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Religion Nothing Without Morality
This is a psalm of Asaph. This is the first psalm of Asaph found in this section of the Psalter. Every man must speak in his own natural style, and the style of this leader of choir, who was also a poet, is a style of supreme loftiness and majesty, which would not become the narrower capacity, the lower intellect, of meaner men. We must join him where we can in this song of thunder. He will affright us, as majesty affrights some visions; yet he will take care that before the thunderstorm ceases there shall be something we can gaze upon with delight, and listen to with spiritual gratification and profit. We should not always be talking about God as little children talk. It is sweet now and again to listen to a speech that has nothing in it but words of one syllable; that speech is called simple, intelligible, and useful: without doubting that criticism, we must always in our religious conceptions make room for vastness, majesty, and ineffable glory. The God that made the little glowworm also built the heavens with stars and constellations. Both views of God are right. Neither is complete without the other. Without simplicity we should have no real intelligence, and without grandeur we should not touch the highest moods and points of reverence. Asaph was nothing if not magnificent He now pictures God under three names as coming forth to judge the earth. The divine presence shines "out of Zion," which is called "the perfection of beauty." It is not the divine person, but the divine presence, that shines. Many have seen the presence of God who have never seen his person. We are to make a great distinction between personality and presence. Personality means figure, visible attitude, form that can be in some measure described; but presence may be influence, inspiration, and enlargement and purification of religious consciousness; so that a man shall say, Lo, God is here, and I knew it not The knowledge of God without a vision of his personality is all that is permitted to us in these initial schools of time.
"Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him" ( Psa 50:3 ). When he came to give the law, he brought all the lightning with him; and when he comes to see what has become of the law, he brings that same lightning back again. Wherever you have to deal with law you have to deal with lightning. Lightning has no mercy; lightning has no sentiment; lightning is no poet, though it writes nothing but poetry. When the Lord came to Sinai to give the law, he burned and thundered; when he comes now to judge the earth, he comes in fire and tempest, and manifold yet musical uproar. This is the consistency of the divine movement, this is the wondrous harmony of the action which we call law. We shall be able by these phenomena to identify God, and to say with sureness of conviction, Yea, this is he who came to Sinai, we remember that very lightning; we heard that very thunder; these are the smokings that rose up before us like an infinite cloud; this is the feeling of weirdness which made us say to Moses, Oh, do not let God speak to us himself any more, but speak thou to us in his name. We shall know the heavenly signs when they reappear.
Who will God have for witnesses? Suppose he shall make an accusation, and shall not be able to establish it by proof, what then? Asaph provides against that contingency: "He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people" ( Psa 50:4 ). That is to say, he will empanel all heaven and all earth as a jury, and they shall decide what his course of providence has been. The blue sky shall speak for God, the green earth shall not hold its tongue when God's judgments are being criticised by men; the heaven and the earth will speak up for him, and will say, He nourished us, he never neglected us, to us his goodness was daily and continual, and we have no reason to complain of the divine administration. The stars will say so, and all the systems and constellations, and the whole stellar pomp of the invisible and immeasurable universe, shall come down to say, God is good. And the earth, with meaner voice, but testimony equally clear, shall say, He never neglected me, he sent his sunshine and his rain, his dew and his living air, and all the ministries of heaven seemed to nourish and comfort me, and I rolled on through my springs and summers, and autumns and winters, conscious that God himself was swinging me like a censer round the sun. Nature will not be dumb when God judges the earth.
"Gather my saints together unto me" my pious ones, my separated ones; not only the good, but those that are not so good; the good minus, the sincere but mistaken souls: let all come together that started with me in covenant. "Saints" is a sweet word; it ought to mean holy ones; it ought to signify hearts that are sanctified, purified, refined; souls in which there is no speck of evil. It will mean that some day. Words have yet to come to the fruition of their significance. We must use the words now, but they are oftentimes empty vessels, or vessels not half filled; but the time will come when they will contain all their meaning, and will vindicate their right to have been in human language. At present we do not use half our own dictionary words. The lexicon of every nation is at least twice too large for merely daily use. Learned men want some of the words, experts require other terms, but the common people use probably one-tenth of all the language of their nation. But the time will come when every word will be wanted as a vessel into which God will pour meaning, and this word "saints" must stand until that time. There is little in it now, but its whole capacity will be filled up when God comes to realise his own purpose in human creation and progress.
