PSALM 84:5.—“Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee.”
POWER and enjoyment are reciprocally related to each other. “To be weak is to be miserable,” said Satan to Beelzebub, as they lay weltering in the floods of tempestuous fire, after their expulsion from heaven; and it is a truth, though falling from satanic lips. He who is filled with a sense of weakness and danger is unhappy; but he who is conscious of inward power and security is blest. It is a universal fact that the enjoyment of any being is proportioned to his strength, and partakes of the nature of it. If his is an inferior and uncertain strength, his is an inferior and uncertain happiness. If his confidence is in his health and his wealth, then his enjoyment is of an earthly nature, and will endure only while he lives upon earth. If his is a superior and permanent strength, his is a superior and permanent enjoyment. If the strength of a man is the eternal God, and the immutable truth that is settled in heaven; if it is in spiritual and heavenly objects; then his happiness is heavenly, and will endure forever.
The Divine Word, however, throws all these lower species out of the account, and calls no man strong unless his strength is in God; no creature happy unless he reposes unwaveringly upon his Father in heaven. And this judgment of the Word of God is true altogether. For ought that pleasure to be denominated by so expressive a term as blessedness, which depends upon the fragile objects of sense and time, and which ceases altogether when the soul passes into another world? Does that man know anything of true mental peace and satisfaction who merely buys and sells and gets gain? Has he anything of heaven in his experience who makes himself his own end and his own strength, and finds in the hour of real trial—of affliction and of death, when flesh and heart fail—that God is not the strength of his heart and his portion forever?
The Bible does not look upon man and his happiness with man’s weak eye. It takes its stand in the skies, far above the little theatre of this existence, and looks with the all-surveying glance of God. It contemplates man as an immortal creature who must live forever; who needs communion with God, and love to him and from him, and trust in him, in order that the long eternity of his existence may have something to repose upon, and not be an unsupported aching void in which there is not a moment of genuine happiness, not a single element of peace. Consequently in giving an opinion and estimate, the Scriptures pay little attention to this short life of threescore years and ten. They measure by eternity.
Man may deem himself happy if he can obtain what this life offers, but the Bible calls him miserable—nay, calls him a fool—because the time is very near when this whole earthly life itself will terminate. Man calls himself happy if he can grasp and cling to the objects of this world; but the Word of God asserts that he is really wretched, because this world will soon be melted with fervent heat. Man flatters himself that all is well with him while he gratifies the flesh, and feeds the appetites of his corrupt nature; but God asserts in thunder tones that all is ill with him, because his spirit is not fed with the bread that cometh down from heaven.
God is on the throne, and looks down upon all the dwellers upon the face of the earth, and from his calm seat sees all their hurried, busy, and little movements—like those of ants upon the ant-hill—and he knows, and in his Word affirms, that however much they may seem to enjoy in their low sphere, and in their groveling pursuits, they are nevertheless possessed of nothing like solid good in any degree, unless they look up to him from amidst the stir and dimness of earth, for a participation in the holiness and happiness of their Creator. He knows and affirms, that no man whose strength is not in Him, whose supports and portion are merely temporal and earthly, is blessed.
Man is a creature of time, and sustains relations in it. He is also a creature made for eternity, and sustains corresponding relations. Let us then look at him in these two different worlds, that we see how he is blessed in them both if his strength is in God; and how he is unblest in them both if his strength is not in God.
I. In the first place, man is in time, and in an earthly and transient state of being;
How will he be unblest in this life if his strength is not in God, and how will he be blest in this life if his strength is in God?
If man is ever to be happy without God, it must be in some such world as this. It must be in a material world, where it is possible to banish the thought of God and of responsibility, and find occupation and a species of enjoyment in other beings and objects. If a creature desires to be happy away from God, and in opposition to his commandment, he must accomplish it before he goes into a spiritual world; he must effect it amidst these visible and temporal scenes. This is his only opportunity. No sinful creature can be happy for a moment in the life to come. He must therefore obtain before he dies all the enjoyment he will ever obtain. Like Dives, he must receive all his “good things” here.
If man can ever dispense with the help and favor of God, and not feel his need of him, it must be when he is fully absorbed in the cares and interests of this life, and when he can center his affections on father and mother, on houses and lands. Standing within this sphere, he can, if ever, be without God and not be miserable. For he can busy his thoughts, and exert his faculties, and send forth his affections, and thus find occupation away from his Creator. And hence it is, that there is so much of sinful pleasure in this life, while there is none of it in the next. In this material world a man can make himself his own end of living, and not be constantly wretched. But in the spiritual world where God and duty must be the principal subjects of reflection, no man can be supremely selfish without being supremely miserable.
