Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 36:9 - 36:9

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 36:9 - 36:9


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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

Life and Light

For with thee is the fountain of life:

In thy light shall we see light.—Psa_36:9.

St. Augustine asks, “What is the fountain of life, unless Christ?” and he adds, “He who is the Fountain is the Light.” Our Lord said, “Whensoever I am in the world, I am the light of the world”; and again, “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall have the light of life.” This is further explained by St. John, with reference to our Lord as the Word: “That which hath been made in him is life, and the life was the light of men.” Thus we have continually associated together as in the text the two ideas of life and light, both finding their fullest meaning in our Lord Jesus Christ. As gifts or possessions from Him and through Him, we cannot separate them. The presence of the one bespeaks the presence of the other, and each the recreating presence of the Spirit of God. Light necessarily comes to us if there is life, and life necessarily issues when light enters.

On some of the Alpine passes there are rude shelters for distressed travellers, but they are only shelters; they hold no food, no water, no light, no warmth; the man they have saved may perish within their walls. The Redeemer is sometimes thought of as a mere refuge to flee to from condemnation. How imperfect that is; for though we are saved from condemnation we have as many wants as heart-beats; but when the eyes of the refugee are opened he sees a home there, and everything he needs for all time, for all events, for all perfection. We flee to Him for safety, but He puts this song into our mouth:

Thou, O Christ, art all I want,

More than all in Thee I find.1 [Note: Charles New.]

I

The Source of Life

“With thee is the fountain of life.”

1. God is the fountain of life in the merely physical sense. He has life in Himself, and He communicates His life in multitudinous forms. He does not derive His life: it rises eternally in Himself. The life we need is ever flowing from God. All the life in the universe, visible and invisible, is from Him. Vegetable life with its myriad forms, in hedgerow, garden, forest, and field; animal life from the tiniest animalculæ to the mammoths of Eastern lands; human lives—which die, we are told, at the rate of nearly 4000 every hour, their places being taken by as many more; lives in the unseen world, the innumerable inhabitants of the unseen state. Space throbs and palpitates with life. What a conception it gives of the almightiness of our Heavenly Father! Of all this life He is the source.

2. But life is more than physical existence; it is fellowship with the Unseen. When God passed from the formation of His other creatures to the creation of man, He added something over and above what they had, something direct from Himself to make life; He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Sin changed the base of life; it made another base necessary. God put all life into His Son. And that life which is in Christ is the real spring and essence of all that constitutes true human life. There must be generation from Him; there must be contact with Him; there must be union with Him to make life—life properly so called—the life which is the being of a man—the life that fulfils the end of life—the life that is for ever and for ever. The beginning of life, then, man’s real life, is oneness with the Lord Jesus.

Life in the Old Testament is primarily the physical, earthly life, the sum of energies which make up man’s actual existence. The soul separated from the body does not cease to be, but it forfeits its portion in the true life. Two factors, however, were latent in the Old Testament conception from the beginning, and became more and more prominent in the course of the later development. In the first place, the radical element in life is activity. Mere physical existence is distinguished from that essential life which consists in the unrestricted play of all the energies, especially of the higher and more characteristic. In the loftier passages of the Psalms, more particularly, the idea of “life” has nearly always a pregnant sense. It is associated with joy, prosperity, peace, wisdom, righteousness; man “lives” according as he has free scope for the activities which are most distinctive of his spiritual nature. God Himself is emphatically the “living one.” He is the creative, ever-active God—sufficient to Himself, the source of all reality and power. Life is His supreme attribute, distinguishing Him from men with their thousand weaknesses and limitations. The other factor in the Old Testament conception is even more important in its bearing on later thought. Since God alone possesses life in the highest sense, fellowship with Him is the one condition on which men can obtain it. “With thee is the fountain of life.” In the higher regions of Old Testament thought, life and communion with God are interchangeable ideas. The belief in immortality is never expressly stated, but, as Jesus Himself indicates, it was implicit in this knowledge of a God “who was not the God of the dead, but of the living.”1 [Note: E. F. Scott, The Fourth Gospel, 235.]

