Sermon 18. Condition of the Members of the Christian Empire

"Lord, Thou hast heard the desire of the poor; Thou preparest their heart, and Thine ear hearkeneth thereto; to help the fatherless and poor unto their right, that the man of the earth be no more exalted against them." Ps. x. 19, 20.

{256} THE book of Psalms has ever been one main portion of the devotions of the Christian Church, in public and in private, since that Church was. In the east and west, north and south, in quiet times, in troubled times, in the rise, and now in the decline, of the Kingdom of the Saints, the inspired words of the Prophets of Israel have been in the mouth of the children of grace. In consequence, it is natural to suppose that the Psalter has a Christian meaning. Since it has held its place at all times, it surely has a sense for all times. Since we especially use it, this surely must be because to us it is especially useful. Some free-thinkers have said, What is the book to us, relating, as it does, the history and expressing the feelings of a people who lived two or three thousand years ago? I grant it: if the book of {257} Psalms be but a Jewish book, it is not a Christian book; but the question on which all turns is, whether the Psalms are the mere devotions of an extinct religion or no.

The very circumstance, then, that Christians use the Psalter, proves that they consider that it has a meaning over and above that Jewish meaning which lies on the surface of it. And when we consider how intimately it has been received into the Christian Church, how it is made the form of so great a portion of our devotions, how it enters into almost all our Services, equally with the Lord's Prayer—nay, it may be said, even more than the Lord's Prayer, because of its greater length and variety—it cannot be supposed that this Christian meaning contained in it is but occasional or faint; it must run through it; it must be strong, definite, and real; else why should Christians turn aside to use Jewish forms? They have ever acted as if no state of their minds but found its appropriate expression in the Psalms; no sentence in the Psalms but had its appropriate sense in their own mouths.

Now as to a great portion of this sacred Book, we all know full well, and shall be able to reply at once, that it relates to our Lord and Saviour. Whatever is said in the first instance of David and his labours, trials, and sufferings in the cause of God, whatever is said of Solomon and his glory, and much beside which is more or less of a directly prophetic, and not of a mere typical character, is fulfilled in Christ. Much as we revere the memory of holy David, such reverence would not account for our commemorating him in preference to all saints, {258} and him alone, in our daily devotions; but we know well, that in reading the 22nd, or the 69th, or the 109th Psalm, we are reading, not of David's trials, which are gone and over, but of the mediatory and expiatory work of him who ever liveth, a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek; and in like manner, when we read the 2nd, or the 45th, or the 72nd, we read of the triumph and exaltation, not of the monarchs of Israel, but of the same Lord and Saviour.

And further, much that does not on the surface bear tokens of a relation to the same great truths, and which we cannot absolutely pronounce to relate to them, doubtless may be interpreted of them by the pious mind for itself as it reads;—from its own intimate apprehension and continual contemplation of the details of the history of Christ. And in this way the book of Psalms may certainly be made to abound in edifying lessons, and to breathe of Christ. But, allowing this fully, still it is not a sufficient reason for using the devotions of the Jewish Church, that they admit of being turned to good account. Moreover, there are, after all, large portions of the Psalms which cannot be said to support such a sense at all, which do not carry it on and carry it out continuously, which give it forth but at intervals; and which, in consequence, if they are to be considered Christian devotions, would seem to require some other interpretation, more natural, obvious and uniform.

Great part of the Psalms, for instance, is employed in lamenting, entreating, hoping, about certain subjects; what is the Christian meaning of all this? I mean, {259} what is a Christian to be thinking of when he uses the words?

Again, a Christian's devotion does and must consist, in great measure, in lamenting, entreating, hoping. What is the meaning then of making the Psalms the channel of his devotion, unless they do faithfully express that lamenting, intreating, and hoping, which a Christian exercises?

What, for instance, do we mean when we say, in the words of the text, "Lord, Thou hast heard the desire of the poor; Thou preparest their heart, and Thine ear hearkeneth thereto; to help the fatherless and poor unto their right, that the man of the earth be no more exalted against them"?

