Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 119:96 - 119:96

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 119:96 - 119:96

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

Liberty in God’s Law

I have seen an end of all perfection;

But thy commandment is exceeding broad.—Psa_119:96.

This psalm throbs throughout with true religion, and is evidently the production of some venerable father in Israel who had endured greatly and had not fainted; who had been divinely taught and chastened by the toils, the troubles, and the temptations of life; who had striven to live in loyalty to the law revealed to him, and was left at once ardent about right doing, and devoted to meditation; at once sadly conscious of infirmity and weakness, and joyfully trustful in God’s goodness and mercy. Nevertheless, though thus confident, the writer of the psalm confesses, “I have seen an end of all perfection.” There is a sound of weariness and depression in the words; we can hear speaking in them a man who had suffered disenchantments and disappointments, who had tried things that looked inviting to find them less charming than they looked, void of what they had promised; a man who had aimed sanguinely in vain, and had sorrowfully learned that it must always be in vain; who had nursed bright expectations that had not been fulfilled, although again and again he had felt sure that they were going to be, and who knew now they never could be.

This was the favourite text of Dean Stanley, a choice characteristic alike of the man and of his work: “I see that all things come to an end; but Thy commandment is exceeding broad.” [Prayer-Book Version.] These words are inscribed on his own and his wife’s tomb in Henry VII.’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.


The Unsatisfactoriness of Our Experience

1. It was no young man who spoke the words of the text; young people have not seen “an end of all perfection,” have not arrived at the conclusion that every radiance is stained by the shadow of defect, that the fullest is not full, the most complete incomplete. On the contrary, they are setting out to climb to the top of delectable mountains descried in the distance, where they shall build their tabernacle and stay. They have visions of the perfect, and count on realizing them—would infallibly realize them, they say to themselves, if only such or such circumstances were granted them; and what is there to which they may not attain with all the world before them? No; he who uttered the exclamation of the text must have been a comparatively old man—a man, at all events, who had lived much, who had passed through many vicissitudes; who had found out with oft-repeated trial how much he could not do of what he once thought himself capable of doing, the delusiveness of many an apparent possibility.

There was much in 1850 to sadden Watts; the want of response, except amongst his own personal friends, to all the enthusiasm with which he had returned to England, full-of faith in a revival of great art, was making itself felt with chilling effect year by year. In a moment of depression he writes: “I do not expect at most to have the opportunity of doing more than prepare the way for better men—and not that always; more often I sit among the ruins of my aspirations, watching the tide of time.” No wonder that in such a mood he once signed “Finis” in the corner of one of his pictures. But the challenge to despair was given by Mr. Ruskin, who, on reading the word, took up the charcoal and added beneath, “et initium.” If the end, then a beginning; and so it proved to be.1 [Note: George Frederic Watts, i. 126.]

2. Perhaps the disillusion which depressed the Psalmist, and for which he had found an antidote in the permanence and magnitude of the Divine law, was not limited to the religious aspect of life only. By his own simple pathway he had reached the conclusion, familiar to modern thinkers, that the present world is not of unimpeachable perfection, but a chaos of knotted problems, amazing anomalies, clashing interests, contending principles. He set out with other views, but he reminds himself that moral processes go on working themselves out upon a scale of immeasurable greatness, when the secular movements which once promised amelioration are threatened with arrest and defeat. God’s inward law, larger than the designs appearing in the history of contemporary nations, forms the centre round which his baffled and faltering faith rallies. Spiritual ends are continued in that larger kingdom of the unseen. God’s changeless and ever-enlarging law of right satisfies that sense of moral greatness which the course of secular events so often seems to mock.

I am old enough to be done with work, only that I feel that my best words have not been said after all, that what has been said is not its full expression. All is incomplete, and I must wait for the fresh, strong life of immortality, in the hope that through the mercy of Him who “knoweth our frame” and our weaknesses, I may be enabled to do better with the talent He has given me than I have done.1 [Note: Life and Letters of J. G. Whittier, ii. 657.]

The longer we live the less we are inclined to be hero-worshippers, seeing more failings in the men and things we revered in the enthusiasm of youth. “I have seen an end of all perfection”; but it is well if we can add, “thy commandment is exceeding broad.” The more, however, we get to know the temptations and trials of men, and feel how our own accomplishment falls short of our ideal, the more charitable we become.2 [Note: John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, 13.]

One day I grieved because our greatest gain

Grows pale beside the smallest loss we feel;

One hour of wrong can years of right repeal;

One faulty link can spoil the strongest chain;

One little thorn can cause a cruel pain

That twice ten thousand roses cannot heal;

One harsh discordant note can straightway steal

All harmony from e’en the sweetest strain.

