He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.—Psalm xci. 1.
IHAVE read this verse, but I desire to deal, not with it merely, but with the whole of the Psalm, of which it is the introduction. The one theme of it is the security and absolute immunity from mortal ills, which belong to those that dwell in God. That one thought is worked out with wonderful force and variety. The singer is borne aloft on the two wings of devout confidence and poetic imagination, and when these two beat in unison, they lift a man high. If we try to follow him as he soars, perhaps we too, in some measure, may be raised above the cares and sorrows of this lowthoughted earth.
One preliminary remark I must make, and that is, that throughout the psalm there is a very remarkable alternation of speakers. It begins with, "I will say of the Lord "; there immediately follows, "He shall deliver thee "; and so on. And at the end, the person who had spoken first as "I," and been spoken to as "thou " and " thee," is spoken of by yet another voice, which says, " He has set His love upon me." That remarkable and dramatic alternation of speakers is yet more conspicuous in the original than it appears in our Authorized Version, because, imbedded in the very middle of that second portion, in which " thou " is the prevailing word, we have a verse which, as it stands in the Authorized Version, is bewildering, arid scarcely intelligible without a great deal of ekeing out—" because thou hast made the Lord, which is my Refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation." We get lost midst the "mys" and the "thys," but the Revised Version, following the original, clears the matter up, for it reads thus: "Thou, Lord, art my Refuge." There speaks the first voice, coming in again with its "my," and then the second voice once more responds: "Thou hast made the Lord thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee." So twice we have the solitary profession of personal faith, twice responded to by a stream of great assurances, and these are finally confirmed and enlarged by the voice of God Himself.
First, then, we have here
L The Solitary Voice Of Faith.
The words that I have read as my text, which stand as the introduction to the psalm, are the expression in the most general form of that great truth which it is all intended to enforce and to illustrate. They are chosen with exquisite beauty and felicity: "He that
dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High "—how high up that "secret place" must be! how deep the silence up there! how pure the air! How far above the poisonous mists that cling to the low-lying swamps, how far out of the reach of the arrows or shots of the foeman is he that dwelleth with God by communion, by constancy of desire, by aspiration, and by clear recognition of the Divine goal of all his efforts in the midst of his most strenuous and distracting work, and his most crushing and exhausting sorrows !" He that dwelleth" thus, "in the secret place of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty "—and since He is Almighty, the long shadow that that great rock casts will shelter him who keeps beneath it from the burning rays of the fiery sunshine, in every "weary land." The plain English of the highly imaginative words is, Let me keep myself in touch with God, and I keep myself master of all things, and secure from the evil that is in evil.
That is the general truth, but religious commonplaces lose their power by their generality, and in order to give them force we must point them to a personal application. So the Psalmist, encouraged by his contemplation of that broad universal principle, takes it for his own, and brings " I " and " my " into it, and that changes it from a toothless, useless, threadbare commonplace, which a man may have in his creed without its doing him one morsel of good, into a living experience. "J will say of the Lord, He is my Eock and my Fortress; my God, in Whom I will trust." Do we say that? Have we translated the universal into the particular? Has the contemplation of the most wide-stretching truth encouraged us to grasp it and make it our very own? To do so gives gloss to the threadbare, freshness to the trite and familiar, beauty and force to the commonplace. And there is no religion which is not the appropriation to my very own self of the great truths that are meant for the world. So much of Niagara as you turn into your own sluice will irrigate your barren fields and slake your thirst, and all the rest, as far as you are concerned, is waste. It is useless to say, however solemnly, and with however entire assent of the understanding, "he that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty "—unless you take the further step, and in your own needs and sorrows, in your own hours of weakness and of stress when the enemy is coming in like a flood, say " my Fortress, my Strength, my God in Whom I will trust." Next we come to
II. The Great Assurances Which Answer To This Solitary Voice Of Faith.
Whether the psalm was intended to be sung by any kind of alternate responsive choir and solo voice or no, we need not consider; at all events, it is laid out in that structure which I have already pointed out. So when the single soul has brought itself up, by the effort of its faith, to make God its Refuge and its Fortress, then there come pouring in upon it, as if spoken from without, but yet brought near to it and made audible for it by its own personal faith, a whole host of great certainties.
"Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence." The "fowler" is in other places of Scripture taken as a metaphor for death; and obviously the thing that was chiefly, if not exclusively, in the psalmist's mind here, was the assurance of protection from insidious threatening evils that affected physical life. The "pestilence" and the "fowler " stands for these.
Then there follows a beautiful description of the manner and condition of that Divine protection: "He shall cover thee with his feathers." That carries us back to the old word about the eagle stirring up its nest, and bearing its young upon its pinions, and suggests the tenderness that is lodged in the might of that Divine nature; and how He, the loftiest, knows what it is to have paternal care over them that put their trust in Him. But we must not forget a yet more gracious expansion of the word when, in the course of ages, One caught up the echoes of the old, sweet metaphor, and said: "As a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings," so I would have gathered thee. Christ turned away from the emblem of the fierce bird of prey, and, with lowly love, took up the emblem of the harmless, domestic fowl to express the warmth, the security, of the relation of the loving servant to the Master-Lord.
But, further, we have to note that there is here, too, the condition on which the shelter of that strong pinion is ours. "He shall cover thee with His feathers," but not unless "Under His wings shalt thou trust," or, as the word had better be rendered in this connexion, "Under His wings shalt thou flee for refuge." What becomes of the chickens that are straying about the barnyard, when kites are in the sky or the fox lurking behind the wall? They are snapped up. What becomes of the Christian man that strays out of the protection of the covering wing, and by self-will, or failure of trust, or practical disobedience, or fixing the heart and desire on earthly things, gets away from his Defence and his Defender? What becomes of him? The snare of the fowler is not spread in vain, and he is caught and limed there. If you want to be guarded by Jesus, keep your hearts and minds close to Jesus. Further, the ground of security is laid, not in our faith, but in his faithfulness. "His truth "—that is to say, to use the old word which expresses the idea much better, " His troth—shall be thy shield and buckler." The ground of our conscious security is laid in His faithfulness to all His promises.
Now is all this true? Is it true, as the psalmist goes on to portray under the double figure of battle and pestilence, that the man who thus trusts is saved from widespread calamities, which may be devastating the lives of a community? If we look on the surface it is not true. Those that " dwell in the secret place of the Most High" will die of an epidemic, cholera, or smallpox, like the men beside them, that have no such abode. Our hearts have often risen in protest against such promises as this of my text, when those that have been " dwelling in the secret place of the most High" have been stealthily snared and swept away from us. But, for all that, brethren, it is true; it is true. For suppose two men, one a Christian, another not, both of them suffering from the same epidemic, both of them dying from it. Yet the difference between the two is such as that we may confidently say of the one, "He that believeth shall never die," and of the other that he has died. It is irrelevant to talk about vaccination being a better prophylactic than faith. No doubt this psalmist was thinking mainly of physical life. No doubt, also, you and I have better means of interpreting and understanding Providence and its dealings, than he had, and for us the belief that they who " dwell in the secret place of the Most High" are immune from death, is possible and imperative, after a fashion far nobler and better than the psalmist could have dreamed.
I need point out to you how here, beautifully and picturesquely, the two metaphors of battle and disease are each parted into their two halves, one expressive of open, and the other of secret, assaults—" the pestilence that walketh in darkness" on the one hand, "the destruction that wasteth at noonday" on the other; "the terror by night," of nocturnal assaults upon a defenceless camp, on the one hand, and " the arrow that flieth by day," on the other. Only let us take this to heart, that all manner of danger and assaults are included in the promise, and though sense seems to say that the promise is but as gossamer seen by moonlight, a beautiful dream with no substance in it; yet a deeper perception of the reality of things tells us that to the hilt it is fulfilled, and that they who dwell in God shall never see death.