3. And this life is conveyed to man through Christ. He secures it for us by the surrender of His own life, His sacrifice on Calvary, thus making it possible for the Father to bestow it righteously on us who are unworthy of it. And He, Christ crucified and alive again, is the medium of its communication. Again and again He claims, and it is claimed for Him, that He is the Author of life. “I am come,” He says, “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”; “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life”; “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”; “God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” The Father is the fountain, but, said Christ, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.”

Like the great aqueducts that stretch from the hills across the Roman Campagna, His Incarnation brings the waters of the fountain from the mountains of God into the lower levels of our nature, and the fetid alleys of our sins. The cool, sparkling treasure is carried near to every lip. If we drink, we live. If we will not, we die in our sins, and are dead whilst we live. Stop the fountain, and what becomes of the stream? It fades between its banks, and is no more. You cannot live the life of the animal except that life be joined to Him. If it could be broken away from God it would disappear as the clouds melt in the sky, and there would be nobody, and you would be nowhere. You cannot break yourself away from God physically so completely as to annihilate yourself. You can do so spiritually; some do it, and the consequence is that they are dead! You can be made alive from the dead, if you will lay hold on Jesus Christ, and get His life-giving spirit into your heart.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

(1) The fountain is mysterious in its origin. This is perhaps the thought that first occurs to any one who stands by the rushing fountain pouring forth its stream of life; and the mystery has led the uninstructed nations to curious conjectures as to the origin of these fountains.

Some years ago the engineers engaged in constructing the water-works of the city of Beyrout set themselves to the task of exploring the caverns from which issues the permanent supply of the Dog River. After great labour and repeated expeditions they succeeded in penetrating to a distance of three-quarters of a mile into the heart of the mountain; but as they passed onward from lake to torrent, now under lofty dome, and again through narrow and tortuous channels, the water was undiminished in its volume, and finally a roaring cataract barred their progress and forbade them to search farther into the secret of the living stream.

So is it that life, after all our inquiries into its nature and origin, remains hidden from us. We are conscious of its existence, we can see its effects, but in itself it is a mystery, even as the great Giver of it, the Fountain of Life, dwells in thick darkness. We can only say, “In his hand is the breath of all living.” In Him we “live, and move, and have our being.”2 [Note: J. Robertson, in Sunday Magazine, 1881, p. 703.]

(2) The fountain is free and full in its flow. The people of the East call water the “gift of God”; and so throughout Scripture the invitation is repeated in various forms: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.” “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” For “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This stream of spiritual life, though in its origin far above the level of human nature, bursts forth in our nature, and at a level within reach of the poorest and the vilest. At the lowest point of the humiliation of the Son of God it was manifested. Though springing from the bosom of the eternal hills it runs in the valleys, and he that would have life must first know the power of death. The Rock of Ages cleft for us is the point at which we receive the gift of God, and we receive it without money and without price.

The water of the fountain will flow of its own necessity. It is in its very nature that it must flow if only we do not wilfully hinder it. It is always flowing into an open heart.1 [Note: James Vaughan.]

(3) The fountain of life brings life wherever it flows.

One of the most striking of all the fountains of Syria is the fountain of Fijeh, in Anti-Lebanon, which furnishes at one spring from the solid rock three-fourths of the waters of the river Barada, the ancient Abana of Damascus. The traveller pitches his tent under the walnut-trees that overhang the fountain; lulled to sleep by it at night, he hears it at every waking hour; and when the rising sun pierces through the thick foliage its rays fall upon the sparkling river, rushing on with undiminished strength. By night and by day, when swollen by the rains of winter, and after all the snow on the highest heights has disappeared, for six long months of drought, the fountain pours forth its stream of life. And the nodding oleanders dip their flowered heads in its stream, and the poplars and walnut-trees draw their deep life from its waters, and orchards and gardens flourish along its banks, and it scatters life and beauty wherever it goes. But let us leave for a little the narrow valley in which it holds its course, and as we bend off to the left and its sound fades away on the ear, let us observe how vegetation gets scantier and poorer, till, within sight and almost within hearing of the river, we stand in a dry, parched wilderness. Proceeding still across the arid waste we reach the summit of a hill that is burnt up by the summer sun, and we have before us a view that is unparalleled in the East, perhaps unequalled in the world. A plain of vast extent is bounded on all sides by barren deserts, but in its centre, embedded in a belt of living green, is a city of a hundred and fifty thousand souls, for the river is there, and whithersoever the river comes there is life.2 [Note: J. Robertson, in Sunday Magazine, 1881, p. 704.]

