"0 God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee: my soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;
To see Thy power and Thy glory, so as I have seen Thee in the sanctnary
Because Thy lovingtindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee.
Thus will I bless Thee while I lire : I will lift up my hands in Thy name.
My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise Thee with Joyful lips;
When I remember Thee npon my bed, and meditate on Thee in the night watches.
Because Thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice.
My Bonl followeth hard after Thee; Thy right hand npholdeth me.
But those that seek after my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth.
They shall fall by the sword; they shall be a portion for foxes.
But the king shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by Him shall glory; but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped."—Psa. Iriii. 1-11.
THIS Psalm contains very distinct traces of the circumstances under which it sprang up in the Psalmist's heart. He is an exile, in a dry and weary land; he is excluded from the sanctuary, he is followed by enemies that seek his life ; he is a king. All these points confirm the accuracy of the ancient Jewish heading :—" A Psalm of David, •when he was in the wilderness of Judah."
In that arid tract which stretches along the western shore of the Dead Sea, and thence northward, David was twice during his adventurous life,—once during the Sauline persecution, once during Absalom's revolt. It cannot be the former of these times which is referred to here, because the Psalmist was not then a king; it must therefore be the latter.
That was the darkest hour of his life. His favourite and good-for-nothing son was seeking to grasp his sceptre; his familiar friend in whom he trusted had lifted up the heel against him. He knew that his own sin had come back to roost with him; an 1 so, with bleeding heart, with agonised conscience, with crushed spirit, he bowed himself, and meekly and penitently accepted the chastisement. Therefore it was sweetened to him; and this Psalm, with its passion of love and mystic rapture, is a monument for us of how his sorrows had brought to him a closer union with God, as our sorrows may do for us ; like some treasure washed to our feet by a stormy sea.
Let us read the Psalm over together and try to feel its force as the utterance of a soul seeking after and finding God. I think the key to its arrangement will be found in the threefold recurrence of an emphatic word. In the first verse I read, "My soul thirsteth for Thee ;" in the fifth verse, "My soul shall be satisfied;" in the eighth verse, "My soul followeth hard after Thee." These three points, I think, are the turning points of the Psalm, and they show us the soul longing j the longing soul satisfied ; the satisfied soul still seeking. Let us take, then, these three thoughts, and look at them as the centrepoints of the respective portions of the Psalm to which they belong.
I.—First, then, we have the soul longing for God.
Now, observe that this longing is not that of a man who has no possession of God. Rather is it the desire of a heart which is already •in union with Him for a closer union ; rather is it the tightening of the grasp with which the man already holds his Father in Heaven. All begins with the utterance of a personal appropriating faith. "0 God J Thou art my God!" The beginning of all personal religion is when I am conscious of a personal relation with God ; when I feel that He and I possess each other by a mutual love; when I put out my hand, and humbly but confidently claim my individual portion in the world-wide power and love. A Christian is he who says, " He loved me, and gave Himself for me." We must individualise, and appropriate as our very own, the promises and the grace that belong to the whole world. "0 God I Thou art my God."
And then upon that there are built earnest seeking, expressed in the words " Early," that is to say, " earnestly," "will I seek Thee," and the intensest longing, breathing in the pathetic utterance," My soul thirsteth for Thee: my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and weary land where no water is.1" Notice the picturesque, poetic beauty of taking David's surroundings as the emblem of his feelings. Nature seems to reflect his mood. He looks out on the stony, monotonous, burnt-up, barren country about him ; at the cracks in the soil gaping for the rain which comes not; and he sees the emblem of a heart yearning after God and not possessing Him. He and his men have been toiling, wearied, across the "the burning marl," looking in all the torrent-beds for some drop of water to cool their parched throats, and finding none. And that seems to him like the search of a soul after a far-off God.
And then, notice what it is, or rather Whom it is that the Psalmist longs for. "My soul thirsts for Thee." All souls do. We are all crying out for the living God, only the difference between us is that some of us know what it is that we want, and that some of us do not. Blessed are they who can say: "Thou art my God"; and who can add : "My soul thirsteth for Thee," in Whom, and in Whom only, is the fountain at which we can all slake onr thirst and be satisfied.
