He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High
Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.—Psa_91:1.
The beauty of the language of this poem fitly corresponds to the grandeur of the thoughts which it conveys. The Psalmist here sings “to one clear harp in divers tones”; and the central thought which he exhibits in its different aspects is that of God’s response to man. For every advance on man’s part there is an immediate and corresponding advance on God’s part. When man goes out to seek God, God meets him more than half-way. When he calls upon God, God will answer him. Loving faith on man’s part will be met by faithful love on the part of God. This is in the first verse, of which the whole psalm is an expansion. If man dwells “in the secret place of the Most High,” he shall abide “under the shadow of the Almighty.” We have here the condition and promise.
In his later years, Calvin’s colleague at Geneva was Theodore de Beza (1519–1605), the writer of the metrical version of Psalms 68, which was the battle-song of the Huguenots. Taste for the culture of the Renaissance, passion for poetry, worldly success and fame, had weakened the impression of the religious training of his youth. A dangerous illness revived his former feelings. Escaping from the bondage of Egypt, as he called his previous life, he took refuge with Calvin at Geneva. In 1548, when he for the first time attended the service of the Reformed Assembly, the congregation was singing Psalms 91, “Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” He never forgot the effect of the words. They supported him in all the difficulties of his subsequent life; they conquered his fears, and gave him courage to meet every danger.1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life, 185.]
“The 91st Psalm is a mountain of strength to all believers”; so General Gordon wrote from Gravesend in 1869, one of the six quiet years which he used to speak of as the happiest of his life. Again, thirteen years later, in January 1882, he wrote thus from Mauritius: “I dwell more or less (I wish it were more) under the shadow of the Almighty.”
In the Secret Place
1. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High.” We get the clearest idea of the meaning of this phrase by an examination of the different passages in the Psalms where the word here translated “secret place” occurs. Thus in Psa_31:20, we read: “Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence”; also in Psa_83:3, where another form of the same word occurs, we read of God’s “hidden ones.” From these and similar passages we find that the word is usually connected with the idea of a fugitive hiding from his pursuers. It calls up before us the picture of a man running away from his enemies. Weary and panting, he knows not where to hide himself, and in his despair he flees to some friend of his and seeks protection, and the friend hides him in a secret place. The fugitive gives his all into the keeping of his friend. He places his life in his friend’s hands, and he has now power of life and death over him. So, then, the man who dwells in “the secret place of the Most High” is he who ventures his all upon God. With a sure and steadfast trust, with a simple but unwavering faith, he gives himself, his all, into the keeping of God. He surrenders himself to God, and by that very act he is taken near to God; he is put in the secret place of the Most High and becomes one of “God’s hidden ones.” By his act of absolute self-surrender he has attained to that state which the Apostle Paul describes in language very similar to that of the Psalmist—only going a little further than the latter with his imperfect light could go—when he says, “Ye died, and your new life is hid with Christ in God.”
We are like vessels which are near a lee shore in the night. The darkness of the open sea is safer for the skilled seaman than the line of the shore. Our safety is to stand out in the bosom of the dark; it is to press into the mysteries of God. Why is it that our moral nature, even the religious, is too often shallow and poverty-stricken? It is because we do not pursue the growing knowledge of God on our own account. We are religious, or at least we are always in danger of being religious, without spiritual growth, and spiritual growth surely means spiritual insight. We cease to become sensible of spiritual enrichment. We come to a time of life when we are content to say, “I get no secrets from God now.” Revelations do not arrive; doors are not opened in Heaven; new vistas of faith do not spread away before the soul. Faith runs on upon the level, and it does not mount, and it does not soar. God becomes by habit a uniform Presence to us. He is not denied. We do not venture to deny Him. I was almost going to say we had not the courage to deny Him. But, at any rate, we do not deny Him. We only disregard Him, like the air and the sky. We do not give our minds seriously and deliberately to realizing Him. We do not pore upon Him until fold after fold removes, and depth after depth opens, and we look into His heart. The secret, the secret of the Most High is not with us.1 [Note: P. T. Forsyth.]