To these my doubts there came an answer sure—

“God’s laws are right if rightly understood!

Man’s patent of perfection lies in this,

That nought imperfect can his soul endure:

The highest natures seek the highest good

Till they are perfect as their Father is.”3 [Note: Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, Verses, Wise or Otherwise, 189.]


The Satisfactoriness of God’s Law

1. Everything earthly is only partial; it covers only a part of life. Whether it be wealth, fame, knowledge, power, it has a limit; its territory is not commensurate with the whole life of man. Though I have all knowledge, said the Apostle, and understand all mysteries, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Knowledge is measurable. There are heights and depths of spirit which it cannot fill. There is a limit to it. The only thing immeasurable is love, for love is the Infinite Himself. Nothing can endure for ever except that which touches the deeps of life, for that which is only fragmentary and partial must pass away. So there is an end to it also in the sense of termination because the limited must terminate; and, because there is an end to it, it will not satisfy us. We must have something without an end, because the spirit of man is larger than time, larger than any finite period; and, however man may have sometimes tried in the perverseness of his heart to deny it, he is still a child of immortality, and nothing less than immortality filled to the brim with possession will ever satisfy the yearning of man. “Broad is thy command exceedingly.” That is, it is immeasurable, it has no limit. This must be the Psalmist’s meaning, otherwise the contrast fails, and the command of God, being limited, must be declared inadequate like all other perfections. But the word of God has no limit whatsoever. Immeasurable! As soon as we touch the command of God with our heart and soul and spirit, at once we know that we are at the centre of immeasurableness. It reveals to us straight away the infinite God, the soul, and immortality.

“There are two things,” said Kant, “that fill me with amazement, the starry heaven above me, and the moral law within me.” Both of them immeasurable, stretching away into infinity, with man at the centre of them; yet God’s word is higher than the heavens, and when the moral law has touched the life of man he knows that he belongs to the infinite vast, and cannot be satisfied without it.1 [Note: J. Thomas.]

Man feels capacities within him that ask an eternity for bloom and fruitage. There is in nature something that sends him in yearning search beyond and above nature.

That type of perfect in his mind

In nature can he nowhere find.

He sows himself on every wind.

In the entire universe, as revealed to man by his senses, there is nothing perfect; and the central impulse in all man’s noblest striving is derived from the aspiration of his spirit towards a perfect truth, a perfect beauty, a perfect happiness, which are exemplified nowhere in the world. Art, religion, and the impetuous career of the race towards a higher grade of civilization, depend alike upon universal imperfection of the material world and the impossibility that a God-related spirit, which man is, should be contented therewith.1 [Note: P. Bayne, Lessons from My Masters, 284.]

2. Our advance is towards this infinite. It is in an unbroken advance towards it that human excellence consists. The standard of perfection lifts itself on new heights with the march of each new day and month. The perfection of yesterday ceases to be the perfection of to-day, because the commandment is ever adding increments to the demands it makes upon us, and binding the conscience with fresh sanctions. As men are emancipated from the senses and ushered into more delicate spheres of perception and experience, they find themselves face to face with new laws that have to be kept, new decalogues that must be reverently obeyed, new obligations that must be strenuously fulfilled.

The law which the God of righteousness, and the Father of all the families of the earth, may impose upon the children of men is obviously larger in its range of applications than the law congruous to the sovereignty of one known chiefly as the Lord of Hosts, and the Defender of an isolated group of clans. The precepts breathed into the conscience by One who has come into immediate converse with His worshippers exceed in scope and surpass in fine discriminations the precepts enjoined by a Divine King who dwells apart and is adored from afar by a people smitten with fear because of His majesty. To know the length and breadth, the depth and height of the love which surpasseth knowledge means that the soul is brought face to face with ranges of the commandment hitherto unexplored by human thought. The law cannot possibly be the same for an Israelite who stands before the flame-girt Horeb and the believer who bows wondering before the Cross where the Man of Sorrows bears the burdens of mankind. The commandment is broad before the vision of the man, to whom all life is becoming a theophany.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Strenuous Gospel, 394.]

Christ is the personification not of one part only, but of the whole of the law of God. His character has not the littleness of a mere teacher, nor the narrowness of a hermit or a saint, nor the eccentricity of genius. “His shoulder,” as the Prophet says, is broad enough “to bear the government” and the sins of the whole world. His mind is wide enough to sympathize with all our infirmities, as well as with all our efforts after good in every direction. No griefs of life are more trying than those which arise from the half-goodness or the half-wisdom of those whom we wish to love and respect. It is when we think of these things that the Perfect Law and the Perfect Mind of Christ is so inexpressibly consoling.2 [Note: A. P. Stanley, Sermons in the East, 129.]