Now the Lord calls before him two sets of people, first, the sincere but mistaken souls that keep on grinding eternally and doing nothing. They live in all ages, the ceremonialists, the ritualists; the people who begin at a certain hour and go on until a certain hour, and never cease, and never seem to tire: and yet they move without removing; they are in continual action, but they never make any progress. "Hear, O my people, and I will speak.... I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt-offerings, to have been continually before me" ( Psa 50:7-8 ). The meaning is: I have nothing to say against what you have done in the matter of sacrifices and burnt-offerings; you have been most punctual. The word used here in English is "continually," literally, daily: not a single day had been omitted or neglected by these poor mistaken souls. They were mere grinders, simple slaves, repeaters of customs; not entering into the meaning, spirit, thought, poetry of the action; always doing something and not knowing why they were doing it. That sentence would seem to be the history of a good deal of modern piety. Understand what the Lord says to these simple, dreary, mistaken ceremony-finders; in effect, he says, Now hear me: I am not going to tell you that your sacrifices have been too few, or that your burnt-offerings have been neglected; you have been punctual, regular, daily in your service of the altar: but the spirit of your work you have never seen for a moment; you serve God with the hand, and you think that is enough.
Now comes a statement which may be easily mistaken:
"I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?" ( Psa 50:9-13 ).
Therefore he says ( Psa 50:14 ), "Offer unto God thanksgiving." How much is this expression mistaken! as who shall say, God wants none of your ritualism, be it even simple church-going or simple psalm-singing; God wants to have nothing whatever to do with that: he wants moral sacrifice, moral obedience; and as for all your so-called functions and duties, they are worthless. That is not the reading of the Psalms, that is not the reading of the law of God, that is not a proper construction of the spirit and gospel of Christ. A man may keep the Sabbath, and yet not keep it; then the Lord says, Your Sabbaths are a burden to me, and an offence. Men therefore quote such passages, and say, See how the Lord regards Sabbaths and feasts and new moons and appointed fastings or banquetings; he says, Away with them! Yes, he does, and yet in your sense he does not, would be my reply: he likes any man who keeps the new moon or the new feast or the appointed fast, and he says, Good soul, I accept what you are doing, though it be all superstitious, because you not only do this, but you live accordingly; you say, Even this superstitious rite has a high meaning, and my soul must express in its sweetness and charity, in its love of pureness, what these things symbolically imply. If a child should pluck a handful of flowers, and bring them to God's altar and say, These are thine; may I lay them here? God will say, Yes, if thou wilt live the flower-life, if thou wilt root thyself in God, if thou wilt take upon thee all the beauty of his sunshine, if thou wilt emit all the fragrance of his presence and action in the soul; if not, take away these flowers. Does God then contemn the flowers? No; he contemns their misuse: the bullock is right, the psalm-singing is right, yet they are both wrong if the soul is wrong. Such construction of the divine language enables us to retain all holy ritual, especially retain the ineffably blessed Cross of Christ in all the significance of its agony and blood, because we rise by the action of the Holy Ghost to a proper conception of the meaning of that priestly emblem.
Then the Lord, even in the lips and visions of Asaph, doubly poet, becomes condescending, gentle, and kind, saying, "And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me," Literally, My glory is in thy salvation; when I glorify myself, it is by saving thy people. The Lord is not glorified by having infinite tribute paid to him because he is majestic; he is glorified when we say to him, Lord, I was little, and thou didst make me great; I was lost, and thou didst find me; I was a poor blind wanderer in the wilderness, and thou didst come after me and save me; and this I will tell to all the world, saying, Come, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul. Thus is God glorified; not in being offered the bouquets of his universe, but by living so as to show men that all we are and have that is holy and good is from the Lord.
