Psalm cvii.6. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses.
If I were asked to give a reason why I believed the Old Testament to be an inspired and divine book, as well as the New, I could not do better, I think, than to lay my hand on this 107th psalm, and say, -- This is my reason for believing the Old Testament to be inspired. I have hundreds of others: but this one is enough -- this one psalm. It contains an account of God's dealings with men, such as the world never heard before, and very seldom since, save from a very few men, who really saw what the Bible meant, and honestly followed its teaching. It gives a notion of the justice of God, and an explanation of the chances and changes of this mortal life, such as you will find nowhere else save in the Bible, and in the books of Christian men who have been taught by the Bible. The man who wrote that psalm knew so much more than other men, that he must have been indeed inspired by the Spirit of Truth, and the Holy Ghost of God.
And, I should say, I have come to this opinion mainly by comparing this psalm with the writings of heathens, even the wisest and the best of them. For the heathens, like all men, used to have their troubles, and to ask themselves, Who has sent this trouble? And why has he sent it? And their answers remain to us in their writings, some worse, some better, some very foolish, some tolerably wise. But when one compares the heathen writings with this psalm, or with any psalms or passages of the Old Testament which talk of God's dealings with man, then we shall be altogether astonished at the superiority of the Bible. The Bible will seem to us quite infinitely wiser than heathen books, on this matter, as on others -- so much more simple, and yet so much more deep; so much more rational also, and so much more true: agreeing so much more with the facts which we see happen round us: agreeing so much more with our own reason, experience, inward conscience, about what is just and unjust: -- that we shall begin to see as much difference between heathen books and the Old Testament, as there is between the dim dawn of morning, and the full blaze of noonday light.
One of the earliest heathen notions why troubles came was, it seems, that the gods were offended with men, because they had not shown them due honour, flattered them enough, or offered sacrifices enough to them: or else they fancied that the gods envied men: grudged their prosperity, did not like to see them too happy.
That dark and base notion gradually faded away, as men got higher notions of right and wrong, and of the gods, as the judges and avengers of wrong. Then they began to think these troubles were punishments for doing wrong. The Gods, or God, punished sin; inflicting so much pain for so much sin, very much as the heathens are apt to punish their criminals still, and as Christian nations used to punish theirs, namely, with shameful and horrible tortures; before they began to find out that the end of punishment is not to torment, but to reform, the criminal, wherever it is possible.
But then the thought would come -- Why, after all, should God, if he be just and merciful, punish my sin by pain and misery? How can it profit God, how can it please God, to give me pain? Because it satisfies his justice? How can it do that? It would not satisfy mine. Suppose my child, or even my dog, disobeyed me, would it satisfy my sense of justice to beat him? It might satisfy my passion: but God has no passions. It would be base, blasphemous to fancy that he takes pleasure in hurting me, as I take pleasure in beating my dog when I lose my temper with it. God forbid! The old prophets saw that, and cried -- 'Have I any pleasure in the death of him, saith the Lord, and not rather that he should turn from his wickedness, and live?'
Then, naturally, the thought would come into the mind of a wise and serious man -- I punish my child, or my dog, and God punishes me. May he not punish me for the same reason that I punish them? I punish them to correct them and make them better. Surely God punishes me, to correct me, and make me better. I punish my child, because I love him, and wish him good. God punishes me because he loves me and desires that I may be a partaker of his holiness.
And as soon as that blessed thought had risen up in any man's mind, by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit, all the world would begin to look bright and clear and full of hope. This earth, with all its sorrows and sufferings, would look no longer to him as God's prison house, where poor sinners sat tortured and wailing, fast bound in misery and iron, till they should pay the uttermost farthing, which they never could pay. No. It would look to him as God's school- house, God's reformatory, in which he is training and chastening and correcting the souls of men, that he may deliver them from the ruin and misery which sin brings on them, both the original sin which is born in them and the actual sin which they commit. Then God appears to him a gracious and merciful father. He can see a blessed meaning and a wholesome use in all human suffering; and he can break out, as the Psalmist does in this glorious psalm, into praise and thanksgiving, and call on mankind to give thanks to the Lord; for he is gracious, and his mercy endureth for ever.
In every kind of human suffering, I say, he sees now a meaning and a use.
First, he takes, it seems, his own countrymen, the Jews, coming back from Babylon into their own country after the seventy years' captivity. They had been punished for their sins. But for what purpose? That they might know (as Ezekiel said), that God was the Lord. And when they cried unto him in their trouble, he delivered them out of their distress.
Then he goes on to those who have brought themselves into poverty and shame, and sit fast bound in misery and iron. It is their own fault. They have brought it on themselves by rebelling against the word of the Lord, and lightly regarding the counsel of the Most Highest. But God does not hate them. God is not going to leave them to the net which they have spread for their own feet. When they cry unto the Lord in their troubles, he delivers them out of their distress. God himself, by strange and unexpected ways, will deliver them from their darkness of ignorance and sin, and from the danger and misery which they have brought upon themselves.
