By taking heed thereto according to thy word.—Psa_119:9.
1. It is a great matter to know what is the right question to put, and how to put it rightly. The secrets of nature disclose themselves to the man who knows how to question her properly; for he is already on the line of its solution when he sees clearly what the exact problem is. So also in any discussion, he who can lay aside all extraneous and irrelevant matter, and put his finger on the real point at issue, has already half won the battle; for our errors mainly arise from our mixing up of what is essential with subordinate points, the settlement of which is of no vital consequence. It is the same in the affairs of practical life. There, too, it is all-important to put clearly before our minds what is the supreme question we have to deal with as moral and responsible beings. Our character will depend on the answer to that, but the answer will not be difficult if we put the question rightly. Here we are, for a few short years, in a world of struggle and conflict, having duties to ourselves and to each other and to God, having also various endowments and various temptations. What is the line of thought which should press on each of us as the supreme matter for our most serious consideration? What is the question which every young man should put to himself as he looks out on the troubled sea of life with which he has to battle, and where he may make shipwreck if he take not heed?
2. The question of our text, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” if not absolutely the foremost, is yet among the weightiest thoughts which we should be laying to heart. There are, no doubt, still graver questions which we will do well to put to ourselves. What is the chief end of man? What is that by failing to achieve which we shall lose the very object of our existence? Or, again, What shall a man do to be saved? or yet further, Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his heart? These are points of still greater moment, and carry deeper results than the question of the Psalmist here. At bottom, no doubt, he had in view the cleansing of the heart as well as of the way; for his was no shallow spirit, that cared only for mere outside behaviour. The Psalmist knew that we must begin by purifying the fountain if the stream is to be made pure. But the question, as he formally puts it, points to our actions rather than our desires and affections, and so far it is defective. Still, any young man who shall put before him the cleansing of his way as the aim which he must specially strive to reach, will surely make a very much worthier life for himself than they do who start in the race careless whether the way they take be miry or clean.
An Anxious Question
“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?”
There are many questions about the future with which it is natural for young people to occupy themselves; and it is to be feared that the most of them ask more anxiously “How shall I make my way?” than “How shall I cleanse my way?” It is needful carefully to ponder the questions: “How shall I get on in the world—be happy, fortunate?” and the like. But there is another and more important question: “How shall I cleanse my way?” For purity is the best thing; and to be good is a wiser as well as a nobler object of ambition than any other.
1. The question of the Psalmist broadly stated is this, Can a man live, in all respects and in all his paths, a pure and beautiful life? and can all his ways be clean? We know well how much the question involves; we know also what the answer means; but we can answer without hesitation—as an ideal, Yes. A man can go into the world, and take his part in all natural and necessary engagements, and yet have, all through, a cleansed way. He may go into business, become a politician, enjoy pleasure, and build up a home, without inevitable stain, without wading to his object through dishonour; and is not this just what we want, to make all life what it ought to be? If the way of business were clean, if the ways of pleasure were clean, if the sanctities of domestic life were all kept unsullied, what a world it would be! What would become of fraud, and over-reaching, and plotting, and treachery, and strife, and the sickening suspicions of one another that now half choke human love and threaten to starve or poison the charities of life? We all know what would become of these things. They would die away as naturally as the mists before the advance of day. And why should it not be? Why should not a man begin life with the deep conviction that his may be a cleansed way?
2. But when the Psalmist speaks of cleansing our way, he implies that, at some points at least, our way has led us through the mire. The picture in his mind was of this sort. There stood before him a young man who had not long set out on the journey of life and who yet, to his own deep surprise and disgust, found many stains of travel already upon him. He had not meant to go wrong; as yet, perhaps, he has not gone very far wrong. And yet, where did all this filth come from? And how is it to be got rid of? And if, at the very outset of the journey, he has wandered into by-paths which have left these ugly stains upon him, what will he be like when he reaches the end of his journey? How can he hope to keep a right course, and to present himself, without spot, before God at the last? In short, how is he to make his way clean, and to keep it clean?
3. There are in our lives no isolated acts, but only ways. The wrong of which we say, “Only this once, and it shall never be repeated,” provokes its own repetition, starts us in its own direction. The violation of truth or integrity, with the expectation and purpose of retrieving it speedily, involves us in a labyrinth, in which we lose our way, and may never find our way back. The laws of sobriety or purity once transgressed, we have not the power which we previously thought we had to retrace our steps. We meant an act; we have found a way—a precipitous way, too, on which we gain momentum with every step. A way has a direction, and leads some whither. A way is continuous; and, if we are in it, we are advancing in it. A way differs in its direction from other ways, and diverges more and more from them the farther one travels upon it. There is hardly any error so perilous as that of imagining that there can be isolated acts or states of mind. Every present has its closely affiliated future. Every deed, every reverie, every thought, is a cause. We are moving on in character, as in years. We are not to-day what we were a week ago. We are advancing either in holiness or in unholiness.
