Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 97:11 - 97:11

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Psalms 97:11 - 97:11


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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

Light and Gladness

Light is sown for the righteous,

And gladness for the upright in heart.—Psa_97:11.

The peculiar metaphor employed in this passage is somewhat arrestive because of the form in which it is expressed. This way of putting things is quite different from ordinary language; we do not commonly speak of sowing light and gladness in the same fashion as we sow grain in the spring-time with the expectation of an autumn harvest. The figure is so striking that we are at once compelled to pause and ask what this writer has in mind. To say the least of it, the suggestion is very beautiful. Imagine a husbandman sowing rays of light in the ploughed fields instead of the ordinary corn and flower seed! Why, the very idea is full of spiritual suggestion, and sets us on the track of high and holy things. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Revisers have allowed it to stand, although, as has frequently been pointed out, the translation is not literally correct. If we have a mind to be pedantically accurate we might render the text thus: “Light has arisen—or, is scattered—for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.” It is almost identical in form with Psa_112:4, “Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness.” This reduces the sentiment to a much more commonplace category, for, of course, it means no more than an allusion to the phenomenon of sunrise, a figure in which there is nothing so very remarkable or out of the common. But somehow one thinks the Authorized translators have got nearer the original meaning of this utterance than a mere prosaic literalism could have done. It is true poetry to say that light is sown for the righteous, and there is nothing fantastic about it.

Milton, in Paradise Lost, wrote these words about the sunbeams and the dew: “Morn advancing sowed the earth with orient pearl.” And when, with this thought in our minds, we look up on a winter night to the starry sky, does that not seem like an immense concave field sown all over with light?1 [Note: C. Jerdan.]

I

Sown Light

1. It is no merely fanciful use of the words, “light is sown,” to suggest that, in a literal sense, light has been sown for our harvesting in those vast buried forests which constitute our coalfields, and are the source of nearly all our artificial light and heat. The sunbeams that streamed through long millenniums upon our planet were absorbed by those giant ferns and conifers that flourished in what geologists call the Carboniferous period, and were afterwards submerged and overlaid with other deposits; and after having been imprisoned in the depths and the darkness for long ages, like seed in the soil, the light of those beams is now breaking forth once more for the illumination and service of man.

George Stephenson, the inventor of the locomotive engine, was once standing with Dean Buckland, the famous geologist, and others upon the terrace of Sir Robert Peel’s mansion at Drayton Manor, when a railway train flashed along in the distance, throwing behind it a long trail of white steam. “Now, Dr. Buckland,” said Stephenson, “can you tell me what is the power that is driving that train?” “Well,” said the Dean, “I suppose it is one of your big engines.” “But what drives the engine?” “Oh, very likely a canny Newcastle driver.” “What do you say to the light of the sun?” “How can that be?” asked the Dean. “It is nothing else,” replied the engineer; “it is light bottled up in the earth for tens of thousands of years and now, after being buried in the earth for long ages in the fields of coal, the latent light is again brought forth and liberated; made to work, as in that engine, for great motive purposes.” That answer was itself a flash of illumination to the mind of the man of science, and there is more meaning in it than even Buckland or Stephenson himself ever dreamed. For, since that day, not only has light produced by the combustion of coal gas become the chief means of artificial illumination to all civilized nations, but mineral oils derived from the same source are also largely used, and it is the pent-up force of the sunbeam locked up in the coal that drives our motor-cars, and, transformed into heat, generates the power which we transmute again into light in the form of the electric beam. Hundreds of thousands of years ago the light was sown, and now the harvest is being reaped.1 [Note: J. Halsey.]

2. A seed is a germ. When, therefore, we say that God has sown the light for us, we mean that He gives us our blessings in germ, not in full form—that they come to us, not developed into completeness of beauty, but as seeds which we must plant, waiting, sometimes waiting long, for them to grow into loveliness. A seed does not disclose all the beauty of the life that is folded up within it. We see only a little brown and unsightly hull which gives no prophecy of anything so beautiful as springs from it when it has been planted. These facts in nature have their analogies in the seeds of spiritual blessing which God sows for us. The blessing does not appear: what does appear is often unlovely in its form, giving in itself no promise of good. Yet it is a seed carrying in it the potency of life and the possibilities of great blessing. Every duty that comes to our hand in the common days is a seed of light which God has sown for us. Some seeds are dark and rough as we look upon them; so there are duties that have in them no promise of joy or pleasure as they first present themselves to us. They look hard and repulsive, and we shrink from doing them, but every one knows that there is in the faithful doing of every duty a strange secret of joy; and the harder the duty, the fuller and the richer is the sense of gladness that follows its performance.

