It giveth understanding unto the simple.—Psa_119:130
1. The section of the psalm in which the text occurs is a gem of spiritual beauty. In verse after verse we are led through the deep places of religious faith and love, and the Psalmist guides our feet like one conversant with the holiest secrets of the spiritual pilgrim’s way. His thoughts are perennial, and his words sound like the utterance of a believing soul here and now in this present generation.
“God’s word is wonderful, mysterious.” It holds a great mystery which is an offence to the pretentious intellectualism of the wise, but in this very wonderfulness the obedient soul finds rest. Through obedience comes fuller knowledge. “God’s word opens.” And fuller knowledge creates fuller trust and devotion. For “the light grows with the opening of the word,” and in it there is no darkness at all. New light produces new longing, a more eager “panting” of the spirit for the word of God. The longing for God’s word quickly reveals itself as a longing for God Himself, a hungering for His mercy and love. In the vision of God’s face the desire for purity of life is intensified and the soul pleads for deliverance from the “dominion of iniquity.” Then the man rises into full consciousness of his privilege as one of God’s freemen, whom no power shall enslave and no fetters shall bind. “The oppression of man shall not hold him in bondage.” And so he stands in the gladness of spiritual strength while God’s face “shines upon him” like the sun from heaven. Living in God’s light, his heart, like God’s, becomes full of compassion for a sinful world. As the Son of God in later days wept for the sins and woes of Jerusalem, so this ancient Psalmist says: “Mine eyes run down with rivers of water, because they observe not thy law.”
2. The object of Christian faith may be compared to a jewel enclosed in a casket. The jewel is the Lord Jesus Christ; the casket is the Bible. Now, we believe that a man may possess the jewel who has never seen the casket, or who has got it in his hands in an imperfect and broken form. There is such an efficacy in the Lord Jesus Christ, such a fitness in Him for the sins and sorrows and wants of poor fallen humanity, that the Holy Spirit of God can bring Him home to the soul with saving power by a small portion of knowledge. A single Gospel, a single Epistle, a Psalm such as the Twenty-third, or a verse such as “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” if explained simply and brought home by God’s Spirit, may become God’s power unto salvation. The Bible came to men in fragments, piece after piece, through many generations, and a fragment of it still does its proper work. It has a principle of life that is complete in its separate parts, and you may see all its truth in one text, as you can see all the sun’s image in one drop of dew in a flower. This is a wise, Divine arrangement, which may reassure some who fear they are losing Christ, when the question is about the meaning of some parts of the Bible. If a man were so driven about on seas of difficulty that he could have only a board or broken piece of the ship, it would “bring him safe to land.” Nevertheless, the care and completeness of the casket are of very great moment. Our salvation may be gained by one word about Christ, but our edification, our Christian comfort and well-being, depend on the full word of Christ. Whenever He is set forth, however dimly, there is something for us to learn, something needful to make us thoroughly furnished unto every good work. Here the Bible may be compared, not to a casket enclosing a jewel, but to a piece of tapestry on which a figure is inwoven. If it be mutilated, or the golden threads that meet and intermingle be torn and tarnished, we lose, so far, the complete image of truth that is the inheritance of the Church of Christ—the inheritance which the Apostle thus describes: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
Bartholdi’s statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” occupies a fine position on Bedloes Island, which commands the approach to New York Harbour. It holds up a torch which is lit at night by an immense electric light. The statue was cast in portions in Paris. The separate pieces were very different, and, taken apart, of uncouth shape. It was only when all was brought together, each in its right place, that the complete design was apparent. Then the omission of any one would have left the work imperfect. In this it is an emblem of Holy Scripture. We do not always see the object of certain portions; nevertheless each has its place, and the whole is a magnificent statue of Christ Jesus, who is the true “Liberty Enlightening the World,” casting illuminative rays across the dark, rocky ocean of time, and guiding anxious souls to the desired haven.1 [Note: G. Jackson.]
The Light Hid
1. The word of God is not a book. There are plenty of Bibles in the world to-day. Indeed there never was a time when so many were distributed. The printing presses of Christendom fairly groan with the innumerable volumes. Nor is the word of God preaching. Churches abound and times of prosperity see them built and rebuilt in ever more magnificent form. The greater the wealth of the community and the more easy and abundant its luxury, the more gorgeous become its churches, the more elegant their ritual, and the more eloquent their preaching. The word of God is the voice of God in a man’s soul. As the Saviour put it: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” That is the voice which, through whatever channel it comes and in whatever words it declares itself, becomes the compelling voice in a man’s heart, awakening him to a new consciousness of his relations to his Maker.