Either the Psalms are ever applicable to the state of the Christian Church, or one does not see why they have always formed so necessary a part of her devotions. And, as I have hinted, many persons feel this, and not understanding what is the present meaning of the Psalms, advocate their disuse.

Now it is obvious what a remarkable evidence is afforded us of the substantial agreement and the unity existing between the Christian and Jewish Church, by the continuation in the Christian of the Jewish devotions. For what is religion but worship? and whatever changes we make in the sense of its letter, these cannot be of a nature to reverse that letter; they can but enlarge the letter; they can but introduce a sense parallel to it; the substance of the ideas expressed by it must remain the same. This should be seriously thought of by those who disparage certain ordinances and customs {260} as Jewish; such as reverence for sacred places, observance of holy days, adoption of a minute ceremonial, and the like; for if there be one thing more than another Jewish in our received form of religion, it is the use of the Psalter. If we may safely use the very same prayers and praises used by God's former people, it does not appear why we may not adopt ceremonies, not the same, but like those, which were divinely given to them; if the Psalter admits of a Christian and spiritual sense, it does not appear why rites and ceremonies may not be practised spiritually also.

But our business at present is to inquire what that sense is, in which we Christians are to use the Psalms in our devotions.

Now, if we bear in mind what Scripture teaches us concerning the Christian Church, as the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, if we consider what the Church is in office, and in circumstance, we shall, I think, see that the Psalms are no foreign tongue, but do speak the very language which is natural to her; that if Isaiah has given her picture, David has supplied her voice; that the two inspired writers harmonize with each other;—and again, with the four Evangelists, and our Lord's own account of the kingdom of the Saints, as recorded by them.

For what is this kingdom as I have already described it? a universal empire without earthly arms; temporal pretensions without temporal sanctions; a claim to rule without the power to enforce; a continual tendency to acquire with a continual exposure to be dispossessed; greatness of mind with weakness of body. What will {261} be the fortunes of such an empire in the world? persecution; persecution is the token of the Church; persecution is the note of the Church, perhaps the most abiding note of all. The world is strong: men of the world have arms of the world; they have swords, they have armies, they have prisons, they have chains, they have wild passions. The Church has none of these, and yet it claims a right to rule, direct, rebuke, exhort, denounce, condemn. It claims the obedience of the powerful; it confronts the haughty; it places itself across the path of the wilful; it undertakes the defence of the poor; it accepts the gifts of the world, and becomes involved in their stewardship; and yet it is at the mercy of these said powerful, haughty, and wilful men, to ill-treat and to spoil. Is not this too great a temptation for sinful nature to resist? Can it be otherwise, but that a kingdom which claims so much, which professes so much, yet can resist so little, which irritates the world's pride, which inflames its cupidity, which interferes with its purposes, which terrifies its conscience, yet does nothing in its defence but threaten; which deals with unseen ill and unseen good, whose only arms are what an unbelieving world calls priestcraft—is it not certain that such a kingdom will be the prey and sport of the world?

Moreover, the mustard-seed, small and vile though it be, was destined to spread and thrive; to thrive in spite of all the world's power. Here is a distinct provocation. What so irritating, so mortifying to the proud, who are conscious that they are in high place in the world, and have great worldly power or influence, the world's arms, {262} the world's homage, as to find a despised doctrine "grow and multiply" in spite of them, and by means which they cannot investigate, by powers which they cannot analyze? Such was the nature of the Church's triumph over heathenism; and what the counter triumph of heathenism would be over the Church, was plain before the event. "It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel." [Gen iii. 15.] The Church made progress, and the world persecuted. The Kingdom was set up, but it was set up in obloquy, ill-usage, suffering, in much weakness, in fear and trembling. It triumphed as a Church, it suffered in its members. Such, in its measure, has been its lot ever since. The age of Martyrs, indeed, is well nigh over; but scarce a Saint, but has been in his place and degree a Confessor. Hardly has any one done right without provoking the world to do him wrong. "All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution," [2 Tim. iii. 12.] says St. Paul; and our Lord, "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake." [Matt. v. 11.]