2. While this is the general idea, it is possible that the immediate figure of “the secret place” may have been borrowed from the arrangements and appointments of the Temple. There was the vast outside world stretching on every side beyond the Temple walls; then the outer courts of the Temple; then the inner chambers and precincts; then the Holy Place with its golden candlestick and table of shewbread; and last of all, the Holy of Holies, the secret place, the mystic abiding-place of the eternal God. And every Jew thought reverently and almost awfully of that secret, silent place where God dwelt between the cherubim. He turned towards it, he worshipped towards it, his desire moved towards it; it was the mysterious centre of his adoration and service. And that arrangement and apportionment of the Temple became to the Psalmist the type and the symbol of human life. Life could be all outside, or it could spend itself in outer courts, on the mere fringe of being, or it could have a secret place where everything found significance and interpretation and value in the mysterious fellowship of God. That seems to be the primary meaning of life “in the secret place”; it is life abandoning the mere outside of things, refusing to dwell in the outer halls and passages of the stately temple of being, and centralizing itself in that mysterious interior of things where “cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.”
The necessity of an inward stillness hath appeared clear to my mind. In true silence strength is renewed, and the mind is weaned from all things, save as they may be enjoyed in the Divine will; and a lowliness in outward living, opposite to worldly honour, becomes truly acceptable to us. In the desire after outward gain the mind is prevented from a perfect attention to the voice of Christ; yet being weaned from all things, except as they may be enjoyed in the Divine will, the pure light shines into the soul. Where the fruits of the spirit which is of this world are brought forth by many who profess to be led by the Spirit of truth, and cloudiness is felt to be gathering over the visible church, the sincere in heart, who abide in true stillness, and are exercised therein before the Lord for His name’s sake, have knowledge of Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings; and inward thankfulness is felt at times, that through Divine love our own wisdom is cast out, and that forward, active part in us is subjected, which would rise and do something without the pure leadings of the spirit of Christ.1 [Note: The Journal of John Woolman, 29.]
Don’t be too much taken up with excitements social and intellectual. The depths of life are still and ought not to be ruffled by every wanton breeze, else they lose the capacity which they ought to possess of being that centre of rest, and peace, and content, to which we can withdraw when wearied of the world which is too much with us. Life to be worth anything at all must have a moral basis. After all, it is the root of the matter, unless the universe was made in jest.2 [Note: Memoir of Robert Herbert Story, 401.]
3. The Church is, in God’s idea, a home where we recover from the fatigue of effort, when we take a new hold of high purposes from which our hand had slackened; a place of compensations; a place from which we see our life more truly, for we see more than itself. Here, in this house, we may feel something, some one, even God, in the form and manner of Jesus Christ, coming between us and the things which would dishearten us and work despair. Here we may sit under a shadow, under the shadow of thought and faith. Here we may come under the rebuke and deliverance of high and unworldly considerations; here we may receive the emancipation which comes the moment we adopt the spiritual view and seek not our own will but the will of God. To seek the face of God in worship is the instinct of the soul which has become aware of itself and its surroundings. Life and death are the great preachers. It is they who ring the church bells. That instinct for God, that instinct for the shadow, will never pass away. It may only become perverted and debased. The foundation—which is man’s need for God, for guidance, for cleansing, for support, and that again is but God’s search for man, God’s overtures to man—the foundation standeth sure.
Whatever temple science may build there will always need to be hard by a Gothic chapel for wounded souls.1 [Note: F. Paulsen, Ethics.]
“A little chamber” built “upon the wall,”
With stool and table, candlestick and bed,
Where he might sit, or kneel, or lay his head
At night or sultry noontide: this was all
A prophet’s need: but in that chamber small
What mighty prayers arose, what grace was shed,
What gifts were given—potent to wake the dead,
And from its viewless flight a soul recall!
