[K:NWTS 3/1 (May 1988) 3-12]
The Psalter is of all books of the Bible that book which gives expression to the experimental side of religion. In the law and the prophetic writings, it is God who speaks to his people; in the Psalter, we listen to the saints speaking to God. Hence the Psalter has been at all times that part of Scripture to which believers have most readily turned and upon which they have chiefly depended for the nourishment of the inner religious life of the heart. I say that part of Scripture and not merely that part of the Old Testament, for even taking the Old and the New Testament together the common experience of the people of God will bear us out in affirming that there is nothing in Holy Writ which in our most spiritual moments–when we feel ourselves nearest to God–so faithfully and naturally expresses what we think and feel in our hearts as these songs of the pious Israelites. Our Lord himself, who had a perfect religious experience and lived and walked with God in absolute adjustment of his thoughts and desires to the Father's mind and will; our Lord himself found his inner life portrayed in the Psalter and in some of the highest moments of his ministry borrowed from it the language in which his soul spoke to God, thus recognizing that a more perfect language for communion with God cannot be framed.
Undoubtedly it is in the Psalter that the specific work of inspiration which the Holy Ghost performs in inditing the Scriptures and the more general task which he performs in sustaining, directing, stimulating and guiding the religious thoughts and aspirations of believers are most closely united. Inspiration for the disclosure of truth is not always accompanied by the subjective appropriation of the truth in a saintly experience (a Balaam and Caiaphas were among the prophets); but nevertheless it remains the more natural and ordinary procedure of God that the instrument through which his truth is brought to man should be a mind in intimate touch with his own; a mind responsive to that personal revelation of God himself which lives and throbs in the truth. And consequently we see that the great prophets (like a Moses, an Isaiah or Jeremiah) appear at the same time as the outstanding examples of a wonderfully rich and tender religious intercourse with God. But in the Psalms we can more clearly than anywhere else observe the interaction of these two things: supernatural reception of truth and spiritual nearness to God. Possibly the fact that in David's case the prophetic disclosures of truth that he received were so vitally connected with his own life and destiny may have something to do with the presence of this feature in the Psalms, whereas the other prophets sometimes stood more or less apart from the development of things to which their words applied. And then the prophets of course in many instances spoke to and for the nation collectively, whereas in the Psalter it is the individual soul which comes face to face with God.
Hence the lessons and encouragements which we draw from other parts of the Old Testament frequently are to be drawn indirectly by a process of inference for which we are not always in the right frame of mind and the proper spiritual mood. But in the Psalms, whatever our mood, whether we be exultant or downcast, vigorous or weary, penitent or believing, in the Psalms we always can find ourselves back directly. It needs no process of reasoning to make their sentiments our own. Here the language of the Bible comes to meet the very thoughts of our hearts before these can even clothe themselves in language and we recognize that we could not have expressed them better than the Spirit has here expressed them for us. At first sight, this may easily seem strange to us when we remember that the Psalmists lived under the conditions of a typical and preparatory dispensation; that on many points they saw through a glass darkly, whereas we, who live in the full light of the complete gospel, see face to face. But for the very reason that the Psalms reflect that experimental religion of the heart, which is unvarying at all times and under all circumstances, we need not greatly wonder at this. The influx of the divine light whether more or less strong must always produce the identical effect of joy and hope and peace in every soul to which it comes. The well at which we drink may flow more abundantly than that at which the Psalmists drank, but the experience of thirst and of drinking and of satisfaction must still be the same as it was in the time of David.
Psalms of the Heart
Now regarding the Psalms from this point of view as an inspired record of what goes on in the heart of man where the religious consciousness is under the influence of the Spirit of God, its thoughts are purified and directed into their normal channels, we must be at once struck, I think, by one characteristic of the (spiritual) experience here portrayed. This is the predominance of the element of personal communion with God. In a variety of ways this finds expression. Sometimes we observe it in actual exercise, as in those instances where the Psalm is a formal prayer, or even more strikingly than this where it develops into something like a dialogue between God and the soul. Compare for example the touching episode which David records in the 27th Psalm: "Thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee: Thy face Lord will I seek." At other times, it is not the actual exercise of this privilege, but the strong elemental desire for it which finds utterance. The examples of this will immediately suggest themselves to all of us. It is unnecessary to quote more than the opening verses of the 42nd Psalm: "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?"
At still other times, it is neither the actual exercise nor the desire for it, but the remembrance of what has been enjoyed in the past or the reflection upon what may still be enjoyed in the future that moves the writer: "These things I remember and pour out my soul within me, how I went with the throng and led them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, a multitude keeping holyday" (Ps. 42:4). This is the case in the passage before us: "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and he will show them his covenant." The "secret" means the secret counsel, the homilia as one of the old translations has aptly rendered it. It is the intimate converse between friend and friend as known from human life where there is no reserve, but the thoughts and feelings of the heart are freely interchanged. And the notion of the covenant here expresses the same idea: the covenant being conceived not as a formal contract for the specific purpose, but as a communion in which life touches life and intertwines with life so that the two become mutually assimilated. Evidently the Psalmists recognize in this private intercourse with God the highest function of religion–the only thing that will completely satisfy the child of God. And this becomes all the more touching if we remember how much there was in the old covenant, with its complex system of ceremonies, which necessitated a sort of indirect service of God; and remember further how even where a more direct approach unto God was permitted, this had to remain partial and to be exercised under restrictions because the fresh and living way into the Holy of Holies had not yet been opened up.