Notice the intensity of the desire. Think of the picture that rises from these graphic words. Here is the caravan toiling through the desert; men's lips are black with thirst, their parched tongues lolling from their mouths; a film comes over their glazing eyes, their steps totter, their heads throb. Far away yonder is a stunted tree which tells of water near it. How they plunge their faces into the black mud when they come to it, and with what a fierce passion they satisfy their cravings!
There is no such overmastering appetite as thirst. Is it the least like your desire after God? Can anybody say that these words of my text are an honest description of the ordinary experience of ordinary Christians ?" My soul thirsteth for God ;" cried this seeker after Him, and the longing seems to have affected even his bodily health. Is that or anything like it true, about you, brethren? What sort of Christians are we if it is not?
And notice ivhen it was that this man thus longed. It was in the midst of his sorrow. Even then the thing that he wanted most was not restoration to Jerusalem, or the defeat of his enemies, but union with God. Oh ! that is a test of faith, and one which very little of our faith could stand, that even when we are ringed about by calamities that seem to crush us, what we long for most is not the removal of the sorrow but the presence of our Father. Good men are driven to God by the stress of tempests, and ordinary and bad men are generally driven away from Him. What does your sorrow do for you, friend? Does it make you writhe in impatience, does it make you murmur sullenly against His imposition of it, or does it make you feel that now in the stress and agony there is nothing that you can grasp and hold to but Him, and Him alone? And so in the hour of darkness and need is your prayer, in its deepest meaning, not " Take away Thy heavy hand from me," but " Give me more of Thyself, that I may bear Thy hand, however heavy its pressure"?
Still looking at this first portion of our Psalm, ot which that desire, intense and ardent, is the keynote, I notice that this longing, though it be struck out by sorrow, ia not forced upon him for the first time by sorrow. The second verse of our Psalm might be more accurately rendered with the transposition of the two clauses, somewhat in this fashion :—" So have I gazed upon Thee in the sanctuary, to see Thy power and Thy glory." That is to say, in like manner as in his sorrows and in the wilderness he is conscious of this desire after God, so does he remember that amidst the sanctities of the Tabernacle and the joyful services and sacrifices of its ritual worship he looked through the forms to Him that shone in them, and in them beheld His power and His glory. So the longing that springs in his heart is an old longing. He remembers past times when it has been with him, and his days of sorrow are not the first days in which he has been driven to say :—" Come Thou and help me." He can remember glad, peaceful moments of communion, and these are homogeneous and of a piece with his religious contemplations in his hours of sorrow.
Ah ! brother ! that life is but a poor, fragmentary one which seeks God by fits and starts ; and that seeking after God is but a half-hearted and partial one which is only experienced in the moments of pain and grief. It is well to cry for Him in the wilderness, but it is not well that it should only be the wilderness in which we cry for Him. It is well when darkness and disaster teach us our need of Him ; but it is not well when we require the darkness and the disaster to teach us our need.
And, on the other hand, that is but a poor, fragmentary life, and that religion is but a very incomplete and insincere one which is more productive of raptures in the sanctuary than of seeking after God in the wilderness. There are plenty of Christian people who have a great deal more consciousness of God's presence in the idle emotions of a church or a chapel than in the strenuous efforts of daily life. Both things separately are maimed and miserable? and both must be put together—the communion in the sanctuary and the communion in the wilderness ; seeking after Him in the sanctities of worship, and seeking after Him in the prose of daily life—if ever the worship of the sanctuary or the prose of daily life are to be brightened with His presence.
Then, still further, this longing is animated by a profound consciousness that God is best. "Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life." Life is good mainly as the field upon which God's lovingkindness may be manifested and grasped. It is like the white sheet on which the beam of light is thrown, worth nothing in itself, worth everything as the medium for the manifestation of that lustrous light. It is like a painted window— only a poor bit of glass till the sunshine gleams behind it, and then it flashes up into rubies and purple and gold. Life is best when through life there filters or flashes on us the brightness of the lovingkindness of the Lord. And all real religion includes in it a calm, deliberate, fixed preference of God to life itself. Does your religion include that? Can you say, "It were wise and it were blessed to die, to get more of God into my soul"? If not, our longing, which is the very language of the Spirit in our hearts, has to be much intensified ere it reaches its fitting height.