And still what miracles of grace are wrought
In many a lonely chamber with shut door,
Where God our Father is in secret sought,
And shows Himself in mercy more and more!
Dim upper rooms with God’s own glory shine,
And souls are lifted to the life Divine.2 [Note: R. Wilton.]
4. The secret place is not to be limited to a particular locality, but means nearness to God, the close fellowship into which the soul enters, the inner circle of communion in which the soul realizes vividly the Divine presence. Some may associate such communion with one locality, and some with another, according to their individual experience. But this matters not. The essential thing is the nearness of the soul to God, its entering into His presence with the full consciousness that He graciously regards it, and will hear its prayer and accept its homage, breathing its feelings and desires into His ear, and spreading all its case before Him. His is not that distant and formal intercourse which one man may hold with another when, in the open and crowded places of the city, they have to restrain themselves because of being exposed to the observation of others; it is that intimate and unrestrained intercourse which friend holds with friend when they meet in privacy, where no other eye sees or ear hears, and each communicates to the other not the things which are open to public observation, but the secret and hidden feelings of the heart. Reverently, although freely and confidently, does the worshipper in the secret place speak to God as a child to its father, giving expression to all his feelings, whatsoever they may be.
“Fellowship with the living God,” says Andrew Bonar in his graphic little sketch of Samuel Rutherford, “is a little distinguishing feature in the holiness given by the Holy Ghost.… Rutherford could sometimes say, ‘I have been so near Him, that I have said I take instruments (documents by way of attestation) that this is the Lord,’ and he could from experience declare, ‘I dare avouch, the saints know not the length and largeness of the sweet earnest, and of the sweet green sheaves before the harvest, that might be had on this side of the water, if we only took more pains.’ … All this,” adds Bonar suggestively, “is from the pen of a man who was a metaphysician, a controversialist, a leader in the Church, and learned in ancient scholastic lore.”
Where is that secret place of the Most High?
And who is He? Where shall we look for Him
That dwelleth there? Between the cherubim,
That o’er the seat of grace, with constant eye,
And outspread wing, brood everlastingly?
Or shall we seek that deeper meaning dim,
And as we may, walk, flutter, soar, and swim,
From deep to deep of the void, fathomless sky?
Oh! seek not there the secret of the Lord
In what hath been, or what may never be;
But seek the shadow of the mystic word—
The shadow of a truth thou canst not see:
There build thy nest, and, like a nestling bird,
Find all thy safety in thy secrecy.1 [Note: Hartley Coleridge.]
5. How are we to maintain our life of fellowship with God? How are we to dwell in the Secret Place? The Psalmist doubtless would find guidance in the ways and ministries of the Temple.
(1) The spirit of reverence must be cherished. There was to be no tramping in the sacred courts. He was to move quietly, as in the presence of something august and unspeakable. And that is the very first requisite if we would dwell in the secret place—the reverent spirit and the reverent step. The man who strides through life with flippant tramp will never get beyond the outer courts. He may “get on,” he will never “get in”; he may find here and there an empty shell, he will never find “the pearl of great price.” Irreverence can never open the gate into the secret place.
(2) The second thing requisite in the Temple ministry to any one who sought the fellowship of the secret place was the spirit of sacrifice. No man was permitted to come empty-handed in his movements towards the secret place. “Bring an offering, and come into his courts.” And in that Temple-ministry the Psalmist would recognize another of the essential requisites if he would dwell in the secret place. That offering meant that a man must surrender all that he possesses, of gifts and goods, to his quest of the central things of life. For there is this strange thing about the strait gate which opens into the secret place: it is too strait for the man who brings nothing; it is abundantly wide for the man who brings his all. No man deserves the hallowed intimacies of life, the holy tabernacle of the Most High, who does not bring upon the errand all that he is, and all that he has. Life’s crown demands life’s all.
