The Lord shall keep thy going out and thy coming in,
From this time forth and for evermore.—Psa_121:8
1. We often make a mistake in endeavouring to associate these Old Testament hymns with great occasions in the history of God’s chosen race, with the important events and crises through which they were called to pass, forgetting, as we do, that Israel, and God’s servants of every age and place, need Him most of all, and need the uplift of every possible grace most of all, in the continuous processes of life’s development and the humdrum experiences of an everyday world. It needs no great stretch of the imagination to believe that some Robert Burns of his generation wrote down these lines as the expression of his simple belief in the all-providing care of Jehovah and His sleepless watchfulness.
2. The very essence of the psalm is simplicity; here you find no high flights of poetic imagination, no startling metaphors or fresh truth. And yet there is a warm glow in its message, and there is a fragrance in its simple trust, which have made it one of the best loved of all the psalms, to both Jews and Christians throughout the world. It is the song of a man who found life transfigured by a thought, a thought born out of his own experience—that the God of the everlasting hills was no mere spectator of human struggles, no indolent Deity calming himself to sleep amid the perturbations of a universe and the unheeded cries of his creatures. It is the song of a man who had seen God’s rainbow on the dark background of the day’s routine, and was assured that all is well. It is the song of a man whose ambitions were of a lowly character, and who was content to go out and in, to meet life’s appointments, if so be that the Lord Himself would be his keeper. And what a power lies secreted in the heart of a song when a man can sing it with the emphasis of experience!
Going Out and Coming In
1. These words practically mean the activities, the intercourse, the incidents of life. Again and again we meet with this phrase in the Old Testament Scriptures. Take for instance 2Sa_3:25 There Joab warns David that Abner has come with the pretence of friendship, but really to take note of his circumstances and the weak points at which to attack his throne. “He came,” said Joab, “to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest.” Again, see Isa_37:28; there the Lord through His prophet is speaking of the terrible Sennacherib, the assailant of Jerusalem. “I know thy abode,” so run the words, “and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against me.” Here in both passages, the meaning clearly is the whole course and conduct of life, all its active incidents, all things in which man goes out amongst others and comes home to himself again, alternating company and privacy, engaging in the varied undertakings of an active existence. It is in fact life, not spent in the monotony of a cloister, or of a wilderness, but thronging with the realities of the common day and hour.
2. Home is the centre of the picture; the day begins and ends here. Its journey does not take its bearings from the points of the compass. It is not eastward or westward, but homeward or away from home. So simple are the directions of the daily pilgrimage, going out and coming in, that some of us perhaps hardly value the fair promise that God shall protect them both. We, whose lives move through a limited field, easily form the habit of prosaic outlooks, regarding our existence as a commonplace and dull matter. We go out without wonder, and return without surprise. We lose that fine fancy of childhood which made a walk into the next street an expedition and brought us back from the woodlands as travellers from a far country. That we can now step from the door with no thrill in the morning, and that our hearts do not throb as our hands feel for the latch at eventide, speaks an imagination of crippled power.
One of the great dividing-lines in human life is the threshold-line. On one side of this line a man has his “world within the world,” the sanctuary of life, the sheltered place of peace, the scene of life’s most personal, sacred, and exclusive obligations. And on the other side lies the larger life of mankind, wherein also a man must take his place and do his work. Life is spent in crossing this threshold-line, going out to the many and coming in to the few, going out to answer the call of labour and coming in to take the right to rest. And over us all every hour there watches the Almighty Love. The division-lines in the life of man have nothing that corresponds to them in the love of God. We may be here or there, but He is everywhere.1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, The Threshold Grace, 11.]