Nature moves physically towards perfection, and morally there must be the same unseen but necessary motion. For if the Darwinian theory be true, the law of natural selection applies to all the moral history of mankind, as well as to the physical. Evil must die ultimately as the weaker element in the struggle with the good. The slow consent of the world’s history is in the direction of moral goodness, as its physical development is ever toward higher forms. This progress, of course, does not necessarily embrace any particular form of life or especial race. A given race may die, or may remain stagnant. The development goes on with some new variety or form of life. Such a “current of things towards righteousness,” or towards physical perfection, is slow, almost imperceptible. It is like the silent motion of the stars of heaven through eternity towards one centre of the universe. But if once the theory of development be accepted and this fact be admitted, what higher evidence can be demanded of a benevolent and perfect Creator than a current of all things towards the best, a drift towards perfection, a silent, august, secular movement of all beings and forms of life, all thought and morals, all history and events towards the completely good and perfect?1 [Note: The Life of Charles Loring Brace, 302.]
Perhaps the present generation has heard more than enough about progress. Talk of that kind is an affectation that was always unprofitable, and has now become stale. Real progress needs no trumpeting. It announces itself like the flowing stream, which brawls only among the barren rocks, and is most felt as a beneficent agency that is penetrating and vitalizing in those parts where friction and noise are reduced to a minimum. True advancement is humble, earnest, practical. It is single-minded, simple-hearted devotion, ever growing in intelligence, to those grand objects which are dear to Christ and the angels, and the over-shadowing grandeur of which makes obtruding self-consciousness impossible. The Apostles advanced by forsaking the tradition of men and cleaving unto the word of the Lord, that they might do for the world what could be done in no other way. Luther advanced by bringing men up to the simple record of the New Testament, that they might find a firm footing as they passed into eternity and faced the awful facts of life and destiny. We can advance in the present day only as we come nearer to Jesus Christ, and bring others with us.1 [Note: James Stark, John Murker of Banff, 54.]
The poet sings—
Our lives must climb from hope to hope,
And realize our longing,
but it is not often that the record of a man’s progress towards a pronounced condition of spiritual exaltation is one of uninterrupted climbing. There are usually some prominent milestones that mark momentous crises in the journey, frequently some definite boundary to which one can point and say, This is where such a one first dedicated himself to the service of God and of his fellows. But with Quintin Hogg one can trace the ever-mounting path back to his earliest days until it is lost in the pure innocence that is God’s birth-gift to every little child. There is no apparent genesis of conviction, of dedication. From a child upward he seems to have been imbued with a sense of service owed to a Wonderful Benefactor, and though of course there must have been times of struggle and of darkness, they were principally of a mental rather than of a spiritual character, causing no interruption of his self-appointed labours and leaving no contemporary external indications of their presence.2 [Note: E. M. Hogg, Quintin Hogg, 35.]
A Simple Answer
“By taking heed.”
1. The answer, like the question of the text, is not perhaps the supremely best, but it is nevertheless very true, and needful to be borne in mind. We should begin by asking, “Wherewithal shall I cleanse my heart?” and the reply to that is, “If any man be in Chriat he is a new creature”—renewed in the spirit of his mind after the likeness of Christ. But, allowing that, for the practical uses of life, nothing better could be said to one than this, Take heed to your ways, and direct them according to the Word of God.
For not a little of the evil of this world arises from the heedlessness of youth. We did not mean to do wrong. Very few do, at least in the beginning. There may be some who have from the first perverse and evil natures, wholly indisposed to go the right way. But on the whole these are not the common staple of human creatures. Most youths are not wishful to do wrong, but would rather, if it did not cost very much trouble, do right in the main. But they do not think as strenuously about it as they should. They are not very watchful of their conduct, or careful to guide it aright; and so they fall into a snare. It is this heedlessness, this inconsiderateness, which does not weigh seriously the step we are going to take, and the consequences it may involve—this is the beginning of many a downward course. “Oh,” we say, “I did not think; I did not mean any wrong,” and we are fain to consider that a sufficient excuse. But it is not a sufficient excuse. We ought to think. God has given us a power of “seeing before and after” that we may direct our steps aright; and it will not serve our purpose that we did not use that power, but blundered into the mire which we should clearly have avoided. The foremost duty of a man is to think what he is about.