3. Unlike that story of the iron shroud or room, which enclosed its prisoner, day by day, within a narrower and narrower circle, the chamber of duty and of God’s commandment widens, and opens, and expands with new interests, new enjoyments, new affections, new hopes, at every successive step we take, till we find ourselves at last in that Presence, where there is indeed “fulness of joy and pleasures for evermore.”

Our earthly life, the earthly life of those whom we have known and loved, is cut short by that dark abyss into which we cannot penetrate, and over which our thoughts can hardly pass. But God’s commandment—and the fulfilment of God’s commandment—is “exceeding broad”; it is broad enough to span even that wide and deep river which parts this life and the next. For it is this that makes this life and the next life one. Knowledge, prophecies, gifts of all kinds pass away, but the love of God and the love of man never fail. They continue into the unseen world beyond the grave; the remembrance of these things, as we have known them here, enables us still to think of them there; the unselfish purpose, the generous sympathy, the deep affection, the transparent sincerity, the long self-control, the simple humility, of those to whom the commandment of God has been precious—these are the arches of that bridge on which our thoughts and hopes cross and re-cross the widest and most mysterious of all the chasms which divide us; the gulf which divides the dead and the living, the gulf which divides God and man.

In Stark’s Life of Murker of Banff we have this portrait of a church member: The last day on which her pastor saw Elspeth alive he asked, “Have you no fears at all in crossing the Jordan?” “No,” was the reply, “what should I be fear’d for, when I see Him who is the life an’ the resurrection on the ither side. His word drives awa’ a’ the mists. I’m just like a bairn that’s been awa’ on the fields pu’in’ flowers, an’ I maun confess whyles chasin’ butterflies, and noo when the sun’s fa’en I’m gaun toddlin’ hame. I’ve a wee bit burnie to cross; but, man, there’s the stappin’-stanes o’ His promises, an’ wi’ my feet firm on them, I’ve nae cause tae fear.” After awhile she again opened her lips, and was heard to say, “He is wi’ me in the swellings of Jordan.”1 [Note: J. Stark, John Murker of Banff, 188.]


The Value of Dissatisfaction

1. The Psalmist had desired and purposed to keep God’s law, to be and to do the best according to his light, and had never been able to accomplish his object, had been always falling short of it; the perfection he craved and sought had always evaded him; he had striven worthily, and had more or less done worthily too; but it did not satisfy him—there was an excellence to be reached that was not reached. Or he had had conceptions of duty that had seemed to him all-comprehending, embracing all that could be required of him. Here, he had thought, was the whole duty of man; but in acting out, or endeavouring to act out, these conceptions, others, larger and loftier, had risen upon him. In following his standard of right, the standard rose, leaving him far behind when he fancied himself nigh; in yielding to the demands of conscience, the demands increased; the more he did, the more his obligation grew; so that he would have said with a modern poet—

I see the wider but I sigh the more,

Most progress is most failure.

Nothing satisfied the Psalmist; the present discredited the past, only to be in its turn discredited; every seeming fulness proved shortly an illusion, and why? Because a Divine commandment had been revealed to him which continually transcended all, which was continually showing something more and greater to be done, and continually urging him on when any height was gained. The more he looked into it, the more it enlarged for him the field of duty. When he fancied he had fulfilled all, it would straightway be whispering in his ear some fresh claim; when he meditated repose, it would still be disturbing him. Had he not known this commandment, he might have known the peace of satisfaction; it was its presence with, and pressure on, him that made an end of perfection, and kept him always discontented with the best that had been wrought. Yet our Psalmist would not have been without the commandment. “Oh, how I love thy law!” he cries, in the very next verse. This, in fact, was his distinction, his dignity, and blessedness—that he had it to his perpetual restlessness and dissatisfaction, and could not be as careless and happy as the heathen, though he should propose to be; that he had a vision of the right and of the good which robbed him of ease, and before which every highest attainment paled to poorness.

Here is the beautiful Divine secret of our troubled dissatisfaction with things; that we bear within us a commandment greater than ourselves, and are more than we are or can be. Our everlasting sense of limitation means that our illimitableness, our unappeasable hunger is due to our self-transcending capacity; nothing contents us because we are more than everything, because we are not a mere part of the visible system, but include, so to speak, something supernatural; capabilities, susceptibilities, not adjusted like the powers of other creatures to the scope and conditions of this mortal life, but overshooting them. And here, in the grander than ourselves, or the world—for the world is always insufficient for it, and we are always inferior to it—here in the grander than ourselves or the world which, possessing us, keeps us ever insatiable, ever unable to find perfection, let the world yield us what it will, or let us grow to what we may—here is the God of whom we dream and never hear or see, and whom men seek in vain to prove.