(4) The water of the fountain is always seeking to rise to the level from which it came. This makes the very life and beauty of the fountain. So will it be with “the fountain of life.” It will always be mounting to the height, the heavenly height from which it sprang, bearing us up and up to that world from which it came; and though it never reaches it, it will aspire to it; it will always be nearing it, continually approaching the heaven of its birth, the God of its creation.

It is difficult to be always true to ourselves, to be always what we wish to be, what we feel we ought to be. As long as we feel that, as long as we do not surrender the ideal of our life, all is right. Our aspirations represent the true nature of our soul much more than our everyday life.1 [Note: Max Müller.]

Alas! long-suffering and most patient God,

Thou needst be surelier God to bear with us

Than even to have made us! Thou aspire, aspire

From henceforth for me! Thou who hast Thyself

Endured this fleshhood, knowing how as a soaked

And sucking vesture it can drag us down

And choke us in the melancholy Deep,

Sustain me, that with Thee I walk these waves,

Resisting!—breathe me upward, Thou in me

Aspiring, who art the way, the truth, the life,—

That no truth henceforth seem indifferent,

No way to truth laborious, and no life,

Not even this life I live, intolerable!2 [Note: E. B. Browning.]

II

The Source of Light

“In thy light shall we see light.”

God is “the Father of lights.” The sun and all the stars are only lights kindled by Him. It is the very crown of revelation that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Light seems to the unscientific eye, which knows nothing about undulations of a luminiferous ether, to be the least material of material things. All joyous things come with it. It brings warmth and fruit, joyfulness and life. Purity, and gladness, and knowledge have been symbolized by it in all tongues. The Scripture uses light, and the sun, which is its source, as an emblem for God in His holiness and blessedness and omniscience.

The Psalmist saw the world all full of seekers after light; he was a seeker after light himself. What he had discovered, and what he wanted to tell men, was that the first step in a hopeful search after light must be for a man to put himself into the element of light, which is God. The first thing for any man to do who wanted knowledge was to put himself under God, to make himself God’s man; because both he who wanted to know and that which he wanted to know had God for their true element and were their best and did their best only as they lived in Him.

When I try to describe to myself this thought of David about man’s seeing all light in the light of God, no picture like the picture of a true and docile childhood seems to me to express it. A child in his father’s house learns everything within the intelligence and character of his father, who has provided all things there, and is perpetually throwing light upon their proper use. Everything has its own qualities, but those qualities are made distinct and vivid to the child by their relation to the master of the house. Not purely in themselves, but in his father’s use of them and in their relationship to him does the child come to know the tools of the workshop, the furniture of the parlour, and all the apparatus of domestic life. So, I believe, it is with the child’s knowledge of the larger house, the world-house, of which God is the Father.1 [Note: P. Brooks, Sermons Preached in English Churches, 104.]

