The Devout Heart Defying Death.*
"Thebbfobe my heart i» glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life; in Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore."—Ps. xvi. 9—11.
~HE piteous tragedy of this last week is no doubt in all our thoughts this morning. Words are poor in the presence of such an instance of the ruthlessness of impartial Death. He aimed high and he struck surely. First fell that great ecclesiastic whose remarkable career and personality gave him such prominence and influence, and then one young head, over which gleamed a crown that was never to be worn, is laid low; and another, above which hung a bridal wreath that was never to rest upon her locks, is bowed in a sorrow which touches a nation's heart. But the more irresistible and awful is the power of that enemy who beats in with equal foot the door of the palace and of the cottage, the more needful is it for us to bethink ourselves how paltry a thing death is after all, and to learn its weakness and its limitations.
* Preached after the deaths of Cardinal Manning and the Duke of Clarence.
So I turn now to the words of this ancient singer whom we hear in my text in the very act of grasping, through his present religious experience, the great thought that his communion with God must be unbroken by anything that can befall him Let us listen to him, and see if we can catch something of his confident assurance.
1.—I would point out, first, the ground of this triumphant confidence.
My text begins with a "therefore," and that sends us back to what has preceded. What has gone before? The realization by faith, of the presence of God, and of the calm blessedness and stability of continual comnmnion with Him The Psalmist says: "Because I have set the Lord always before me, and feel that, He being with me, I cannot be moved, therefore I am sure that nothing can ever break this communion of mine with Him," or, to put the same thing into other words, the religious experiences of the devout life are of such a nature as to bring with them the calm, sweet assurance of their own immortality. Let us remember that these ancient saints had no such light as we have, streaming from the open grave of a Brother who Himself has died and lives in glory. But though they were thrown back upon their own present experience of religion to be a lamp for the darkness of the future, in a manner in which we are not, it still remains true that for us the evidence of the religious life to its own eternity is valid and powerful.
The capacity for communion with God surely bears witness that the man who has it is not born for death; and the exercise of that capacity is surely not the least of the demonstrations of life persisting through and perfected by death. If, indeed, it was a mere piece of theological dogma that there was a life beyond the grave, then it would need to be commended by something other than the witness of our own devoutest and selectest moments. But if we are to translate a mere inoperative belief of the understanding into a living conviction that shall stay and solace the heart, there is no surer way of doing it than by passing here into the blessedness of communion with God Himself.
So, dear friends, though we have the objective proof of a future life, in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, and though that historical fact is the illuminating fact which brings life and immortality to light, there is needed for the conversion of intellectual belief into living confidence the witness of our own personal enjoyment of God and His sweetness, here and now, which will bring to us, as nothing else will, the calm assurance wherein our hearts may be glad, our spirits may rejoice, and our very flesh may rest safely. If you would be sure of a blessed future, make sure of a God-filled present. If we feel that He is " the strength of our hearts" here, we shall be sure that "He is our portion for ever." To him who can say "To me to live is Christ," it is impossible not to say, " And to die is gain."
The experiences of the devout life of earth are the witnesses, not to be silenced or gainsaid, of the perpetuity and the perfection of communion with God in Heaven.
II.—And so, secondly, note the contents of the Psalmist's triumphant confidence.
We have seen why he hoped; now let us look for a moment to that for which he hoped. I must ask you to allow me a word or two of explanation. "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption," gives us the negative side of the blessedness of which he was sure. "Thou wilt show me the path of life; in Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore," gives its positive side.
Now as to that negative, I must just point out that in the original there is nothing about "leaving in." The language is "leave to" and that conveys an altogether different idea. It does not express the notion of a permission to descend for a time into Sheol, then to be recalled thence, but it expresses the idea of not being delivered at all to the power of that dark world.
Of course the expression here, "hell," is not to be taken in the limited sense which that terrible word has gradually gathered round itself as of a place of torment, but is the simple Hebrew representation of the dwelling-place of the dead as a great region, dim, shadowy; in which there was lived a feeble life that was scarcely worth calling life; where there was no praise of God, nor activity for Him, nor remembrance of His name; but pale shadows moved in a pale world.
