Psalm 51, 1.—Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
There is no surer index of men's real dispositions and desires than their prayers; not their forms of prayer, whether written or unwritten, whether prescribed by others or imposed upon themselves, but their real prayers, the genuine expression of their own desires, extorted from them by the urgent sense of want, or danger, or distress; such prayers as are sometimes offered by men who do not habitually pray at all; nay, such as even the blaspheming atheist has been heard to pray in his agony of terror, when a storm at sea, or a dangerous illness has not only convinced him that there is a God, but forced him to his footstool as a suppliant for mercy. Such prayers are prayed perhaps by all men at some time of their lives, and may therefore be appealed to, as exemplifying what is meant by saying, that the surest index to men's real dispositions and desires is that furnished by their prayers.
These may also be described as affording the most certain test of men's disagreement or agreement with each other, as to that which constitutes the theme or burden of the prayer. Whoever can appropriate the prayers of others, as the genuine expression of his own desires, must desire the same things. However they may differ as to other matters, here they must agree, or else their union in prayer is hypocritical. This is true of all prayer, whether heard in public, or overheard in secret, or read in books. So far as that which is thus read or heard is found to express the* religious feelings or desires of him who reads or hears it, so far must those feelings and desires be coincident with those of the man by whom the prayer was offered. In this way we may judge of the agreement of our own experience with that of others, not merely of our own contemporaries, but of those long since departed. When we read the biographies of pious men, and find there the petitions in which they expressed the fulness of their hearts, if ours respond to them, if we can say amen to them, if we can use them to express our own desires, then we may safely conclude that we are sharers, so far, in the same experience which they have left on record.
But delightful as this feeling of communion with the pious dead may be, it is attended with a certain danger, that of sharing in their weaknesses and errors, as well as in their pure desires and heavenly aspirations. This hazard must exist in every case except where inspiration sets its seal, not only on the truth of the record, but on the genuineness of the exercises there recorded. It was not the special inspiration of the "holy men of old " that produced their faith and repentance; if it were, we could not hope to be partakers of the same, unless inspired as they were. But their inspiration does assure us, in the first place, that their faith and repentance are correctly stated, and in the next place, that they were genuine; so that if we wish to bring our own to the test or comparison with theirs, we may do so without fear of risk or error. For this very purpose the Bible contains many such expressions of the faith and repentance, the hope and love, exercised by ancient saints, to serve not only as examples but as formulas, in which to clothe our own desires and emotions, and so far as we can do so with sincerity, we have a right to claim a share in their experience. This is one main design of the book of Psalms, and to this use it has always been applied by true believers, not in public worship and instruction merely, but in their most intimate communings with themselves and God. And if there is any one psalm which above all others has been found appropriate to this end, it is surely that from which the text is taken, and in which the broken-hearted penitent of every age has found expressions suited to convey his otherwise unutterable groanings. If ever there was genuine conviction, and repentance, and reliance upon free grace, it was in the case of David, which affords us therefore a most interesting opportunity of bringing our own feelings to the test or standard which has been described. And as the psalm abounds in varied yet harmonious exhibitions of the same essential truth, let us fix our attention on the one prayer recorded in the text, and consider how far we are able and prepared to appropriate it as the expression of our own desires. To this end it will be necessary to inquire
how much is involved or presupposed in the petition. And this may prove to be far more than appears at first sight.
For, in the first place, no one can sincerely offer this petition unless conscious of pollution and defilement. This is necessarily implied in the very terms of the petition. He who says Cleanse me, says by implication, I am filthy. But this is a confession from which pride revolts. Not even all who are in* a certain sense convinced of sin are willing to acknowledge this, or even able so to do without hypocrisy. A man may be conscious of sin as a negation, as want of conformity to a standard which he recognizes as the true one, or even as a positive violation of a rule which he admits to be obligatory; not only intrinsically right, but binding on himself; and yet he may recoil from the acknowledgment of sin as a pollution of defilement; something which makes him an object of loathing and abhorrence to all holy beings, and even to himself so far as he is really enlightened in the knowledge of God's nature and his own. Yet this profound and painful self-contempt is an essential part of true repentance, because it is a necessary consequence of just, views as to sin and holiness. And even if not necessary to salvation, it would be necessary to an earnest and sincere appropriation of these words of David as the expression of our own desires. For even common sense may teach us, that unless a man is conscious of defilement and uncleanness, he cannot with sincerity ask God to cleanse him.
