Yea, in the presence of all his people.—Psa_116:12-14.
1. The psalm from which this text is taken is a psalm of thanksgiving. It is one of six called the Great Hallel, extending from the 113th to the 118th, which were sung by the Jews at their great festivals, especially at the Passover. It was probably one of these psalms that was sung by our Saviour and His eleven disciples when He instituted His own supper, at the close of His last Passover with them; as we are told in the evangelic story, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out unto the mount of Olives.”
2. It appears that the Psalmist, when he wrote this psalm, had been delivered by God out of some mighty trouble. How great that trouble was may be gathered from the telling language in which he describes it. “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.” But while in this terrible situation he directed his thoughts heavenward, and looked for help where he had often found help before. Nor did he look in vain; for he says, “Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.” And in the text he communes with his own soul, and considers how he may most effectually prove his gratitude for this timely deliverance. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?”
A Bountiful Giver
1. The Psalmist was not one of those thoughtless and indifferent men who pass through life receiving all, enjoying all, expecting all, without ever bestowing a thought on the bountiful Giver. On the contrary, he seems to have been so overwhelmed by the magnitude and multiplicity of God’s benefits that he scarcely knew how to express his gratitude. The language he employs is that of a man perplexed, bewildered, overcome, hardly knowing what to say or how to act. “For all his benefits toward me”—benefits great, benefits small, benefits temporal, benefits spiritual; but all benefits unmerited and free. “For all his benefits;” as they rose before his view, a vast, countless host, they laid him under a debt of obligation which he could never hope to discharge.
My father’s gift of appreciation was of a most charming type. The constant repetitions of a blessing never dulled the fine edge of his gratitude. He had a sunlit bedroom, and every morning, so my mother tells me, he said, “What a beautiful bedroom! We must thank God!”1 [Note: Love and Life: The Story of J. Denholm Brash (1913), 156.]
2. Few of us are adequately thankful for the commonplace blessings which surround us; we take them as a matter of course. We do not know what it is to be without them; we see no prospect of being deprived of them. If the world has not gone very well with us, it has not gone very badly; because we might have more to complain of, we forget for how much we ought to be grateful. Let us contemplate, as in the presence of God, all the proofs that we have experienced of His mercy; the pure affection that He has inspired, the sins that have been forgiven us, the snares which we have escaped, the protection we have received. Let our hearts be touched with the remembrance of all the precious proofs of His goodness. Add to this the sorrows that He has sent to sanctify our hearts; for we should look upon these also as proofs of His love for us. Let gratitude for the past inspire us with confidence in the future. Let us never distrust Him; let us fear only ourselves and remember that He is the Father of mercies, and the God of all consolation. He sometimes takes away His consolations from us, but His mercy ever remains.
O God, for my existence, my life, my reason; for nurture, protection, guidance, education, civil rights, religion; for Thy gifts to me of grace, nature, worldly good; for redemption, regeneration, instruction in the truth; for my call, recall, yea, many calls all through life; for Thy forbearance, longsuffering, long long-suffering, toward me, even until now; for all good things received, for all successes granted to me, for all good deeds I have been enabled to do; for my parents honest and good, for teachers kind, for benefactors never to be forgotten, for religious intimates so congenial and so helpful, for hearers thoughtful, friends true and sincere, servants faithful; for all who have helped me by their writings, sermons, conversations, prayers, examples, rebukes, and even injuries; for all these, and for all others which I know, and which I know not, open, hidden, remembered, forgotten;—“What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits?”1 [Note: Bishop Andrewes, Preces Privatœ.]
3. Our share of God’s benefits may not be as complete as we desire, but perhaps it is much more than we deserve. If we lack this or that benefit, so copiously showered on another, shall we venture to suggest that a greater measure of it would be for our eternal good? His wealth might be my curse; my health might rob him of the necessary discipline of suffering. This man’s loneliness is meant to make him introspective and spiritual; that man’s adversity will teach him humility and compassion. The Lord knows what is best. And, realizing that, let none of us question or complain. Let us see in the distribution of the commonplace benefits of life, not an erratic or partial bestowal, but a Divine assignment of mercies and blessings. Let gratitude and thankfulness and faith possess our hearts and minds. There are indeed moments in life when we awake to the fact of God’s boundless, multitudinous, all-encompassing love, and when we are almost overwhelmed by the thought of it. A devout soul in habitual worship acknowledges much, and even then feels more than is expressed, and finally sees more than is felt. Yet, alas! the goodness of God recognized by us is by far the least part of it. There is the goodness we overlook. God’s gifts are multiplied like the dewdrops or the snowflakes, and, gliding into life just as silently, are easily undiscerned by careless eyes like ours.