3. The threshold of the home does not draw the truest division-line in life between the outward and the inward. Life is made up of thought and action, of the manifest things and the hidden things. “Thy going out.” That is our life as it is manifest to others, as it has points of contact with the world about us. We must go out. We must take up some attitude towards all other life. We must add our word to the long human story and our touch to the fashioning of the world. We need the pledge of Divine help in that life of ours in which, for their good or ill, others must have a place and a part. “And thy coming in”—into that uninvaded sanctum of thought. Did we say uninvaded? Not so. In that inner room of life there sits Regret with her pale face, and Shame with dust on her forehead, and Memory with tears in her eyes. Our coming in is a pitiable thing at times. More than one man has consumed his life in a flame of activity because he could not abide the coming in. “The Lord shall keep … thy coming in.” That means help for every lonely, impotent, inward hour of life.
It is as we convince and persuade ourselves that God is our Keeper who is also the Maker of heaven and earth, that we are delivered from our bondage to care and fear. We could do no wiselier, then, if we are still seeking the rest of faith, than to translate the phrases of this ancient Psalm into the terms of our modern experience, and to adopt them as a meditation and a prayer:—
“I am beset with cares, night and day—cares for myself and cares for my friends, cares for health physical and mental, cares of business and cares of home, cares about life and cares about death, cares for both body and soul. Where shall I look for help? None can really help me but God. He will help me. And He is the Maker of all things. What can I want, then, that He cannot give? What need I fear when He is my Shield? He is not a man, as I am, soon fatigued, soon exhausted. He has worked hitherto, and will work. The whole course of the human story has been ordained and conducted by Him; and, in every age and every nation, those who have sincerely trusted in Him have been content and at peace. Why should I distrust Him, then? I will not distrust Him. He will keep me in the perils of the day, and in the perils of the night. No form of evil can evade His eye or resist His will. Why should He not keep me from all evil, if He cares for me, as He does, and for all men? When I go down to business He will keep me. He will watch over, not my body alone, or my health, or my life: He will also keep my soul, strengthening it by adversity and by the changes of time. No change, no lapse of time, neither death, nor even life, can separate me from Him, my chief Good, and the Source of all other good. I will trust in Him. I will rest in Him. I have done with care, and fear, and the frets of life, and the dread of death; for I have taken sanctuary in Him, who will be the health of my soul from this time forth and for evermore.”
If we were thus to dwell and linger on the thought of God and His care for us, to insist on it to ourselves, to repeat and vary our expression of it, to hark back to it again and again; if we could but rise and settle into the conviction of a tender fatherly Providence that covers our whole life, and extends through all time; we too might feel the swell and sacred glow of the Hebrew pilgrims who sang the praise of Jehovah, their Keeper and ours.1 [Note: S. Cox, The Pilgrim Psalms , 44.]
The Peril of the Common Round
It was much for the folk of an early time to say that as they went forth the Lord went with them, but it is more for men to say and know that same thing to-day. The “going out” has come to mean more age after age, generation after generation. It was a simpler thing once than it is now. “Thy going out”—the shepherd to his flocks, the farmer to his field, the merchant to his merchandise. There are still flocks and fields and markets, but where are the leisure, the grace, and the simplicity of life for him who has any share in the world’s work? Men go out to-day to face a life shadowed by vast industrial, commercial, and social problems. Life has grown complicated, involved, hard to understand, difficult to deal with. Tension, conflict, subtlety, surprise, and amid it all, or over it all, a vast brooding weariness that ever and again turns the heart sick.
1. There is peril in going out.—What does this going out involve? Surely it means a great exchange—an exchange of peace for warfare, passing from privacy into publicity, leaving those who know us so intimately and love us so well, and going amongst the many, perhaps unknowing and unloving. On the one side of the line we share with others, on the other side we are claiming for ourselves. Here we find our greatest joy in giving; there, usually, our greatest joy is in getting. Here we love and work for one another; there the common aim is to work for ourselves. Within the doorway, on this side of the threshold, life is common, but there, outside, it is individualistic to a degree. Competition rages, fierce and unabating, every day changing its detail, its methods, and its scope. There are slow, grinding changes in the common life which crush the sluggard to the wall, and there are quick sudden surprises which overwhelm even the wary.