But there is still another thing implied in this request, or rather expressed by it; consent and willingness, nay an importunate desire to be purified. This is by no means identical with what has been already said, nor even necessarily included in it. The sense of pollution is perfectly distinguishable from the wish to be delivered from it. True, when the sense of pollution is a product of divine grace, it is always accompanied or followed in experience by the desire of •purification. Nor has any one a right to plead or to profess his consciousness of defilement, unless corroborated by such a desire. But for that very reason, it is highly important to look at this desire as a distinct prerequisite or clement of true repentance. And another reason for so doing is, that in the experience of the unregenerate a painful sense of degradation and defilement may and often does coexist with a prevailing wish to continue in it. Why? because the man loves the very thing which he acknowledges and really feels to be debasing. What his better judgment, and his conscience partially enlightened tell him is disgraceful, his vitiated appetite, his perverted affections, cleave to and delight in. The drunkard and the libertine, and other classes of notorious sinners, have frequently an overwhelming sense of their own baseness, a distressing consciousness that they have sunk themselves below the level of their kind, and almost to the level of the brutes that perish. And this not only in their lucid intervals of abstinence and partial reformation, but often in the very paroxysm of indulgence, the unhappy victim of his own corruption feels himself to be an object of abhorrence and contempt to all around him, and in proportion to the light which he enjoys and the restraints which he has broken through, may even be said to despise himself.
But this consciousness of degradation, however real and however strong, is never sufficient of itself to overcome the evil dispositions which occasion it. It is not enough for man to know that sin degrades him, if he still so loves it as to be willing to submit to degradation for the sake of its indulgence. Nor will a mere sense of pollution ever drive a man to God for cleansing, if his affections are so utterly depraved, that his polluted state is one of pleasure and enjoyment to him, not for its own sake, not considered as defilement, but as an indispensable condition of those sinful joys which constitute his happiness. He does not deliberately choose to be polluted and debased, for this is inconsistent with the consciousness of degradation which we are supposing to exist. But he does choose to endure the degradation which he cannot hide even from himself, for the sake of the enjoyments which degrade him. Now with this unbroken love to evil, no sense of pollution can enable him to offer the petition of the text; for he who says with sincerity, Cleanse me, says not only, I am filthy, but I consent, I desire to be cleansed.
But suppose this desire to be felt. Suppose the sinner to be not only conscious of defilement but desirous of purification. And suppose, at the same time, that he considers himself perfectly able to produce it or secure it by an act of his own will, or by a series of such acts, or by the use of means invented by himself. Will such a man, can such a man seek purification at the hands of another? Is it not a dictate of reason and experience, that what men can do for themselves they will not solicit others to do for them? True, there are exceptions, but only such exceptions as confirm the rule. Some are so indolent, or proud, or helpless, that they gladly devolve upon others what they should do for themselves: but the public voice condemns their sloth, and in so doing bears witness to the general fact, that what men are conscious of ability to do themselves, thoy do not invite others to do for them. The same thing equally holds good in spiritual matters. No man comes to God for cleansing who believes that he can cleanse himself. It matters not how deep his sense of degradation and corruption; no, nor how desirous to be purified he seems, if he believes that he can do the necessary work himself, he will not, cannot, join in this petition. He may try a thousand other methods; he may mortify his appetites and macerate his flesh; he may go on a pilgrimage and cross the seas; he may give all his goods to feed the poor; he may give the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul; he may give his very body to be burned; but so long as he believes in his capacity, by these or any other means, to cleanse himself, he cannot pray the prayer of David in the text; for he who with sincerity says " Cleanse me," says by that very act, "I cannot cleanse myself."