God’s angels drop like grains of gold

Our duties ‘midst life’s shining sands,

And from them, one by one, we mould

Our own bright crown with patient hands.

From dust and dross we gather them;

We toil and stoop for love’s sweet sake

To find each worthy act a gem

In glory’s kingly diadem

Which we may daily richer make.

It has been said that faith in God and belief in immortality were Browning’s sources of inspiration. It is not possible to say that of all our poets—perhaps not of any in the same degree as of him. One other great poet of the Victorian age, Tennyson, may be very properly described as a religious poet. He, too, treats of the eternal mysteries of God and the universe, and the awful problems of life and death; but where Tennyson whispers, or speaks with bated breath, Browning sends forth a clear, distinct, ringing voice—where the former “faintly trusts,” the latter avows a confidence which nought can disturb, and which inspires faith in the more timid and halting of his fellows around him. What Browning makes the Pope say in “The Ring and the Book,” he might have said of himself with perfect truthfulness:

Never I miss footing in the maze,

No,—I have light nor fear the dark at all.1 [Note: J. Flew, Studies in Browning, 7.]

3. This figure of light sown implies something hidden and long waited for, yet certain at last; even as the seed is buried in the soil, and “the husbandman hath long patience until he receive the early and the latter rain,” and finally, the assured fruition of his labour. The sower does not doubt the harvest because he has to wait weary months for it. He knows that in due season he shall reap if he faint not. And so the Psalmist would have us believe that the certainty of the coming light is as great as that of the present darkness, and that if our calamities are inevitable, our consolations are assured. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

The seed which is cast into the soil does not immediately yield the harvest. The waiting is the price we have to pay for the hundredfold increase. It cannot be reaped yet. But it is sown, and will yet grow and ripen. God’s hand has prepared the soil and cast the seed, and His care and culture secure an abundant harvest. It is sown, and is growing under His eye. Those dark clouds that overshadow sometimes drop down fatness on it. Those storms that are so trying strengthen it. And God’s love, like genial sunshine, is promoting its continual growth. It is sown, and will be reaped before long. Fear not; rather look beyond.

Lift up thine eyes beyond the night

Of life’s dark setting; blossoms of to-day

Shall break in flower to-morrow.

This year’s light sucked into every spray

Is food for summer blossoms yet to be.

The rays of the sun are streaming across ninety-six million miles of space every day in the year, and every hour in the day. Some of them are turned into planetary energy at once; others pass down into darkness and silence in the earth and there remain; or they may spring up immediately in the form of vegetation, which by and by becomes a coal mine or a petroleum well. After the lapse of ages, it may be, that stored-up light, scattered so lavishly upon the earth’s surface so long ago, is discovered and brought into use once more. We drive our looms and illuminate our houses with it. We call it by a variety of names, according to the service we manage to draw from it. In the form of electricity we make it flash our thoughts from continent to continent across intervening oceans. In another form, it will carry a floating city, like a modern mammoth Atlantic liner, from the old world to the new. In others, it shines forth as beauty and splendour in the complex and manifold achievements of art and science. What untold wonders are being wrought every day by the bringing forth of the stored-up light of the sun! They constitute the harvest of that which was sown long before we who profit by the blessing were born to inherit it.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]

4. God has sown His holy light in the field of His Word. The sacred writings are full of hidden light—the light of truth, holiness, and joy; and this light the Holy Spirit shows to the devout and diligent student. Every gospel promise is a star, shining in the dark night of time; and the Bible is a “book of stars.” Light is sown also in the field of Divine Providence. Everything that God allows to happen to His people is right: this is so, even when darkness wraps them round for a season. “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” And light is sown especially in the field of human hearts. The Spirit of God scatters in this soil seeds of living light—knowledge and purity and gladness. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.”

I have been deep in my study of the ways of God in heathen religions. The past of mankind does not now seem a black ocean covered with fog and storm, and wrecks drifting everywhere, but a long wake of light crosses it coming from the light that lighteth every man in the world, the Pharos of humanity—the Spirit of God. In that gleam, the nations have steered their barks and made towards haven. He hath not left Himself without a witness.1 [Note: Life of Charles Loring Brace, 458.]