And the latter clause of this verse does not, in the original, speak about " seeing corruption," but about "seeing the pit," as the margin of the Revised Version shows. Now " the pit" may either be a synonym for the under-world, which is spoken of in the previous clause, or it may mean "the grave." In either case, to " see the pit" is the equivalent to the other expression, to "see death," which, again, is the equivalent to experiencing death, or to dying.
So, then, the Psalmist is not thinking about any resurrection of the body, as is often understood to be his meaning in these words; but is thinking, rather, that for him, by reason of his communion with God, death has really been abolished and become nonexistent. The threatening shadow is swept clean out of his path.
But now, could any man, knowing the facts of human life, ever cherish such an expectation as that? Well, the answer, I think, is to be found in distinguishing between essence and form. The essence of the Psalmist's conviction and confidence was that his communion with God was unbroken and unbreakable, and, in the light of that great hope, the grim figure that stood before him thinned itself away to a film, through which the hope shone like a star through a cloud. How it was to be brought about he did not know; but this he did know, that he certainly was not going to die in such a fashion as to break his communion with God. There was trembling upon his lips the great word, " He that believeth shall never die." A new hope was swimming into his sky, a hope of unbroken life. And although its great round had not lifted itself clear above the horizon, the streaks of amber light still shot to the zenith, and prophesied the rising of a yet unrisen sun. Whatsoever may have been the obscurity that lay over his conceptions of his own future, this was clear to him—and this was the all-essential thing—that the contentment, the dependence, the stability, and immobility which he enjoyed in his communion with God had nothing in them that Death could touch, and would run on unbroken for evermore.
You and I know how that is brought about, as he did not. But we may take the lesson, " Love is all, Death is nought, said he "; and may understand him better than he understood himself when he looked forward, and in the teeth of all experience declared his confidence that God would not abandon His Beloved to the darkness of the grave, nor that anything would ever break the bond that knit the Psalmist to His heart.
But though my text does not contemplate a Resurrection as a definite article of belief, resurrection is the logical result of the Psalmist's way of thinking. For, says he, "my flesh also shall rest secure." He believed, as the Bible teaches us throughout, that the perfection and completeness of humanity is body, soul, and spirit; or, as my text has it, in an analogous division, "heart, soul, and flesh." The overstrained spiritualism which pays no attention to the body, except as the clog and prison-house of the soul, has no footing in Scriptural representations, which rather declare that redemption is not complete until somehow the body shares in the "liberty of the glory of the sons of God." Therefore the perfection of humanity is to be found, not in any winding up of the spirit into lofty heights where the old humble companion and organ can never accompany it, but in the rising up of a perfected spirit and the investing of it with a body of glory—its fitting instrument, its joyous friend. "Corporeity is the end of God's ways with man." And if there be an unbroken life of communion for the devout soul, that draws after it the certainty that there shall be a future life of glory for a body that wraps the spirit.
But turn now to the positive side of this triumphant confidence. "Thou wilt show me the path of life." That does not only mean a road which has life at the far end of it, but a road which is life all the way along, and leads to a more perfect and ultimate form thereof. The Psalmist is sure that, when the path dips down into any valley of the shadow of death, it is still a path of life. The great thought that the way to real life is through apparent death is all but ready for utterance, but it is not uttered. It waits for the time when, in the light of the open grave and the filled throne, it can be fully declared.