The best made road wants looking after if it is to be kept in repair. What would become of a railway that had no surfacemen and platelayers going along the line and noticing whether anything was amiss? I remember once seeing a bit of an old Roman road; the lava rocks were there, but for want of care, here a young sapling had grown up between two of them and had driven them apart, there were many split by the frost; here was a great ugly gap full of mud, and the whole thing ended in a jungle. How shall a man keep his road in repair? “By taking heed thereto.” Things that are left to go anyhow in this world have a strange knack of going one how. You do not need anything else than negligence to ensure that things will come to grief.1 [Note: 1 A. Maclaren.]
One of the greatest of living Englishmen sums up the whole teaching of Goethe, the wisest German of the nineteenth century, in the brief citation: “Gedenke, zu leben,” which means literally, “Think, to live.” Carlyle translates, “Think of living.” But you will all get hold of its meaning if I say that what it comes to is this: “If you would live rightly and well, you must think—think how it is best to live.” So that, you see, two of the wisest men of our own time are of one mind with the Psalmist who lived between two and three thousand years before them. He says, “If you would walk in pure and noble ways of life, think of your ways.”1 [Note: S. Cox, The Bird’s Nest, 136.]
2. If we examine our self-consciousness, we shall find that it is never as to the qualities of actions that we feel doubt or hesitation. The questions which perplex us, and which it is unspeakably dangerous for a young person to begin to ask, are such as these: How far may I go in a wrong direction, and yet be sure to go no farther? Is there any harm in a slight compromise of principle? Can I not with ultimate safety trespass once, or a little way, on forbidden ground? Can I not try the first pleasant, attractive steps on a way which I am determined on no account to pursue farther? May I not go as far in the wrong as others are going, without reproach and without fear? Is there not some redeeming grace in companionship, so that I may venture with others a little farther than I would be willing to go alone? May not my conscience, under careful home-training and choice home-examples, have become more rigid and scrupulous than is befitting or manly in one who has emerged into comparative freedom? In these questions are the beginnings of evil—the first, it may be, fatal steps in miry ways.
If you once allow yourself to fall into a habit of evil of whatever kind, the idea that you are helpless, that you are made so, that it is your nature, will very speedily creep in and try to lay hold of your mind. Whether it be a sin of passion or of temper, which comes only at times, leaving you free to live a right and perhaps even a religious life in the intervals, and returning with a sort of easy victory in the hour of temptation, making your falls all the more miserable by their contrast with your happier and better moments; or some of those palsies of the soul which seem to benumb the will—sloth for instance, or selfishness; or again, a petty fault which mars all your life without seeming ever to stain it deeply, making you ashamed, and justly ashamed, that you should find a difficulty in overcoming such a trifle; in such cases, over and above the temptation to the sin itself, there soon comes the added temptation to treat it as hopeless, to give up in despair, to reconcile yourself to your enemy, and say that you are made so, and cannot do otherwise. And this is indeed no trifling addition. The one chance of escape from habitual sin is never to intermit the struggle: do that, and you are quite sure to conquer; some better opportunity for getting power over the temptation presents itself; or the temptation seems to go away of itself, you do not know how; or it returns less and less frequently, till it returns no more; its going may be in one way or in another; but persevere in the battle, and go it surely will. Thus ere now have Christians overcome bodily temptations, to some men the severest trials of all; thus have Christians tamed down unruly temper; thus have they conquered pride and vanity; thus have they taught themselves to be true.1 [Note: Archbishop Temple.]
3. But it is not in man to direct his steps aright. Therefore God has bestowed on us what should be “a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path.” It is something to be heedful and to walk warily, for we are beset on all hands by snares and temptations. But that is not enough. For besides these dangers that encompass us without, we have other perils to face in the shape of false ideals, mistaken views of what a man should be and do. Therefore the Psalmist reminds us that we can cleanse our ways only by taking heed to them according to God’s Word. He meant, of course, the Law of the Lord as it had been made known to Israel of old. That was to be their practical guide in the path of duty in his day. It was not merely a doctrine they were to believe, but a commandment they must obey. And a noble law it was, of brave and manly and self-denying virtue, leading them up the steep heights of arduous duty to the fellowship of Israel’s God. Yet, good and precious though it was, quickening the soul to a higher life than the rest of the world dreamt of, we have now a surer word and a fairer example to direct us, a more potent inspiration also urging us to higher and holier attainments. Think of the Perfect Man, the model of holy beauty, who is in all things our example, who teaches how to be rich in poverty, how to be wise though unlearned, how to bear wrong meekly, how to be true and faithful and brave with all the world against Him, and how to forget Himself in the love He bore to all.