Take therefore your sinful enjoyment in this life—ye who hanker after this kind of pleasure—for it is impossible to find any of it in the next life. “Rejoice, O young man, in the days of thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”
Still, even this life, with all its sinful enjoyment, is not a blessed life for a worldly man. There is a heaven-wide difference between earthly pleasure and blessedness. The worldling sees dark days and sad hours, when he is compelled to say, even in the midst of all that this life gives him: “I am not a blessed being; I am not peaceful and free from apprehension; I am not right with God. And I know that I never shall be, in this line of life. Heaven is impossible for me, until I love God more than I love myself and the world.” All serious reflection tends to destroy the happiness of such a man. He cannot commune an instant with his own heart, without beginning to feel wretched.
Thinking makes him miserable. He has fastened his affections, which can really find no rest but in an infinite good, upon gold, honor, and pleasure. But he knows in his reflecting moments that his gold will perish, and if it did not, that he must ultimately grow weary of it. He knows that worldly honor and sensual enjoyment will flee away from his dying bed; and that even if they did not, they could be no solace to him in that awful crisis of the soul. He knows in these honest and truthful hours that the chief good is not his, because he has not made God his strength and portion. And although, because of his alienation from God and servile fear of him, and his dislike of the warfare with selfishness and sin which the gospel requires, he may rush away even further than ever from God, and cling with yet more intensity to the objects of this life, he is nevertheless attended with an obscure feeling that all is not well with his soul. That old and solemn question: “Is it well with thy soul?” every now and then peals through him, and makes him anxious.
But what kind of pleasure is that which can thus be interrupted? How can you call a being blessed who is standing upon such a slippery place? A man needs to feel not only happy, but safely happy—happy upon solid and immovable grounds—in order to be truly happy. Probably Dives himself sometimes had a dim intimation of the misery that was to burst upon him when he should stand before God. Probably every worldly man hears these words said to him occasionally from the chambers of his conscience: “You are comparatively at ease now, but this ease cannot be permanent. You know, or may know, that you will have no source of peace in death and the judgment Your portion is not in God, and therefore you cannot rest upon him when flesh and heart fail.”
But there are other objects in this world in which man endeavors to find strength and happiness, besides gold and honor and sensual pleasure. He seeks it in the delights of home, and in the charities and sympathies of social life. And we grant that the enjoyment which these bestow upon him is great. But it is not the greatest, and it is not eternal. Christ has said: “He that loveth father and mother, son or daughter, more than me, is not worthy of me, and cannot be my disciple.” This affirmation of our Saviour has its ground in the nature of the human spirit, and its relation to God. However much we may love our kindred and friends, they cannot take the place of God; they cannot be an object of supreme affection. However much, in our idolatrous fondness, we may try to make them our hope and portion, we shall discover sooner or later that they cannot meet the higher and eternal demands of our complex being—that they cannot satisfy that immortal part which God intended should find its strength and blessedness in him alone.
There are capabilities of worship and adoration and heavenly service given us by creation, and they ought to be awakened, renovated, set in action, and met by their appropriate object—God only wise, God over all blessed forever. Conscience, moreover, the law of our moral existence, is solemn in its command: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy might.” It forbids us to live solely and absorbingly in the lower sphere of social relations, and bids us to soar above and expend our choicest affection upon the Father of spirits—the Infinite One whose we are, and whom we are bound to serve. The original constitution of our souls interferes with the attempt to be happy in the social and domestic circles without God; and although conscience cannot conquer our folly and our sin, it can and does disquiet and harass our minds.
But even if man could be perfectly happy in the strength and solace springing from his domestic and social relations, he would be so but for a short time. The enjoyment coming from them is continually fluctuating. The lapse of years produces great modifications of the family, even here upon earth. The child grows up to manhood, and the parent passes into old age. The child becomes a parent himself, and is engrossed in new relations and cares; while the parent dies more and more to earthly ties, and when his spirit returns to God who gave it he is done with earth and all its interests. In the kingdom of God they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God. These temporal earthly relationships of father and son, wife and child, cannot, therefore, be relied upon as the everlasting foundation of trust and joy. They are merely preparatory to the higher relationships which we must sustain in a future life, or be miserable.