There are elements of danger in modern life that threaten all the world’s toilers, whatever their work may be and wherever they may have to do it. There is the danger that always lurks in things—a warped judgment, a confused reckoning, a narrowed outlook. It is so easily possible for a man to be at close grips with the world, and yet to be ever more and more out of touch with its realities. The danger in the places where men toil is not that God is denied with a vociferous atheism; it is that He is ignored by an unvoiced indifference. It is not the babel of the market-place that men need to fear; it is its silence. If we say that we live only as we love, that we are strong only as we are pure, that we are successful only as we become just and good, the world into which we go forth does not deny these things, but it ignores them. And thus the real battle of life is not the toil for bread. It is fought by all who would keep alive and fresh in their hearts the truth that man doth not live by bread alone. For no man is this going out easy; for some it is at times terrible, for all it means a need that only this promise avails to meet—“The Lord shall keep thy going out.” He shall fence thee about with the ministry of His Spirit, and give thee grace to know, everywhere and always, that thou art in this world to live for His kingdom of love and truth and to grow a soul.
Put before your mind a man who is fully exposed to real life; imagine him with all the complications of his character: his defects of will, his disadvantage of temperament, his imperfect balance of thought and feeling. What is to happen to him in his going out and coming in? Look at him going out from church for instance. Even on the Sunday night he cannot leave these doors But more or less he finds himself in miscellaneous circumstances at once. And he will soon be waking up to Monday morning, and all the calls and all the undertakings of the week. He will not spend the week—we shall not spend it—under a sanctuary roof; he will have to engage in the business of the hour, to attend, like most of us, to things which in themselves are of the earth, earthy. He will have to do, as we shall, possibly in close personal intercourse, time after time, with those who know not our hope and love not our Lord, and are thinking of anything in the world but of helping us on for heaven. Look at this man in his “going out”—out to all the countless circumstances that make up life for him; and he cannot keep himself! Look at him in his “coming in.” He comes into the home circle; and home is too often the place where man is most off his guard. Or perhaps he is away from home life, living by himself; he comes into the privacy of his study, to his college rooms, to his lodgings in the town. However, he “comes in”; and the enemy will be waiting for that man; some snare, be sure, will be set for his feet, within or without, in the regions of thought, of imagination, of habit, all alone. Ah, what shall he do? How shall he face the perpetual effort, to watch always, to meet and to conquer everything in the going out and the coming in?1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, Thy Keeper, 73.]
2. There is peril in coming in.—It might seem to some that once a man was safely across the threshold of his home he might stand in less need of this promise of help. But experience says otherwise. The world has little respect for any man’s threshold. It is capable of many a bold and shameless intrusion. The things that harass a man as he earns his bread sometimes haunt him as he eats it. No home is safe unless faith be the doorkeeper. “In peace will I both lay me down and sleep: for thou, Lord, alone makest me dwell in safety.” The singer of that song knew that, as in the moil of the world, so also in the shelter of the place he named his dwelling-place, peace and safety were not of his making, but of God’s giving.
The returns of life are hardly less adventurous and fraught with surprise than its outgoings. There are apprehensions that wake as we move into the areas of our familiar places again. What may have chanced in the hours of absence? What shock of joy or sorrow may have broken on the home? To what revelation for which our hearts are unprepared are we drawing near? There are moods in which the least sensitive of us has known these questionings. When sickness or anxiety is in the house, our feelings are intensified to a pitch at which we scarcely know whether to hasten or to linger. Or, when our nerves have been strained and jangled in the business hours, they may be quickened to an ominous foreboding.
And, indeed, it is always true that as changes have been worked for us who have been out in the busy world, so for those we left at home there have been also sequences of change. As we do not return the same men we went out in the morning, we do not find quite the same presences awaiting us. The home has had its own temptations and battle-grounds as well as the shop; the wife and children have passed through their spiritual disciplines as well as ourselves. For some hours we have been out of contact; our developments may have been different. The ways along which we have journeyed may not have been the same, not even parallel, nor in the same direction. Our lessons may not have been similar, and our moods and thoughts may have moved on divergent planes.
