I have set the Lord always before me ; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved ... In Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.—Ps. xvi. 8, 11.
IHAVE put these two verses together because they present striking parallels in expression, and a close connexion of thought. As to the parallel expressions, notice "before me" in the one verse, and "in Thy presence" in the other. The two phrases, though not identical, are synonymous. There follow another pair of parallels, "my right hand" in the former clause answering to "Thy right hand" in the latter. Then as to the connexion of thought, the former verse describes the devout life as it is lived here on earth, the latter is most naturally and adequately understood as pointing to the devout life as it is perfected in heaven. It is, perhaps, the clearest expression of confidence in immortality to be found in the Old Testament, and it is instructive to notice the way by which the Psalmist
comes to that confidence. My two texts are linked
together by two intervening verses, which begin with a "therefore." "I shall not be moved; therefore "— because of my present experience of the Divine presence, and the stability which it brings—" therefore my heart is glad, and . . . my flesh also shall rest in hope that Thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol; neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption." That is to say, the Christian experience of communion on earth necessarily leads on to the expectation of its own persistence, and makes it ridiculous to suppose that such a purely physical thing as death should have any power over such a bond. You might as well suppose that a sword could wound a soul.
But that is not all that the connexion of these two verses suggests. It implies the correspondence of these two phases of the devout life. Not only is the one the ground for believing in the other, but the one is the germ of the other.
For the Christian life on earth and in heaven is continuous, and that which is but tendency and thwarted aim and unreached direction here will become fact hereafter. "To-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant." Continuity and increase lie at the basis of the Christian hope. And if ever we are to have present confidence of immortality, or ever to possess the reality of it in a future life, it must be because we here have set the Lord always before us. If we are ever to be set at His right hand in the heavenly places, it will be as the natural culmination and termination of our having set Him at our right hands amidst the struggles and strifes of earth. Let us, then, look at these two points, the devout life as it is lived here, and the devout life as it is perfected hereafter.
I. The Devout Life As It Is Lived Here.
There are three stages of experience marked out in the first of our texts. "I have set the Lord always before me "—that is one ; "He is at my right hand "—that is another; "I shall not be moved "—that is the third, the issue of all. Or, to put it into other language, we have here the effort of faith, the presence of God whom the effort brings near; the steadfastness that the presence of God bestows.
As to the first, "I have set the Lord always before me "—with a dead lift of effort on my part. We cannot have God constantly in sight unless we blind our eyes to a great deal besides. There are—need I remind you? —three things that, taken together, build up for us a very thick, triple wall between us and God. There is sense, and all that it reveals to us; there are duties, necessary, possibly blessed, but actually often disturbing and limiting ; and thickest and most opaque of the three screens, there are the sins which dim our capacity, and check our inclination, of realizing the Divine Presence. So we need to set our teeth in the determination that, notwithstanding all the distracttions of our daily work, and notwithstanding all the clamant appeals of sense and the things of sense, and notwithstanding the recoil from God which the consciousness of disobedience and alienation through sin makes, so that we do not like to retain Him in our knowledge, we will "set the Lord always before us."
That needs that we shall shut out a great deal besides, as a man that tries to see something on the horizon will hold his palm above his eyes to exclude nearer objects and the glare that dazzles. It needs that we shall resolutely concentrate our thoughts upon Him. We have to be ignorant of much if we would know any of the sciences, or of the practical arts, and we have to shear off not less if we would know the best knowledge, and be experts in the highest art of life. As the old mystics used to say, when Saul on the road to Damascus saw nothing, he saw Christ, and you and I, brethren, must learn to turn away our eyes from seeing vanity, if we are ever to see the one solid and permanent reality, which is God.
There must be, too, a resolute effort to still our hearts. It is not when the surface is agitated by winds of passion, or stirred by violent emotions, or ruffled by a multitude of tiny catspaws of distractions, that the sun is mirrored in it by day or the stars by night. The lake must be still that reflects the blue. It is the quiet heart that sees God, and is further quieted by the vision.