2. The word of God is a living word, addressed to men, and it brings the power of God Himself along with it. God did not wait to speak to men until they had advanced so far that they were able to provide themselves with some kind of record of what He said. Far back in the infancy and childhood of the human race, God condescended to men in their weakness and frailty, spoke to them and made Himself intelligible, and lodged the incorruptible seed in their hearts. All the epistles in those days were living epistles, and the living word of God was not written down, but passed like fire, with all its power to quicken and redeem, from heart to heart.
3. No book can adequately express God’s word. What God had to say to men, what God at last actually did say to men, was something too great for human words to record. “God,” we read in the Bible itself, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.” “By his Son”—revelation was consummated in Christ. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth,” and Christ, in all the fulness of His grace and truth, is God’s last word to man. Could anybody produce an adequate record of Christ? Could any words that man could use ever tell all the wonderful meaning of that manifestation of God? Evangelists, after they had done their best, declared that half had never been told. You remember how the last of them, John, says at the end of his Gospel, after he had tried to tell everything: “The world itself would not contain the books that should be written.” No human word, the most wonderful or searching or patient, could ever tell out for men everything that God meant when He sent His Son to save the world.
You do right to call it “The Book,” but you must not forget that it is a book. It has the limitations of a book, the mistakes of a book, the obscurities of a book, the impotence of a book. And while it is the treasury of the most profound and unquestionable and authoritative in books, it is still only a book. There is something more than the Book. There is a life, a living passion, a moulding faith, a lifting hope; and they are greater than the Book.1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, A Thornless World, 15.]
What is a word, a sentence, a book, a library? What are all libraries? A mere peep into the inexpressible. The best writers know this, and are not surprised if they find out their most important things in between the lines, and the best readers soon learn where to look for them. The best speakers know this, and feel when all is done that they have left their most impressive thoughts unspoken because they are unspeakable. However, the best hearers understand perfectly well, perhaps better than if they had been spoken. The poets know best how to use language. They often express their most inexpressible, or evanescent thoughts by means of repugnant, or somewhat paradoxical epithets; as, for example, Coleridge when he says:
The stilly murmur of the distant sea
Tells us of silence.
The belief that it is easy to speak plainly on these great subjects is at the bottom of nearly all the mistakes which divide men in religion, and, it may be added, of nearly all the scepticism which has ever existed.1 [Note: S. Hall.]
4. Multitudes are unconscious of the highest truths, incapable of them. They lack a sense, the sublimest sense of all, the faculty to discern the reality of the Divine and eternal. Clever enough in the arts of this life, they are stone-blind to the higher. Standing beneath the visible world, patent to us all, is an invisible underworld of atoms, ether, colours, and subtle movements, which only the disciplined sense of the scientist can detect and measure; all around us is another world of beauty, music, and poetry, perceived and appreciated only by those possessed of the artistic sense; and again, above us is a supreme world of which God is the everlasting light and glory, a realm evident only to those whose senses are exercised in holy thought, constant purity, and willing obedience.
We say that the eye creates half that it sees: but no eye is nearly so creative as a blind one; and the proud critic, knowing nothing as he ought to know, enlarges copiously and confidently on his speculations. It is the astronomy of the blind. Competent on questions of the lower spheres, these talkers are of no account in regard to the reality and blessedness of personal godliness. Their astronomy is the veriest superstition set forth in the language of philosophy. The least in the Kingdom of God is greater than these. Only men born again see the eternal light clearly and steadily. Only as we experience the truths Divine do we comprehend them. Only as we do the will of God in daily obedience do we know the doctrine. As Carlyle puts it: “He who has done nothing has known nothing.” Then do we see light in God’s light, and know the secret of the world, of life, of the future when we believe in our heart and obey in our life.
That Thou art nowhere to be found, agree
Wise men, whose eyes are but for surfaces;
Men with eyes opened by the second birth,
To whom the seen, husk of the unseen is,
Descry the soul of everything on earth.