How sweet is the blue after the great thunderstorm! Oh, how it trembles! how it vibrates! how it is almost a kind of worldless music! all the welcomer because of the uproar through which we have just passed: "Call upon me in the day of trouble." Thy cloud is only a mile high, but God's heaven is infinite in altitude. "I will deliver thee" thee, the single, the little, the one, the only, insignificant according to the world's reckoning. "And thou shalt" by thy deliverance "glorify me," for there will be another soul to say, I was lost and am found.
Then the tone changes. In Psa 50:16 the Lord is full of anger: he repels the wicked. Up to this point he has been speaking to the mistaken; now he turns upon the wicked, and all heaven is dark as manifold midnight: "Unto the wicked God saith " and then comes such a storm of interrogation and rebuke and repudiation as to constitute a noble commentary on the character of God. This charge is principally notable as showing how character deteriorates. He is speaking to priests who are cloaked hypocrites. He says, "When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him," saying, If you will steal and divide the profit with me not a word shall be said about the process; there is room enough under my cloak to cover you. "Thou givest thy mouth to evil," literally, Thou allowest the devil to borrow thy mouth, so that the devil shall come behind thy lips and talk out all his lies and blasphemy, as under a priestly personality and guise. "Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother's son." Thus a man cannot be wrong with God and right with his own brother. A man cannot forget to pray, and yet be just to his own son. A man cannot live a bad life, and leave an equitable will. He may think it is equitable, he may satisfy his own depraved conscience about it; but you cannot be wrong religiously and right humanly. Your own wills will testify against you; and as for speech, you would as soon speak against your own flesh and blood as speak about the veriest stranger on the face of the earth. All sacred relations go down when the piety of the soul towards God becomes corrupt. "Thou slanderest," in Arabic, Thou givest a thrust. Its corresponding or equivalent word is in the Greek "scandal," both words meaning that which causes a man to stumble or to fall. A scandal is a falling. Here you have the very priests of God causing their own flesh and blood to fall; here you have men that saw them pray, setting something before an unsuspecting fellow-man that he may in the darkness tumble over it, and then they will run to help him, or probably run away to tell what a scandal has been created in the Church. These men first make the scandals, and then report them; first thrust at their brother, and then tell others that he has fallen, apostatised, and divested himself of every claim to confidence or consideration. The charge goes further. God forbore; he did not strike the fools with lightning at once; and they misconstrued his very patience. They said, God is approving our policy; not one gleam of lightning have I seen, not one growl of thunder have I heard, as if God were in anger or in trouble: God is looking on with approbation, "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself." Now when he comes to judgment, he says, "Consider, lest I tear you in pieces." Do not misconstrue God's providence; do not say, The bad man prospers, therefore God is bad; do not say that, because an evil policy has succeeded, therefore providence has stamped it with the seal of approbation; the voice thundering along the heavens and through all the corridors of history is this: I have forborne, I have had patience; but now consider, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces. He shall dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel, he shall rend them limb from limb, and there shall be none to deliver. Yet the Lord could not finish his psalm in this tone, so he says he that ordereth his conversation aright he will bless, and he will accept his good behaviour as a tribute to the divine glory. "Conversation" means conduct. The apostle says, "We have our conversation in heaven," literally, We have our citizenship in heaven. The reference is not to speech, for there are men who have a gift of cunning phrase, and could talk piety all the day. This word "conversation" means conduct, discipline, attention to the spirit and expression of life, and he that ordereth his life aright shall see the salvation of God and bring glory to heaven. That is our duty. Now is our opportunity. We are helpless, but God is almighty. On thy power, O Holy Spirit, would we evermore confidently and gratefully rely.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 50". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20