And then, still further, this longing is accompanied with a firm resolve of continuance. "Thus will I bless Thee while I live." "Thus"—as I am doing now in the midst of my longing—" I will lift up my hands in Thy name." So much, then, for the first portion of the Psalm.
II.—Now turn for a moment to the second portion, which is included in the next three verses, where we have the longing soul satisfied. "My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness."
Notice, now, how very beautiful that immediate turn in the Psalmist's feelings is. The fruition of God is contemporaneous with the desire after God. The one moment, "My soul thirsteth"; the next moment, "My soul is satisfied." As in the wilderness when the rain comes down, and in a couple of days what was baked earth is flowery meadow, and all the torrent-beds where the white stones glistened ghastly in the heat are foaming with rushing water, and fringed with budding willows ; so in the instant in which a heart turns with true desire to God. in that instant does God draw near to it. The Arctic spring comes with one. stride; to-day snow, to-morrow flowers. There is no time needed to work this telegraph; while we speak He hears; before we call He answers. We have to wait for many of His gifts, never for Himself. We have to wait sometimes when by our own faults we postpone the coming of the blessings that we have asked. If we are thinking more about Absalom and Ahitophel than about God ; more about our sorrows and our troubles than about Himself; if we are busy with other things ;if having asked we do not look up and expect; if we shut the doors of our hearts as soon as our prayer is offered, or languidly stroll away from the place of prayer ere the blessing has fluttered down upon our souls, of course we do not get it. But God is always waiting to bestow, and all that we need to do is to open the sluices and the great ocean flows in, or as much of it as our hearts can hold. "My soul thirsteth," is the experience of the one moment, and ere the clock has ticked again, "My soul shall be satisfied."
Then notice, the soul that possesses God is fed full. The emblem here, of course, is of a joyful feast, possibly of a sacrificial one ; but the fact is that whoever has got a living hold of God and a little bit of God lovingly! imbedded in his heart, has got as much as he needs. Between God and him there is such a correspondence as that He is the absolute and all-sufficient good. If I may so say, every hollow in my nature answers to a protuberance in His, and when you put the two together the little heart is filled by the great heart that has come in to it. We are at rest when we have God, and to long for Him is to insure the possession of an absolute and allsufficient good.
We have here, still further, the satisfied soul breaking into the music of praise. "My mouth shall praise Thee with joyful lips when I remember Thee upon my bed, and meditate on Thee in the nightwatches." There is a reference, no doubt, there, to the little camp in the wilderness, where David and his men, unguarded save by God, laid themselves down to sleep beneath the Syrian sky with all its stars, and where the leader, no doubt, often awoke in the night, with prickedup ears listening for the sound of an approaching enemy. And even then into his heart there steals the thought of his great Protector; and as he says in another of the Psalms dating from this period, " I will lay me down in peace and sleep, because Thou makest me to dwell, though solitary, in safety." The heart that feeds upon God is secure, and breaks into songs in the night, and music of praise. That feast has always minstrels at it. The spontaneous utterance of a heart feeding on God is thankfulness and praise, which is as natural as smiles when we are glad, or as tears when we mourn.
And then, still further, this satisfaction leads on to a triumphant hope. "Because Thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice." Such a past and such a present can only have one kind of future as their consequence—a future in which the seeking soul nestling beneath the great outstretched wings shall crowd close to the Father's heart, and be guarded by His love. If we hold fellowship with Him He protects us. As another Psalm says, using a similar metaphor: *' He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty." •Communion with God means protection by God.
The past of the seeking soul is the certain pledge of its future. The uncertainties of the dim to-morrow, in •so far as earth is concerned, are so many that we can never say, "To-morrow shall be as this day." And in regard of all other sources of blessing, the dearest and the purest, we have all to feel, with sinking, sickening hearts, that the longer we have had them the nearer comes the day of their certain loss. But about Him we can say, "Because Thou hast been my Helper, therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice." And in union with Him we can look out over all the dim sea that stretches before us, and though we know not what storms may vex the surface, or whither its currents may carry us, we can say, "Thou wilt be with Me, and in Thee I shall have peace."
III.—And so, lastly, the final section of this Psalm gives us the satisfied soul still seeking after God. "My soul f olloweth hard after Thee, Thy right hand upholdeth me."
