Why art thou cast down, O my soul; and why art thou disquited within me? hope in God ; for I shall yet praise Hitn Who is the health of my countenance, and my God.—Psalm xliii. 5.
THESE words occur thrice, at short intervals, in this psalm and in the preceding one. They appear there twice, and here once. Quite obviously the division into two psalms is a mistake, for the whole constitutes one composition. The first part of each of the sections, into which the one original psalm is divided by the repetition of this refrain, is a weary monotone of complaint. The Psalmist is in circumstances of depression and disappointment, and he keeps ringing the changes over and over again upon his sad condition. But then he struggles up, as it were, to the height of questioning himself what all this trouble of soul and depression mean, and when he has got the length of questioning his mood instead of passively yielding to it, then he goes further and encourages himself—" Hope thou in God."
But again the wave of trouble rolls in, and sweeps away the flimsy barrier that he had put up. The weary round is gone all over again—the complaint and the enumeration of the sad things that befall him, and the expressions of his despondency. Then once more he lifts his head above water, and catches a glimpse of the light. Again he asks, " Why art thou cast down, 0 my soul?" But once more the climbing sorrow gets the better of him, and he wails his complaint all over again, and then, for the third time, he rises above it, and rebuilds his wall against the flood, and this time the barrier stands, and the flood is finally dammed back.
Unless we look, therefore, not only at the words themselves, but at this most instructive and beautiful fact of their recurrence, and at what separates the instances of their recurrence from one another, we miss the chief lesion of this Psalm. We note,
I. A Dreary Monotony Of Complaint.
We all know the temptation of being overmastered by some calamity or some sad thought. We keep chewing the bitter morsel and rolling it under our tongues, so as to suck all the bitterness out of it that we cans Circumstances, no doubt, warranted the Psalmist's despondency, but no circumstances warranted his tramping on and on and on, with weary reiteration, over and over again, in one mill-horse round of complaint. Why could he not speak it, and have done with it? You sometimes see upon the stage of a theatre a procession represented, and the supernumeraries pass across the stage, and go round at the back and come in again at the other side, and so keep up an appearance of numbers far beyond the reality. That is like what we do with our sorrows. A fly has an eye, with I do not know how many facets, which multiply the one thing that it looks at into an enormous number; and some of us have eyes made on that fashion, or rather, we manufacture for our eyes spectacles on that plan, by which we look at our griefs or our depressing circumstances, and see them multiplied and nothing but them. "That way madness lies," Absorption in one set of circumstances, however sad, and however crushing may be their weight, is neither wise, nor grateful, nor godly; and it saps all the strength out of a man. The sky is never all cloud with us; it sometimes is in the natural world, but the Christian's sky is never all full of gloom. And if we sinfully, although so naturally, give ourselves up to the monotonous contemplation of one sad set of circumstances, then we are forgetting that an abyss of blue lies at the back of the cloud, and that, in comparison with the serene and unstained infinitude beyond, the heaviest thunder-laden masses are but thin films of passing vapour. The Psalmist sets us an example to be avoided, in his triple repetition of the story of his grief and gloom They have taken such possession of him that he cannot even vary his words. Twice he repeats, in the first and second sections; " They continually say unto me, Where is thy God 1 " and twice he repeats, in the second and third sections: "Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?" It was folly to ask this question twice. It was returning sanity thrice to ask: "Why art thou cast down, 0 my soul?"
And so we hear the Psalmist advancing to a second stage, and that is,
II. A Wise Self-questioning.
There are a great many of our griefs and moods and sorrows that will not stand that question. Like ghosts, if you speak to them, they vanish. It is enough, in not a few of the lighter and more gnat-like troubles that beset us, to say to ourselves: "What art thou putting thyself into such a fume about? Why art thou cast down?" For very many of them, to ask the question shows the impossibility of finding a reasonable answer to it. But even with regard to far more pressing and poignant griefs and burdens, fiery dragons and burning serpents which may sting and poison us, still the question is one that it is wise for a man to ask. We cannot control our thoughts nor our moods directly, but we can do a great deal to regulate, modify, and diminish those of them that need diminishing, and increase those of them that need to be increased, by looking at the reasons for them. And if a man will do that more habitually and conscientiously than most of us are accustomed to do it, in regard both to passing thoughts and to overpowering moods that threaten to become unwholesomely permanent, he will regain a firmer control of himself—and that is the best wealth that a man can have.