Then he goes on to those who have injured their health by their own folly, till their soul abhors all manner of food, and they are even hard at death's door. Neither does God hate them. They, too, are in God's school-house. And when they cry to the Lord in their trouble, he will deliver them, too, out of their distress, and send his word, and heal them, and save them from destruction.
Then he goes on to men who are exposed to danger, and terror, and death in their lawful calling; and his instance is the seamen -- those who go on to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters.
The storms come up, they know not when or how: but they are not the sport of a blind chance; they are not the victims of the wrath of God. The wild sea, too, is his school-house, where they are to see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep; and so, by strange dangers and strange deliverances, learn, as I have seen many a seaman learn, a courage and endurance, a faith, a resignation, which puts us comfortable landsmen to shame.
Then he goes on to even a deeper matter -- to those terrible changes in nature, so common in the East, in which whole districts, by earthquake or drought, are rendered worthless and barren. They too, he says, are God's lessons, though sharp ones enough. 'He turneth the rivers into a wilderness, and the water-springs into dry ground; a fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein. Again, he turneth the wilderness into a standing water, and dry ground into water-springs. And there he maketh the hungry to dwell, that they may prepare a city for habitation; and sow the fields, and plant vineyards, which may yield fruits of increase.'
Lastly, he goes on to political changes, which bring a whole nation low, into oppression and misery. 'They are minished and brought low through oppression, affliction and sorrow. He poureth contempt upon princes, and causeth them to wander in the wilderness, where there is no way. Yet setteth he the poor on high from affliction, and maketh him families like a flock. The righteous shall see it, and rejoice: and all iniquity shall stop her mouth. Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the loving- kindness of the Lord.'
And so, in all the changes of this mortal life, he sees no real chance, no real change, but the orderly education of a just and loving Father, whose mercy endureth for ever; who chastens men as a father chastens his children, for their profit, that they may be partakers of his holiness, in which alone is life and joy, health and wealth.
Surely, here is a Gospel, and good news; -- news so good, that it turns what seems to the superstitious the worst of news, into the very best. For it seems at first sight the worst of news that which the ninth Article tells us, that our original sin, in every person born into this world, deserves God's wrath and damnation. And so it would be the worst of news, if God were merely a judge, inflicting so much pain and misery for so much sin, without any wish to mend us and save us. But if we remember only the blessed message of this psalm; if we will remember that God is our Father; that God is educating us; that God hath neither parts nor passions; and that, therefore, God's wrath is not different or contrary to his love, but that God's wrath is his love in another shape, punishing men just because he loves men; -- then the ninth Article will bring us the very best of news. We shall see that it is the best thing that can possibly befall us, that our sin deserves God's wrath and damnation, and that it would have been the worst thing which could possibly have befallen us, if our sin had not deserved God's wrath and damnation. For if our sin had not deserved God's anger, then he would not have been angry with it; and then he would have left it alone, instead of condemning it, and dooming it to everlasting destruction as he has done; and then, if our sin had been left alone, we should have been left alone to sin and sin on, growing continually more wicked, till our sin became our ruin. But now God hates our sin, and loves us; and therefore he desires above all things to deliver us from sin, and burn our sin up in his unquenchable fire, that we ourselves may not be burned up therein. For if our sins live, we shall surely die: but if our sins die, then, and then only, shall we live.
Do these words seem strange to some of you? I doubt not that they will: but if they do, that will be only a fresh proof to me, that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Ghost. Yes, nothing shews me how wide, how deep, how wise, how heavenly the Bible is, as to see how far average Christians are behind the Bible in their way of thinking; how the salvation which it offers is too free for them, the love which it proclaims too wide for them, the God whom it reveals too good for them: so that they shrink from taking the Bible and trusting the Bible, in its fulness; and are perpetually falling back on heathen notions -- the very old heathen notions from which this psalm delivers us -- concerning what God's anger means, and what God's punishment means; because they are afraid of taking the words of Scripture literally and fully, and believing honestly the blessed news, that God is Love.
They try to make God's ways as their ways, and God's thoughts as their thoughts. But do not you do so. Receive the Bible in its fulness. Believe that it tells you infinitely more of God's character and dealings, than you can ever tell yourselves; that God's ways are not as your ways, nor God's thoughts as your thoughts, even at their best: but that God's ways are always wider and deeper than yours, were you the most learned of men; God's thoughts are always more loving and just than yours, were you the most holy of men, and that when you have learned all that you can learn, or that any man can learn, out of the Bible, there will be still left behind treasures beside, which you have not yet found out. For the riches of Christ are unsearchable; like the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God, whose only-begotten son, and perfect likeness, he is; and the man who reads the Scripture with a single eye, and an humble heart, will see that the more he finds in the Bible, the more he has yet to find; and that if he studied it to all eternity, he would have fresh and fresh cause for ever to cry with the Psalmist, 'Oh give thanks to the Lord; for he is gracious, and his mercy endureth for ever!'