Furthermore, even in this life they are continually breaking up. Death comes. Friend after friend is continually departing, and the grief at the loss is as poignant as the joy in the possession. The happiness that is dependent upon even a true and tried friend is transient and uncertain. It lasts not long, for the grave removes him from our eyes, and we are left to mourn. The world that was bright because he was in it, has grown dark because he has left it. We turn away in brokenness of heart, and feel in these sad moments, if at no other time, that we need a more abiding Friend; that we need that friendship of God by which earthly friendships are consecrated and ennobled; that we need him for the strength of our heart when he putteth lover and friend far from us.
And as we leave the lesser circle of kindred and friends, and look forth into that of society around us, we find that there is continual change. If our happiness is entirely dependent upon the world around us, and we have made its interests and pursuits our main support, we discover that the world itself has no permanency. One generation goes and another comes. Where is the generation that crowded these streets, transacting business and absorbed in earthly pursuits, fifty years ago? All that whirl is hushed in death; and fifty years hence, the same inquiry will be put respecting the noise and bustle that now roars and chokes in these avenues of business and pleasure.
Man and man’s life is the shadow of a shadow. Everything in him and about him is in a perpetual flux toward eternity, and the immediate presence of God. He cannot, if he would, stop the course of that upon which he has made his happiness to depend, but is hurried along into a mode of existence where there is no change, and but one engrossing Object, even God himself. Can strength, peaceful strength, be predicated of us, then, if we have no standing-place but that which is every instant gliding like quicksand from under our feet? Can true happiness be affirmed of our souls, if their supreme good is in that which is leaving us every day, and which we shall leave entirely behind us when we die?
We have thus seen that it cannot be said: “Blessed is the man whose strength is in wealth, or in reputation, or in pleasure, or in kindred and friends, or in the interests and pursuits of social and civil life.” That it can be said of man even in this transient and sorrowful life, and amidst these unsatisfying and fleeting relationships: “Blessed is the man whose strength is in God,” needs but little proof. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose soul is stayed on Thee,” is the affirmation of one who knew by his own personal experience. “Great peace have all they that love thy law,” says one who tried it for himself. He whose supreme strength is in God will be happy in any relation that he sustains, and in any world in which God may please to put him. He who is strong in the Lord, and has him for his portion, cannot be made miserable. If he should be sent on an errand to the spirits in hell, he would go fearlessly, and there would be nothing in that world of woe that could disturb his holy and affectionate trust in God.
A man whose heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord, is absolutely independent of the whole creation. His wealth may take wings and fly away; but the cheering presence of his Maker and Saviour is in his heart still. Worldly good he may, or may not have; but the approbation of God destroys all regard for it, and all sense for it, even as the sunlight by its bright effulgence annihilates moonlight and starlight. He may be very happy in his domestic and social relations; but this happiness will have its deeper foundation and source in God. It will not be a forbidden enjoyment that never goes beyond the earthly objects of his affection, and centers solely and supremely in the wife or the child. As a father or a son, as a neighbor or a citizen, he will look up to his Heavenly Father—to his Father in Christ, “of whom the whole family on earth and heaven is named”—as the blessed ground of all these relationships, and in whose glory they should all be merged. Therefore, amidst all change which is incident to them, he will be unmoved, because God is immutable; he will be strong as they reveal their weakness and perishing nature, because his primal strength is in God; and he will be blessed as the sources of his earthly enjoyment fail, because God is his chief good.
It is because man’s hope and strength are not in God, that his enjoyment of created good is so unsatisfactory and uncertain. “Godliness hath the promise of the life that now is, as well as that which is to come;” and if all men were godly, the earth would be fairer around them, and more full of promise and of hope. The elder Edwards thus describes the change which came over the visible material world after his conversion, and as his sense of divine things increased; “The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, and moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind.”
“I often used to sit and view the moon for continuance; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the meantime singing forth with low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything among all the works of nature was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunderstorm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightning play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.”