We may be coming with buoyant steps from a day’s work, where all has gone fairly and smoothly, to a house where numberless small irritations have ruffled the temper and played upon the heart. Or we may return weary and disheartened to a hearth where the day has passed in peaceful routine. We are in a sense strangers to one another. We have to adjust ourselves and to seek a new point of contact, and it may be very easily missed. We may strike in sudden discord upon one another, our unattuned moods may jar and clash. A husband’s buoyancy may enter unsympathetically upon a mood of his wife who is worried and overstrained, or the man’s ruffled temper may turn the placid welcome of the woman to bitterness, and so the peace that ought ever to be found on the threshold of home is not found there.
A Christian woman in a burst of querulous questioning said, “Ah, if these good men had like me the charge of six little children, and only a careless girl to help them, they would know better whether it is possible to be always at peace.” Yes! “The Lord shall keep thy coming in.” Home—nursery—kitchen, are His as much as the closet. His keeping is needed in them all, and is equally possible there.1 [Note: J. E. Cumming, The Blessed Life, 100.]
The Keeper of Our Way
1. The recurring and characteristic word of the psalm is “keep”; it is repeated no fewer than six times in the last six verses. The Creator of the universe is the Keeper of Israel. The Keeper of the whole nation is the Keeper of the individual man. The Keeper of the man and the nation does not fall into slumber from weariness; nor is his life, through mortal weakness, an alternate waking and sleeping; He guards them from the perils of the night as well as from the perils of the day. He keeps those who trust in Him from evil of every form. He keeps their very soul, their most inward and secret life. He keeps them in all the changes and intercourses of their outward life, their goings out and their comings in. He keeps them through all lapse of time, now and for evermore.
We need more than ever to convince our own hearts and to lay emphasis upon the truth of the constant supervision of our Father in Heaven over the minutest details of our lives, for, as Carlyle put it, “The Almighty God is not like a clockmaker that once in old, immeasurable ages, having made his horologe of a universe, sits ever since and sees it go.” Such a travesty of Providence leads to a gloomy fatalism, a fatalism that robs the heart of joy and of the safe-guarding realization of God’s near and ever-defending Presence. And there is nothing that can counteract this movement towards spiritual pessimism, but “practising the presence of God.”
In the little introductory poem to the Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, there is a line that expresses the feelings of a multitude of men and women: “I was ever commonplace.” That was certainly never true of Rutherford, and it is never true of any man. And that feeling robs life of all its beauty and its strength. If we believe that we are commonplace, our work commonplace, and our destiny commonplace, then we will do our best not to belie our character. Therefore, our hopes are blasted, and our work becomes in very deed a cruel drudgery. Could we but convince ourselves that the Lord Himself is our Keeper; could we but assure ourselves that we are linked to the eternal purpose of the Almighty, that nothing is commonplace in the outgoings and the incomings of our lives, then we should dream dreams and see visions. We should stand on our feet as the sons of God. We should be filled with the glowing hope of a new enthusiasm. Every duty would be an anvil on which we would forge another link for the chain of character, and every temptation another opportunity of adding something to our credit and the honour of our Lord. Even the very darkness of sorrow and pain would but bring out the stars of God’s mercies.
You have heard of the man who, when he was dying, asked that they should inscribe upon his tombstone just one word, and that one word was not his name, his good deeds, or anything about him; but over the anonymous corpse that lay beneath was to be the word “Kept.” It was a stroke of genius. “Kept.” That will do. If I live until I am ninety, and do well all that time, when I come to die, put me down in my grave, and only put that over the top of me, and I will be full content—“Kept.”1 [Note: J. McNeill, Regent Square Pulpit, iii. 249.]
2. God stands at the door morning and evening, like a sentinel, to keep us under friendly observation. The Hebrews attached a good deal of religious significance to the doorway. Even now the pious Jew hangs on his doorpost the mezuzah, a small metal cylinder, which contains a piece of parchment on which is inscribed the famous command in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children … and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.” That command is still fulfilled. The Jew fixes the little case, with the parchment inside, on the upper part of the right-hand post of his door, and every time he goes in or comes out he touches it and he recites the words of this text.