(3) And other Temple-ministries in which the Psalmist would find principles of guidance would be the requirement of prayer and praise. “Sing unto the Lord a new song.” Such was to be one of the exercises of those who sought the grace and favour of the holy place. They were to come wearing the garment of praise. And therefore the Psalmist knew that praise was to be one of the means by which he was to possess the intimacies of the secret place. And praise is still one of the ministries by which we reach the central heart of things, the hallowed abode where we come to share “the secret of the Lord.” And praise is not fawning upon God, flattering Him, piling up words of empty eulogy; it is the hallowed contemplation of the greatness of God, and the grateful appreciation of the goodness of God. And with praise there goes prayer—the recognition of our dependence upon the Highest, the fellowship of desire, the humble speech which cooperates in the reception and distribution of grace.
“I passed my time in great peace, content to spend the remainder of my life there, if such should be the will of God. I employed part of my time in writing religious songs. I, and my maid La Gautière, who was with me in prison, committed them to heart as fast as I made them. Together we sang praises to Thee, O our God! It sometimes seemed to me as if I were a little bird whom the Lord had placed in a cage, and that I had nothing to do now but to sing. The joy of my heart gave a brightness to the objects around me. The stones of my prison looked in my eyes like rubies. I esteemed them more than all the gaudy brilliancies of a vain world. My heart was full of that joy which Thou givest to them who love Thee in the midst of their greatest crosses.”1 [Note: Madame Guyon, in Life, by T. C. Upham.]
Let praise devote thy work and skill employ
Thy whole mind, and thy heart be lost in joy.
Well-doing bringeth pride, this constant thought
Humility, that thy best done is naught.
Man doeth nothing well, be it great or small,
Save to praise God; but that hath saved all:
For God requires no more than thou hast done,
And takes thy work to bless it for His own.2 [Note: R. Bridges.]
The wise man will act like the bee, and he will fly out in order to settle with care, intelligence, and prudence on all the gifts and on all the sweetness which he has experienced, and on all the good which God has done to him; and through the rays of the sun and his own inward observation he will experience a multitude of consolations and blessings. And he will not rest on any flower of all these gifts, but, laden with gratitude and praise, he will fly back again toward the home in which he longs to dwell and rest for evermore with God.3 [Note: M. Maeterlinck, Ruysbroeck and the Mystics, 130.]
Under His Shadow
The man who commits himself to God, and dwells in Him, has this promise, that he will abide under the shadow of the Almighty. There are two names of God used in the text, “The Most High” and “The Almighty”; and when we remember the deep religious significance which the different names of God had for the Hebrew, and the careful way in which they are used throughout the whole of the Old Testament, so that in general it is true that that name of God is used which alone serves to indicate the particular aspect of God’s character or government upon which the writer wished to lay stress; when we remember this, we are justified in looking for a meaning in the distinction between the two names of God used here. The man to whom the promise is made seeks to dwell in the secret place of “the Most High.” He seeks to be near God as the “Most High” God, the God of surpassing excellence. He desires the company of Him who is “Most High” because He is most holy. The character which he contemplates in God is not so much His power as His holiness. He desires to be near God, not because of what God can do for him, but because of what God is; it is in the thought of God’s goodness that he rests secure. It is the holiness of Jehovah that attracts him; it is the beauty of the Lord his God that he would behold continually. To the man who thus disinterestedly seeks after Him God will reveal Himself in the character of the Almighty. The power of the Almighty shall be round about him. “Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him; I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.” This man is to “abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”
This wonderful Psalm has always been a favourite with the Mystic and the Quietist. For it expresses what we may call the Beatitude of the Inner Circle. Most religions have distinguished carefully between the rank and file of the faithful, and that select company of initiates who taste the hidden wisdom and have access to the secret shrine. From the nature of the case some such distinction exists even in the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ Himself allowed a difference between “His own friends” and those many disciples who are servants still. Only we must never forget on what this difference depends. The Father, who is Lord of heaven and earth, has seen good to hide His secrets from the wise and prudent, and to reveal them unto babes. While from the inmost sanctuary of Christian experience a Voice cries continually, “Whosoever will let him come freely—if he be content to come as a little child.”1 [Note: T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, 38.]