If the supreme and positive love of God pervaded and gave color to our love of his creatures, the creation would be a source of more heartfelt pleasure than it now is. We should then cherish a subordinate and proper affection for earth, and while it brought us the enjoyment that pertains to the lower sphere of the created and the finite, it would be still more valuable as the means of introducing our souls into the presence and enjoyment of God. Worldly pleasure if experienced too keenly and too long renders the heart intensely selfish. Beware of long-continued and uninterrupted earthly happiness. There is no heart so callous, so flinty, so utterly impenetrable to holy impressions, as that of a man of pleasure. Said Burns, who knew:
“I waive the quantum of the sin,
The hazard of concealing;
But O, it hardens all within,
And petrifies the feeling.”
Merely earthly enjoyment, moreover, sates and disgusts the rational mind of man. For this, notwithstanding its apostasy, has at times a dim intimation that there is, somewhere and somehow, a higher enjoyment and a genuine joy that never cloys, but which, as it runs through the fibers of the soul, carries with it an invigorating and appetizing virtue that produces a hunger and thirst after still more enrapturing influxes.
Man enters with too much hilarity, and too absorbing a passion, into the enjoyment of this life, unless he is tempered and tranquillized by a superior affection for an Infinite Being. If without strength and hope in God as his ultimate and highest good, he is often filled with a happiness that is too tumultuous and stormy to be enduring. A storm cannot continue long, either in the world of matter or of mind. Hence, in these hours of excited fermenting revelry, there is often a faint intimation given to the soul, like the premonitory tremor before the earthquake, that its enjoyment is short-lived. The deeper part of the man, the solemn conscience, sends off tidings that it has no participation in this pleasure; that, on the contrary, moral indignation and moral fear are the emotions down below, whatever may be the hilarity on the surface. But if, while that part of our nature which was made to take pleasure in temporal things is experiencing it, that other portion of our nature whose appropriate object is God is also having its wants met in Him, there is a tranquil and rational enjoyment diffused through the whole man. If the celestial world sends down its radiance into the terrestrial, there is everywhere a serene and pleasant light.
Writers upon physical geography tell us that the presence of a mountain renders the atmosphere cooler in summer, and warmer in winter. A large mass of matter equalizes the temperature. In like manner, if in the horizon and atmosphere of our souls there is the presence of the Infinite God, there will be serenity, and no violent changes. In the summer of prosperity, the soul will be soberly joyful; in the winter of adversity, the soul will be serenely content. For the presence of the Eternal will be the main element of happiness in each instance; and He is always present and always the same. Though, therefore, in the lower region of earthly objects and relations there be darkness, and storm, and tempest, in the higher region of spiritual objects and heavenly affections there is a still air, and the light of the heaven of heavens is shining in its strong effulgence. And even when the clouds gather thick and black in the horizon of our mortal life, and there is mourning because its objects are passing away, this lucid light of heaven will steal into the black mass, and drive out the blackness, and drench these clouds with its radiance, and suffuse all along the horizon with the colors of the skies.
II. We have thus considered man as belonging to time, and found that he is miserable if his strength and hope are in the creature, and that he is blessed if his strength and hope are in God.
Let us now, in the second place, contemplate man as belonging to eternity and sustaining relations to the invisible world, and see that the same assertion holds true, and commends itself with a yet deeper emphasis to our reflections.
Although the hour of death is, strictly speaking, a part of time, yet it is so closely joined to eternity that it may practically be considered as belonging to it. Observation proves that there are few conversions at the eleventh hour; and we may assume, as a general fact, that as a man is when lying upon his deathbed, so will he be forever and ever. For although it is possible, even at this late hour, to have the relation of the soul towards God changed from that of the rebel to that of the child, the possibility rarely becomes a reality. In that solemn hour, even if there be not the stupor of disease, but the soul is stung with remorse, and the awful idea of eternity throws a horror of great darkness over the whole inner man, it is extremely difficult to collect the mental powers, and with a clear eye look at sin, and with a sincere heart repent of it, and with an energetic faith trust in Christ’s blood.
If the man has gone through life, in spite of all the obstacles which a merciful God throws in his path to perdition, and in opposition to the repeated monitions of conscience and convictions by the Holy Spirit, without experiencing that change which alone fits him for an entrance into the kingdom of God, there is small hope that this great change will be wrought amidst the weakness and languor of disease, or the perturbation and despair of the drowzed soul which has only half awaked to know its real condition and the brink where it stands. We may therefore affirm, generally, that as a man is when overtaken by his last sickness, so will he be forevermore. We may therefore affirm, that practically the hour of death is for man a part of the eternal state. Time and eternity here blend in the experience and destiny of the soul.