It is said that the great conqueror, Alexander, was able, like Napoleon, to sleep amid the noise and tumult of battle. On a friend expressing surprise at the achievement, he replied, Parmenio watches! But the Maker of Parmenio, the faithful sentinel, is our keeper! How safe we are when we lie in the Bosom of God! How safe when we walk with our hand in God’s! Walking or resting, waking or sleeping, we are safe, if the Lord is our Shepherd.1 [Note: J. M. Scott, Some Favourite Psalms , 124.]
3. The true Guardian is also the Good Shepherd. There are few of the psalms which the early Christians referred more frequently to Christ. On the lintel of an ancient house in the Hauran may be read the inscription: “O Jesus Christ, be the shelter and defence of the home and of the whole family, and bless their incoming and outgoing.” How may we also sing this psalm of Christ? By remembering the new pledges He has given us that God’s thoughts and God’s heart are with us. By remembering the infinite degree which the cross has revealed, not only of the interest God takes in our life, but of the responsibility He Himself assumes for its eternal issues. The cross was no new thing. The cross was the putting of the love of God, of the blood of Christ, into the old fundamental pieties of the human heart, the realizing by Jesus in Himself of the dearest truths about God. Look up, then, and sing this psalm of Him. Can we lift our eyes to any of the hills without seeing His figure upon them? Is there a human ideal, duty or hope with which Jesus is not inseparably and for ever identified? Is there a human experience—the struggle of the individual heart in temptation, the pity of the multitude, the warfare against the strongholds of wickedness—from which we can imagine Him absent? No; it is impossible for any high outline of morality or religion to break upon the eyes of our race; it is impossible for any field of righteous battle, any flood of suffering to unroll, without the vision of Christ upon it. He dominates our highest aspirations, and is felt by our side in our deepest sorrows. There is no loneliness, whether of height or of depth, which He does not enter by the side of His own.
Who has assumed responsibility for our life as Christ has? Who has taken upon himself the safety and the honour, not of the little tribe for whom this psalm was first sung, but of the whole of the children of men? He took upon Himself our weariness, He lifted our sorrow, He disposed of our sin—as only; God can call or lift or dispose. Nothing exhausted His pity, or His confidence to deal with us; nothing ever betrayed a fault in His character, or belied the trust His people put in Him. He suffers not thy foot to be moved; He neither slumbers nor sleeps.
Christ will keep us as a shepherd doth his flock. What a possession those of us have who can say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” not “the” or “our,” but “my” own, even should there be thousands of other sheep besides. Why is He called “the great Shepherd of the sheep”? Because surely He is Intercessor, High Priest, Mediator, Surety, Captain of Salvation, Author and Finisher of Faith, Forerunner, King of Righteousness, King of Peace: He is all these, and all else His sheep need; for see our provision, “I shall not want.” I should think not; with such a Shepherd, how can we? Our position, “He maketh me to lie down.” No sheep lies down until it is satisfied—so our position as kept is just “to lie down,” to rest on His bosom, secure in His care from all attacks from without or within.… Being kept by such a Shepherd, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life.” The meaning of this is that in the East the head shepherd goes in front and two under-shepherds follow behind the sheep, to pick up any who become lame, or are prone to wander. Our Shepherd, who is to keep us, has commissioned Goodness and Mercy to thus follow us. We “shall never perish, neither shall any one pluck us out of his hand,” and “we shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Having been kept all the way by His own power, for He will not give this work to another; we are so precious to Him that we are to be kept by the power that created heaven and earth. “Keep them in thine own name,” He prays. The very name of the Lord is at stake.1 [Note: G. Clarke, The Keeper and the Kept, 56.]
4. The help and protection of the Lord accommodate themselves to all our individually varying states and circumstances. Help on our “right hand” is help for our whole sphere of life; help “by day and by night” is help under all changes; help which subdues the fierce power of the light and also protects from the evils which “walk in darkness” is help in all our conditions; “preservation for our soul” is help for our whole nature from its centre, help for body, soul, and spirit; help in our “going out and coming in” is help watchful and perpetual.