But now to return to the Psalter. If the Church be what has been described; if it be great, and wide-spreading, yet ever open to attack; if it be ever strong, yet ever weak, weak in itself, strong in the Lord; ever persecuted, yet ever blessed and prospered; do you not see that the tenour of the book of Psalms does most exactly and minutely express what the feelings of the Church will be under such circumstances? The Church is holy, and the Church is defenceless. Now what is {263} the Psalter, from beginning to end, but a supplication to God to rescue the poor and needy, and to justify the righteous? the very petitions which the Church has such urgent cause to offer.

It contains two main ideas; the defeat of God's enemies, yet the suffering of God's people. I will now quote passages from it at some length, in illustration and proof of what I have said; that is, not merely isolated texts, such as we all know to be prophetic, or to admit of a reference to the great events of the New Testament, but such prayers and aspirations as occur in course, and in a context which cannot be applied merely to our Lord's history; which need a sense if they are to be used by Christians, and which find a sufficient one in the view of the Gospel Church which I have been taking.

1. Now, on the one hand, when we sing the Psalms we triumph in the Church's exultation over the might of this world. "In Jewry is God known, His Name is great in Israel." [Ps. lxxvi.] What is meant by Israel, but the chosen people, even us Christians? The Psalm must say that God's Name is great in us; else, why read we the Psalms? Let us proceed. "At Salem is His tabernacle, and His dwelling in Sion. There brake He the arrows of the bow, the shield, the sword, and the battle. Thou art of more honour and might than the hills of the robbers." The earth is filled with robbery, plunder, violence, cruelty, except so far as it is Christian. All states of the world, all governments, except so far as they are Christian, except so far as they act upon Christian principles, are scarcely more than robbers and {264} men of blood; and against these God exalts Himself; against these He is ever exalting Himself; against these at this very time is He rising, as in all times; against all states, all governments, all power of man which does not acknowledge Him, and bow before Him. And "the nation and kingdom that will not serve" Him, or rather, as the Prophet says, His Church, "shall perish." To proceed: "The proud are robbed, they have slept their sleep, and all the men whose hands were mighty have found nothing. At Thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both the chariot and horse are fallen." Do we ask how this is fulfilled now? Have we not seen in our own time, or did not our fathers see a great anti-christian power in the world, exalting itself against religion, and especially against Christ's Church? and did it not seem sure of success? and yet has it not, after all its threats and triumphs, ceased to be, leaving nought behind it but the Egyptians upon the seashore, and a small dust and ashes, for its worshippers fondly to hang over? And this is but one instance of what takes place in every age, the triumph of the Church over the world. "Thou, even Thou art to be feared, and who may stand in Thy sight when Thou art angry? Thou didst cause Thy judgment to be heard from heaven; the earth trembled, and was still, when God arose to judgment, and to help all the meek upon earth." The meek of the earth; for it is pledged to them that they shall "inherit" it. "The fierceness of men shall turn to Thy praise, and the fierceness of them shalt Thou refrain … He shall refrain the spirit of princes, and is wonderful among the kings of the earth." {265}

Again; the same triumph of God's Name in His chosen people over the mighty of the earth is spoken of in Psalm 93: "The floods are risen, O Lord, the floods have lift up their voice, the floods lift up their waves. The waves of the sea are mighty, and rage horribly; but yet the Lord who dwelleth on high is mightier."

Or again, in the 82nd, "God standeth in the congregation of princes; He is a Judge among gods," that is, among princes and rulers. "How long will ye give wrong judgment, and accept the persons of the ungodly? Defend the poor and fatherless; see that such as are in need and necessity have right. Deliver the outcast and poor; save them from the hand of the ungodly." Here the Church in her devotions speaks to the world, exhorting great men, and those who are rich in this world, to justice, impartiality, and mercy, and defending the poor, needy, and desolate—two of her special offices; but they will not listen: "they will not be learned, nor understand, but walk on still in darkness." Accordingly the Psalm ends, "Arise, O God, and judge Thou the earth; for Thou shalt take all heathen to Thine inheritance:" which is, in other words, calling on God to extend His kingdom into all lands.