1. Nothing is seen in its own light—not even a visible thing. A landscape is not seen in its own light; it is perceived very much in the light of yesterday. How little of what you see is mere perception! Every sight of nature is tinged with the light of memory. The poet looks from the bridge at midnight upon the rushing waters; but what he sees is not the flowing tide; it is a tide of memory that fills his eyes with tears. You listen to the babbling of the brook; but what you hear is not the babbling, it is the utterance of a dear name. You visit Rome, you visit Jerusalem, you visit Greece; do you see any of these by its own light? No; they are all beheld by the light of yesterday; there is their glory, there lies their gold! “Even so,” cries the Psalmist, “it is with this world; if you want to see it, you must look at it by the light of another world—God’s coming world.” He does not mean that when we quit the scenes of earth we shall have bright light in heaven. It is more than that. It is for the scenes of earth he wants the heavenly light. He says you cannot interpret your own skies without it. We often say that in the light of eternity earthly objects will fade from our sight. But the Psalmist says that, until we get the light of eternity, earthly objects will never be in our sight. It is by the light of the Celestial City—the City which has no need of the sun—that alone we can tell what here is large and what here is small.

Jesus knew the streets of Jerusalem and the lanes of Galilee and the history of His mysterious Hebrew people, and the hearts of the lilies and the souls of men; but He knew them all differently from the way in which the Hebrew scribes and scholars knew them. To Him they were all full of light. There is no other description of His knowledge that can tell its special and peculiar character like that. It was all full of light. And the other peculiarity of it was just as clear. It was full also of God. He knew everything as God’s child in God’s house. The history of the prophets and the heart of the lily both meant something about His Father. These two peculiarities belonged together. The world was full of light to Him because it was full of God. It was God’s light in which He saw the deeper light in everything.1 [Note: P. Brooks, Sermons Preached in English Churches, 105.]

2. If we need God’s light to appreciate natural beauty and to grasp intellectual truth, much more do we need it to apprehend spiritual realities. It is in communion with Him who is the Light as well as the Life of men that we see a whole universe of glories, realities, and brightnesses. Where other eyes see only darkness, we behold “the King in his beauty, and the land that is very far off.” Where other men see only cloudland and mists, our vision will pierce into the unseen, and there behold “the things which are,” the only real things, of which all that the eye of sense sees are the fleeting shadows, seen as in a dream, while these are the true, and the sight of them is sight indeed. They who see by the light of God, and see light therein, have a vision which is more than imagination, more than opinion, more than belief. It is certitude. Communication with God does not bring with it superior intellectual perspicuity, but it does bring a perception and an experience of spiritual realities and relations, which, in respect of clearness and certainty, may be called sight. Many of us walk in darkness, who, if we were but in communion with God, would see the lone hillside blazing with chariots and horses of fire. Many of us grope in perplexity, who, if we were but hiding under the shadow of God’s wings, would see the truth and walk at liberty in the light which is knowledge and purity and joy.

(1) It needs a God to make God known.—Light has this property, that it is at once the vehicle and that which is borne by the vehicle; it is the revelation and its channel, and this twofold property of light remains the same whether we regard it as the old school of physicists did—as an actual emanation of particles; or as the new school do—as only an undulation or vibration of some invisible ether itself at rest. The oft-quoted line of the poet, that we may rise from nature up to nature’s God, then, is either a truism or a sophism; a truism if we mean only that nature reveals something of God’s character while it conceals the rest; a sophism, if we mean that man, by the unassisted light of his natural faculties, is able to discover the invisible things of God. We can know God only by Himself. The light must be Divine by which we see that there is anything whatever Divine to see and behold.

When Dante has reached the Ninth of the Heavenly Spheres he catches his first glimpse of the Godhead, the Central Point on which “Heaven and all Nature hangs,” surrounded by nine circles of fire, which he is told are the nine choirs of angelic beings. But though he can see them in their operation, his vision is too imperfect to see them as they are. He must drink of the River of Light. Then he beholds the Rose of the Blessed, with its myriads of saints. But still he is unable to see God. The Virgin Mary procures this grace for him, and gazing on the Central Point he sees three circles, like rainbows, and, being illuminated by a flash of Divine Light, he comprehends the mystery of the Holy Trinity and of the Incarnation.