But here, as elsewhere, Satan has an opposite extreme for men to rush to. The extreme of impious presumption often leads directly to that of unbelieving despondency. From the absurd belief that man can do every thing, they leap to the absurd belief that God can do nothing. Once convinced that he cannot cleanse himself, the sinner is in danger of concluding that purification is impossible. And in this desperate belief, some go on in their sins, not that grace may abound, but because grace is believed to be forever unattainable. Now if there is any thing which may be reckoned a certain dictate of reason and experience, it is that men will never seriously ask that to be done which they believe to be impossible, or ask another to do that of which they know him to be utterly incapable. How can a man then ask God to cleanse him, if he despairs of being cleansed, as something utterly impossible. Or what will it avail that he believes himself polluted, and is willing to be purified, and knows himself to be incapable of doing it, if at the same time he believes it-to be equally beyond the power of the Almighty? No, whoever earnestly and sincerely says to his Maker, "Cleanse me," says implicitly as the leper in the gospel said expressly, "If thou wilt thou canst."
Nay, this belief in God's ability to do what we demand of him, is not merely implied but expressed in the petition of the text: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall he clean; wash me, and / shall he whiter than snow." This is equivalent to saying, "if thou purge me, I shall certainly be clean; if thou wash me, I shall certainly be whiter than snow." But the words thus added have another meaning, or rather another application, which is not to be neglected. They are also equivalent to saying, "Purge me with hyssop, that I -may "be clean; wash me, that I may he whiter than snow." Thus understood, they give the reason why, the end for which, the royal penitent desires to be cleansed. But, cleanse me that I may be cleansed, would be a mere tautology, unless we give the latter words a pregnant and emphatic meaning— "that I may be cleansed "—*. e. that I may be entirely, thoroughly, completely cleansed. A.nd that this is really the meaning, is apparent from the words expressly added in the other clause—" wash me, that I may be whiter than snow." Snow, wherever it is known, is the natural and customary standard of this quality. "As white as snow," suggests to every mind the idea of unsullied whiteness, without any tinge or shade of darker colour. "Whiter than snow," is a hyperbole, denoting, in a still stronger manner, absolute or perfect whiteness, perhaps with an allusion to the purity here spoken of as something supernatural, both in its origin and its degree. If the most spotless and uusullied whiteness known to nature is the whiteness of snow, the expression "whiter than snow" is well adapted to suggest the idea of a whiteness, to which nature furnishes no parallel, and of which she can furnish no example. This, when applied to moral and spiritual qualities, must signify a perfect purity and entire freedom from moral taint and even imperfection. And the prayer, " wash me, that I may be whiter than snow," expresses a willingness, or rather a desire, not only to be cleansed, but to be fully and entirely cleansed. And nothing less than this desire can be sufficient on the part of one who claims to be a sharer in the faith and penitence of David, and in proof of that participation echoes his petition, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." Whoever makes this prayer his own, is to be understood as saying, "I desire to be cleansed from all pollution."
This may, at first sight, seem to be the same thing that was stated as the second particular. But near as the two things are in theory, in practice and experience they differ widely. A man may be willing to be cleansed, and yet not anxious to be cleansed completely; he may consent to be " white," yet not aspire to be "whiter than snow." In other words, he may be satisfied with partial or external renovation. He may wish to see some stains washed out and others left untouched; or he may earnestly desire to have the outward surface cleansed from its pollution, while the inner part is full of all uncleanness. He may not even be aware of the extent, the depth, of his corruption. He may be disposed to look upon it as a superficial or cutaneous affection, and to wish for the removal of its unsightly and disgusting symptoms in which it manifests itself, not aware that these are but the outward symptoms of a deep-seated malady within ; and that, unless this be reached by remedies, the disappearance of the symptoms could be only temporary, and might aggravate the malady itself. It is not until the minds of men are thoroughly awakened and enlightened in relation to the turpitude of sin, and of their own sin, as it is in itself and as it is in them, and filled with a desire to be saved from it as well as from the punishment which it incurs; it is not till then that they are fully able to adopt the prayer of David, as a prayer, not for partial but complete purification ; and to understand that he who says "cleanse me," asks, not only to be white, but also to be "whiter than snow."