Other notes of triumph at the sovereignty of the chosen people over the powers of the earth are such as the following:—"He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet ... The princes of the people are joined unto the people of the God of Abraham." [Ps. xlvii. 3, 9.] Again, "Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised in the city of our God, even upon His holy hill. {266} The hill of Sion is a fair place, and the joy of the whole earth ... God is well known in her palaces as a sure refuge. For lo, the kings of the earth are gathered, and gone by together. They marvelled to see such things; they were astonished and suddenly cast down ... Walk about Sion"—that is, the Church of Christ—"and go round about her, and tell the towers thereof. Mark well her bulwarks, set up her houses, that ye may tell them that come after." [Ps. xlviii. 1-12.] And again, "Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself ... There are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David ... O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces." [Ps. cxxii. 3, 5, 7.] And again, "The Lord hath chosen Sion to be an habitation for Himself: He hath longed for her. This shall be My rest for ever; here will I dwell, for I have a delight therein." [Ps. cxxxii. 14-18.] Who or what is Sion? What do we mean when we read this Psalm, and say, "The Lord hath chosen Sion"? We mean the Church which He set up when He went away. The Psalm proceeds to speak of David—by whom, in like manner, is meant Christ: "As for His enemies, I shall clothe them with shame; but upon Himself shall His crown flourish."

2. So much on the one side. But now let us turn to the other aspect of the Christian Kingdom, which is much more frequently brought before us in the Psalms, and to which I wish principally to draw attention: the suffering, troublous state which, in this world, naturally befalls an empire so large, so aggressive, so engrossing, {267} so stately and commanding, yet so destitute of weapons of earth. It provokes persecution at all times, both from its claims and from its weakness.

(1.) Thus then we cry out to God against our enemies. "When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though an host of men were laid against me, yet shall not my heart be afraid; and though there rose up war against me, yet will I put my trust in Him ... Teach me Thy way, O Lord, and lead me in the right way, because of mine enemies." [Ps. xxvii. 2, 3, 13.] Again, "O let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the ungodly cast me down." [Ps. xxxvi. 11.] Again, "Strangers are risen up against me, and tyrants, which have not God before their eyes, seek after my soul." [Ps. liv. 3.] And again, "Mine enemies are daily in hand to swallow me up, for they be many that fight against me, O Thou Most Highest." [Ps. lvi. 2.] And again, "Hide me from the gathering together of the froward, and from the insurrection of wicked doers." [Ps. lxiv. 2.] Are the Psalms a dead letter, or are they spirit? Do we use them as a form, or as the voice of our hearts? If we have any meaning when we use them, surely we imply that the Church is always militant, always in warfare, never at ease, never well with the world, never shielded from its hatred, malice, and violence. And you will observe, that it is especially the proud and tyrannical who are her enemies. "Let not the foot of pride come against me." "Tyrants seek after my soul." "Princes also did sit and speak {268} against me [Ps. cxix. 23, 46, 51, 69, 85.] ... I will speak of Thy testimonies also even before kings [Ps. cxix. 46.] ... The proud have had me exceedingly in derision; ... the proud have imagined a lie against me; ... the proud have digged pits for me ... Princes have persecuted me without a cause." [Ps. cxix. 51, 69, 85, 161.]

(2.) Next, we lay before Almighty God our desolations. As, for instance, "Thou lettest us be eaten up like sheep, and hast scattered us among the heathen. Thou sellest Thy people for nought, and takest no money for them." [Ps. xliv. 12, 13.] "O God, wherefore art Thou absent from us so long? why is Thy wrath so hot against the sheep of Thy pasture? O think upon Thy congregation, whom Thou hast purchased and redeemed of old." [Ps. lxxiv. 1, 2.] For though the kingdom of the Saints extends and flourishes as a whole, yet it is open to reverses of any magnitude, schisms, defections, losses, in its separate parts.