Who knows Thy ends, Thy means and motions see;
Eyes made for glory soon discover Thee.
Not very long ago The Times newspaper contained a correspondence on the desirableness of science lecturers making their great themes more clear to the ordinary audience. In defence the lecturers maintained that it is almost impossible to make lucid the problems of nature to listeners so entirely destitute of knowledge and sympathy as the majority are. More difficult still is it for certain minds to grasp mathematical or metaphysical problems. How completely the ungifted and undisciplined stand away from the mysteries of music! While Glinka was writing his immortal work, his wife complained before everyone that “he was wasting ruled paper.” The obtuse content themselves with the sarcasm that “music is a noise costlier than other noises.” And as to the arts, the critics declare that genuine work is unintelligible to the crowd. “The beautiful is what your servant instinctively thinks is frightful.”1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, Life’s Unexpected Issues, 27.]
The Light Revealed
“The opening of thy words giveth light.” When the book is opened, the light streams forth. The term translated “giveth light” is a transitive verb which means “to cause to shine.” The direct object of the verb may be supplied by using any term which will indicate the lover of God’s word. “The opening of God’s Word maketh the attentive heart to shine.” That is, the Word of God gives light by enkindling the light of truth within our souls. It is the same word that is used concerning God in the 135th verse—“Make thy face to shine upon thy servant.” As His face shines upon us, He makes our hearts shine back upon Him and upon the world. He does not illuminate our path mechanically, but sets His light within us livingly. He uses us, not as passive reflectors of His brightness, but as burning and shining lights.
1. We must learn to open the book. If God has given us a heavenly Word, a Divinely communicated Word, the first thing we should do is to learn diligently to understand that Word. If God has spoken, then our greatest business is to try to understand what God has said. Suppose a great prince or a great sage spoke words of wisdom, and a thoughtless, foolish person rushed in and began to babble his inanities, instead of trying to understand the wisdom of the counsellor, what would you think? You would probably think more than you would like to say. Are we any better, if, when God has spoken, and in the face of that utterance, instead of setting ourselves in lowliness to understand His great message, we go on babbling our own little passing speculations? We are people of many books to-day, and we speak of our fathers sarcastically as “men of one book.” There is no objection to many books, but we would do well to get back to the one, and to understand something more of the great mystery of Divine love which God has revealed to us.
Mr. Moody tells us in an amusing way of his own experience: “I used at one time to read so many chapters a day, and if I did not I thought I was cold and backsliding, but, mind you, if a man had asked me an hour afterwards what I had read, I could not have told him—I had forgotten nearly it all. When I was a boy I used to hoe turnips on a farm, and I used to hoe them so badly to get over so much ground that at night I had to put a stick into the ground so as to know next morning where I had left off.” That was somewhat in the same fashion as much Bible reading. A man will say: “Wife, did I read that chapter?” “Well,” she says, “I don’t remember”; and neither of them can recollect. Now, there is no sort of merit or profit in that sort of Bible reading; no blessing comes with it. It is of no more use than galloping through so many columns of advertisements or so many pages of the dictionary. If the Scriptures are to profit us, we must ask, as we read, “What does this mean? What does it teach? What lesson may I learn from it? Does it suggest prayer? Does it prompt praise? Does it prescribe duty?” It would be well if all of us might sometimes be pulled up in our reading by the question, “Understandest thou that which thou readest?”1 [Note: G. H. James.]
2. The more we study the Word, the more freely the light breaks upon us. “The opening of thy words giveth light” means not only that God’s Word gives light, but that this light grows with the growing revelation or understanding of the Word. As the Word opens before the soul the Divine shines forth from it more clearly, and the glory of the God it exhibits becomes more wonderful. The more we understand the Word, the more we see of God. The deeper we go into the revelation, the nearer we get to the blaze of the eternal Light.
A friend of mine visited Mr. Prang’s chromo establishment in Boston. Mr. Prang showed him a stone on which was laid the colour for making the first impression toward producing the portrait of a distinguished public man, but he could see only the faintest possible line of tinting. The next stone that the paper was submitted to deepened the colour a little, but still no trace of the man’s face was visible. Again and again was the sheet passed over successive stones, until at last the outline of a man’s face was dimly discerned. Finally, after some twenty impressions from as many different stones, the portrait of the distinguished man stood forth so perfectly that it seemed to lack only the power of speech to make it living. Thus it is with Christ in the Scriptures.2 [Note: G. Jackson.]