Then, mark the other portions of this triumphant, positive confidence, and their very remarkable and beautiful connection with what the Psalmist has been describing in the previous verses as his present experience. That connection is partially masked in our version; but I think only needs to be pointed out in order to be convincing. "Thou wilt show me the path of life," says he. And he had just said, "I will bless the Lord who hath given me counsel." If we let Him counsel us here, He will lead us along the heavenly road of life hereafter. "In Thy presence," or "before Thee, is fulness of joy." And he had just said, " I have set the Lord always before me." If, amidst the distractions and temptations and obtrusive nothings of this life we steadfastly, by the effort of faith, set Jehovah before us, then, in His own time, reaching down His hand, He will lift us and set us before Him in the light of His face, and amidst the calm eternities of blessedness that fill the heavens. "At Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." And he had just said, " He is at my right hand." If we bring Him, as we can if we will, to stand by our right hands as our Champion, our Guide, and the Breather of strength into our weakness, then at His own time He will bring us and set us at His right hand, where the Lord and Forerunner of our spirits is; and where, therefore, we, too, shall be. He is at our right hand whilst we fight; we are at His when we are crowned as victors. He is at our right hand whilst we tarry here below; we are at His when we dwell beside Him, gazing upon His face, the children of His right hand, the chosen of His love.
And so, dear brethren, the communion of earth, imperfect as it is, yields analogies, by the heightening and purifying of which we may construct for ourselves, some dim indeed, but reliable, visions of the blessedness of heaven. And they who here on earth know what it is to be in touch with God, to draw instruction and guidance from Him, and to realize the light of His face as pouring upon them even through the clouds and the mist, need but to enlarge their experiences, and to strip them of all their imperfections, in order to have a not altogether unworthy image of what makes heaven.
Especially the enlargement and perfecting of this earthly experience is to be looked for, says my text, in two directions. "The fulness of joy" is "in Thy presence." Limited joys are all that we have here. Not only all earthly joy is less than the capacity of our nature, but even the joys of the closest communion with God leave something to be desired, and something possible to be imagined. We can always conceive a little more that might be. The vessel is never filled here. We drink, and they may be deep draughts, but still they are only, as it were, of brooks by the way. Yonder we shall be close by the fountain-head, and shall slake an immortal thirst, which shall never know the possibility of greater enjoyment at the moment, though each moment's full enjoyment will make a fuller possible in the moment thereafter. The incompleteness of earth shall be changed for the fulness of the heavens.
And, again, "at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." The word is the same as has been already used in the psalm, with a slight variation only of form. "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places," and hereafter there are "pleasantnesses" that are eternal. The contrast, of course, is with the fleetingnesses of earthly joys. Yonder they are "for evermore," either in the sense that these delights do not cloy or cease to charm, nor do they perish, but rather increase with the using, or, as seems to be more properly the sense, that from Him there flow, in unbroken and eternal succession, grace for grace, gift for gift, one wave of felicity following the other like the sunlit ripples that press to the shore, and stretch away into the horizon, in one continual network of light that knows no end. So the communion of earth is heightened, expanded, made full, and made perpetual.
III.—I need only remind you, in a word, last of all, of the fulfilment of this triumphant confidence.
The Psalmist died. True, the essence of his hopes was fulfilled. True, too, the form of them was not. He did "see the pit," because he did not "set the Lord always before him." His communion was incomplete, his immunity was therefore partial. The words, then, point to an ideal which the Psalmist strained after, and did not realize. They are prophetic, inasmuch as all the imperfections of ancient prophets, kings, and singers point onward to Him in whom they are fulfilled. And Jesus Christ, God's loved One, saw not the pit, though He passed into the grave, because in Him, and in Him alone, was realized in its completeness that life of communion which delivers from death.
But He having died and having risen, His death and His resurrection have completed that thinning away of the ghastly form of Death which is begun in the confidence of my psalm; and it is now true, literally true, that He has abolished death. For though there still remains the physical fact, all that makes it "death" is gone for him who trusts in Jesus Christ.
We then, with more triumphant confidence still than the Psalmist, may laugh in the face of the spectre, and bid defiance to his blunted darts. "Abraham is dead, and the prophets are dead; and Thou sayest, If a man keep My saying he shall never see death. Whom makest Thou Thyself?" And the answer comes: "I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth on Me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on Me shall never die. Believest thou this?" May we respond, "Yea, Lord! I believe that Thou art the Christ, the Son of God!"