(3.) And, further, we complain of our captivity. "Who shall give salvation unto Israel out of Sion? When the Lord turneth the captivity of His people, then shall Jacob rejoice, and Israel shall be glad." [Ps. xiv. 11.] "O that the salvation were given unto Israel out of Sion! O that the Lord would deliver His people out of captivity!" [Ps. liii. 7.] "Turn our captivity, O Lord, as the rivers in the south." [Ps. cxxvi. 5.]

(4.) Again, the Psalms say much concerning the poor and needy, and God's protecting them against bad men. {269} "The Lord also will be a defence for the oppressed ... The poor shall not alway be forgotten; the patient abiding of the meek shall not perish for ever. Up, Lord, and let not man have the upper hand." [Ps. ix. 9-19.] "The ungodly for his own lust doth persecute the poor ... The poor committeth himself unto Thee, for Thou art the helper of the friendless." [Ps. x. 2, 16.] And in the text, "Lord, Thou hast heard the desire of the poor; ... to help the fatherless and poor unto their right, that the man of the earth be no more exalted against them." "They smite down Thy people, O Lord, and trouble Thine heritage; … the Lord will not fail His people, neither will He forsake His inheritance." [Ps. xciv. 5, 14.] "Our soul is filled with the scornful reproof of the wealthy, and with the despitefulness of the proud." [Ps. cxxiii. 4.] Now consider the state of Christendom during many centuries, when tribes of fierce barbarians poured over its face, or settled in its territory; or when tyrannical kings and nobles oppressed its people, or rose against its rulers and pastors; or when power, whether barbarian or constituted, broke in upon its sacred retirements, ill-treated their holy or studious inmates, destroyed the work or scattered the fruits of years of tranquil diligence; and say whether the Psalter is not just the book which all those variously tried, equally helpless multitudes would choose, as more fitting than any other to express their sorrows and their faith, their prayers and their hopes?

(5.) Once more, the Psalms speak especially of the righteous being in trouble, plead for them, and wait for {270} their deliverance. "The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth them." [Ps. xxxiv. 17.] "Fret not thyself because of the ungodly, neither be thou envious against the evil doers ... The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever." [Ps. xxxvii. 1, 30.] "I was grieved at the wicked; I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity ... O how suddenly do they consume, perish, and come to a fearful end!" [Ps. lxxiii. 3, 18.] "The righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar in Libanus." [Ps. xcii. 11.] "Do well, O Lord, unto those that are good and true of heart." [Ps. cxxv. 4.] Now, is it not just the peculiarity of the Christian Church, not only that it is slandered, scorned, ill-used by the world, but that all this happens to it because it is holy,—for its righteousness' sake?

Thus, on the whole, we see that in the Psalms a very wonderful provision is made by anticipation for the wants of the Christian Church. It is just the book of devotions needed by it, as it ever has been used; supposing it to be so great and so weak, so vast a kingdom, but not of this world, as the Prophets and the Evangelists describe it to be.

Now here, of course, it is obvious to make this objection—we are not in persecution; for us to use the language of the Psalms is unreal. Christians in our own happy country have every thing their own way. The profession of the Gospel is an honour, the rejection of it a disgrace. Either, then, we are not a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, or that Kingdom is not what Gospels, {271} Prophecies, and Psalms describe it to be. But many answers may be made to this objection.

1. First, it is not necessary that all parts of the Church should be in persecution at once, either to fulfil the Scripture statements, or to justify the use of the Psalms. It suffers in its different portions at different times. We have had our trials before now; and other portions of the Church are now under similar, or rather worse, afflictions. Of course, if we are members of the one body of Christ, we must feel for the rest, in whatever part of the world they are, when they are persecuted, and must remember them in our prayers. Nor does it avail to say that we differ from them in faith: what is that to the purpose in a question of love? Either Christianity is shut up in Britain, or not: if it is, Christ has no longer a Catholic Church, and then, certainly, the prophecies are not now fulfilled to us; or it does exist in other lands, and then we are bound to sympathize in the troubles which Christians there undergo for the name of Christ.