(2) Only in God’s light can we truly see ourselves.—We wish really to know ourselves, our own real being and position. What are we? Where do we stand in the scale of God’s creation, as God sees us? We are so many things wrapped up in one; we are, alas! a mass of contradictions—so very different at different times. What am I? What am I, as an angel sees me? As truth sees me? As God sees me? What am I? I grow so perplexed when I go down into the dark depths of my own soul. No natural light can clear up this. There must be a light from outside, a light from above. “In thy light,” the soul will have to say at last out of all its searchings—“in thy light shall I see light.” Down in those hidden crevices of my own innermost, blackest being, Lord, give me light to see clearly what I am.

“John Leech,” says Dean Hole, “had an original and effective method of reprimanding his children. If their faces were distorted by anger, by a rebellious temper, or a sullen mood, he took out his sketch book, transferred their lineaments with a slight exaggeration to paper, and showed them, to their shameful confusion, how ugly naughtiness was.”1 [Note: R. E. Welsh, God’s Gentlemen, 41.]

3. The full effulgence of the Divine Light was manifested in Christ, who is both God and the Revealer of God. He is the light which alone is uncreated light, “bright effluence of bright essence increate”—language which Milton strangely enough has applied to material light, but which is inappropriate unless applied to Him who is the true Sun of Righteousness. As for material light, however subtle and ethereal, it is not Divine; the creature is not to be confounded with the Creator in this way. The language of the Psalmist is more careful and guarded: Thou “coverest thyself with light as with a garment.” Light, in fact, is like a garment, or veil, or fleecy cloud, across the moon’s disc, which part reveals and part conceals. So it is of all the material works of God, and hence the allegory of the ancients was not inexact which represented nature by the symbol of the veiled Isis. There is something seen through the veil, but more remains behind which we cannot see through. The same symbol was seen in the sanctuary, where a thick curtain hung between the Holy Place and the Most Holy of All; that curtain, woven within and without with cherubim, signifying this, that what was seen was the multiform appearance of creation, of which the cherubim were the symbol, while behind was that which no man hath seen or can see—God in Himself.

(1) Christ lights up the unlighted lustre in our nature.—Conversion is the lighting up of our nature with the spark of God’s Holy Spirit out of heaven. When a man is converted he does not get new brains; he does not get new senses or capacities; he is still surrounded by the old relationships, and he still moves in the selfsame world. But men have been heard to tell the story of their conversion, and they have said, “The stars seemed new to me, and even the sun shone differently.” And we have known men who had made every one round them miserable develop into true gentlemen when God met with them. Nor can any one move among our peasantry, and see the wisdom and weight and power of certain characters, without perceiving how much it has meant for them that they have known the living and true God. What has happened to them? Have they received new faculties? No, it is not that—the lustre was always there. But the light of all light has entered their circuit now, and the spark that is God’s has kindled the spiritual candle: it is not a difference of added lustre; it is just that the lustre has been lighted up.

The doctrine of conversion played so large a part in Bishop Wilkinson’s life that it demands a few words, because it is so often misunderstood. Conversion, in its perverted sense, is often used to describe a sort of mental crisis in which, under the influence of hysterical excitement and rhetorical intoxication, the spirit is hypnotized into an experience so abnormal that it often has a permanent effect on character, and has in retrospect the appearance of a Divine interposition. That was not what Wilkinson meant by conversion. He believed, indeed, that it often came suddenly upon the soul, but that it was only a natural step in a chain of circumstance, like the parting of the avalanche from the snowfield. What he meant by it was a realization of truth, of the personal relation with God, so vivid and indubitable that the soul could never be in any doubt as to its redemption and its ultimate destiny. But he believed that this might be a tranquil and reasoned process, though in the case of sin-stained lives he was inclined to feel that the break with the past must often be of the nature of an instantaneous revulsion, a sudden perception of the hideousness of sin, and a dawning of the light of God.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, The Leaves of the Tree, 116.]