A Hindoo gentleman, holding a high office in the Presidency of Bombay, told me a few years ago that during his vacation he was anxious to read with his son for an hour or two daily a book of high moral and spiritual influence. He thought of many, and at last decided to take the Book of Psalms. “We treat it,” he said, “like any other book; we investigate questions of authorship, we try to discover the circumstances in which each psalm was written, we separate the purely Jewish elements from those of more general interest and importance, we try to discriminate between what is human and faulty, and what is lofty and spiritual. By doing this we seem often to hear the voice of God speaking in our hearts, showing us the way of truth and duty, and calling us to higher aspirations and efforts.” The man who said this to me was not a Christian. It shows us what hope there is in presenting our Scriptures to non-Christians in the right way, and how true it is that these Scriptures possess a universal adaptation to the human spirit.3 [Note: A. Macarthur.]
The Light Utilized
1. “It giveth understanding unto the simple.” We all know what it means to have the intellect enlightened. Everywhere we are encountering new knowledge. The sciences are all new, the practical affairs of life are conducted on new methods, with new instruments and, we may also say, with new purposes. We live not only on a new continent, but in a veritable new world. Enlightenment of the understanding seems at times the single, all-important necessity. All our great system of schools and colleges and universities is to the one end of providing this enlightened understanding for the growing generation; and we summon the young people to every sacrifice to attain to the enlightenment which is so much needed. We are charmed when we come upon any indication of what it holds in store for them.
When Professor Agassiz came to America and made his first journey westward from the sea-coast, he sat all day in the train looking out of the window, for everywhere he quickly discovered what no one else had seen—signs of the action of the great glaciers of the ice period upon the surface of the continent. Every rounded hill, every pond in Massachusetts, every undulation in the levels south of Lake Erie was to him the proof of the theory of the Ice Age as he had held it. And these indisputable signs of a great geological epoch had laid openly before the eyes of generations of men who had been blind to see them. The record of geological history was written on the very face of the continent, and up to that hour no one had read it. With what excitement he turned the leaf of the great story! With what interest he told what he saw! With what open-eyed wonder people responded to the new teaching! We want enlightened intelligence in matters of religion. There are truths as new, as important, and as interesting in regard to revelation, and in regard to the Bible. We may well pray that the Church everywhere, and all believers, may have as a gift of God, enlightenment of their understanding.1 [Note: H. A. Stimson, The New Things of God, 188.]
India has a venerable civilization, such as it is, and sacred books which contain a great deal of wisdom and beauty; but the Light of Asia has never brought enlightenment to the millions who receive it. With all the intellectual glory of ancient Greece, popular education was a thing unknown. Rome trained her people to war and plunder for the aggrandizement of the State. Certain of the slaves were educated to teach their master’s sons, but the plebeian multitude were poor, ignorant, and despised. Let the intellectual status of the people of Russia, Italy, Spain, or even France be compared with that of the people in Germany, England, or the United States, and how significant are the facts which appear.1 [Note: S. O. Benton.]
2. But if we need enlightenment of the intellect, we need still more the dew of heaven upon the heart. The heart is the man, and the man must be reached if the work of God is to go forward. Sadly we discover that the enlightenment of the intellect goes but a short way in changing the character. Character rests upon decisions of the will, the abiding purposes of life, and these are determined primarily by the feelings. It is therefore the enlightenment of the heart, the stirring up of the feelings, the opening of the deep wells of the soul, and the appeal to the essential nature of the man himself that alone answers the call of God, and that alone can make men free, in the large sense of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The mere accumulation of knowledge is like the stuffing of the stove with fuel—it remains as cold and dead as the iron itself until the fire is kindled, which alone can transform it, and set free its imprisoned energies.