2. But, again, in spite of her prosperity for the moment, even in this country, the Church of Christ is in peril, as is obvious. Can we number the tens and hundreds of thousands who shrink from our Church as if antichristian, or who hate her for being Christian, and wish her downfall? Is there no battle between the Church and the world in this country? and no malevolence, no scorn, no unbelief, no calumny; no prospect, or, at least, materials of open persecution, though persecution, through God's mercy, as yet be away? Consider our great towns, and reflect what a scourge in {272} God's anger they might be upon our many sins, unless He were most merciful.

3. But, further, if we are not altogether in a position to use the words of the Psalter, if we are too happy and secure, in too great abundance and too much honour, to be able to use them naturally, is it not possible that so far we really do lack a note of the Church? is there not a fear lest the world be friends with us, because we are friends with the world? This is no new or strange occurrence in the history of the Gospel. It is not peculiar to our age or country; it is the great disease of the Church in all ages. Whatever corruptions of doctrine there have been at particular times and places, no corruption has been so great as this practical corruption, which has existed in its measure in all times and places—the serving God for the sake of mammon; the loving religion from the love of the world. And as to ourselves, I fear, it is no declamatory statement to say, that there never was an age in which it existed more largely, never an age in which the Church contained so many untrue members; that is, so many persons who profess themselves her members, when they know little or nothing about the real meaning of membership, and remain within her pale for some reasons short of religious and right ones. For instance, to put one question on the subject,—How many supporters of Christ's holy Catholic Church do you think would be left among us, if her cause were found to be, not the cause of order, as it happens to be now, but the cause of disorder, as it was when Christ came and his Apostles preached? It was the cry of the Jews of Thessalonica against St. Paul and {273} St. Silas, "These that have turned the world upside down, are come hither also." [Acts xvii. 6.] Is it not as plain as the day, that the mass of persons who support the Church in her legal privileges, do so, not so much because they care for the Kingdom of the Saints, as because they think that the downfall of our civil institutions is involved in her downfall? I do not say that they have no love for the Church, but they have a greater love for worldly prosperity. They have just so much more love for the world than for the Church, as would lead them, were the peace of the world and the welfare of the Church at variance with each other, to side with the world against the Church. As it is, they see that the influence of the Gospel is on the side of good order; that it tends to make men contented and obedient subjects; that it keeps the lower orders from outbreaks; that it makes a firm stand against rebellion, sedition, conspiracy, riot, and fanaticism; that it is the best guarantee for the security of private property. It does all these benefits; they are benefits; and we may rightly be thankful for them. But numbers of professing Churchmen consider them the special benefits of Christ's Kingdom, caring little for the unseen and spiritual blessings which are its true and proper gifts. Look round upon our political parties, our literature, our science, our periodical publications: is it not too plain to need a word of proof, that religion is in the main honoured because it tends to make this life happier, and is expedient for the preservation of our persons, property, advantages, and position in the world? Can a greater stigma be placed upon any {274} doctrine in the judgment of the community than that it is anti-social, or that it is irksome, gloomy, or inconvenient?

No wonder, then, while we are in the midst of this serious corruption, that the words of inspired Psalmists, which have been the solace of the Church in every age, do not seem real to us. Let us but put off the love of the world, and follow the precepts of our Lord and His Apostles, and then see in a little while where we should all find ourselves, and what would be the condition of the Church.

Meanwhile, whether we will believe it or no, the truth remains, that the strength of the Church, as heretofore, does not lie in earthly law, or human countenance, or civil station, but in her proper gifts; in those great gifts which our Lord pronounced to be beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the thirsters after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

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