Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, in the city of our God, His holy mountain.
2 Chronicles 20.). We see from the narrative of the Chronicles that the children of the Korahites sang a song of praise on the occasion of that signal interposition of God, although it is not likely that the song then sang was the forty-eighth psalm; for the reference in ver. 7 is against that; and at first it is not easy to see how "ships of Tarshish" should come to be mentioned in this song, if prepared with reference to the event of which we have made mention. Ezekiel (Ezekiel 27:25, 26) makes mention of ships of Tarshish which belonged to Tyro, being "broken" by the east wind; and it is possible that the psalm may have an allusion thereto. But, singularly enough, the chapter that records Jehoshaphat's prayer and deliverance records also his defection and its punishment; and we are told that his ships were broken so that they were not able to go to Tarshish (2 Chronicles 20:35-37). If this be the reference in the song before us, its significance would be very striking; in that case, it would mean that Jehovah, Israel's God, who put the heathen to flight for Israel's sake, put even Israel to shame when her people or her kings left the straight path of reliance on and obedience to God alone; and that this was among the "judgments" of him whose right hand is full of righteousness; showing us that God's care for his Church is just as marked when he rebukes her for her sins as when he delivers her from her foes; and that both for his faithful chastisement as for his mighty interposition, his loving-kindness is rehearsed in his temple with gratitude and song. And there is a holy pride in rehearsing the privileges of Zion as far outweighing those of the nations around - a pride, however, which refers all the honour and glory of Zion to God, and to God alone. Interesting, however, as these historic allusions are to the student, the higher spiritual bearing of the psalm is far more interesting, and far more important, as it sets before us this theme - the privilege and honour of the Church of God. We need not here argue the point that the Christian Church is the successor to the honours and privileges of the Jewish Church. A comparison of Exodus 19:6 with 1 Peter 2:9 will show this. The Christian Church, in its largest sense, is made up of all believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. The organization of distinct and definite communities as Churches is a necessity for the time now present, but no such organizations include all believers; many believers, moreover, are in no such organization at all; only "the Lord knoweth them that are his;" and over all such his care is exercised: in their totality as including all regenerated souls, they make up the Church of God. Of this Church as a unity we have now to speak.
I. GOD'S DWELLING-PLACE IS IN HIS CHURCH, (Vers. 1, 2.) It is quite possible that, after what we have just said about the Church in its entirety and vastness, and about the impossibility of its being scanned by any human eye, that it may be said, "But if the Church is thus undefinable by us as to its limits, we cannot conceive of it as a dwelling-place." This we can easily understand. But the demur has, in reality, no force. For it is quite clear from the New Testament that as there is "the Church" in the highest spiritual sense, so there are local and organized Churches in the geographical sense. Of this the epistles to the seven Churches of Asia are immediate and sufficient proof. And wherever a Church is faithful to its Lord, since whatever is true of the whole Church is true of any part of it, the believers in Jesus who belong to any local and faithful Church may apply to themselves that which Paul declared of the Ephesian converts when he wrote, "Ye also are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit." Thus no Christian need hesitate to apply the words to the fellowship of believers to which he belongs; he may say," God is known in our palaces for a Refuge. This Church is a city of the great King. And the real presence of a living Saviour among us is our honour, our joy, our life (Matthew 18:20; Matthew 28:20).
II. GOD HIMSELF IS THE REFUGE OF THE CHURCH. (Ver. 3.) It is the privilege of the individual believer, in all times of trial, sorrow, and care, to betake himself to his God and Saviour as to an unfailing Friend. But this privilege rises to sublimity when a whole company of believers, encompassed with peril and threatened by foes from without, can all rush to their Saviour in faith and prayer, as to a Refuge from the gathering storm!
III. GOD'S LOVING-KINDNESS IS THE THEME OF THE CHURCH. (Ver. 9.) How much fuller and sweeter is this theme for meditation now than of old! Then it was gained through prophets; now from him before whose presence lawgiver and prophet retire, as stars are concealed in the brightness of the sun! How incomparably does Romans 8. surpass aught in the Old Testament! And what was there in the olden time so tender as Luke 15.? Verily such a theme lifts the soul heavenward, tunes the lips to song, and speeds the feet to run the race set before us.
IV. GOD'S DELIVERANCES MARK THE HISTORY OF THE CHURCH. (Vers. 4-8.) The effect of this vivid description is pictorial. We can almost see the kings eyeing Jerusalem with envy, plotting her capture, seized with panic and hurrying away as for very life. The psalmist says that he had heard of such deliverances in times past, and now had seen them. And any student of Church history who has been withal for fifty years a close observer of Church life, can say the same. That God is the perpetual Deliverer of his Church is the story of the past and the testimony of the present. Nor may we forget the double kind of deliverance:
(1) from foes without;
(2) from mischief within.
If the view given above of ver. 7 is correct, the verse suggests that the Church owes quite as much to God's chastening love in correcting her for her sins, as to his rescuing power in spoiling her foes. That he will do this is part of the covenant (Psalm 89:28-33).
V. THE HONOUR OF GOD'S NAME IS HIS OWN PLEDGE TO THE CHURCH. (Vers. 10,11.) In the attribute of God's righteousness is the Church's repose and glory. Through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, faithfulness, justice, righteousness, can be the supports of sinful men. This is the supreme wonder of redeeming grace. Think of it! Sinful people rejoicing that God's right hand is full of righteousness!
VI. GOD'S GRACIOUS RELATIONS ARE THE GUARANTEE OF THE PERPETUITY OF THE CHURCH. (Vers. 12-14.) We omit the italic "it in ver. 13 (Authorized Version), and translate the first word in ver. 14 that." The psalmist incites to a study of Zion's towers, bulwarks, palaces, privileges, that it may be declared to the generation following, that "this God is our God for ever and ever." And when we study the redemption in Christ which has founded the Church, the spiritual power which is building up the Church, the watchful providence which has for eighteen centuries guarded the Church, the story which we have to hand down to the coming generation is the same, but told with vaster emphasis, surer faith, and more rapturous joy. "This God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our Guide above death, and beyond it!" "Happy is the people that is in such a case! yea, happy is that people whose God is the Lord!" - C.
The shields of the earth belong unto God:"The shields of the earth," all veritable protectives, are the property of God, and are of His creation. But why do I require a shield? What are my perils and foes? The fire of passion. The sharp gnawing tooth of care. The dull, heavy pressure of monotony. The burden of apparently unrequited toil. The slug of sloth. The moth of indifference. The rust of contempt. The awful weight of accumulating years. If I am to be protected against these perils I require varieties of shields, and "the shields of the earth belong unto God." He has shields for every type of peril; there is no unprotected corner which has been overlooked by our Lord. Our perils change their guise with our changing seasons, and the gradient of our age. In youth we frequently find our antagonism in "the lust of the flesh." Against this all-consuming passion we require a shield I In our prime "the lust of the flesh" changes into "the lust of the eyes," and perhaps matures into "the pride of life." Passion is converted into acquisitiveness, and acquisitiveness refines itself into vanity. If we are to resist these fatal fascinations we require a shield. In age we are imperilled by our disillusions. The unaccomplished purpose becomes a snare. The radiant ideal seems no nearer achievement, and our poor attainments look upon us with confounding mockery. Then are we prone to become sour and crabbed, and life may pass into an impoverishing loneliness. If we are to be guarded against these perils we need a shield! And right through our life, from early youth to extreme old age, our course lies through perils of over-changing variety. With these environments of continuous danger, what shall we do? We must seek for an adequate shield, and "the shields of the earth belong unto God." Let us leek at two or three of them.
I. THE SHIELD OF GOOD SPIRITS. We often say of a man, "His good spirits were his salvation." There was a certain cheery radiancy of spirit about his life. lie was possessed by unfailing cheer and geniality, lie saw everything through his own warmth. His warmth was his shield, and by it he was delivered from a thousand snares. Where did he get his warmth? "The shields of the earth belong unto God." I have often known men who have been passing through a November season of life in which other people have found nothing but coldness and gloom, but their life has been so possessed by the spirit of geniality, that the bird-song had never seemed to be silent, and the atmosphere was always redolent of the spring. Charles Kingsley passed through many a November season; trials and persecutions were not absent from his day, and yet his good spirits were always abounding, and by his good spirits the gloom was always illumined. Where do these people get their good spirits? They get them from the Lord. Just outside Buda Pesth there is now a spring of continuous hot water, which is practically supplying the needs of an entire population. Boring has been continued to the depth of five thousand feet, and the genial spring has been unloosed. Is not this parabolic? If we want the genial springs, we must go to the requisite depths; we must not be surface characters, or our waters will be chilled in the first day of a cold November. We must bore deep. We must reach as far as God, and when we come into communion with Him, tits water shall be in us a "well of water springing up into everlasting life."
II. THE SHIELD OF HOLINESS. The pure allures the pure and resists the impure. But the life must be scrupulously pure! It must be healthy. Our imperfect consecrations are our perils; they are like ridged and wrinkled surfaces in which uncleanness easily hides. Holiness will not take stains. Lay your unclean finger upon soft and unfinished porcelain, and it will take the impress of your defiling touch. But lay your finger upon the shining, finished, perfected ware, and the substance will not take the stain. The virus which is inoculated for the prevention of small-pox frequently "does not take"; the body is so healthy that it affords no foothold for the invader! And surely that is what we need in the spirit! We require a spirit so healthy that evil suggestions will not "take." "Let integrity and uprightness preserve me." That is the shield we require! How can we get it? We shall have to get away unto the Lord, and in deep humility of spirit pray that He will communicate unto us His own saving health.
III. THE SHIELD OF FAITH. "The shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one." What are the perils? "Darts" — sharp, sudden, fierce experiences; "fiery darts" — sharp experiences that come to us in heat; "fiery darts of the evil one" — sharp experiences in the nature of sinful temptations that come to us in the feverish moments of our life. They are provocatives to temper, impatience, rashness, and sinful pique. What do we need as our protective? "The shield of faith." Faith gives quietness. "Let not your heart be troubled, believe!" Where belief is settled, the heart is delivered from distraction, and remains in fruitful peace. Faith gives collectedness. Our powers are no longer a turbulent mob, but a deliberative assembly. A man is not "all sixes and sevens," he is a living unit, all his powers co-operating in gracious harmony. This is the shield we require. Where can we get it? We must go to the Lord our Saviour, and in simplicity of spirit we must urge upon Him the prayer of the disciples of old, "Lord, increase our faith."
(J. H. Jowett, M. A.)
I. THE SHIELD POLITICAL IS IN THE HAND OF GOD. We refer to the protecting influence of good government. What an unspeakable, yet often forgotten, blessing is the blessing of a civilized and enlightened constitution, considered simply as a shield! It is the principle and the pride of good government like our own that it aims at the throwing of its protecting screen over strong and weak, rich and poor alike, seeking to deal open and even-handed justice to all, without favour and without fear. Well, the shield political is in the hand of God. It is He who appoints it, maintains it, and directs it as need arises or danger demands. What is the practical lesson? For one thing, let there be recognition of God's power and gratitude for God's goodness in extending such a shield, so near, so ample, so strong; thus setting our lines in pleasant places, and appointing us a goodly heritage. Let there be prayer for God's blessing, that those who compose that shield, the living minds that plan, the living hands that execute, may lend themselves more and more to the influence of a Christian spirit and the accomplishment of Christian ends.
II. THE SHIELD DOMESTIC IS IN THE HAND OF GOD. We refer to the protective influence of a pious home. Home is home, indeed, only when it surrounds the growing boy or girl with a whole investiture of pure and affectionate influences — kind deeds, kind words, kind thoughts — and thus forms a quiet pavilion, where the young life can feel itself safe. Let parents grudge no pains, spare no expedients, that tend to the maintenance of this feeling, and the drawing and the keeping of their children together under the shadow of that safeguard which we call home. And let all, whether parents or children, remember that, like other shields, the shield of a happy Christian home is in the hand of God. It is God who erects it. It is God who keeps it together. Therefore, in all that pertains to our home, let God have the guidance, and let God have the glory.
III. SHIELDS SOCIAL ARE IN THE HANDS OF GOD. Here we pass to another protective influence of life, and note the preserving power of helpful and beneficent institutions. We live in an age of organizations. They are with us upon every hand — organizations philanthropic, moral, religious. We have our societies for the promotion of health, the diffusion of literature, the increase of temperance, the preservation of purity. And all these are shields, or are meant to be shields, for the young, the innocent, the feeble, the tempted, and the penitent. The point we should always notice is this, that they are shields in the hand of God. The fact is suggestive of two things we do well to keep constantly in mind.
1. Such safeguards owe their origin to Divine revelation. Philanthropy springs from the plains of Galilee, where the Saviour fed the hungry and healed the ailments of the multitude.
2. They owe their efficiency to Divine grace. A white cross will not keep a man pure; again, it is only a symbol and expression: what will save and preserve him is the same grace of God.
IV. SHIELDS PHYSICAL ARE IN THE HANDS OF GOD. Among the protecting influences of life there is the influence of the powers and processes of natural law. Think of these influences in their broadest and most general sense as a protection and a benefit to the race at large. How wonderfully force balances force, and principle supplements or cheeks principle! — the great and grand resultant being the safety and stability of the natural order we belong to, and the safety and stability of ourselves in the midst of it. Let us believe in a Providence that keeps the feet of the saints, and, if necessary for the keeping of them, can make nature itself a minister of grace. A friend writes thus in a letter: "Did I tell you of my escape from drowning last year in Derwentwater, after my return from Brittany? My canoe upset. But angels that remove some stones out of the way can place other stones in it when needful. So was I preserved!"
V. SHIELDS SPIRITUAL ARE IN THE HANDS OF GOD. Let us select, as our last illustration, the protection afforded by the prayers and the presence of the saints. It is a fruitful and inspiring thought! For as the supplications of the saints go up, from the public assembly, from the household hearth, from the solitude and secrecy of private chambers and private hearts, for a race beset by sorrow and defiled by sin, they interpose a real and a solid barrier between those interceded for and the dangers that surround. Tim world owes more to them than it knows. Why is anger restrained? Why is chastisement delayed? Often for the saints' sake. May He in whose hand are the shields of the earth continue this shield, the shield of earnest and faithful intercession, till those that are sheltered beneath its shadow make their peace with Himself, and become intercessors in their turn!
(W. A. Gray.)
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.
I. THERE IS THE GLORY OF ZION (vers. 1, 2). Those words are something more than merely patriotic feeling. The Jew's glory in Jerusalem was a different thing altogether from the Roman's pride in Rome. For, to the devout Jew, there was one thing, and one thing only, that made Zion glorious — that in it God abode. The name even of that earthly Zion was "Jehovah-Shammah, the Lord is there." They celebrate concerning it that it is His city, the mountain of His holiness. This is its glory. And it is no spiritualizing or forcing a New Testament meaning into these words when we see in them the eternal truth, that the living God abides, and energizes by His Spirit and by His Son in the souls of them that believe upon Him. It is that presence which makes His Church fair as it is, that presence which keeps her safe. It is God in her, not anything of her own, that constitutes her "the joy of the whole earth."
II. THE DELIVERANCE OF ZION. The psalm recounts with wonderful power and vigour the process of this deliverance (vers. 4-8). Mark the dramatic vigour of the description of the deliverance. There is, first, the mustering of the armies. "The kings were assembled" — we see them gathering their far-reaching and motley army, mustered from all corners of that gigantic empire. They advance together against the rocky fortress that towers above its girdling valleys. "They saw it, they marvelled" — in wonder, perhaps, at its beauty, as they first catch sight of its glittering whiteness from some hill crest on their march — or, perhaps, stricken by some strange amazement, as if, basilisk-like, its beauty were deadly, and a beam from the Shechinah had shot a nameless awe into their souls — "they were troubled, they hasted away." The abruptness of the language in this powerful description reminds us of the well-known words, "I came, I saw, I conquered," only that here we have to do with swift defeat — they came, they saw, they were conquered. In their scornful emphasis of triumph they are like Isaiah's description of the end of Sennacherib's invasion, "So Sennacherib, King of Assyria, departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh."
"The trumpet spake not the armed throng,
But kings sat still, with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovereign Lord was by."One image is all that is given to explain the whole process of the deliverance, "Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind." The metaphor is that of a ship like a great unwieldy galleon caught in a tempest — compare the destruction of the Spanish Armada. However strong for fight, it is not fit for sailing. And so this huge assailant of Israel, this great "galley with oars," washing about there in the trough of the sea, as it were — God broke it in two with the tempest which is His breath. You remember how on the medal that commemorated the destruction of the Spanish Armada — our English deliverance — there were written the words of Scripture: "God blew upon them and they were scattered." What was there true, literally, is here true in figure. And then mark how from this drastic description there rises a loftier thought still. The deliverance thus described links the present with the past. "As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God." And with all the future — "God will establish it for ever." God will establish Zion; or, as the word might be translated, God will hold it erect, as if with a strong hand grasping some pole or banner-staff that else would totter and fall — He will keep it up, standing there firm and stedfast. If it had been possible to destroy the Church of the living God it had been gone long, long ago. Its own weakness and sin, the ever-new corruptions of its belief and paring of its creed, the imperfections of its life and the worldliness of its heart, the abounding evils that lie around it and the actual hostility of many that look upon it and say, Raze it, even to the ground, would have smitten it to the dust long since. It lives, it has lived in spite of all, and therefore it shall live. "God will establish it for ever." In almost every land there is some fortress or other which the pride of the inhabitants calls "the maiden fortress," and whereof the legend is that it has never been taken, and is inexpugnable by any foe. It is true about the tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion. The grand words of Isaiah about this very Assyrian invader are our answer to all fears within and foes without, "Say unto him, the virgin, the daughter of Zion, hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn."
III. ZION'S CONSEQUENT GRATEFUL PRAISE AND GLAD TRUST. The deliverance deepens their glad meditation on God's favour and defence. "We have thought of Thy lovingkindness in the midst of Thy temple." And it spreads God's fame throughout the world (ver. 10).
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
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