that which is wrought will be less than that which is laid up, and we shall never get to the end of God, nor to the end of His goodness.

Only let us take heed to the conditions-’them that fear Him, them that trust in Him.’ If we will do these things through each moment of the experiences of a growing Christian life, and at the moment of the experience of a Christian death, and through the eternities of the experience of a Christian heaven, Jesus Christ will whisper to us, ‘Thou shalt see greater things than these.’


Verse 20

Psalms

HID IN LIGHT

Psalms 31:20.

The word rendered ‘presence’ is literally ‘face,’ and the force of this very remarkable expression of confidence is considerably marred unless that rendering be retained. There are other analogous expressions in Scripture, setting forth, under various metaphors, God’s protection of them that love Him. But I know not that there is any so noble and striking as this. For instance, we read of His hiding His children ‘in the secret of His tabernacle,’ or tent; as an Arab chief might do a fugitive who had eaten of his salt, secreting him in the recesses of his tent whilst the pursuers scoured the desert in vain for their prey. Again, we read of His hiding them ‘beneath the shadow of His wing’; where the divine love is softened into the likeness of the maternal instinct which leads a hen to gather her chickens beneath the shelter of her own warm and outspread feathers. But the metaphor of my text is more vivid and beautiful still. ‘Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy face.’ The light that streams from that countenance is the hiding-place for a poor man. These other metaphors may refer, perhaps, the one to the temple, and the other to the outstretched wings of the cherubim that shadowed the Mercy-seat. And, if so, this metaphor carries us still more near to the central blaze of the Shekinah, the glory that hovered above the Mercy-seat, and glowed in the dark sanctuary, unseen but once a year by one trembling high priest, who had to bear with him blood of sacrifice, lest the sight should slay. The Psalmist says, into that fierce light a man may go, and stand in it, bathed, hid, secure. ‘Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy face.’

I. Now, then, let us notice, first, this hiding-place.

The ‘face’ of God is so strongly figurative an expression that its metaphorical character cannot but be obvious to the most cursory reader. The very frankness, and, we may say, the grossness of the image, saves it from all misconception, and as with other similar expressions in the Old Testament, at once suggests its meaning. We read, for example, of the ‘arm,’ the ‘hand,’ the ‘finger’ of God, and everybody feels that these mean His power. We read of the ‘eye’ of God, and everybody knows that that means His omniscience. We read of the ‘ear’ of God, and we all understand that that holds forth the blessed thought that He hears and answers the cry of such as be sorrowful. And, in like manner, the ‘face’ of God is the apprehensible part of the divine nature which turns to men, and by which He makes Himself known. It is roughly equivalent to the other Old and New Testament expression, the ‘name of the Lord,’ the manifested and revealed side of the divine nature. And that is the hiding-place into which men may go.

We have the other expression also in Scripture, ‘the light of Thy countenance,’ and that helps us to apprehend the Psalmist’s meaning. ‘The light of Thy face’ is ‘secret.’ What a paradox! Can light conceal? Look at the daily heavens-filled with blazing stars, all invisible till the night falls. The effulgence of the face is such that they that stand in it are lost and hid, like the lark in the blue sky. ‘A glorious privacy of light is Thine.’ There is a wonderful metaphor in the New Testament of a woman ‘clothed with the sun,’ and caught up into it from her enemies to be safe there. And that is just an expansion of the Psalmist’s grand paradox, ‘Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy face.’ Light conceals when the light is so bright as to dazzle. They who are surrounded by God are lost in the glory, and safe in that seclusion, ‘the secret of Thy face.’

A thought may be suggested, although it is somewhat of a digression from the main purpose of my text, but it springs naturally out of this paradox, and may just deserve a word. Revelation is real, but revelation has its limits. That which is revealed is ‘the face of God,’ but we read, ‘no man can see My face.’ After all revelation He remains hidden. After all pouring forth of His beams He remains ‘the God that dwelleth in the thick darkness,’ and the light which is inaccessible is also a darkness that can be felt. Apprehension is possible; comprehension is impossible. What we know of God is valid and true, but we never shall know all the depths that lie in that which we do know of Him. His face is ‘the secret’; and though men may malign Him when they say, ‘Verily, Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel!’ and He answers them, ‘I have not spoken in secret’ in a dark ‘place of the earth,’ it still remains true that revelation has its mysteries born of the greatness of its effulgence, and that all which we know of God is ‘dark with excess of light.’