There must also be resolute effort to cast out the sins and transgressions that draw a veil over our eyes, and bribe us to forget God and ignore Him. "Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God." The tarnished steel mirror, or the glass one with many a flaw in its surface, where the quicksilver has been triturated off by the rubbing of sin, will give but a broken image.
For all these ends, the suppression of sin, the quieting of heart, the victory over sense, we need that there shall be a very continuous, a very resolute, a very selfmastering effort, or we shall never have God before us. "I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living" is a resolution not to be kept without much struggle with our weaker selves.
Then comes the second stage God is brought near by this effort. "I have set the Lord always before me. He is at my right hand." Now, of course, in Him " we live and move and have our being," and "He is not far from every one of us." But the fact that we all have God nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and that it is impossible for any creature to get away from Him, remaining as it does, certain, our relation to that fact varies according to our realization of it If a man has not Him in all his thoughts, it is the same to that man, in regard to the most important parts of his being, as if infinite distance were between him and God. There may as well be no God, as far as a great many of us are concerned, in the most important matters of our lives, as a God that we never think about. He is not far from "every one of us " ; but we may be very far from Him, and we are very far from Him unless, by the effort of which I have been speaking, we set Him before us.
And what does His being at" my right hand " mean— which being at my right hand is only possible on condition of our having honestly, and as far as human weakness will allow, continuously, sought to set Him before us? What do you mean when you speak of some one being your right hand man? You mean a companion, an ally, a friend on whom you can absolutely trust, to whom you can turn in every difficulty, to whom you can commit all your most important interests and affairs, quite sure that they will be looked after successfully. God is your right hand Man, if I may so say, on condition of your having set Him always before you There will be intimacy, close companionship, communication of strength, favour. He is " at my right hand," and what that means may best perhaps be put, in the words of another psalmist and of a prophet: "The Lord is thy shade, at thy right hand: He will keep thee from henceforth, even for evermore," or, as the prophet has it: "I have holden thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not, I will help thee."
And so we come to the last of the three stages in this first part of my text, and that is, the strength that the presence of God brings with it. The Lord is at " my right hand, I shall not be moved."
The consequence seems a very modest one to draw from so great a premise. The effect is but little, as eompared with the cause. Is all that we could hope for from a present God that we shall be able to stand steadfast? No—not all. But life chastens expectations, and any man who knows his own inward instability and the strong forces that are brought against him, will feel that it is not so small a hope when he dares to say: "I shall not be moved." It is far beyond what any other fact than the fact of God's presence with us can warrant our cherishing. The presumptuous man in one of the psalms speaks thus: "In my prosperity I said, I shall not be moved." But when prosperity fled, selfconfidence fled with it, and at length he learnt to say, as he goes on to tell us: " by Thy favour Thou hast made my mountain to stand strong. Thou didst hide Thy face, and I was troubled." Ah ! brethren, think of the instability of our resolutions, think of the fluctuations of our thoughts, think of the surges of our emotions, think of the changes that by subtle degrees pass over us all, so as that the old man's grey hair and bowed form is less unlike to his childish buoyancy and clustering ringlets, than are his senile thoughts and memories to his juvenile expectations. Think of the forces that are brought to bear upon us, the shocks of calamity and sorrow by which we are beaten and battered, the blasts of temptation by which we are sometimes all but overthrown, the floods that come and beat upon our house. If we realize all these, even imperfectly, we shall feel that it is a foolish thing for a man to say:
"Call forth thy powers, my soul, and dare
The tumult of unequal war:"
and that there must be a holdfast outside myself fixed into something stable, to which I can hook my poor cable. If ever I am to stand fast it must be because, like a lame man, though I have not feet that can plant themselves firmly, I have a pair of hands that can, and do, grasp the hand that upholds me. When Thou holdest me up by the right hand of Thy righteousness, I shall be steadfast.
That steadfastness will come to us by the actual communication of strength, and it will come to us because, in the consciousness of the Divine Presence there lies a charm that takes the glamour out of temptation and the pain out of wounds. He being with us, the dazzling, treacherous brilliancies of earth cease to dazzle and betray. He being with us, sorrow itself and pain, and all the ills that flesh is heir to, have little power to shake the soul.