One day in the town of Sonora, in the southern mines of California, after a very heavy rain and freshet, a man was leading his mule-cart up the steep principal street, when his foot struck upon a large stone; he stooped down to remove it, and found it was a solid lump of gold, about twenty-five pounds’ weight, which had been exposed by the storm, and many hundreds of people had passed over it daily. So do we daily blindly trample on blessings richer than all the wealth of California. There is the goodness we misconstrue. We count sublime things commonplace, and reckon as losses and disappointments the discipline which brings incorruptible treasure. The “benefits” of God are not the pleasant things merely, but all the things of pain and tears.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Education of the Heart, 253.]
4. To perceive and appreciate our benefits necessitates a very refined soul. That is so upon the merely human plane. There are some men who cannot appreciate kindness. They either never see their benefits or they misconstrue them. They are the victims either of dulness or of pride, and both these foul spirits make this kind of appreciation impossible. But this spiritual numbness is even more apparent in our relationship to God. We receive multitudes of benefits, but we do not see the Divine mark upon their foreheads. We take them in, but they are not revealed to us as the King’s bounty. It is amazing how fine is the perception of other souls! They never open their eyes without seeing the presence of the hosts of God. “The mountains are full of horses and chariots.” Having nothing, they yet possess all things.
It has been my lot to pay frequent visits to a man who had cancer in the throat. I have watched the awful advances of the insidious and inevitable disease. I have heard the manly voice sink into whispers, and then entirely cease. And yet when speech was silenced there was a light in the face like the radiant noon. He would take his pen in hand, and write a catalogue of the mercies by which he was beset, and in the contemplation of the multitude he almost forgot his calamity and pain. What an eye he had for the benefits of the Lord! I went into another house which had been suddenly plunged in the darkness of bereavement. The hale and genial father was taken away in a day, and the happy united family rudely broken up. And yet as soon as I opened the door, and met the sorrowing widow, these were the first words that leapt to her lips: “How good God has been!” Even in the night-time she had been counting the stars, and in the awful pangs of bereavement she had felt the amazing consolations of Christ. What an eye she had for the benefits of the Lord!1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
A Grateful Recipient
1. As his grateful heart thinks of all God’s benefits to him, the Psalmist feels at once the impulse to requite and the impossibility of doing so. With a kind of glad despair he asks the question that ever springs to thankful lips, and, having nothing to give, recognizes the only possible return to God to be the acceptance of the brimming chalice which His goodness commends to his thirst. The great thought, then, which lies here is that we best requite God by thankfully taking what He gives. The Psalmist asks what he can render, and he answers that he will further take! And this is the very essence of true gratitude. The best return we can make for a gift of God is to take a higher gift. Have we thanked Him for our daily bread? Then the best return we can make is to take the bread of life. Have we thanked Him for our sleep? Then the best return we can make is to take His gift of rest and peace. Have we thanked Him for our health? Then the best return we can make is to seek His gift of holiness. “I will take the finest thing upon the Lord’s table! He has given me this gift, now I will take a bigger gift!” We do an ill thing to our Lord if we are profuse about His secondary gifts and leave His best upon the table. “My joy I give unto you.” Have we taken that yet? “My peace I give unto you.” Have we taken that yet? “Glories upon glories hath our God prepared.” And the first element in all praise and worship is to take the richer gifts the Lord is offering unto us.
2. Do we not feel that all the beauty and bloom of a gift is gone if the giver hopes to receive as much again? Do we not feel that it is all gone if the receiver thinks of repaying it in any coin but that of the heart? Love gives because it delights in giving. It gives that it may express itself and may bless the recipient. If there be any thought of return, it is only the return of love. That is how God gives; and we requite Him by taking rather than by giving, not merely because He needs nothing, and we have nothing which is not His. If that were all, it might be as true of an almighty tyrant, and might be so used as to forbid all worship before the gloomy presence, to give reverence and love to whom were as impertinent as the grossest offerings of savage idolaters. But the motive of His giving to us is the deepest reason why our best recompense to Him is our thankful reception of His mercies.