But that is aside from our main purpose. Let me rather remind you of how the thought of the secret of God’s face being the secure hiding-place of them that love Him points to this truth-that that brightness of light has a repellent power which keeps far away from all intermingling with it everything that is evil. The old Greek mythologies tell us that the radiant arrows of Apollo shot forth from his far-reaching bow, wounded to death the monsters of the slime and unclean creatures that crawled and revelled in darkness. And the myth has a great truth in it. The light of God’s face slays evil, of whatsoever kind it is; and just as the unlovely, loathsome creatures that live in the dark and find themselves at ease there writhe and wriggle in torment, and die when their shelter is taken away and they are exposed to the light beating on their soft bodies, so the light of God’s face turned upon evil things smites them into nothingness. Thus ‘the secret of His countenance’ is the shelter of all that is good.

Nor need I remind you how, in another aspect of the phrase, the ‘light of His face,’ is the expression for His favour and loving regard, and how true it is that in that favour and loving regard is the impregnable fortress into which, entering, any man is safe. I said that the expression the ‘face of the Lord’ roughly corresponded to the other one, ‘the name of the Lord,’ inasmuch as both meant the revealed aspect of the divine nature. You may remember how we read, ‘The name of the Lord is a strong tower into which the righteous runneth and is safe.’ The ‘light’ of the face of the Lord is His favour and loving regard falling upon men. And who can be harmed with that lambent light-like sunshine upon water, or upon a glittering shield-playing around Him?

Only let us remember that for us ‘the face of God’ is Jesus Christ. He is the ‘arm’ of the Lord; He is the ‘name’ of the Lord; He is the ‘face.’ All that we know of God we know through and in Him; all that we see of God we see by the shining upon us of Him who is ‘the eradiation of His glory and the express image of His person.’ So the open secret of the ‘face’ of God is Jesus, the hiding-place of our souls.

II. Secondly, notice God’s hidden ones.

My text carries us back, by that word ‘them,’ to the previous verse, where we have a double description of those who are thus hidden in the inaccessible light of His countenance. They are ‘such as fear Thee,’ and ‘such as trust in Thee.’ Now, that latter expression is congruous with the metaphor of my text, in so far as the words on which we are now engaged speak about a ‘hiding-place,’ and the word which is translated ‘trust’ literally means ‘to flee to a refuge.’ So they that flee to God for refuge are those whom God hides in the ‘secret of His face.’ Let us think of that for a moment.

I said, in the beginning of these remarks, that there was here an allusion, possibly, to the Temple. All temples in ancient times were asylums. Whosoever could flee to grasp the horns of the altar, or to sit, veiled and suppliant, before the image of the god, was secure from his foes, who could not pass within the limits of the Temple grounds, in which strife and murder were not permissible. We too often flee to other gods and other temples for our refuges. Ay! and when we get there we find that the deity whom we have invoked is only a marble image that sits deaf, dumb, motionless, whilst we cling to its unconscious skirts. As one of the saddest of our modern cynics once said, looking up at that lovely impersonation of Greek beauty, the Venus de Milo, ‘Ah! she is fair; but she has no arms,’ so we may say of all false refuges to which men betake themselves. The goddess is powerless to help, however beautiful the presentment of her may have seemed to our eyes. The evils from which we have fled to these false deities and shelterless sanctuaries will pursue us across the threshold; and as Elijah did with the priests of Baal upon Carmel, will slay us at the very foot of the altar to which we have clung, and vexed with our vain prayers. There is only one shrine where there is a sanctuary, and that is the shrine above which shines ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’; into the brightness of which poor men may pass and therein may hide themselves. God hides us, and His hiding is effectual, in the secret of the light and splendour of His face.

I said, too, that there was an allusion, as there is in all the psalms that deal with men as God’s guests, to the ancient customs of hospitality, by which a man who has once entered the tent of the chief, and partaken of food there, is safe, not only from his pursuers, but from his host himself, even though that host should be the kinsman-avenger. The red-handed murderer, who has eaten the salt of the man whose duty it otherwise would have been to slay him where he stood, is safe from his vengeance. And thus they who cast themselves upon God have nothing to fear. No other hand can pluck them from the sanctuary of His tent. He Himself, having admitted them to share His hospitality, cannot and will not lift a hand against them. We are safe from God only when we are safe in God.

But remember the condition on which this security comes. ‘Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy face.’ Whom? Those that flee for refuge to Thee. The act of simple faith is set forth there, by which a poor man, with all his imperfections on his head, may yet venture to put his foot across the boundary line that separates the outer darkness from the beam of light that comes from God’s face. ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’ That question does not mean, as it is often taken to mean-What mortal can endure the punishments of a future life? but, Who can venture to be God’s guests? and it is equivalent to the other interrogation, ‘Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in His holy place?’ The answer is, If you go to Him for refuge, knowing your danger, feeling your impurity, you may walk amidst all that light softened into lambent beauty, as those Hebrew children did in the furnace of fire, being at ease there, and feeling it well with themselves, and having nothing about them consumed except the bonds that bound them.