Psalms of the Presence of God
We may well believe that it was with something of this (consciousness) in mind when the saints followed hard after God and sought to penetrate in their inner spiritual life into that immediate presence from which in the public service of God in the tabernacle or temple the restrictions of the old covenant excluded them. It may be frequently observed in sacred as well as in natural affairs that where a thing is partially possessed and still partially missed there is the keenest appreciation of its value and the most intense longing for its full attainment. It is certainly striking that these expressions of passionate desire to come into living fellowship with God are found in the Old Testament rather than in the New. Is it not possible, brethren, that we, because we have the privilege of approaching God at all times without restrictions, are sometimes in danger of underestimating its value or even neglecting its exercise? Must not a David put us to shame when he cries in Psalm 63: "O God, thou art my God, earnestly will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee, in a dry and weary land where no water is. Because thy loving-kindness is better than life–my lips shall praise thee." If he longed like this for the less, how much more earnestly ought we to cultivate the greater?
And another point to be noticed in the same connection is this: how concrete and familiar, one might almost say how realistic, some of the figures are in which this personal intercourse with God is described in the Psalter. In this respect, the passage before us, expressive though it be, may be called sober and restrained as compared with other statements drawn from the same source. Figures are borrowed from the intimacies of human life, nay of animal life; figures which in point of picturesqueness and forcibleness go far beyond that of a covenant or a secret counsel here employed by the Psalmist. Such is the figure of the common house in which the believer desires to dwell with Jehovah in order that there may be between God and him something of that same closeness and intimacy of fellowship as binds the members of one household together. Of course this attaches itself to the typical expression God had given the thought of religious fellowship with himself in the structure of the tabernacle or the temple. But after all it remains interesting that precisely in the Psalms this divine thought embodied in the sanctuary is most clearly apprehended and most eagerly responded to. "A day in thy courts is better than a thousand: I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness" (Ps. 84:10). "One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For in the day of trouble he shall keep me secretly in his pavilion: in the covert of his tent shall he hide me" (Ps. 27:4,5). And even this is surpassed in a number of other passages where the Psalmist chooses figures based on physical, bodily contact in order to satisfy himself in describing his vivid experience of standing in real personal communion with God. The two modes of statement are joined together in the 61st Psalm where David first says, "I will dwell in thy tabernacle forever" and then adds by way of climax, "I will take refuge in the covert of thy wings"; as elsewhere we read the petition, "Hide me under the shadow of thy wings" (Ps. 17:8) and three times the avowal, "Therefore, men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings" (Ps. 36:7).
Now it is to be noticed that, notwithstanding the concrete, realistic character of such expressions, the sentiment expressed remains well within the bounds of conscious, intelligent fellowship with God. There is no lapse into false mysticism here; no desire to lose one's self in God. What the Psalmist strives after is nothing more nor less than that mutual revelation of person to person, that grasping of God himself in the various forms of his approach unto us which is the culminating act of all religion. It is safe to say that both in the guarding of this idea from every kind of mystical excess and perversion and in the thoroughness on the other hand of its application within the proper limits imposed by the personality of God, the biblical religion stands unique among the religions of the world. You may find enough elsewhere of absorption into the deity as you may find plenty in other quarters of coordination between the gods and men as if the two had separated spheres of life. But you will find nowhere such a clear grasp upon the principle that from the very nature of religion man is designed to hold converse with God and to become practically acquainted with him. Nor is it merely a subjective aspiration of man which underlies this idea of religion. At the basis of it lies the conviction that there is in God himself the possibility, nay the desire for this. Notice how our passage expresses it. The secret intercourse of the Lord is with them that fear him and he will teach them his covenant.
It is a condescension of God not an aspiration of ourselves which renders real this crowning act of religion. The Psalmists are convinced that God himself desires to enter upon close fellowship with man; that if he institutes a covenant for his servants, it is because he is in his very nature a covenant God. In the saints upon the earth is all his delight. We have no right to say that there was any lack or deficiency in God to be supplemented by the creation of man in his image and for communion with him for that would be inconsistent with his character as God. The Scriptures teach that he is all-sufficient unto himself and forever blessed in himself. Nevertheless having created man, it is natural in God to receive man as an inmate of his house and companion of his own blessed life. God himself takes pleasure in the immediate personal fellowship with us to which he invites us. There is that in him which corresponds to the highest in our religion. The prayer of his people comes like incense before him; the lifting up of their hands as an evening sacrifice. And it is because the Psalmists realize this that their own desire to meet with God and speak with God obtains that intensely passionate character to which reference has been made. The opinion is gaining vogue nowadays that a considerable portion of the Psalter was composed during the period of the later Judaism. It would be an interesting question to pursue whether this atmosphere of religious nearness to God in which the Psalmists so naturally breathe was actually the prevailing atmosphere of that late period which was wont to complain that God had withdrawn from his people, that there was no voice of prophecy heard any longer and which had almost settled down to serving God by indirection through punctilious obedience of his law. Certainly it is difficult to believe that two so entirely opposite spiritual attitudes should have belonged to one and the same age.