So, brethren, learn the secret of permanence amidst a world of change and temptation. "Stand fast in the Lord, dearly beloved ; " and if you would have your house so firm that when the rain descends and the winds blow against it, it may stand foursquare and not even trembling, see to it that it is founded on the Rock ; and take for your own the vow of the psalmist, " I have set the Lord always before me." Then you will have for your own the blessed consciousness that "the Lord is at my right hand," and the blessed experience that followed in his case, " I shall not be moved."
And now let me turn more briefly to the second of our two texts, which shows us—
II. The Devout Life, As It Is Perfected In Heaven.
If we set the Lord in our presence here, He will set us in His hereafter. "In Thy presence" in my text is literally "with Thy face," and the thought is suggested, about which it does not become us to speak much, that the Christian hope of immortality embraces both a clearer vision of God's face, and a closer proximity to His right hand.
As to the former, I venture but a word—" Through a glass darkly, then face to face." There may be, there must be, fresh, unspeakable manifestations of the Divine character. There may be, there must be, fresh and at present inconceivable new powers of apprehension. Because when close to the sun, it shows broader and brighter than when seen from the boundaries of the solar system, and because in the new house, not made with hands, there will be probably wide windows where now there are solid walls or loopholes for arrows, "His servants shall see His face" then as they do not now. The sight of God's face is associated with being at God's right hand. Here we set Him at ours for defence, companionship, strength. There He sets us at His, for intimacy and proximity of presence and fellowship, for favour and dignity, as they who are honoured by a prince are set at his right hand, in token of approval, or as the sheep in the Judgment are at the right, and the goats at the left. Christian men are God's Benjamins—sons of the right hand. And all of favour and dignity, and closeness of companionship, which the emblem suggests, is but a shadow and faint hint of the realities of the Heavens.
The issue of that clearer vision and place at the right hand of the Majesty of the heavens is not, as it needed to be here amidst the struggles and changes of life, stability mainly, but, as it is in some measure even here, and will be perfectly hereafter—joy that is full and perpetual. There is no more need for an Ally, for there are no more enemies. There is no more need for strength to overcome, for there is no battle. There is no more need for shield and helmet, for there are no swords to be flashed or arrows to be shot against us; but there is the need for the festal robe and the triumphal palm.
That presence which amidst warfare, weakness and mutability, manifested itself in its gift of steadfastness, will then, amidst the tranquillity of Heaven, manifest itself in a joy unlike all earthly joy in that it is full, and yet more unlike all earthly joy in that it is perpetual. Here there is ever something lacking in all our gladness, some guest at the table that sulks and will not partake and rejoice, some unlit window in the illumination, some limitation in the gladness; yonder joy will be full. "I shall be satisfied when I awake in Thy likeness,"—here, thank God! we have brooks by the way; there we shall stoop down and drink from the fountain, the ocean of joy. And the gladness is perpetual, in that, having nothing to do with physical causes or externals, there is no curse of change and no certainty of reaction. Those flowers are unfading, and those joys succeed one another in exhaustless profusion, ever following on each other like the run of the ripples in the tide of some sunlit sea. A poet once said—and he knew it only too well—
"Pleasures are like poppies spread,
You grasp the flower, the bloom is shed;
Or like the snowflake on the river,
A moment white, then gone for ever."
All joy here is imperfect and transient. "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heaviness." But if we will set the Lord before our faces here, He will set us before His face there. If we have Him at our right hands here, He will put us at His right hand there. If we have His presence ministering to us strength amidst earth's changes and struggles, His presence will minister to us joy, full and perpetual, amid the completeness and tranquillities of the Heavens. The ladder is on earth, its top is hard by the Throne. The Christian experience more than repeats the psalmist's here, and the Christian's brighter hopes are at once certified and surpassed by Christ, when He says: "I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am "—at the right hand of God—" there ye may be also." "These things have I spoken unto you that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full."