In St. Peter the love of God is shown in Christian example. A plain and simple mind, fixed on plain duties, finding in the great law of right a supreme satisfaction, St. Peter seems to think of our Lord chiefly as showing us what we ought to be and do, and sent by the infinite love of God for that purpose. Do Christians find their duty hard? “Even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” Or, again, are Christians persecuted? They are reminded that “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust.” And so throughout his writings St. Peter ever seems to think of God’s love as upholding a man in doing what it is right to do, in bearing what it is right to bear, and of Christ’s life as the assurance of that love.1 [Note: Archbishop Temple.]
4. In Christ, who is the Incarnate Word, we have an all-sufficient Guide on our way through life. A guide of conduct must be plain—and whatever doubts and difficulties there may be about the doctrines of Christianity there is none about its morality. A guide of conduct must be decisive—and there is no faltering in the utterance of the Book as to right and wrong. A guide of conduct must be capable of application to the wide diversities of character, age, circumstance—and the morality of the New Testament especially, and of the Old in a measure, secures that, because it does not trouble itself about minute details, but deals with large principles. A guide for morals must be far in advance of the followers, and it has taken generations and centuries to work into men’s consciences, and to work out in men’s practice, a portion of the morality of that Book. If the world kept the commandments of the New Testament, the world would be in the millennium; and all the sin and crime, and ninety-nine-hundredths of all the sorrow, of earth would have vanished like an ugly dream.
I never saw a useful Christian who was not a student of the Bible. If a man neglect his Bible, he may pray and ask God to use him in His work, but God cannot make use of him, for there is not much for the Holy Ghost to work upon. We cannot overcome Satan with our feelings. The reason why some people have such bitter experience is that they try to overcome the devil by their feelings and experiences. Christ overcame Satan by the Word.1 [Note: D. L. Moody.]
5. The fatal defect of all attempts at keeping our heart by our own watchfulness is that keeper and kept are one and the same, and so there may be mutiny in the garrison, and the very forces that ought to subdue the rebellion may have gone over to the rebels. We want a power outside of us to steady us. We want another motive to be brought to bear upon our conduct, and upon our convictions and our will, mightier than any that now influence them; and we get that if we will yield ourselves to the love that has come down from heaven to save us, and says to us, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” We want, for keeping ourselves and cleansing our way, reinforcements to our own inward vigour, and we shall get these if we will trust to Jesus Christ, who will breathe into us the spirit of His own life, which will make us “free from the law of sin and death.” We want, if our path is to be cleansed, forgiveness for a past path, which is in some measure stained and foul, as well as strength for the future, to deliver us from the dreadful influence of the habit of evil. And we get all these in the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanses from all sin.
How are we to be made holy? God has made full provision for it. There is wonderful provision laid down in the Word for our sanctification. First of all there is the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanseth from all sin. There is power in it to cleanse even the young man’s heart. Secondly, there is the washing with the Word. You remember the Lord said to His disciples, “Now, ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.” Thirdly, there is the keeping power of Christ Himself. “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” The power of Christ to keep is another part of the provision that God has made to keep us holy. Then there is the Holy Spirit of God, whose special office on earth is to do this work of sanctification through Christ. The blood of Jesus Christ; the Word of the living God; the keeping power of Christ; the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost. What a provision is this!1 [Note: J. Elder Cumming.]
Four letters that a child may trace!
Yet men who read may feel a thrill
From powers that know not time nor space,
Vibrations of the eternal will—
With body and mind and soul respond
To “Love” and all that lies beyond.
On truth’s wide sea, thought’s tiny skiff
Goes dancing far beyond our speech,
Yet thought is but a hieroglyph
Of boundless worlds it cannot reach:
We label our poor idols “God,”
And map with logic heavens untrod.
Music and beauty, life and art—
Regalia of the Presence hid—
Command our worship, move our heart,
Write “Love “on every coffin-lid:
But infinite—beyond, above—
The hope within that one word “Love.”2 [Note: Annie Matheson, Maytime Songs, 59.]
Cox (S.), The Bird’s Nest, 131.
Cumming (J. E.), in Convention Addresses delivered at Bridge of Allan, 1895, p. 59.
Griffin (E. D.), Plain Practical Sermons, ii. 465.