There follows, according to the rendering which I have already given, the glad " Yes " of the solitary soul. "For Thou, Lord, art my Refuge." That utterance of faith is even more condensed than was the former. As we have seen, the initial utterance of trust brought to the psalmist's consciousness the great and glorious promises of which I have been speaking. When they come into his consciousness, then the office of his faith is to grasp them. He has only the cheque, only the draft; but it is as good to him as bullion. "For," says he—and note that "for "—" Thou, Lord, art my Refuge." That is to say, he listens to all the preceding promises, and smiles and says, "Yes, I know it is all true; because Thou art my Refuge." And when he says that he is thinking both of God's character and of his own faith. Thou art my Refuge in Thyself, and because I have chosen Thee to be so. When there come into our hearts and minds, in sequence to some poor utterances of our faith, perhaps in an hour when our hearts are very sore and our lives very dark, these great assurances of a present God and an immortal life, let us be sure that our faith further rises to grasp, and say Amen to, them, rooting itself in the assurance of what God is, and of what we have chosen Him to be. Samuel Rutherford says that God's promises are like the boughs of a tree bending over a river, for His halfdrowned children to lay hold of. Let us see that, when they are suggested to our faith, our faith grasps them.
There follows a series of further promises, even greater than those that have preceded. "There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling," or, as it reads in the original " thy tent," suggesting the nomad life. We have two houses; a shifting tent, the frail structure of our earthly habitation, and a " house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens," which is God Himself. "Because thou hast made the Most High thy habitation there shall no evil . . . come nigh thy dwelling." If thou dwell in God thou dwellest in safety.
Then there follow other promises which regard the nomad, not as in his tent, but, as on the road; promises that he shall be kept in all his ways, promises that he shall not only be kept in his ways, but that on angel's hands he shall be lifted buoyant and safe over his dimculties, and promises still greater than these, that in his conflict he shall be victor, and " shall tread upon the lion and the adder." There again we have the antithesis of open and secret hostility. In these promises of keeping in the active life, of buoying over difficulties and of victory over enemies, we have more than the preceding promises of immunity from danger. We are here on the verge of promises as to spiritual necessities and conflicts, and are being assured that " he that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High" may continue there, and yet be trudging along the rough road of life; and that, if we thus combine the inward peace of communion, and the effort of active life, we shall " be kept in our ways," and upheld in our ways, and have victory over the lurking foes that would wound our heel, and the open enemies that would rend our life.
We must remember Old Testament conditions when we read Old Testament promises, and we must apply New Testament interpretations to Old Testament assurances. When we read " there shall no evil befall thee," and think of our own harassed, tempest-tossed, often sorrowful lives, and broken, solitary hearts, we must learn that the evil that educates is not evil, and that the chastening of the Father's hand is good; and that nothing that brings a man nearer to God can be his enemy. The poison is wiped off the arrow, though the arrow may mercifully wound; and the evil in the evil is all dissipated.
Lastly, we have
III. A Deeper Voice Still. coming in, confirming and enlarging all these promises.
I can but gather up these final utterances in a few words. God Himself speaks, promising deliverance consequent upon fixed love. "Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him." He is not going to fail in response to the love of His child's heart. As the word in the original suggests, when a poor man presses himself close up against the Divine breast, as a dog might against his master's limbs, or as one that loves might clasp close to himself the beloved, then God responds to the desire for close contact, and through such contact He brings deliverance.
Further, that Divine Voice promises elevation consequent on acquaintance with the Divine Character. "I will set him on high "—high above all the weltering flood of evil, that washes vainly round the base of the cliff—" because he hath known My name." Loving acquaintance with the revealed character of God lifts a man above earth and all its ills.
Further, there is the promise of Divine companionship consequent on sorrows. "I will be with him in trouble." Some of us know what that means, how we never got a glimpse of God until earth was dark, and how when a devastating flood, as it seemed, came sweeping over the fair gardens of our lives, we found, when it had gone back, that it had left fertility such as we had never before been capable of. Night brings the darkness, and darkness brings the stars. Trouble rightly borne brings God, and any flood that bears Him into my soul, can be only a flood of blessing.
"With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation." Again I say, bring New Testament interpretation to Old Testament promises, for the evolution of God's revelation of His will makes it wise to interpret the imperfect by the complete. "With long life will I satisfy him," through the ages of eternity, and "show him My salvation" in the glories of an immortal life. Brethren, let us keep the conditions. Let us set our love on Him, know His will, call upon Him and listen for His answer, dwell in the secret place of the Most High, and He will fulfil His promises, then no evil shall befall us, but our earthly life will be filled with good, and will lead on to the more perfect manifestations of His saving power through the ages of eternity.