I have been thinking especially of those prayers which are most legitimate and most surely answered—prayers for help to resist temptation, for strength in the performance of duty, for the lifting of despondency, and for all the way in which men are raised above themselves and out of weakness are made strong. In such cases as these it does not often happen that the supplicant is conscious of any direct intervention of God. He will indeed rise from his knees in a calmer frame of mind; the habit of prayer, and the trustfulness which goes with such a habit, cannot fail of their effect in quieting for the time the troubled spirit. The humble Christian does not look for more than this; but he waits awhile, and the crisis passes. He does not know what has happened; but in some strange way the difficulties that seemed to beset him have vanished; the problem that seemed so unmanageable is solved; the thing that seemed so impossible is done.2 [Note: W. Sanday, in The Expository Times, xxiv. (1913) 440.]

II

Sown Gladness

“Light and gladness”! What a wonderful conception of the future portion of the righteous does the Psalmist here give us! The two words, as is customary in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, mean almost the same thing. The one is figurative, the other literal. The word “gladness” itself teaches us most emphatically that joy is the portion of the righteous—exuberant, exultant joy—joy which beams in the eye, and lights up the countenance, and gives buoyancy to the frame, and is heard in the jubilant tones of the voice, and which yet has its seat deep among the springs of feeling—in the very heart’s core. Gladness! It is joy, full, deep, and placid, like a lake which knows no ebb, and is sheltered from every agitating storm, and yet like a lake whose calm waters ripple under the gentle breeze, and flash with bright scintillations in the rays of the summer’s sun, with singing birds around pouring out their melody, and flowers shedding fragrance on the air, and beautifying all the scene. Gladness! It is the laughter of the heart, when, full of enjoyment to overflowing, it ripples over in spontaneous expression, more cheerful than the laughter of childhood at play, serene as a summer evening sky. Gladness! Surprising revelations—expectation more than realized; fears dispelled and dangers escaped; sorrows changed into joys; all perils passed, all apprehensions hushed; satisfying bliss already possessed, higher bliss anticipated! All this is included in this portion of the righteous.

1. This gladness will be accompanied by, and no doubt partially spring from, the revelation of things that are wrapped in darkness now. It will be no small element in the joy of the righteous that many of the mysteries which perplex them will be unravelled. God’s ways, which now seem to us mysterious, and which try the faith and patience of His people, will not always be so unfathomable as they are now; they will present themselves in a very different aspect when His chosen have reached the end of their course, and begin to see as they are seen, and to know as they are known. “Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness.” And we cannot but believe that their hearts will be gladdened by the surprisingly new light in which the most trying dispensations appear, and by the lifting up of the veil from the great and glorious purposes which they were designed to promote. There may still be room for the exercise of faith. But, largely, faith will give place to sight, and hope to realization. And in their clearer understanding of the Divine method, and their better acquaintance with its glorious issues, they will find no small portion of their joy. The gladness of brighter and ever-increasing light will be theirs for ever.

The missing qualities in Wesley’s religious state at this time [before his conversion] are sufficiently obvious. It utterly lacked the element of joy. Religion is meant to have for the spiritual landscape the office of sunshine, but in Wesley’s spiritual sky at this time there burned no Divine light, whether of certainty or of hope. He imagined he could distil the rich wine of spiritual gladness out of mechanical religious exercises; but he found himself, to his own distress, and in his own words, “dull, flat, and unaffected in the use of the most solemn ordinances.” Fear, too, like a shadow, haunted his mind: fear that he was not accepted before God; fear that he might lose what grace he had; fear both of life and of death.1 [Note: W. H. Fitchett, Wesley and His Century, 82.]

2. God is the God of gladness, as well as the God of terror. And this needs special emphasizing for some who would limit His interest to the graver things of life—sorrow, affliction, mourning. It is true, beautifully true, that He is the Consolatio afflictorum, the real, genuine Refuge for thousands who are burdened and heavy laden; but it is also true that He presides over the pleasures of His people. Is not the average Englishman’s conception of God that of a stern, stiff Being, more or less confined to certain times and places, associated chiefly with stiff-backed pews, but having very little, if anything, to do with the pleasures or the gladder side of daily life? This—though it has its good side—is a view we want to review and revise. We want to get back to the old, happy conception of the Psalmist: “Thou art about my path and about my being, and spiest out all my ways.” And worse still: some of us keep this gladsome view of God outside even our religion. The Hundredth Psalm has a line which runs in the old metrical version,

“Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell,”

which is often sung as if the words were,

“Him serve with fear.”

