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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Psalms 97

Verses 1-12

The Instinct After Rising

Psalms 97:10

Why is it that the study of human life in the Bible is so striking and helpful? Is it not because, as we close the book, we cannot help forming a moral judgment of the man himself? Take, for example, the life of Saul. We do not pass judgment upon him as a warrior or as a great leader, but we pass judgment upon Saul as a whole. David did much darker deeds than ever Saul did, and yet our judgment on the whole is in favour of David and against Saul. Why is it that, on the whole, we regard the life of Saul as the life of a man who has failed? Is it not because, underneath all his brilliant achievements, we cannot help noticing a moral deterioration?

I. The truth is that Holy Scripture teaches us that the outcome and the end of life is not what a man has done, or what a man has said, but it is what life has made of the man. Not so much what man has made of the life, but what life has made of the man. Life is a machinery with its complicated system for the working out of character, and at the end the soul comes out beaten upon by all the manifold forces and influences of life; the soul comes out of all those forces which baffle analysis, and there is your man. Holy Scripture says that the outcome of life is the formation of character, and that, compared with this, nothing else in the world matters.

Now we feel this, I think, when we see a young man, for example, whose whole theory of life seems to be to cull all the good things he can get; and we see him shirking difficulties and escaping troubles not rising refusing to become great, and we condemn him. Sometimes we say, 'Well, all the suffering that that man endured, all the struggles he underwent, were worth while, for see what a character has been evolved'. Or we say, 'All that luxury, all that ease and comfort, were not worth while, for the man has gone down'. Sometimes we see a man who has been raised from poverty up to wealth, and we say, 'I liked that man better when he was poor, for when he was poor there seemed to be a splendour of character about him, which has now been overlaid by all this comfort and luxury and ease'. Here is a fine lady who is lying upon her deathbed. She has had her day, and she has had her sway, and she has done her acts, and she has said her words, and she has had her receptions, and, as you her friends stand by her bedside, why is it that you do not feel any of that triumph which comes from a sense of strength and power? It is because you know, who knew her well, that, underneath all, her character has deteriorated, and she has become small instead of great. Or, once more, you stand by the coffin of your dead friend. You have crossed his hands in calmness and peace, and closed his eyes. Why is it that, in spite of all he has done and he seems to have done great things why is it that you are unhappy? It is because you know that, underneath it all, his moral nature has worsened. He has become a poorer character than he was.

II. Well, but then, you say, how shall we define character?

Character is defined by one of two movements of the human will. That man is a good man, whatever his creed may be, who is always striving after what he thinks is the best. And that man, whatever his creed may be, is not a good man who, when he sees the good, deliberately turns away from it. That man is not good who, seeing the best, gropes after what he likes, and not after what he ought to like, who aims not at the high but at the low. That man is not a good man who does not aim at what he thinks to be noblest and the purest and the best.

Now, remember, I do not say that a man is a good man who always does right, for I fancy that none of us then would come under the category of goodness at all. But I say that man is a good man who, in spite of piteous failures, is always striving after what he believes to be best. For, underneath all the variety of nationality, race, and religion, underneath all variety of these things that change and give colour and tone to life, underneath all is this distinction between men good and bad. 'I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God' the dead, morally small, intellectually small, morally great and intellectually great 'I saw them stand before God, and I observed a division'; and what was the cause of that division? One man could say with truth, 'Lord, when saw I Thee in prison, or sick, and did not try to help?' And the other man saw good and turned away; saw light and turned away; saw moral rectitude and chose moral evil.

III. Here is the key to human life. You tell me about a man. He may be a great public character, and you say to me, 'He is a man of great gifts and great wealth'. And I say to you, 'Tell me something about the man'. And you say, 'He is a man of extraordinary fascination and wonderful power of influence'. I say, 'Tell me something about the man'. You say, 'He is a man of wonderful power of mind and body and reason'. I say, 'I do not know the man yet; tell me something about the man'. And then you say, 'And all these powers of influence and fascination and wealth he used for his own ends'. Now I know your man. That one act of the will is the secret of that man's life, and all the rest is only a setting to the picture.