3. The key-note of the highest and happiest life is thankfulness. Thankfulness means personal communion with God; a perpetual longing to do His will, an absorbing anxiety not to offend Him. Thankfulness involves a passionate love for the human race, a deep sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters in God’s royal family, active endeavours to allay the ills around us. Thankfulness necessitates the strengthening and refreshing of our immortal souls by every grace and every agency we can command. So be thankful! The years that we are here are few and fitful. It is worth taking some trouble to make them fragrant and interesting. They may be so if we will. Life is full of opportunities; it is for us prayerfully, profitably, thankfully, to use them. They may not lead us to all that we hope for; they may not open upon realities we have long sighed after; they may not help us to gratify material aspirations; but they will always point us to avenues of gratitude and thankfulness, to possibilities of effort and goodness. And though there be vouchsafed to us nothing more glorious—as men count glory—than the elementary endowments, the ordinary mercies, the commonplace benefits of life; though fame and wealth and honour never cluster round our names, none the less—nay, all the more—may we lie down at last in peace and quietly commend our souls to Him who gave them, to do for them and with them what He thinks wisest and best in the harvest of the hereafter.
There was an expression which Samuel Rutherford constantly used—a “drowned debtor to God’s mercy.” He meant that he was over head and ears in debt to God: he could not tell how deep his obligations were, so he just called himself “a drowned debtor” to the lovingkindness and the mercy of his God.
The question in the text recalls a well-known incident in the life of a famous soldier, who also became a famous Christian—Colonel James Gardiner. One night, when he was little thinking of Divine things, but on the contrary had made an appointment of the most vicious kind, he was waiting for the appointed hour, when he saw, or thought he saw, before him in the room wherein he sat alone, a visible representation of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, and he was impressed, as if a voice had said to him to this effect—“O sinner, I did all this for thee; what hast thou done for Me?” The vision and the words he heard were the means of Colonel Gardiner’s conversion. The words quoted, it may be added, suggested Frances Ridley Havergal’s well-known hymn beginning:—
I gave My life for thee,
My precious blood I shed,
That thou might’st ransom’d be,
And quicken’d from the dead.
I gave My life for thee;
What hast thou given for Me?
Miss Havergal was staying with a German divine, in whose study was a picture of our crucified Saviour, beneath which was placed the motto: “I did this for thee; what hast thou done for Me?” She had come in weary, and, sitting down in front of the picture, the Saviour’s eyes seemed to rest upon her. She read the motto, and the lines of her hymn flashed upon her, and she at once wrote them in pencil on a scrap of paper. Looking them over she thought them so poor that she tossed them on the fire, but they fell out untouched. Some months afterwards she showed them to her father, who encouraged her to preserve them, and he wrote the tune “Baca” specially for them. The hymn was published in Good Words, and becoming a favourite soon found its way into the hymn-books of the Christian Church.1 [Note: Canon J. Duncan, Popular Hymns, 215.]
A Consecrated Life
1. God bestows so many blessings upon us that we can in one sense of the word return absolutely nothing to Him for His gifts. The Psalmist’s words imply this: I can bring Thee no great gift, I can lay no priceless offering at Thy feet, I have nothing that is not already Thine own, for all has come from Thee. I will take the cup of salvation. I will accept Thy bounteous mercy with a thankful heart. I will seek to link all my life to Thee. This thought helps us to meet a very common temptation. A man may realize something of the goodness of God. He may say to himself: “If I had very large means like some men, how much I would try to do in return! I would build a stately cathedral for the service of God, a noble house of prayer for all time. I would endow a hospital to minister to human suffering. I would put the highest education within the reach of the poorest man. But I have so little income, it scarcely overlaps my own pressing wants.” Then, because he cannot do great things, he sinks back and does nothing at all. He would reform an empire, but does not order his own house. He dreams of cleansing a city, but never sweeps before his own door. The Psalmist teaches us the true lesson, and shows us what we may all do. We may give ourselves first of all, and then the avenues of service will open out before us according to His will.
Any dreams which she may have harboured of literary distinction, she had put resolutely away from her. “Oh God,” she had written in her diary at Cairo, “Thou puttest into my heart this great desire to devote myself to the sick and sorrowful. I offer it to Thee. Do with it what is for Thy service.”1 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 95.]
2. Taking the cup of salvation, in its simple, full meaning, expresses the pledging of our personality to God, the consecration of ourselves to His service. We recognize Him as Redeemer, Deliverer, and Friend, and acknowledge ourselves His in life and death. Our trustful heart, our acquiescent will, our obedient life, our whole personality must be surrendered in the power of love. Christ Himself gave us not only the ritual of an ordinance, but the pattern for our lives, when He “took the cup and gave thanks.” And now for us common joys become sacraments, enjoyment becomes worship, and the cup which holds the bitter or the sweet skilfully mingled for our lives becomes the cup of blessing and salvation drunk in remembrance of Him. If we carried that spirit with us into all our small duties, sorrows, and gladnesses, how different they would all seem!