The change is a bad one. Fear has its part to play in life, but here it spoils the whole idea of the hymn, and is out of harmony with the verse in the Psalm from which the thought is borrowed: “Serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.” Let us get back to the original as soon as we can in thought, word, and deed.

Froude reminds us how bright and happy and even humorous were the great heroes of the Reformation—Luther, Calvin, and Knox; and yet they lived in times when there was far more to lament and to be ashamed of even than in ours; they fought a battle for light and truth and liberty under far heavier discouragements than we have to bear, and yet they were among the happiest of men. And why? Because they were doing something, they were not idle and sentimental spectators of the foul state of things around them, but every day and all day they were active in trying to overthrow them; they were for ever fighting against the lies and baseness and follies and superstitions on every hand and therefore they were not morbid or melancholy; they knew that God was on their side and therefore their true hearts were glad. Difficulties did not daunt them; wounds did not disable them; reproaches, curses, mortal danger did not even damp their spirits or lower the temperature of their joy. Amidst the Egyptian darkness, the darkness which might be felt, as we are told, the children of Israel had light in their dwellings. True or not as a matter of history, it is grandly true that wherever there is righteous work for God there is light in the mind and soul, wherever there is fidelity there is joyful gladness.1 [Note: C. Voysey.]

Many a man gets little credit for his indomitable good cheer, because it is supposed that this is but his natural inclination. But a virtue is still a virtue, even though it be congenial; and those who have diligently kept their lamp of joy alight are not the least worthy of God’s faithful ones. As for Stevenson, he deliberately drew upon and encouraged all the available sources of gladness. He carried with him into manhood, not only the glee that comes from physical vitality, and the sense of the world’s opulence, but also the spirit of the Lantern-bearer, who carefully kept alive his inner light. His natural optimism is unquestionable, but it should be remembered that he needed it all, and that, if his strenuous choice of it had flagged, pessimism would not have been far to seek. It is a great and potent secret, that of fostering our own peculiar enthusiasm as a sacred flame. Regard yourself, as you face the simplest duty of to-morrow, as tending within your soul’s temple the fires of God, and you shall find the bright parable true. Both these sources, the outward and the inward, were largely drawn upon by Stevenson.2 [Note: J. Kelman, The Faith of Robert Louis Stevenson, 250.]

III

The Reapers of Light and Gladness

God’s light is sown for all mankind, but only “the righteous” can find it; His gladness waits at the door of every soul, but it never enters save to “the upright in heart.” But who are “the righteous” who are thus favoured, and what does it mean to be “upright in heart”? What Jesus meant by righteousness was substantially what the great prophets of the Old Testament had meant before Him when they protested against idolatry. He meant motive rather than deed; He meant that equality of mind and heart whereby a man loses sight of self-interest in the desire to help and succour his fellow-creatures. From this standpoint it is clear that the more righteous a man becomes the less will he think about it; he will cease to be self-conscious; he will just go on giving himself quietly and simply without asking whether he is to be rewarded or not.

No sooner does a man become absorbed in some great impersonal achievement, ceasing to care what may or may not happen to himself in the process, than he begins to find that life discloses new and vaster meaning; and he knows more of true blessedness than he ever knew before. He may be quite willing to forgo everything in the shape of reward, but it is part of the very law of universal being that he cannot do so. The less he thinks about reward the more certainly will the highest kind of reward pour in upon him. He cannot be wretched; life forbids it. He may have to go down into the darkness for a brief hour, but it is only to bring up the everlasting light; he may wrestle awhile in Gethsemane, but it is only a stage in the ascent to the gladness beyond the cross. Who will gainsay the truth of this? It is the eternal paradox which faces every generation, and challenges every individual experience as though it had never been known before. It lies at the heart of all religion, and reaches its highest expression in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

1. While it is true of all good men in every creed that light springs up in their hearts, and joyful gladness is ever the sweet handmaid of sincerity, yet it is especially true that God often rewards an intense desire for righteousness with clearer views of His own righteousness and more light to shine upon us from His love. We have been faithful to some obligation or trust, and so God in His mercy has revealed to us more light to shine on His dealings with mankind, and has blessed us with the joy of knowing more of His infinite fidelity and trustworthiness. Or we have been more than usually kind, merciful, and generous in our dealings with others, and then God has shown us more and more of His inexhaustible kindness, mercy, and generosity unto all. Or we have had to make some daring sacrifice of worldly advantage, some loss of position or friends rather than be false to ourselves and our convictions, and then God has revealed to us the delight that He takes in a brave man and in moral courage, and He puts a joy and liveliness into our whole nature which the chances of fortune cannot steal and the frowns of the world cannot crush.