1. What does the Psalmist mean by “abiding under the shadow”? Does he mean to say that the shadow of the Almighty rests on the secret place? At first sight it would seem so, but such a conclusion would not be in harmony with the trend of thought throughout the Psalm. What he appears really to teach is that, when a man regularly communes with God in secret, then, wherever he goes, the shadow of the Almighty shall rest upon him, and in times of trial and danger shall shelter and protect him. As the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night went before the children of Israel, and was both a guide and a shelter to them, so the shadow of the Almighty shall ever rest upon those who dwell in the secret place of the Most High. A shadow is produced when some object intercepts the light. Here it represents God placing Himself in front of the sun, to screen His people from heat. The sun shall not smite them by day, nor the moon by night.
The last poems of Miss Havergal are published with the title, Under His Shadow, and the preface gives the reason for the name. She said, “I should like the title to be, Under His Shadow. I seem to see four pictures by that: under the shadow of a rock in a weary plain; under the shadow of a tree; closer still, under the shadow of His wing; nearest and closest, in the shadow of His hand. Surely that hand must be the pierced hand, that may oftentimes press us sorely, and yet evermore encircling, upholding, and shadowing.”1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon, Till He Come, 23.]
2. Now it is one thing to be touched by the shadow of the Almighty, another to abide within that shadow. One has not lived long, or has lived only on the surface, who has never for a moment been touched by the shadow of God. It may have fallen upon us in one or other of several experiences. It may have come to us in some reverse of fortune, in some change in our prospects. Or it may have come to us in some bodily illness or the threatening of some illness. Or it may have come to us, as so much with regard to the unseen world comes to us all, in the great silence of a bereavement. But there is probably not one of adult years who has not had at least one experience which has touched him to the quick and has brought him for the time being face to face with God. And yet, if we are strict with ourselves, we shall have to confess that as the trouble eased the high seriousness which it brought began to pass away, so that probably not one of us has worked out into our life and character the holy intentions which we proposed to ourselves on a certain day when our heart was sore. We have lost from ourselves a certain dignity, a certain superiority to the world which was ours in days that we can still recall, when some suspense was keeping our heart open, when in some precious concern of our life we were depending utterly upon God for something. To be touched—that is the work of God, the work of life upon us; whereas to abide requires the consent of our will. In order to abide it needs that the whole man, who knows that in the personal crisis God was singling him out, shall live henceforth by the wisdom and calling of that hour. It needs that he shall depart from all the iniquity which the light of that holy hour revealed to him.
The original meaning of the word here translated “abide” is “to wrap up in a garment for warmth and rest during the cool of the night.” The reflexive form of the verb is here used: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall wrap himself round in the shadow of the God of Might.” Nearness to God is to be to him as the garment which the traveller wraps around him as he goes to sleep in the desert, when the chills of night descend. God’s immediate presence is to be wrapped round about him for his protection.1 [Note: A. S. Renton.]
3. God’s protection does not mean exemption from outward calamities. But there is an evil in the calamity that will never come near the man who is sheltered under God’s wing. The physical external event may be entirely the same to him as to another who is not covered with His feathers. Here are two partners in a business; the one is a Christian man, and the other is not. A common disaster overwhelms them. They become bankrupts. Is insolvency the same to the one as it is to the other? Here are two men on board a ship, the one putting his trust in God, the other thinking it all nonsense to trust anything but himself. They are both drowned. Is drowning the same to the two? As their corpses lie side by side, you may say of the one, but only of the one, “There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.” For the protection that is granted to faith is to be understood only by faith.