We feel, do we not? that we are capable of developments in knowledge and virtue which are never reached, that we are always imperfect at our best and greatest, and yet that there is no goodness or greatness to which we may not aspire; that there are no limits to our possible progress. We are burdened with an ideal which, strive and attain as we may, is always reproaching, depreciating, condemning us, always looking down on us with eyes of disdain. There is that in us which declares continually that we might be and ought to be what we cannot be, what with all our wistfulness and effort we are perpetually hindered from being. And what does it signify but that we are invaded by the Infinite—that God is in us? Our weary unrest, our successive disenchantments and disappointments, our scorn of what we have gained or wrought, our sighs, as we “look before and after, and pine for what is not”—these are the hints and tokens of God.

Inward distaste—emptiness—discontent. Is it trouble of conscience, or sorrow of heart? or the soul preying upon itself? or merely a sense of strength decaying and time running to waste? Is sadness—or regret—or fear—at the root of it? I do not know: but this dull sense of misery has danger in it; it leads to rash efforts and mad decisions. O for escape from self, for something to stifle the importunate voice of want and yearning! Discontent is the father of temptation. How can we gorge the invisible serpent hidden at the bottom of our well,—gorge it so that it may sleep? At the heart of all this rage and vain rebellion there lies—what? Aspiration, yearning! We are athirst for the infinite—for love—for I know not what. It is the instinct of happiness, which like some wild animal is restless for its prey. It is God calling—God avenging Himself.1 [Note: Amiel’s Journal (trans, by Mrs. Humphry Ward), 271.]

2. It would not answer even for the Christian who has meant to surrender his will, and really wants to be perfected in the will of God, to be made safe in his plans and kept in continual train of successes. He wants a reminder every hour—some defeat, surprise, adversity, peril; to be agitated, mortified, beaten out of his courses, so that all that remains of self-will in him may be sifted out of him, and the very scent of his old perversity cleared. If we could be excused from all these changes and somersets, and go on securely in our projects, it would ruin the best of us. Life needs to have an element of danger and agitation,—perilous, changeful, eventful; we need to have our evil will met by the stronger will of God, in order to be kept advised, by our experience, of the impossibility of that which our sin has undertaken. It would not do for us to be uniformly successful even in our best meant and holiest works, our prayers, our acts of sacrifice, our sacred enjoyments; for we should very soon fall back into the subtle power of our self-will, and begin to imagine, in our vanity, that we are doing something ourselves. Even here we need to be defeated and baffled now and then, that we may be shaken out of our self-reliance and sufficiency, else the taste of our evil habits remains in us, and our scent is not changed.

We trust and fear, we question and believe,

From life’s dark threads a trembling faith to weave,

Frail as the web that misty night has spun,

Whose dew-gemmed awnings glitter in the sun.

While the calm centuries spell their lessons out,

Each truth we conquer spreads the realm of doubt;

When Sinai’s summit was Jehovah’s throne,

The chosen Prophet knew His voice alone;

When Pilate’s hall that awful question heard,

The heavenly Captive answered not a word.

Eternal Truth! beyond our hopes and fears

Sweep the vast orbits of thy myriad spheres!

From age to age, while history carves sublime

On her waste rock the flaming curves of time,

How the wild swayings of our planet show

That worlds unseen surround the world we know.1 [Note: Oliver Wendell Holmes.]


Bramston (J. T.), Fratribus, 125.

Campbell (L.), The Christian Ideal, 109.

Farrar (F. W.), The Voice front Sinai, 85.

Ferguson (F.), in Sermons on the Psalms , 115.

King (E.), The Love and Wisdom of God, 294.

Knight (W.), Things New and Old, 172.

Roberts (A.), Miscellaneous Sermons, 295.

Selby (T. G.), The Strenuous Gospel, 380.

Stanley (A. P.), Sermons in the East, 123.

Thomas (J.), Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 19.

Christian World Pulpit, xxxvii. 355 (M. Bryce); l. 121 (E. King).

Preacher’s Magazine, ii. 220 (W. Hawkins).

Sunday Magazine, 1891, p. 171 (S. A. Tipple).

Treasury (New York), xxi. 675 (H. C. Swentzel).