I know but one way in which a man who craves the light and cannot find it may come forth from his agony of doubt scathless; it is by holding fast to those things which are certain still—the grand, simple landmarks of morality. In the darkest hour through which a human soul can pass, whatever else is doubtful, this at least is certain. If there be no God and no future state, yet, even then, it is better to be generous than selfish, better to be chaste than licentious, better to be true than false, better to be brave than to be a coward. Blessed beyond all earthly blessedness is the man who, in the tempestuous darkness of the soul, has dared to hold fast to these venerable landmarks. Thrice blessed is he who, when all is drear and cheerless within and without, when his teachers terrify him, and his friends shrink from him, has obstinately clung to moral good. Thrice blessed, because his night shall pass into clear, bright day.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson, Lectures, Addresses, and Literary Remains, 49.]

2. “Light is sown for the righteous,” because only the righteous can perceive and rejoice in the light. There are certain rays in the spectrum that are invisible to us, simply because our optic nerve is not sufficiently sensitive to respond to the rapidity of their vibrations. There are new colours awaiting those who can bring new eyes to them. So much of the joy in our life depends on our capacity to see the Divine purpose and meaning in the things that befall us. The comfort is there, but we cannot take it. We are like Hagar in the wilderness, wretched with thirst, while the fountain is there flashing back the sunlight before our blinded eyes.

There is a shining light ahead, and Evangelist points Christian to that. Every soul of man can see at least some light of hope ahead, shining in the direction of the God or Christ or ideal which is as yet obscure. It may be but the light of some possible duty, some sense of honour, some belief in life, some vague trust in the future. The point is not that the light is full, or even comprehensible. If it be clear enough to flee towards, that is enough. For, here as elsewhere, “solvitur ambulando.” What is wanted is directed motion towards the light; the rest will follow. So it comes to pass that one may be on the road to Christ when one cannot as yet see Him.1 [Note: J. Kelman, The Road, i. 9.]

He that walks it only thirsting

For the right, and learns to deaden

Love of self, before his journey closes,

He shall find the stubborn thistle bursting

Into glossy purples, which outredden

All voluptuous garden-roses.…

He, that ever following her commands

On with toil of heart and knees and hands,

Thro’ the long gorge to the far light has won

His path upward, and prevail’d,

Shall find the toppling crags of Duty scaled

Are close upon the shining table-lands,

To which our God Himself is moon and sun.2 [Note: Tennyson.]

3. If a man is to reap light, he must sow light. Every one of us makes his own future. If we would have the capacity for light hereafter, we must cultivate it now. There is a tendency in light to beget light, just as there is a tendency in the seed to bring forth thirty to a hundredfold. Believe and walk in the light you have, and it shall grow from more to more unto noonday splendour. If in the darkness a man, loving the light, sow the seeds of light, further illumination shall come to him hereafter.

“Curses come home to roost,” says the proverb. No less do gentle speech and kindly acts come back to nestle softly in our hearts. Faber, the Roman Catholic poet, sings how he caught up a little child and kissed it and gave it new joy in the sense of having made a new friend. And then he adds:

I am a happier and a richer man,

Since I have sown this new joy in the earth:

’Tis no small thing for us to reap stray mirth,

In every sunny wayside where we can.

It is a joy to me to be a joy,

Which may in the most lowly heart take root;

And it is gladness to that little boy

To look out for me at the mountain foot.

Literature

Carroll (B. H.), Sermons, 340.

Christopherson (H.), Sermons, 30.

Halsey (J.), in Jesus in the Cornfield, 143.

Jerdan (C.), Gospel Milk and Honey, 311.

Landels (W.), Until the Day Break, 125.

Learmount (J.), Fifty-two Sundays with the Children, 92.

Miller (J. R.), A Help for Common Days, 91.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xiv. (1868), No. 836.

Stubbs (W.), in Oxford University Sermons, 318.

Voysey (C.), Sermons, x. (1887), No. 20; xii. (1889), No. 22.

Wilson (S. L.), Helpful Words for Daily Life, 384.

Christian World Pulpit, lxxviii. 33 (R. J. Campbell).