How unblest, then, is a man, if in this last hour of time which is also the first hour of eternity, his strength is not in God. How wretched is he, if in these first moments of his final state, the farm, or the merchandise, or the book, or the father, or the child, or the wife, or the pleasures of social life, or the interests of civil life, are his only portion and support. He has enjoyed, it may be, much that springs from these temporal relations, and life in the main has gone well with him. Yet, as from the vantage-ground of this deathbed he looks back upon life, he sees as he could not while amidst its excitement and fascination, that after all it has been a “fitful fever,” and that he is not to “sleep well” after it. He perceives with a vividness and certainty that he never felt before, that he has been a sinful man because in relation to God he has been a supremely selfish and idolatrous man. And now he feels that he is a lost man, because his strength is not in God, in the slightest degree. He finds that he has no filial love for his Maker.
In the Scripture phrase, he is “alienated” from God, and “without” God, both in this world and in the next. He finds that the account between himself and his Maker is closed, and that God is entering into judgment with him, and bidding him look for his portion and his strength where he has sought it all the days of his sinful life. He hears those solemn and righteous words which are addressed only to those who have despised and rejected the offer of mercy: “Because I have called and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.” O my fellow man, if in your dying hour you cannot look up to God, and say: “Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion forever,” you are an unblest creature, and there is nothing but misery for you in eternity.
Your spirit when it leaves the body will begin an everlasting wandering away from God. It will want to wander, and hide from his sight. It does not love him here and now, and therefore cannot abide his presence there and then. How full of wretchedness must such a spirit be when it enters the other world, where there is but one Object for any creature to lean upon, and yet that Object in relation to it is one of dislike, distaste, antipathy, and hostility. It must, therefore, turn in upon its own emptiness and guilt, because it has not made Christ its refuge, and God its strength.
The impenitent deathbed is a dark scene, and the impenitent eternity is the blackness of darkness. Let us turn from it to the believer’s deathbed, which is a bright scene, and to the believer’s eternity which is light inacessible and full of glory. When the soul which has really made God its strength is summoned to leave the body, and enter into the endless life, it is strong—stronger than ever; and happy—happier than ever. It is strong; for it does not rest upon anything that perishes, and the everlasting arms are beneath. Though the fainting flesh and heart fail, yet God is the strength of the heart. The soul knows that it is departing from the objects amidst which it has had its existence, but not from the one great Being in whom it has lived somewhat holily and tranquilly on earth, and will now continue to live forever. Earthly relationships are disappearing, and earthly bands are breaking away from it, but the relationship of a child of God will ever belong to it, and the hopes and aspirations of this relation which it has been feebly but faithfully cherishing in an imperfect state are to gather force and intensity forever.
Such a soul does not feel that its strength is waning, but that it is waxing stronger and mightier; and so with tranquillity, perhaps with triumph—“a mortal paleness on the brow, a glory in the soul”—it goes into the presence of God. As in the hour of death, we have seen that the kindling flashes of hell appear in the soul of the unpardoned, so the first streaks and rays of celestial glory stream through the penitent soul while it is leaving the body. It has a keener sense of holy enjoyment, calmer peace pervades it, and the endless heaven is begun. It feels, in the phrase of Leighton, that “the Eternal is now the internal,” that the glorious God is its strength and portion, and that the infinite heart of God is its home. It has discovered “the beauty and excellency of forgiveness—as it is with God, as it is in his gracious heart, in his eternal purpose, in the blood of Christ, and in the promise of the gospel.” It has no fear, and no wants unsupplied. With calmness, or with rapture, it commends itself into the hands of its God and Redeemer, and “flights of angels sing it to its rest” in the bosom of the Father.
To Christian believers, this subject is full of salutary instruction. If God really is our strength, we should not look with fear and anxiety into eternity, and we should not be unhappy here in time. It urges us, therefore, to a careful examination that we may know where our strength actually lies. And we need not seek long for this knowledge. The current of our thoughts and affections, if God is our portion, will become daily a stronger flood. We shall live as strangers and pilgrims, looking for a better country. Our hearts will not rest in houses, or lands, or honor, or friends, as their firmest resting-place, but in the living God. We shall die daily to the power of earthly things, and live unto Christ. We shall be gradually weaned from earth, and with more earnest desires look for heaven. We shall enjoy this life with chastened and sober pleasure, but our transport and exultation will be awakened by the “power of an endless life,” by the love and glory of God.
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 82–98.