This is the unique triumph of God’s word that it recreates the soul, and changes the unrighteous into the image of Christ. No other power on earth has been able thus to renew the spirit of man. But this word of God renews its power in every generation. Into the dark soul its light enters, and in the lowly spirit the fire of God burns with inextinguishable blaze. In God’s light we see light, and the enkindled soul communes with the glory of God. In Christ Jesus the fallen one rises to be a new creation, and hears a holy voice cry, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”
This characteristic has been splendidly manifest in the propagation of the gospel in foreign lands. The hindrances to the exercise of this power are enormous among the devotees of false religions. Custom, tradition, sentiment, imagination, and all the vast conservatism of social forces, are arrayed against the incoming of the light of the Gospel. The feeble groundwork of truth upon which the false superstructure is reared has an ancient influence which counts for much. Yet, wherever the Word of God gets an opportunity, its results are similar to those which we have ourselves experienced. In Africa, India, China, and the islands of the sea, men and women rise to the same childlike assurance of pardon and peace in Jesus Christ, and confess in the common language of Christian faith the light-giving and life-giving virtue of the Word of God. The people that sat in darkness have seen a great slight, and that light is the Son of God.1 [Note: J. Thomas, Concerning the King, 57.]
The other day I was reading a story of a Frenchman who was being entertained by a Christian chief in one of the Pacific Islands. The chief had a Bible, which the Frenchman sneered at, saying that in Europe they had got past that. The chief led his guest out of the house, showed him where they used to cook and eat their meals in cannibal days, and clinched everything by saying, “My friend, if it had not been for that Book, I should have been dining upon you now.”2 [Note: J. R. Walker.]
3. Understanding comes only to the simple-hearted: “Unto the simple.” A simple person is often supposed to be a person who has no understanding or wisdom. But here “simple” means sincere, honest—a person who has a right aim, a right eye. What says the Saviour of such? “If thine eye be single”—rendered sometimes “simple”—if thine eye be simple, “thy whole body shall be full of light.” There is the entrance of God’s word. “But if thine eye be evil,”—if it be double, if it be hypocritical, if it be deceitful,—“thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If, therefore, the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is the darkness!” And how gracious it is of God, how merciful, that He should put the condition of our receiving the inward light, not upon intellectual and moral capacity. What if He had rested it on intellect, on philosophy, on science, or rank, or natural power of intellect: if He had promised it to the man who could muster different languages, or solve profound and difficult problems! But, so far from this, it is just the reverse; for this is what the Spirit of God tells us of His work, “Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence”; and, it is added, “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
A teacher eminent in scientific research in describing the wondrous beauty and the mysterious structure of a leaf, has said that any tyro can see the facts for himself if he is provided with a leaf and a microscope. But how helpless would the tyro be if he had only the leaf, and not the microscope! The leaf would be perfect in all its parts, it would contain rare beauty of form, colour, and structure, though the tyro was ignorant of it, and had not a microscope to see it. Without the aid of a microscope, a scientific teacher even could not see the mysterious substance, the strange movements, and the beautiful structure of the leaf. The optical instrument is as necessary for the intelligent as for the ignorant, for the scientific as for the uneducated. If a man were to examine the leaf, without the aid of the instrument, and declare his inability to see any inner beauty, form, and structure in the leaf, the simple answer would be that these are things which can only be microscopically discerned. Now this is not merely the teaching of scientists, it is the teaching of the Apostle. Spiritual things can be seen and known only by a spiritual mind—a mind aided and strengthened by the higher power of vision which the Spirit of God imparts.1 [Note: W. Simpson.]
There was a literary woman who stood high among book critics. One day in reviewing a book she said, “Who wrote this book? It is beautifully written, but there is something wrong here and there!” She proceeded to criticize with a good deal of severity. Some months afterwards this lady became acquainted with the author of the book, fell in love, and married him. She took the same book again and said, “What a beautiful book! There are some mistakes here and there, but they ought to be overlooked.” The book was just the same as it had been before, but the critic had changed. When she began to love the author it changed her attitude toward the book. So it is with us and the Bible. People do not love the Bible because they do not love Christ.2 [Note: G. Jackson.]
Ellis (J.), Sermons in a Nutshell, 96.
Hind (T.), The Treasures of the Snow, 111.
Ker (J.), Sermons, ii. 186.
Stowell (H.), Sermons, 158.
Swing (D.), Truths for To-day, ii. 161.
Thomas (J.), Concerning the King, 50.
Children’s Pulpit: Second Sunday in Advent, i. 136 (G. H. James).
Christian World Pulpit, xiv. 56 (F. W. Aveling); lxviii. 28 (A. Macarthur).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Second Sunday in Advent, i. 403 (S. O. Benton).