“Salvation” can scarcely be taken in its highest meaning in our text, both because the whole tone of the psalm fixes its reference to lower blessings, and because the word is in the plural in the Hebrew. “The cup of salvations” expresses, by that plural form, the fulness and variety of the manifold and multiform deliverances which God had wrought and was working for the Psalmist. His whole lot in life appears to him as a cup full of tender goodness, loving faithfulness, delivering grace. It runs over with Divine acts of help and sustenance.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
3. Many cups may be offered us as we go through life. We may for the moment be dazzled by the gemmed and sparkling cup of earthly pleasure, or the cup of worldly aims and ambitions. Let us put them aside. Let each one say, “I will take the cup of salvation.” I will accept and use all God’s offered mercy. The chalice of redeeming love shall be my chiefest treasure. I will take it—I will seek to be God’s true child, the grateful son of so loving a Father. I will endeavour in all things to do His will, hoping to be guided ever by His grace and shielded ever by His protecting care.
There is an old legend of an enchanted cup filled with poison, and put treacherously into a king’s hand. He made the sign of the Cross and named the name of God over it, and it shivered in his grasp. Do you take that name of the Lord as a test? Name Him over many a cup of which you are eager to drink, and the glittering fragments will lie at your feet, and the poison be spilled on the ground. What you cannot lift before His pure eyes and think of Him while you enjoy is not for you. Friendships, schemes, plans, ambitions, amusements, speculations, studies, loves, businesses—can you call on the name of the Lord while you put these cups to your lips? If not, fling them behind you, for they are full of poison which, for all its sugared sweetness, at the last will “bite like a serpent and sting like an adder.”2 [Note: Ibid.]
A Vow and its Fulfilment
When the cords of death compassed the Psalmist (Psa_116:3), he had made a strong and secret vow. He said to himself, “If I get over this I will live a more pronounced life unto the Lord.” “If I get my strength back, I will use it for the King.” “If I get out of this darkness, I will take a lamp and light the feet of other men.” And now he is better again, and he sets about redeeming his vow. The midnight vow was redeemed in the morning. As soon as he was out of the peril he remembered his covenant. “Now!” There must be no delay. In this sphere delays are attended with infinite peril. We may trifle with anything rather than with a fresh and tender vow. Well begun is half done. And he will also surround the redemption of his vow with publicity. He will do something publicly which will strongly proclaim him on God’s side, and tell to all men that he has given his devotion to Him. And that must be our way. The vow we made in secret must be performed openly. We must do something to indicate that we have passed through a great experience, and that we are remembering the benefits of the Lord. We can speak His name to another. We can write some gracious letter to a friend. We can attach ourselves publicly to the Master’s Church. We can commit ourselves openly and outwardly as professed followers of the King. And wherever we are, throughout all our life, we must continue to pay our vows. In joy, in sorrow, in the valley, on the mount, the vow must perpetually be redeemed. And if that be our part, fervent and unbroken, the Lord’s part will also endure. He will continually be pouring His benefits upon us, and we shall grow in riches with every passing day.
Hugh Miller, in his letters, gives an interesting account of his experience. He thought he was falling into consumption—that stone-cutter’s tuberculosis was settling upon his lungs—and, realizing that death might not be far away, he thought of living a new and better life. He had always piqued himself on being true to his word. If he passed his word to a fellow-workman, no man could ever say that he had broken it, even if it was a promise given to an idiot boy that passed his time around the shed. To him the promise was sacred and most honourably kept. Well, why not pass his word to God, why not give a promise to the Almighty, and then in his native honesty begin a life of holiness and love? Fascinated with the idea, he gave his solemn vow,—alas! only to break it and befool himself, and clothe his soul with shame. He, so honest before men, so staunch and upright and true, found out he was little better than a bankrupt and a liar in the presence of the living God. This led to a humbling exercise of soul, and a truer knowledge of grace. The lesson is a valuable one, and we are slow to learn it. Our cold dead vows, apart from God, are nothing.1 [Note: R. Waterston, Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper, 136.]
Burrows (H. W.), Parochial Sermons, iii. 154.
Ketcham (W. E.), Thanksgiving Sermons, 245.
Kirkpatrick (A. F.), The Book of Psalms (Cambridge Bible), 690.