I do not know how these words were interpreted when very literal meanings were attached to the parabolic words about the streets of gold and the endless song. But they present no difficulty to us. Indeed, they confirm that view of the future which is ever taking firmer hold of men’s minds, and which is based on the growing sense of the continuity of life. To offer a man an eternity of music-laden rest is to offer him a poor thing. He would rather have his going out and his coming in. Yes, and he shall have them. All that is purest and best in them shall remain. Hereafter he shall still go out to find deeper joys of living and wider visions of life; still come in to greater and ever greater thoughts of God.1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, The Threshold Grace, 17.]
I know of a “going out” and a “coming in” when we shall specially need the preserving care of God; and to these, as to, every other, may the promise be extended. There is a “going out” from this world; there is a “coming in” to the next world; the departure from the present scene of existence on the unknown futurity. But the Lord shall “preserve thy going out and thy coming in.” Christ Jesus, according to His own declaration, has the keys of death and the invisible world; and therefore, it must be He who dismisses the spirit from the flesh, and opens to it the separate state.2 [Note: Henry Melvill.]
The last day dawned, bringing a busy morning with correspondence and future plans. At a quarter to five letters and cheques were brought to him to sign, and he dictated two other letters. Soon after he fell asleep, and awoke at a quarter to six and partook of a light meal. During the progress of the meal he said to his wife, “My head is so heavy, let me rest it on your face.” He appeared to have no pain but a slight choking sensation. Then he leaned back in his chair and passed away. He was not afraid of death. “I have looked,” he had written not long previously in sympathizing with a dear friend on the loss of her husband, “into the face of death. Three times has my life been given back to me after a dire struggle that nearly ended it all. But oh! I can tell you death is not so dark and drear as it is painted, even to the Christian. I felt as in the embrace of a friend.”1 [Note: Memoirs of the Late Dr. Barnardo, 269.]
She sat within Life’s Banquet Hall at noon,
When word was brought unto her secretly:
“The Master cometh onwards quickly; soon
Across the Threshold He will call for thee.”
Then she rose up to meet Him at the Door,
But turning, courteous, made a farewell brief
To those that sat around. From Care and Grief
She parted first: …
Then turning unto twain
That stood together, tenderly and oft
She kissed them on their foreheads, whispering soft:
“Now must we part; yet leave me not before
Ye see me enter safe within the Door;
Kind bosom-comforters, that by my side
The darkest hour found ever closest bide,
A dark hour waits me, ere for evermore
Night with its heaviness be overpast;
Stay with me till I cross the Threshold o’er.”
So Faith and Hope stayed by her till the last.
But giving both her hands
To one that stood the nearest: “Thou and I
May pass together; for the holy bands
God knits on earth are never loosed on high.
Long have I walked with thee; thy name arose
E’en in my sleep, and sweeter than the close
Of music was thy voice; for thou wert sent
To lead me homewards from my banishment
By devious ways, and never hath my heart
Swerved from thee, though our hands were wrung apart
By spirits sworn to sever us; above
Soon shall I look upon Thee as Thou art.”
So she cross’d o’er with Love.2 [Note: Dora Greenwell, The Soul’s Parting.]
Ainsworth (P. C.), The Threshold Grace, 11.
Cox (S.), The Pilgrim Psalms , 44.
Cumming (J. E.), The Blessed Life, 94.
McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, ii. 249.
Melvill (H.), Sermons, 1854, No. 2241.
Moule (H. C. G.), Thy Keeper, 63.
Piggott (W. C.), The Imperishable Word, 120.
Pulsford (W.), Trinity Church Sermons, 50.
Scott (J. M.), Some Favourite Psalms , 126.
Smith (G. A.), Four Psalms , 127.
Wilson (J. M.), Sermons Preached in Clifton College Chapel, ii 147.
Christian World Pulpit, lxxxiii. 107 (G. E. Darlaston).