But, further, you may say, 'Well, but I cannot feel that I am perfectly free. I cannot feel that my will is absolutely free.' No man in his senses will ever say to you that at any given moment of your life you are free from anything that you have done in the past. Remember this, that habit works by a very vigorous law, and the law of habit is this that the oftener you do anything, the more you deprive yourself of freedom, until at last you say, 'I cannot do the things that I would'. Now it is in the power of every man to work himself out of bad habits. He can get free by struggle, hard struggle. Not today, not tomorrow, it may be, not for a year perhaps, but he can get free if he will struggle in the light of God, and in the power of God's might he can get free, and at last he will sing with joy and peace, 'The snare is broken and I am delivered'.

That instinct after rising is the truest expression of your nature. Freedom of the will does not mean that at any moment you are free from the trammels of the past, but it does mean that there is a fountain of strength within you, and a power of good without you, by virtue of which you can regain your moral liberty.

And now, how shall these things be? I find that I seem to have two wills. 'I am,' you say, 'a man of strong purpose, and yet, when I come to things moral, I seem to be powerless. What am I to do?' St. Paul says that behind your conscience, and behind your reason, you can set a person, a person whom you love. And now supposing that you set the greatest and the dearest of men, Jesus Christ, and supposing you learn to love Him, and supposing that you hear His Voice, the Voice of One who died for the honour of God and for the sake of men, the Voice that called the Magdalene to His feet. Suppose you hear that Voice sounding through your conscience, will not at length devotion to Him, the love of Him, draw all your passions, one by one, upon the side of right as against wrong? 'O ye that love the Lord, see that ye hate the thing that is evil.'

There are many things that society hates. It hates being dull, it hates being bored, it hates badly fitting clothes, it hates long sermons, it hates being found out. It hates evil when evil touches its pocket or injures its character in the face of men, but it does not hate evil as evil. Ye that love the Lord, see that ye hate above all things the thing that is evil. And as you learn to love the Lord, as you learn to hate evil, you will learn to love good, until at length stealthily, quietly, in moments unknown and unmeasured, one by one, all your errant desires will come back from the side of wrong and take their place on the side of right, until at last your whole nature is brought into submission, and your whole heart flung down at the feet of God.

References. XCVII. 10. J. T. Bramston, Sermons to Boys, p. 87. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 208.

Sown Light

Psalms 97:11

Consider these words as speaking: (1) Of the future of the believer; (2) of the life of the believer in this present time; (3) as prophetic of the death and resurrection of Christ.

In applying the words 'Light is sown for the righteous' to the future of the believer, I am but following the thought of the Psalmist and the principle contained in the figure which he employs.

I. This world is the seedtime: the harvest is in the world to come: in other words, the prosperity of the righteous is future. The believer has light now, but it is only sown. The promised immortality is but the full unveiling of that sun by whose clouded light the believer walks on earth.

II. The expression 'Light is sown for the righteous' is figurative of the spiritual life of the believer in this present time. The idea of 'sown light,' or light diffused and scattered abroad, is common to poets in all ages. It is used by both Virgil and Lucretius. The latter says:

And the sun from mid-heaven sheds his heat

On every side, and sows the fields with light.

While our own Milton adopts the same figure

Now morn her rosy steps in the Eastern clime

Advancing, sowed the earth with orient pearl.

What is night, but the turning of the earth on its axis from the sun? What is day, but the turning of the earth towards the source of light? What is spiritual darkness, but the turning of the heart from God? What is conversion, but the turning of the soul towards the 'Light of the world'? From the moment that the day breaks and the Sun of Righteousness dawns upon the soul, light is strewn upon life's way: so that the righteous man advances step by step in the light. 'The path of the just is as the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day.' Progressiveness is the law of spiritual growth. 'First the blade, then the ear, and after that the full corn in the ear.'

III. The sentence 'Light is sown for the righteous' is, I believe, prophetic of Christ. In the Prayer Book version the words are rendered, 'There is sprung up a Light for the righteous'. Was He not the Light? Was He not sown? sown in the darkness of the grave? 'Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.' Whilst the Light was hidden in the sepulchre the disciples were sad. It was but sown. After His resurrection the Sun of Righteousness scaled the heavens, and now shines with healing in His wings.

J. W. Bardsley, Many Mansions, p. 251.

References. XCVII. 11. M. Biggs, Practical Sermons on Old Testament Subjects, p. 209. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiv. No. 836. XCVII. B. F. Westcott, The Incarnation and Common Life, p. 41. XCVII. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 305. XCVIII Ibid. vol. ii. p. 307.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 97". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/psalms-97.html. 1910.