"He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down without walls," into which any roving Bedouin can break, and carry away, loot, and work his will. If we do not set a guard at the gates, and question the traveller that wants to come in, what his business is, and what is his right to enter, we shall be invaded by a host of very undesirable guests, and our lives will go all to pieces. Very many men who make failures morally, religiously, or even socially and commercially, do so because they have no command over themselves, and because they have not asked this question of each Bly temptation that comes wheedling up to the gate of the soul, with whispering breath and secret suggestions —" What do you want here? What reason have you for wishing to come in?" "Why art thou cast down, 0 my soul ?"—question yourselves about your moods, and especially about your sad moods, and you will have gone a long way to make yourselves better and happier people than you have ever been before.
Further, we have here
III. An Effort Twice Foiled And At Last Successful.
I have said that the Psalmist asks this question three times. Three times, as it were, he clutches hold of the firm stay to which he can cling, and twice is swept away from it; and the third time he retains his grip. Yes, and that is often the case. In the Cathedral of St. Mark's, Venice, there is a mosaic that represents Christ in Gethsemane. You remember that, like the Psalmist, He prayed three times there, and twice came back, not having received His desire, but the third time He did receive it. The devout artist has presented Him thus: the first time prone on the ground, and the sky all black; the second time raised a little, and a strip of blue in one corner; and the third time, kneeling erect, and a beam from heaven, brighter than the radiance of the Paschal moon, striking right down upon Him, and the strengthening Angel standing beside Him. That was the experience of the Lord, and it may be the experience of the servant. Once I ask, twice I ask, and I do not receive an answer. "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me." Thrice the Psalmist climbed, like some poor insect trying to get up a blade of grass. Twice he climbed and twice fell, but the third time he reached the top and kept there.
Brethren, do not give up the effort at self-control and victory over circumstances that tempt to despondency or to sadness, Even if you fail this time, still the failure has left some increased capacity for the next attempt, and God helping, the next time will be successful. So, remember the threefold repetition of this self-questioning and self-encouragement.
Lastly, we have
IV. The Conquering Hope.
The Psalmist's question to his soul is not answered. To put it was the first struggle to strip off the poisoned sackcloth in which he had wrapped himself. But his next word, his command to his soul to hope in God, completes the process of putting off the robe of mourning, and girding himself with gladness. He makes one great leap, as it were, across the black flood that has been ringing him round, and bids his soul: "Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him, Who is the health of my countenance and my God." The one medicine for a disquieted, cast-down soul is hope in God. People say a great deal about the buoyant energy of hope bearing a man up over his troubles. Yes, so it does in some measure, but there is only one case in which there is a real bearing up over the troubles, and that is where the hope is in God. I have heard of men in a shipwreck who fastened the life-buoy round their waists, and it came up round their necks and choked them. There are hopes that lift men over many a trouble, and yet they are not the right sort, and they may ruin them at last.
"Hope thou "Yes ; but what am I to hope in?
That things will be better to-morrow? Perhaps. That I shall get over the trouble and be stronger for it? Possibly. That "the light affliction is but for a moment?" Well; some of them are not "but for a
moment." "Hope thou in God !"—that is the secret: It is only the sunrise that scatters the mists; and it is only a hope "in God" that is sure to rise victorious over all conceivable troubles, and at last to turn despondency and disquiet into brightness and calmness. That is the one rainbow that lies above the fiercest hell of falling waters, foaming tortured in the cataract. The waters foam themselves away, "the things that are seen are temporal," but the rainbow is always there, eternal. "Hope in God," and the blacker the cloud, the brighter will be the colouring of the bow that spans it. "Hope in God," and disquiet, and all the other ghosts of the night, vanish as at cockcrow.
But the hope that is in God must be a hope that is based upon a present possession of Him. "Hope thou in God; He is the health of my countenance, and my God." It is only if a man has a present experience of the blessings of strong and all-sufficient help that come to him now, and can say, "My God, the health of my countenance," that he has the right, or that he has the inclination or the power, to paint the future with brightness. A present experience of God as my very own, and all-sufficient for health and help and for the brightening of my face in all hours of darkness, is the only ground on which I can hope in Him for every future,
And we shall not attain either to that experience of God as ours, or to the hope that, springing from it, will triumph over all disquieting circumstances, without a dead lift of effort. The Christian hope comes to no man without his definitely endeavouring after it; and there is a great lack, amongst all Christian people, of realizing that it is as much their duty to cultivate the hope of the Christian, as it is their duty to cultivate any other characteristic of the Christian life. "We desire that every one of you do show the same diligence, in order to the full assurance of hope unto the end."