To this desire of perfect purity, however, even the heathen may attain, and some of their philosophers have actually made it the great theme of their moral speculations. But their efforts have been no less vain than those of many Christian errorists, to solve the mighty problem of human restoration by every means but that of God's appointment. Even those who profess to rely, and do rely, on God as the sole efficient cause of this momentous revolution, may expect to see it brought about by moral suasion, or by mere instruction, or by good example, or by ceremonial forms, or by meritorious abstinence or penance, or by mere connection with the Church, or mere enjoyment of its privileges, or by mere intellectual reception of the truth, or by any other means distinct from Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, or independent of it.
And yet this is the very way, the only way, in which the sinful soul of man can possibly be cleansed from the guilt or the pollution of its sins, the only way in which it can either be justified or sanctified. And therefore this must enter into men's desires of renovation as a necessary element, or they can never pray the prayer of David in its true sense and its genuine spirit; no, nor even in the plain sense of its actual expressions. For he does not simply say, "Purge me," but specifically, "purge me with hyssop," an expression borrowed from the purifying ceremonies of the law, by which the fact of human depravity, and the necessity of moral renovation were continually kept before the minds of the people, in connection with the doctrine of atonement by the sacrifice of life for life. This connection was intimated and enforced, not only by the constant combination of these purifying rites with those of sacrifice, but also by the actual affusion or aspersion of pure water, as the natural and uersal symbol of purification in general, and of the sacrificial blood as the symbol of purification from the guilt and stain of sin by the blood of Jesus Christ in particular. Among the substances combined with the water and the blood in these symbolical purifications was the plant called hyssop, which was also used as a mechanical instrument of sprinkling, and was thus connected in a twofold manner with the purifying rites of the Mosaic ritual, so that its very name would call up, in the mind of every Hebrew reader, the idea of purification by atoning blood, and in the mind of those especially enlightened, the idea of that promised Saviour, by whose blood alone this moral renovation could be rendered even possible.
To all then that has been already mentioned as essential to an intelligent and full participation in this prayer of David, and in the penitence and faith of which it is the genuine* expression, we must now add that all is unavailing, because either spurious or defective, without a hearty wilUngness, not only to be cleansed, and to be cleansed by God, but to be cleansed in God's own way; not only to be " purged," bijt to be " purged with hyssop," "not by water only, but by water and by blood," and through him who "came both by water and by blood, even Jesus Christ;" for the blood of Jesus Christ his Son, cieanseth from all sin.
If then, my hearer, you are still unconscious of your guilt and danger as a sinner before God; or if you are convinced of sin only as a failure to come up to the standard of God's law, or at most as a positive transgression of that law, but not as a pollution and a degradation, loathsome in itself, and making you an object of abhorrence to all sinless intelligences; or if you are in some degree aware of your debasement, but yet willing to continue in it for the sake of the enjoyments which it now affords you; or if, though willing and desirous to be cleansed from this pollution, you are trusting in your own strength to effect it; or because you cannot do it, are unwilling to believe that even the Almighty can; or if you are willing and desirous to be only cleansed in part, and shrink from the idea of complete purgation as too humbling or too self-denying; or if you are even willing to submit to this revolutionizing process, but unwilling to resort to Jesus Christ as your purifier, and to his blood as the only purifying element; on any of these suppositions, and alas how many individual cases do they comprehend, whatever else you may do with effect, whatever else you may say with sincerity, I tell you there is one thing which you cannot so do or so say, you cannot join sincerely in this prayer of David—" Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean ; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." To yourself such a prayer is but an empty and unprofitable form; while to God whom you invoke, it is a mockery and insult.
But if, through God's grace, your experience is the opposite of all tlxis, if you do indeed feel yourself to be a sinner; if you feel your sin not only as a burden and a debt, but as a stain and a pollution; if you are willing to forego the pleasures of sin for the purpose of escaping from this deadly degradation; if you are thoroughly convinced that you cannot cleanse yourself, and yet that God' can cleanse you; if you can heartily consent to be cleansed by him, not superficially or partially, but thoroughly and perfectly—not in the way of your own choosing or of man's devising, but of God's providing—then my prayer is, that God may deal with you this moment as he dealt of old with Hagar in the wilderness of Beersheba, when he "opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water;" but in this case, not by water only, but by water and by blood, for ye are come, perhaps without suspecting it, " to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, a blood that speaketh better things than that of Abel." "See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh; for if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven. For (out of Christ) our God is a consuming fire."