Remember that Jesus Christ is the Hiding-place, and that to flee to Him for refuge is the condition of security, and all they who thus, from the snares of life, from its miseries, disappointments, and burdens, from the agitation of their own hearts, from the ebullition of their own passions, from the stings of their own conscience, or from other of the ills that flesh is heir to, make their hiding-place-by the simple act of faith in Jesus Christ-in the light of God’s face, are thereby safe for evermore.

But the initial act of fleeing to the refuge must be continued by abiding in the refuge. It is of no use to take shelter in the light unless we abide in the light. It is of no use to go to the Temple for sanctuary unless we continue in it for sacrifice and worship. We must ‘walk in the light as God is in the light.’ That is to say, the condition of being hid in God is, first of all, to take refuge in Jesus Christ, and then to abide in Him by continual communion. ‘Your life is hid with Christ in God.’ Unless we have a hidden life, deep beneath, and high above, and far beyond the life of sense, we have no right to think that the shelter of the Face will be security for us. The very essence of Christianity is the habitual communion of heart, mind, and will with God in Christ. Do you live in the light, or have you only gone there to escape what you are afraid of? Do you live in the light by the continual direction of thought and heart to Him, cultivating the habit of daily and hourly communion with Him amidst the distractions of necessary duty, care, and changing circumstances?

But not only by communion, but also by conduct, must we keep in the light. The fugitive found outside the city of refuge was fair game for the avenger, and if he strayed beyond its bounds there was a sword in his back before he knew where he was. Every Christian, by each sin, whether it be acted or only thought, casts himself out of the light into the darkness that rings it round, and out there he is a victim to the beasts of prey that hunt in darkness. An eclipse of the sun is not caused by any change in the sun, but by an opaque body, the offspring and satellite of the earth, coming between the earth and sun. And so, when Christian men lose the light of God’s face, it is not because there is any ‘variableness or shadow of turning’ in Him, but because between Him and them has come the blackness-their own offspring-of their own sin. You are not safe if you are outside the light of His countenance. These are the conditions of security.

III. Lastly, note what the hidden ones find in the light.

This burst of confidence in my text comes from the Psalmist immediately after plaintively pouring out his soul under the pressure of afflictions. His experience may teach us the interpretation of his glad assurance.

God will keep all real evil from us if we keep near Him; but He will not keep the externals that men call evil from us. I do not know whether there is such a thing as filtering any poisons or malaria by means of light, but I am sure that the light of God filters our atmosphere for us. Though it may leave the external form of evil it takes all the poison out of it and turns it into a harmless minister for our good. The arrows that are launched at us may be tipped with venom when they leave the bow, but if they pass through the radiant envelope of divine protection that surrounds us-and they must have passed through that if they reach us-it cleanses all the venom from the points though it leaves the sharpness there. The evil is not an evil if it has got our length; and its having touched us shows that He who lets it pass into the light where His children safely dwell, knows that it cannot harm them.

But, again, we shall find if we live in continual communion with the revealed Face of God, that we are elevated high above all the strife of tongues and the noise of earth. We shall ‘outsoar the shadow of the night,’ and be lifted to an elevation from which all the clamours of earth will sound faint and poor, like the noises of the city to the dwellers on the mountain peak. Nor do we find only security there, for the word in the second clause of my text, ‘Thou shalt keep them secretly,’ is the same as is employed in the previous verse in reference to the treasures which God lays up for them that fear Him. The poor men that trust in God, and the wealth which He has to lavish upon them, are both hid, and they are hid in the same place. The ‘goodness wrought before the sons of men’ has not emptied the reservoir. After all expenditure the massy ingots of gold in God’s storehouse are undiminished. The mercy still to come is greater than that already received. ‘To-morrow shall be as this day and much more abundant.’ This river broadens as we mount towards its source.

Brethren! the Face of God must be either our dearest joy or our greatest dread. There comes a time when you and I must front it, and look into His eyes. It is for us to settle whether at that day we shall ‘call upon the rocks and the hills to hide us’ from it, or whether we shall say with rapture, ‘Thou hast made us most blessed with Thy countenance’! Which is it to be? It must be one or other. When He says, ‘Seek ye My Face,’ may our hearts answer, ‘Thy Face, Lord, will I seek,’ that when we see it hereafter, shining as the sun in his strength, its light may not be darkness to our impure and horror-struck eyes.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Psalms 31:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/psalms-31.html.

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