The word translated followeth here literally means to cleave or to cling. And there is a beautiful double idea of a twofold relationship expressed in that somewhat incongruous form of speech, "cleave after Thee," the former word giving the idea of union and possession, the latter suggesting the other idea of search and pursuit. So that the two main currents of thought in the Psalm are repeated in that little phrase : and we are back again —though with a wonderful difference—to the ground tone of the first section. There the soul thirsteth; here "the soul cleaveth after"—both expressive of pursuit, but the latter, as consequent upon the satisfaction which followed upon the thirst, speaks of a profounder possession and of a less painful sense of want.
"My soul cleaveth after God." That is to say, inasmuch as He is infinite, and this nature of mine capable of indefinite expansion, each new possession of Him which follows upon an enlarged desire will open the elastic walls of my heart so that they shall enclose a wider space and be capable of holding more of God, and therefore I shall possess more. Desire expands the heart; possession expands the heart. More of God comes when we can hold more of Him, and the end of all fruition is the renewed desire after further fruition.
This world's gifts cloy and never satisfy; God satisfies and never cloys. And we have, and we shall have, if we are His children, the double delight of a continued fruition, and a continued desire. So we shall ascend, if I may so say, in ever higher and higher spirals, which will rise further and draw in more closely towards the unreached and unattainable Throne of the blessed Himself, "My soul thirsteth"; "my soul is satisfied"; "my satisfied soul still longs and follows."
And then there is also very beautifully here, the cooperation, and reciprocal action of the seeking soul and of the sustaining God. "My soul followeth hard after Thee; Thy right hand upholdeth me." We hold and we are held. We hold because we are held, and we are held while we hold. We follow, and yet He is with us; we long, and yet we possess; we pursue, and yet in the very act of pursuit we are upheld by His hand. We should not follow unless He held us up. He will not hold us up unless we follow. All controversies of grace and free•will are reconciled and lulled to sleep in these great words.
And now I can but lightly touch upon the last portion of the Psalm, which describes one consequence of pressing after God. The soul thus cleaving and following is gifted with a prophetic certainty. "Those that seek my soul are destined for destruction" (so i§ the probable rendering); "they shall go into the lower parts of the earth" —swallowed up like Korah and his rebellious company. "They shall each be given up to the power of the sword" (as the words might be rendered); "they shall be a portion for foxes" (or jackals, as the word means). Their unburied bodies shall lie in the wilderness, and the jackals shall tear and devour them. David regarded his enemies as God's enemies. David's point of view permitted him to exult with a stern but not unrighteous joy in their destruction. But these words are not prayer nor imprecation, but prophecy and the insight of a soul conscious of union with God, and therefore assured that everything which stands in the way of its possession of God Whom it loves is destined for annihilation.
And, disengaging the words from the mere husk and shell of Old Testament experience, all of us, if we cleave to God, may have this confidence, that nothing can hinder our fellowship with God; and that whatsoever stands in the way of our closer union with Him shall be swept out of the way. David's certainty of the destruction of his foes is the same triumphant assurance, on a lower spiritual level, as Paul's trumpet-blast of victory. "Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" "Nay, in all these things,"—and over all these things—"we are more than conquerors through) Him that loved us."
There is the other side of this prophetic certainty here. "The king shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by Him shall glory." He and his faithful followers shall realise a divine deliverance, which shall be the subject of their praise ; and the adversary's lips shall be sealed •with silence, their vindication shall stick in their throat, and they shall be dumb before the judgment of Almighty God. That confidence too may stand as a symbol of the certainty of hope which refreshes the soul which seeks and possesses God, even in the wilderness and while compassed with sorrows and fears. We, too, may find in our present union with God a prophecy fixed and firm as the pillars of His throne, of our future kingly dignity, and rapturous joy in Him. It is reserved not for us only but for all whose lips confessed Him on earth and shall therefore be opened to lift up before Him triumphant praise, which shall drown the discords of opposing voices, and no more be broken by sobs or weeping.
My brother I we are all thirsty. Do you know what it is that makes you restless? Do you know Who it is that you need? Listen to Him that says: " If any man thirst let him come to Me and drink." Choose whether you will be tortured with mad and aimless cravings, and perish in a dry land; or whether you will come to the Fountain of Life in Christ your Saviour, and slake your thirst at God Himself,