“If you believe in God,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “where is there any more room for terror? If you are sure that God, in the long-run, means kindness by you, you should be happy.” Fighting a losing battle with death, he wrote: “The tragedy of things works itself out blacker and blacker. Does it shake my cast-iron faith? I cannot say that it does. I believe in an ultimate decency of things; aye, and if I woke in hell, should still believe it.” Let us thank God for the faith of that high and brave soldier of suffering, going up and down the earth in quest of health, and singing as he went:
If to feel in the ink of the slough,
And sink of the mire,
Veins of glory and fire
Run through and transpierce and transpire,
And a secret purpose of glory in every part,
And the answering glory of battle fill my heart;
To thrill with the joy of girded men,
To go on forever and fail and go on again,
And be mauled to the earth and arise,
And contend for the shade of a word and a thing not seen with the eyes:
With the half of a broken hope for a pillow at night;
That somehow the right is the right
And the smooth shall bloom from the rough:
Lord, if that were enough?
4. But the promise is absolutely true in a far higher region—the region of spiritual defence. For no man who lies under the shadow of God, and has his heart filled with the continual consciousness of that Presence, is likely to fall before the assaults of evil that tempt him away from God; and the defence which He gives in that region is yet more magnificently impregnable than the defence which He gives against external evils. For, as the New Testament teaches us, we are kept from sin, not by any outward breastplate or armour, not even by the Divine wing lying above us to cover us, but by the indwelling Christ in our hearts. His Spirit within us makes us “free from the law of sin and death,” and conquerors over all temptations. Every step taken into a higher, holier life secures a completer immunity from the power of evil. Virtually there is no temptation to those who climb high enough; they still suffer the trial of their faith and principle, but they have no evil thought, no affinity with evil; it exercises over them no fascination; it is to them as though it were not. Never deal with temptation on low utilitarian grounds of health, reputation, or interest. If you have a vice, convict it at Sinai; arraign it at the bar of the Judgment Day; make it ashamed of itself at the feet of Christ; blind it with heaven; scorch it with hell; take it into the upper air where it cannot get its breath, and choke it.
And chok’st thou not him in the upper air
His strength he will still on the earth repair.
Migratory birds invisible to the eye have been detected by the telescope crossing the disc of the sun six miles above the earth. They have found one of the secret places of the Most High; far above the earth, invisible to the human eye, hidden in the light, they were delightfully safe from the fear of evil. Thus it is with the soul that soars into the heavenly places; no arrow can reach it, no fowler betray it, no creature of prey make it afraid: it abides in the shadow of the Almighty.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Ashes of Roses, 117.]
How good it is, when weaned from all beside,
With God alone the soul is satisfied,
Deep hidden in His heart!
How good it is, redeemed, and washed, and shriven,
To dwell, a cloistered soul, with Christ in heaven,
Joined, never more to part!
How good the heart’s still chamber thus to close
On all but God alone—
There in the sweetness of His love repose,
His love unknown!
All else for ever lost—forgotten all
That else can be;
In rapture undisturbed, O Lord, to fall
And worship Thee.2 [Note: Frances Bevan, Hymns of Ter Steegen, 36.]
Broughton (L. G.), The Soul-Winning Church, 50.
Butler (H. M.), University and Other Sermons, 254.
Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 38.
Edmunds (L.), Sunday by Sunday, 193.
Hutton (J. A.), The Fear of Things, 45.
Landels (W.), Until the Day Break, 24.
Maclaren (A.), Last Sheaves, 160.
Norton (J. N.), Every Sunday, 257.
Pearson (A.), The Claims of the Faith, 64.
Pierson (A. T.), The Heights of the Gospel, 63.
Price (A. C), Fifty Sermons, iv. 297; viii. 73.
Raleigh (A.), Rest from Care and Sorrow, 1.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Till He Come, 23.
Watkinson (W. L.), The Ashes of Roses, 114.
Christian World, Nov. 10, 1910 (J. H. Jowett).
Christian World Pulpit, lx. 378 (W. Glover); lxx. 285 (A. S. Renton); lxxi. 219 (G. H. Morgan).