(2) Christ sheds light for us on the manifold paths of duty.—It is wonderful how, when a man lives near God, he comes to know what he ought to do. That great Light, which is Christ, is like the star that hung over the Magi, blazing in the heavens, and yet stooping to the lowly task of guiding three wayfaring men along a muddy road upon earth. So the highest Light of God comes down to be a Lantern for our paths and a Light for our feet. Now the light comes just as we are ready to obey the will of the Most High. Abraham had to leave his home and go out, not knowing whither he went. Moses had to return from the home he had in Midian to the country where they had sought his life. The people of Israel had to journey into the great and terrible wilderness. The prophets had to pass through stern ordeals. The apostles must leave all and follow Christ. St. Paul must bow his neck under the yoke of Him whom a moment before he was persecuting, and say, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” And do we not know that the light of God is most fully in our souls when by Divine grace we are uprooting self-indulgence and self-will?

To St. Francis of Assisi, as he set out to join the champion of the Church, Walter de Brienne, intoxicated with the idea that he himself was destined to become a great leader, came a vision at Spoleto. “Francis,” called the voice of God, “who can make thee the better knight, the Master or the servant, the rich man or the poor?” “The Master,” said Francis, “not the servant, the rich man, not the poor.” Then said the voice: “But thou leavest the Master for the servant and the rich man for the poor.” And Francis said: “What dost Thou will that I should do, O my Lord?” And the Lord said: “Turn thee back to thy own land, for the vision that thou didst see meant heavenly and not earthly equipment, and it shall be given thee by God and not by man.” Obedient to the vision, Francis gave up all thought of rejoining the band of Assisan soldiers, and rode slowly home that day, revolving in his mind this grace vouchsafed of direction in the path of the Spirit. It must have been from this time that he felt it was to no mundane glory he was being guided, but rather to the glory which vanquishes the world. One wonders how the struggle shaped itself, how keen were the pangs which moved him, as one fair temporal hope after another took on the likeness of a phantasm and trembled into nothingness at the potent presence of these unwonted and unseen realities. One wonders how his spirit stirred and shook as their amazing intervention became indubitable; how the unequal contest agonized and astounded him; how, step by step, the spiritual gained upon the temporal, whilst his shrinking flesh cried aloud in the suffering of death. Only this we know: he obeyed, and, in obedience to the Will, he found the Way, the way of the Cross, Christ Jesus, from which he never swerved.1 [Note: A. M. Stoddart, Francis of Assisi, 71.]

Then fiercely we dig the fountain:

Oh! whence do the waters rise?

Then panting we climb the mountain:

Oh! are there indeed blue skies?

We dig till the soul is weary,

Nor find the water-nest out;

We climb to the stone-crest dreary,

And still the sky is a doubt!



Let alone the roots of the fountain;

Drink of the water bright;

Leave the sky at rest on the mountain,

Walk in its torrent of light;

Although thou seest no beauty,

Though widowed thy heart yet cries,

With thy hands go and do thy duty,

And thy work will clear thine eyes.1 [Note: George MacDonald, A Book of Dreams (Poetical Works, i. 394).]

Literature

Benson (E. W.), Boy-Life, 32.

Brooks (P.), Sermons Preached in English Churches, 89.

Cooke (G. A.), The Progress of Revelation , 3.

Creighton (M.), The Heritage of the Spirit, 185.

Matheson (G.), Leaves for Quiet Hours, 192.

Morrison (G. H.), The Unlighted Lustre, 30.

Stone (D.), The Discipline of Faith, 31.

Thackeray (F. St. John), Sermons Preached in Eton College Chapel, 105.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), viii. (1871), No. 742; xxii. (1883), No. 1232; xxiii. (1883), No. 1259.

Cambridge Review, ix. Supplement No. 232 (R. Machray).

Christian Commonwealth, xxxii. (1912) 437 (R. J. Campbell).

Christian World Pulpit, xvi. 106 (J. B. Heard); xx 392 (J. B. Tinling).

Church of England Pulpit, lxiii. 76 (M. P. Maturin).

Churchman’s Pulpit: The Epiphany, iii. 286 (G. F. Terry).

Preaclief’s Magazine, v. (1894) 97 (C. New).

Sunday Magazine, 1881, p. 702 (J. Robertson).