Psalms of Longing for God
A last point to which I would briefly call your attention in connection with this subject is the high disinterestedness to which occasionally the Psalmists rise in their longing for communion with God. Of course it is in no sense to the discredit of our religion if we seek contact with God from motives of self-interest and self-preservation. Our very position as dependent creatures and God's very character as the source of all blessings render it absolutely of the essence of all religious approach to him that it should be accompanied and colored by the consciousness of our need. But from this it by no means follows that the desire to obtain something from God distinct from himself can rightly be the only or the supreme motive impelling us to seek his face. Such is the attitude of the unregenerate man; the form which true religious instinct takes under the influence of his selfish isolation from God. But when the Spirit of God moves the center of our life transferring it from self to God, there immediately a longing awakes to come in touch with God and possess him and enjoy him for his own sake. We can best illustrate this from the relation of a child to its parents. We do not blame the child because it many a time turns to its father or mother for the simple reason that it wants something which in no other way it can procure. But what would you think of a child which never sought its father's arms or climbed upon its mother's lap unless there were some such external want to be supplied. The true child will spontaneously, instinctively turn to the presence and smile of its parents as a flower will seek the face of the sun. And in the same way the true child of God will have moments in which he turns [to] his Father in heaven unconscious of any other desire than the desire to be near unto God. And it is on this point that the Psalms most touchingly and most eloquently express the filial spirit as it surmounted the barriers of the Old Testament form of religion and made its way straight to the heart of God. "Whom have I in heaven, but thee? And there is none upon the earth that I desire beside thee: though my flesh and my heart shall fail, God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Ps. 73:25-26). This and nothing else underlies all the passages in which the Psalmists speak of their love for the house of God or deplore their compelled absence from it. Their attachment to the house of God is at bottom an attachment to the person of God himself, just as the love which we cherish for our house would, when analyzed, ultimately appear to be a love fed not so much from association with the material structure but from that intimate contact with the spirit of our kindred and friends of which the house is as it were the external embodiment.
And most touching of all I think is the form which this sentiment assumes in the mind of the Old Testament saints in view of the mysteries, so much greater to them than to us, of the state after death. Did you ever observe what is the thought that seems to have most acutely distressed and perplexed the writers of some of the Psalms when they tried in vain to pierce this veil of mystery enveloping to them the future world? It was the fear that in these strange regions there might be no remembrance of God, no knowledge of his goodness, no praise of his glory. We may be assured that when a religious want is in this way projected into the world to come so that the fear of its not being satisfied proves stronger than the fear of death in itself, we may be sure that there it has been recognized as the supreme, the essential thing in religion.
The Life in Communion with God
And now, finally, what is the lesson we ought to draw from the prominence of this feature in the spiritual experience portrayed by the Psalter? Are we sure that we feel with the frequency and intensity which our greater privileges demand the desire to meet with God? Or are we satisfied with that indirect relation to him which our service of him in his kingdom and our daily study of his word leads us to sustain? I need not tell you that there is a tendency at the present day to make the religious life seek the surface, the periphery; to detach it more or less from its center which lies in the direct face-to-face communion of the soul with God. The devotional is not so much in evidence as it has been in other periods of the church's history. There are two causes for this. The former of these may perhaps but little concern us. It is found in the modern reluctance to lay emphasis upon any religious practice which at all involves the idea of a clear, definite, personal knowledge and experience of God–in other words in agnostic tendencies. Its watchword is we can know little about God, but we can know what our religious duties are towards our fellow man. With this, I say, you and I may have little to do, although to some extent of even this we may feel the reflex influence.
But the other course concerns us directly. It lies in the stupendous multiplication of the out-going activities which the present practical age makes it incumbent upon every minister of the gospel to pursue. With all these centrifugal forces playing upon us, what wonder if sometimes the one centripetal force which ought to drive us to the heart of God for the cultivation of our own devotional life is less felt in our experience. And yet it is absolutely essential for us that we should not only have our seasons of communion with God, but that all the time in some degree we should carry with us into the outward and public work a living sense of our nearness to God and of his nearness to us because in this way alone can we make our service in the Lord's kingdom truly fruitful and spiritual. If the savor of this is wanting in our work, if we do not bring to the world when we come to it the unction and peace acquired in prayer, we cannot hope to impart any permanent blessing or to achieve any lasting results. Let us endeavor to cultivate diligently the devotional spirit of the Psalmists. Or, better still, let us take for our example the spirit of Jesus himself for whom notwithstanding the busy scenes of a most public career no distractions existed, to whom every call upon his strength became an occasion for meeting with God, a real contact with God, because the fountains of his strength lay hidden deep in the recesses of his inner life where he and the Father always beheld each other's face.
Preached October 15, 1902 in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey