1. This jubilant and magnificent psalm opens with a passage which was taken possession of by the Apostles, in the name of their Lord, so long ago that it has lost any suggestion of foreignness; and just as some of our older colonies have acquired a look of England overseas, so do we welcome these verses when we come upon them, as if they were an outlying tract of the New Testament. They give a description of the King, set at God’s right hand, a Priest for ever, which in itself is great; and yet, in the writer’s view, it was only a preparation for something else. These things were spoken of Him that faith might have a chance; for what possessed the poet was not that his King was great and highly favoured, but that a King so great would go far and that of His conquests there would be no end. It is through getting big thoughts of the King that men are prepared to cherish worthier expectations with regard to the Kingdom.
2. The poet first shows the kingship at rest, as it is in its dignity, created and secured by God, and when his heart is full of that he goes on to show the kingship in action. A royalty based upon the will of God, which, indeed, is nothing else than an instrument of that will, cannot but make way; present and future have nothing in them to withstand it, and thus it will go farther and farther, passing out at last beyond the imagination of men. That is the poet’s idea, which a rhetorician would have expressed in some resounding phrase; but as an artist this man had no liking for vague words without any picture in them. He wanted men to feel that the King beyond their sight was pushing His conquests still, and he manages that by a quaint touch of imagination. The King, urging on His enemies in their flight, stops for a moment to drink, and then He passes off the scene with head uplifted, fresh as when the battle-day began. There He is—the true King, God’s gift to men, travelling out beyond our sight, on always vaster enterprises, and without a sign of flagging strength. That fired the poet’s soul, and it should live with us as the scope and outlook of the psalm.
The Ideal King
1. Who is this King and Captain that the poet celebrates? The answer must be that we have here not a portrait but an ideal, which embodies the dream of those who trusted that God would give them one day a ruler who should be all that a king can be to men. The poet follows this warrior priest, this priestly king, to the war; he sees him winning victory after victory, until the earth seems filled with the slaughtered bodies of his foes. But he grows weary and tired in the conflict; his tongue cleaves to his mouth for thirst; his sword well-nigh drops from his hand for sheer weariness as he toils on beneath the fierce glare of the Eastern sun. And it seems as if he must faint and fall before the full fruits of victory are reaped, when suddenly a little brook of cool and limpid water presents itself to his gaze, and the faint and tired warrior stoops and drinks a long, deep draught, and the clear, cool water brings refreshing and new strength to his exhausted frame, so that, with new vigour and determination, he resumes the pursuit, and makes the victory final and complete. “He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.”
2. This ideal King overthrows all His enemies and wins a lasting dominion because He is God’s own partner. He knows how to conquer. He is content that His battles should be taken out of His hands, and that the victory when it comes should be God’s victory and not His own. In Him there is no self-assertion or display; He accepts what God allows and asks no more. Inferior men may be restless, as they take on themselves the burden of the world and its future, striking hotly in defence of their view of truth, and growing troubled and dejected when that view does not make way. But in the true Master of men there is a superlative trust in God; He suffers His own effort and His own message to pass into the sum of God’s providential forces, which are working for new heavens and a new earth. He does not bear the burden of the world anxiously, but leaves it in the strong hands of Him who can sustain it all. Peter speaks of Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God, expecting,” which is a word of admonition for all unquiet minds so ludicrously solicitous about the interests and the work of God. But whilst He was still on earth, Jesus suffered God to fight His battles for Him. He tarried for the Lord’s leisure. He believed in powers which work slowly and without noise, and He knew the rest of heart of those who wait for God and are content that He should work.
3. “What is to hinder this man from governing?” says Carlyle of the Abbot Samson. “There is in him what far transcends all apprenticeships; in the man himself there exists a model of governing, something to govern by. He has the living ideal of a governor in him.” In like fashion the poet sweeps aside the whole mob of kings so called, David and Solomon and their posterity, who in turn had claimed to sit on the throne of Jehovah. He did not mean that kind of thing at all—a merely titular kingship, which had no promise in it. One day there will be born a King, possessing every gift of rule, born to command the wavering hearts of men; and when He comes the first to acknowledge Him will be God, who will make a place in His universe for Him, and raise Him not to where these spectral majesties have sat, these uneasy phantasms which have flitted across the scene, but to where none ever eat before. “Sit at my right hand.”
Thus Christ alone answers fully to the description of the conquering King, who is also “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” It is He alone who goes forth at the head of an army numberless as the dewdrops of a summer morn, every soldier in it clothed in holy garments, sweeping His enemies before Him, gaining one victory after another until they are all beneath His feet, and His Kingdom stretches from the river unto the ends of the earth.
4. This King not only sits as partner with the King of kings, but is content to share the lot of the common soldier. The Psalmist writes of “his Lord” at the right hand of Jehovah, that He shall be refreshed along His conquering march, not with the rich wines of Helbon cooled in the snows of Lebanon, but, like any private soldier, from the wayside brook. And He shall need refreshment, having taken His full share of toil. This contrast between a splendid destiny and the simplest life was never so true of any as of Jesus Christ. It is this contrast that moves St. Paul to astonishment in the words, “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” We have not a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmity, but One who was tempted in all points like as we are—weary, athirst, and faint. For thirty years Jesus lived the frugal and simple life of a carpenter’s son in a quiet village among the hills of Galilee. His first recorded temptation was to break His fellowship with us by claiming miraculous supplies, at least of bread; but this help, which He gave to others, He would not Himself employ. Never once did Jesus use His special powers for Himself to make a difference between His life and ours, or drink of other streams but such as ran by the wayside for all. His first miracle was to make large supplies of wine for a marriage feast; but, for His own part, He would sit by the wayside fountain, waiting, and would ask a lost woman to bestow on Him a cup of cold water. The fever of His cruel death was alleviated by the vinegar, the sour wine, of the private soldiers beneath His cross. Even after His resurrection, when He had already entered upon that sublime and mysterious life which it is our highest hope to share, He did not scorn to take of the fish which they had drawn from the Lake of Galilee, and, again, even of the cold fish which remained from a former meal.
The troops of Charles the Twelfth, in sore distress and half inclined to mutiny, brought him a specimen of their bread, which was hard and sour and black. To their astonishment, the king ate it with a relish, and quietly answered: “It is not good bread, but it can be eaten.” There was no more thought of mutiny in that camp; nor will such a leader ever lack men to follow, to suffer, and to die with him.1 [Note: G. A. Chadwick, Pilate’s Gift, 269.]
(1) The Son of God became one with us in taking our nature. He did not come to the world robed in cloud and fire and storm, and attended by an army of angels. Rather, He did much to conceal His majesty during the time that He lived on earth. He was born a Jew; and the Hebrew nation was “the fewest of all peoples”—not one of the great broad streams of mankind, but as a “brook in the way”; yet the Lord Jesus drank of that brook. “He took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” Without for a moment ceasing to be God, He stooped to become a babe in the manger, a humble and inquiring boy growing up a working carpenter in a country town, then a homeless wayfarer, a rejected religious teacher, and at last a crucified slave.
(2) Our Great Captain at length bowed His head to drink our cup of suffering and sorrow. That bitter cup was put into His hand in the garden of Gethsemane, and He did not refuse to drink it. He did not, as He might have done, use His almighty power to deliver Himself from His enemies. He gave Himself up, a weary and unarmed man, to their wicked will. Out of love for us, and with a view to our redemption, He allowed Himself to be nailed to the cross. And there He was “made a curse for us,” bearing our sin and shame and doom.
Nothing can have a more tranquillizing effect upon us in this world than the frequent consideration of the afflictions, necessities, contempt, calumnies, insults, and humiliations which our Lord suffered from His birth to His most painful death. When we contemplate such a weight of bitterness as this, are we not wrong in giving to the trifling misfortunes which befall us even the names of adversities and injuries? Are we not ashamed to ask a share of His Divine patience to help us to bear such trifles as these, seeing that the smallest modicum of moderation and humility would suffice to make us bear calmly the insults offered to us?1 [Note: The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, 172.]
Before the apotheosis of the cross, suffering was a curse from which man fled; now it becomes a purification of the soul, a sacred trial sent by Eternal Love, a Divine dispensation meant to sanctify and ennoble us, an acceptable aid to faith, a strange initiation into happiness. O power of belief!—All remains the same, and yet all is changed. A new certitude arises to deny the apparent and the tangible; it pierces through the mystery of things, it places an invisible Father behind visible nature, it shows us joy shining through tears, and makes of pain the beginning of joy. And so, for those who have believed, the tomb becomes heaven, and on the funeral pyre of life they sing the hosanna of immortality; a sacred madness has renewed the face of the world for them, and when they wish to explain what they feel, their ecstasy makes them incomprehensible; they speak with tongues. A wild intoxication of self-sacrifice, contempt for death, the thirst for eternity, the delirium of love—these are what the unalterable gentleness of the Crucified has had power to bring forth. By His pardon of His executioners, and by that unconquerable sense in Him of an indissoluble union with God, Jesus, on His cross, kindled an inextinguishable fire and revolutionized the world.1 [Note: Amiel’s Journal (trans. by Mrs. Humphry Ward), 168.]
Christ’s Heart was wrung for me, if mine is sore;
And if my feet are weary, His have bled;
He had no place wherein to lay His Head;
If I am burdened, He was burdened more.
The cup I drink, He drank of long before;
He felt the unuttered anguish which I dread;
He hungered who the hungry thousands fed,
And thirsted who the world’s refreshment bore.
If grief be such a looking-glass as shows
Christ’s Face and man’s in some sort made alike,
Then grief is pleasure with a subtle taste:
Wherefore should any fret or faint or haste?
Grief is not grievous to a soul that knows
Christ comes,—and listens for that hour to strike.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Verses, 37.]
The Common Brook
“He shall drink of the brook in the way.” It is wonderful to think of the spiritual life of Jesus nourished by the same means of grace as are available for us all. At every point in Christ’s experience there was a sense of obstacle and resistance. Salvation for Him was every day a task entailing agony. But always He bore down the resistance, and, welcoming the reliefs that were given Him by God, He passed on with lifted head to the burden and the battle of the new day, sure of Himself, sure of His cause, very sure of God and victory. “True souls always are hilarious.” Think of Him when the disciples came back from their first excursion, elated, as small men will be, by their minute successes; their ministry, one may suppose, had scarcely drawn attention in the single province of Galilee, and He had taken on Himself the redemption of the world. But hear His comment, “When you were away I was watching Satan and he was fallen” (an imperfect tense followed by an aorist). The most meagre encouragement, the first faint effort of a soul to free itself, spoke home to His heart, and He drew water with joy out of the wells of salvation.
We do not find that one innocent pleasure which came “in the way” to Jesus was sourly or wilfully refused by Him. He would leave a feast at once, if called by Jairus to a sick-bed; but He would not refuse the feast of His friends in Bethany, though He knew that He was reproached for eating and drinking, and though He felt His death to be so near that the ointment then poured upon Him would go with Him to His burial. How does His example affect us? We may have to refuse pleasures because we are weak, because temptations must be avoided, because we have no longer any choice except to cripple our life, or, having two feet, to be cast into hell fire; but this is not a thing to boast of. Or, like St. Paul, we may deny ourselves for our weak brother’s sake, which is an honour, and a Christ-like thing; but the rule, apart from special cases, is that the best and truest life is such as welcomes and is refreshed by all simple pleasures which sparkle and sing by our life’s path, which do not require us to leave the road of duty that we may drink of them.
Eastern people have a very skilful way of drinking from a flowing stream without stopping in their running. They throw the water up into the mouth. An Eastern traveller writes: “In an excursion across an Arabian desert, some of the Arabs, on coming to water, rushed to it, and, stooping sufficiently to allow the right hand to reach the water, they threw it up into their mouths so dexterously, that I never observed any of the water to fall upon the breast. I often tried to do it, but never succeeded.”
1. Jesus found refreshment in quiet communion with nature. In one of his letters Nathaniel Hawthorne speaks about bathing himself in “the refreshing waters of solitude and open-air nature,” and there is no season of the year in which we may not find this source of rest and refreshment for the mind and heart. The creation may always be our recreation. To be in love with this beautiful world is to be at the secret source of many a noble pleasure. To have a mind and heart open to the highest impressions of the natural universe, to be able to enter into the life of a summer or a winter day, to enjoy a night of stars, to feel the beauty of a flower, the grandeur of a storm, the spell of the wide waters or the high mountains, is to have abundant means of recovery and renewal always nigh at hand whenever we feel the need of calling ourselves off for a time from the excitement and strain of the daily conflict. It is true that nature does not yield the sympathy which the passionate human heart requires, but insensibly she helps her lovers to bear their burdens and to find rest in God. We are quickened and comforted by outward things more than we know. The sun and moon and stars, unaffected by our little controversies, rebuke and soothe us as we gaze on their tranquil glory. The mountains bring peace, and our fretfulness is carried away by the rushing river at our feet. Not only in the synagogue did Jesus find refreshment, but in the lilies of the field, in the sunset sky, among the hills, and by the Lake of Galilee.
In his suggestive journal, Amiel, describing a country walk taken when a dark and troubled mood was upon him, thus writes: “The sunlight, the green leaves, the sky, all whispered to me, ‘Be of good cheer and courage, poor wounded one!’ ” We are all at times poor wounded ones, needing all the refreshment and healing we can find. And,
What simple joys from simple sources spring!1 [Note: J. Hunter, The Angels of God, 32.]
By the avenue, on to the mansion,
There runs a clear stream all the way,
Pursuing my path, I can see it,
And list to its roundelay;
Still gleaming and glancing,
Still laughing and dancing,
It carols along all day.
In summer its rippling music,
Delight and refreshing instils,
In winter, by torrent-notes swollen,
Its songs all the dreariness fills;
Still leaping and bounding,
Its echoes resounding,
With rapture my soul it thrills.
And precious my “Brook by the way” is,
As Homewards I journey along,
New life in His depths I discover,
New courage I take from His song;
In gloom and in gladness,
In sunshine and sadness,
He is my Salvation strong!1 [Note: T. Crawford, Horae Serenae, 71.]
2. One of the richest streams that water the desert of life is that of social sympathy and helpfulness, whereby we give and take of the rich solace of brotherly love. To feel that the world is a little better for our being, that, when the little light of our life goes out, it will not have altogether failed to light some other fire of warmth and helpfulness; that some lives will go onward a little stronger, and more hopeful, for something we have been, or said, or even tried to be, this is a brook of consolation which becomes the more precious the nearer we draw to the isolation of death. Wretched is the man who has missed this brook of gentle human ministry in life’s way, and recognized too late how much of his soul’s life he has lost in saving it.
Nor, that time,
When nature had subdued him to herself,
Would he forget those Beings to whose minds
Warm from the labours of benevolence
The world, and human life, appeared a scene
Of kindred loveliness: then he would sigh,
Inly disturbed, to think that others felt
What he must never feel.
George MacDonald says: “To know a man who can be trusted will do more for one’s moral nature than all the books of divinity that were ever written.” The beauty of the outward world is full of Divine help, but there is more beauty and more inspiration in living excellence than in the fairest natural scenes. Wonderfully refreshing is the heart’s speech of the truly wise and good, but more beneficent is the brave thought when it becomes the brave deed, and more life-giving the Divine Word when it is made flesh and dwells among us. How rich the quickening and renewing influences which come from the presence and example of men who lift clearly before us the nobler ideals of life; from the memory of the faithful dead; and from the biographic page—
Bright affluent spirits, breathing but to bless,
Whose presence cheers men’s eyes and warms their hearts,
Whose lavish goodness this old world renews,
Like the free sunshine and the liberal air.1 [Note: J. Hunter, The Angels of God, 36.]
There is a mysterious power in sympathy, and I thank God that the stream of sympathy is ever “in the way” of sorrowing souls. I see much sorrow, much pain, much heartbreak, but I see also, and I thank God for it, much sympathy. Indeed, I am persuaded we never know what a wealth of sympathy and love there dwells in many a heart until sorrow calls it forth. And how a little sympathy comforts, and cheers, and refreshes the soul. “She did help me,” said a poor soul about one who was a veritable angel of mercy. “I felt so much better for her visit.” “Well, what did she say to you?” I asked. “Well, she didn’t say much, but she sat with me and held my hand.” That good woman’s sympathy, silent sympathy, was a veritable “brook in the way” to that poor bereaved and lonely soul, and she drank of it and lifted up her head.
3. Another brook may be found in the appointed means of grace. Christ frequently drank of it. “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High.” We must seek, as our fathers did, the perennial springs of refreshment that are to be found in the private and public ordinances of religion. The excitements and exhaustions of modern life make this duty even more imperative. Industry and enterprise are good; but life is not only action, it is thought and feeling also. We do ourselves the greatest wrong if we allow our activities to crowd meditation and prayer out of our days and to rob us of the secret of rest in God. To have depth and elevation and tranquillity in life, and the aim kept high, and the impulse true and steady, it is absolutely necessary for mind and heart to have constant access to the Source of inspiration. It is a moral calamity to lose the meditative and worshipful spirit. Reverence, faith, and aspiration are the springs of noble and fruitful living. Sunday and the Church stand for our highest life. They invite us to drink of waters that rise from cool and unpolluted depths. They offer an opportunity of finding that truest rest and recreation which come through mental and spiritual quickening and uplifting, and of verifying the word of prophecy, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.”
I know a little chapel in my own native land, away out in the country, far from village and town. But every Sabbath from miles around the farmers and farm labourers gather in the little building to hear the gospel preached. Their lives are hard and monotonous enough; but they find peace, joy, love, in the little chapel, and because of what it has been to them they have called it “Elim.” There the name stands graven over the door—Elim, the place of springing water and shady palm trees. And that is what the sanctuary always is to the humble worshipper. Whether it is called by the name or not, it is an Elim to him. I read in the old Book of one who was sore distressed by the difficulties and troubles of life. They harassed him and well-nigh drove him to distraction. And it seemed as if the trouble would crush and overwhelm him, until—notice that—until he went into the sanctuary, and then the trouble all disappeared and his heart was filled with the peace of God. “I came to church tired,” wrote one to me only last week. “I came to church tired, and not a little soul weary; I left rested, refreshed, strengthened; I met my Lord there.”1 [Note: J. D. Jones, The Elims of Life, 182.]
4. The brook that truly quenches our thirst issues from the throne of God. All merely ethical and philanthropic systems lack power to slake man’s thirst, apart from the love of Him who was Love Incarnate. He, and He alone, it is who makes human life glad with the rivers of God; who gives us to drink not only of the “still waters” of His peace, but of the rich renewing wine of His blood.
Faith that looks up to Him finds “streams in the desert,” and many a brook of consolation and refreshment in the way of life’s sternest conflicts. Of such a faith it is true—
The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.
I remember an incident in the biography of a prince in learning, who, alas, was not a little child in the family of God. Once, in a time of depression, John Stuart Mill found comfort in music, until the thought came to him that, the octave having no more than eight tones in it, there must be limitations to the possibilities of melody. Even this spiritual octave of ours, various and marvellous as its messages are, has its limitations. Let us quench our thirst at the Fountainhead.1 [Note: A. Smellie, Service and Inspiration, 70.]
Augustine tried the broken cisterns and he was thirsty still. “Turned from Thee, the One Good, I lost myself among a multiplicity of things. I wandered into fruitless seed-beds of sorrow, with a proud dejectedness and a restless weariness. I bore about a shattered and bleeding soul, impatient of being borne by me, yet where to repose it I found not.” So the eager and often disappointed quest went on, until, under the fig-tree in the garden at Milan, in the year of our Saviour 386, he put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and made no provision for the flesh. Then his lips were opened, and he could sing: “This is the happy life, to rejoice to Thee and of Thee and for Thee; this is it, and there is no other. Too late I learned to know Thee, O Thou Beauty of ancient days, too late I learned to love Thee! Many and great are my infirmities; but Thy medicine is mightier.”
5. The use of the brook is to give refreshment and strength to continue the battle. Each age has its own impulse which carries it a little way, but then there is the temptation to relax and to rest in what has been attained, as if that were the measure of the thought of God. But with another age a new call has come and courage to deal with it. Men have not come to the end of the warfare to which Christ has committed them. The gospel has a promise for every creature under heaven; it has an application to every variety of condition; it proves its power in men of every age. “It starts each epoch and each century with renewed ardour and redoubled vigour.” The things that have been are the pale shadows of things which are to be. But every victory over sin in the present or in the future has its explanation in the greatness of the heart of the Redeemer, who still passes undiscouraged on His way.
At the extreme limit of his vision this poet saw not rest and quiescence, but the King setting forth upon yet greater conquests. We are a laggard race, ever anxious and unready, afraid of what may come, doubtful if righteousness can really win the day; and our chief need is to kindle faith for the world afresh by a better study of the world’s King. “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law.”
I think I have sometimes noticed in you an impatience of mind which you should guard against carefully. Pin this maxim up in your memory—that Nature abhors the credit system, and that we never get anything in life till we have paid for it. Anything good, I mean; evil things we always pay for afterwards, and always when we find it hardest to do it. By paying for them, of course, I mean labouring for them. Tell me how much good solid work a young man has in him, and I will erect a horoscope for him as accurate as Guy Mannering’s for young Bertram. Talents are absolutely nothing to a man except he have the faculty of work along with them. They, in fact, turn upon him and worry him, as Action’s dogs did—you remember the story? Patience and perseverance—these are the sails and the rudder even of genius, without which it is only a wretched hulk upon the waters.1 [Note: Letters of James Russell Lowell, i. 183.]
The husbandman sows his seed and toils on, and persistence reaps the harvest. The scholar opens his books and toils on, and persistence reaps fame. The reformer attacks the evil and toils on, and persistence destroys the evil. The force that is constant will always overcome the force that is less constant. Indeed, there never lived a man that came to anything who lacked this quality of pertinacity and adherence. How is it that the mountain-climber reached that summit of 23,000 feet? Plainly by going on and on until his foot was on the last stone and the whole earth was under his feet. The motto of David Livingstone was in these words: “I determined never to stop until I had come to the end and achieved my purpose.” When Livingstone’s work in Africa was done, the Dark Continent was mapped out and spread fully before the merchants of the world. He crossed Africa four times, and marched for days up to his armpits in water, endured twenty-seven attacks of fever, was surrounded with enemies on every side, faced mutiny, poisoned arrows, wild beasts, the bite of serpents, but never gave up. By sheer, dogged persistence and faith in God he conquered, acting as if he thought his body was as immortal as his spirit.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, The Contagion of Character, 228.]
By his zeal, constancy, and wisdom, by his mechanical genius and his gift of languages, Mackay had made himself a household word and a power in the whole region of Uganda. His hopefulness and courage never failed him. The misfortunes which overtook the Uganda mission at various times were regarded by timid and fearful souls at home as indications from God that the work there should be abandoned. When Mackay heard of these proposals, he wrote: “Are you joking? If you tell me in earnest that such a suggestion has been made, I only answer, Never! Tell me, ye faint hearts, to whom ye mean to give up the mission? Is it to murderous raiders like Mwanga, or to slave-traders from Zanzibar, or to English and Belgian dealers in rifles and gunpowder, or to German spirit-sellers? All are in the field, and they make no talk of ‘giving up’ their respective missions!” That was the spirit which burnt in the heart of Mackay to the end of his brief life.2 [Note: W. G. Berry, Bishop Hannington, 180.]