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The psalms which probably belong to the period of Absalom's rebellion correspond well with the impression of his spirit gathered from the historical books. Confidence in God, submission to His will, are strongly expressed in them, and we may almost discern a progress in the former respect as the rebellion grows. They flame brighter and brighter in the deepening darkness. From the lowest abyss the stars are seen most clearly. He is far more buoyant when he is an exile once more in the wilderness, and when the masks of plot and trickery are fallen, and the danger stands clear before him. Like some good ship issuing from the shelter of the pier heads, the first blow of the waves throws her over on her side and makes her quiver like a living thing recoiling from a terror, but she rises above the tossing surges and keeps her course. We may allocate with a fair amount of likelihood the following psalms to this period246—iii.; iv.; xxv. (?); xxviii. (?); lviii. (?); lxi.; lxii.; lxiii.; cix. (?); cxliii.
The first two of these form a pair; they are a morning and an evening hymn. The little band are encamped on their road to Mahanaim, with no roof but the stars, and no walls but the arm of God. In the former the discrowned king sings, as he rises from his nightly bivouac. He pours out first his plaint of the foes, who are described as "many," and as saying that, "There is no help for him in God," words which fully correspond to the formidable dimensions of the revolt, and to the belief which actuated the conspirators, and had appeared as possible even to himself, that his sin had turned away the aid of heaven from his cause. To such utterances of malice and confident hatred he opposes the conviction which had again filled his soul, that even in the midst of real peril and the shock of battle Jehovah is his "shield." With bowed and covered head he had fled from Jerusalem, but "Thou art the lifter up of mine head." He was an exile from the tabernacle on Zion, and he had sent back the ark to its rest; but though he has to cry to God from beyond Jordan, He answers "from His holy hill."247 He and his men camped amidst dangers, but one unslumbering Helper mounted guard over their undefended slumbers. "I laid me down and slept" there among the echoes of the hills. "I awaked, for Jehovah sustained me;" and another night has passed without the sudden shout of the rebels breaking the silence, or the gleam of their swords in the starlight. The experience of protection thus far heartens him to front even the threatening circle of his foes around him, whom it is his pain to think of as "the people" of God, and yet as his foes. And then he betakes himself in renewed energy of faith to his one weapon of prayer, and even before the battle sees the victory, and the Divine power fracturing the jaws and breaking the teeth of the wild beasts who hunt him. But his last thought is not of retribution nor of fear; for himself he rises to the height of serene trust, "Salvation is of the Lord;" and for his foes and for all the nation that had risen against him his thoughts are worthy of a true king, freed from all personal animosity, and his words are a prayer conceived in the spirit of Him whose dying breath was intercession for His rebellious subjects who crucified their King, "Thy blessing be upon Thy people."248
The fourth psalm is the companion evening hymn. Its former portion (vers. 2-4) seems to be a remonstrance addressed as if to the leaders of the revolt ("sons of men" being equivalent to "persons of rank and dignity"). It is the expression in vivid form, most natural to such a nature, of his painful feeling under their slanders; and also of his hopes and desires for them, that calm thought in these still evening hours which are falling on the world may lead them to purer service and to reliance on God. So forgivingly, so lovingly does he think of them, ere he lays himself down to rest, wishing that "on their beds," as on his, the peace of meditative contemplation may rest, and the day of war's alarms be shut in by holy "communion with their own hearts" and with God.
The second portion turns to himself and his followers, among whom we may suppose some faint hearts were beginning to despond; and to them, as to the very enemy, David would fain be the bringer of a better mind. "Many say, Who will show us good?" He will turn them from their vain search round the horizon on a level with their own eyes for the appearance of succour. They249 must look upwards, not round about. They must turn their question, which only expects a negative answer, into a prayer, fashioned like that triple priestly benediction of old (Numbers vi. 24-26). His own experience bursts forth irrepressible. He had prayed in his hour of penitence, "Make me to hear joy and gladness" (Psa. li.); and the prayer had been answered, if not before, yet now when peril had brought him nearer to God, and trust had drawn God nearer to him. In his calamity, as is ever the case with devout souls, his joy increased, as Greek fire burns more brightly under water. Therefore this pauper sovereign, discrowned and fed by the charity of the Gileadite pastoral chief, sings, "Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and wine increased." And how tranquilly the psalm closes, and seems to lull itself to rest, "In peace I will at once lie down and sleep, for Thou, O Jehovah, only makest me dwell safely." The growing security which experience of God's care should ever bring, is beautifully marked by the variation on the similar phrase in the previous psalm. There he gratefully recorded that he had laid himself down and slept; here he250 promises himself that he will lie down "in peace;" and not only so, but that at once on his lying down he will sleep—kept awake by no anxieties, by no bitter thoughts, but, homeless and in danger as he is, will close his eyes, like a tired child, without a care or a fear, and forthwith sleep, with the pressure and the protection of his Father's arm about him.
This psalm sounds again the glad trustful strain which has slumbered in his harp-strings ever since the happy old days of his early trials, and is re-awakened as the rude blast of calamity sweeps through them once more.
The sixty-third psalm is by the superscription referred to the time when David was "in the wilderness of Judah," which has led many readers to think of his long stay there during Saul's persecution. But the psalm certainly belongs to the period of his reign, as is obvious from its words, "The king shall rejoice in God." It must therefore belong to his brief sojourn in the same wilderness on his flight to Mahanaim, when, as we read in 2 Sam., "The people were weary and hungry and thirsty in the wilderness." There is a beautiful progress of thought in it, which is very obvious if we notice the251 triple occurrence of the words "my soul," and their various connections—"my soul thirsteth," "my soul is satisfied," "my soul followeth hard after Thee;" or, in other words, the psalm is a transcript of the passage of a believing soul from longing through fruition to firm trust, in which it is sustained by the right hand of God.
The first of these emotions, which is so natural to the fugitive in his sorrows, is expressed with singular poetic beauty in language borrowed from the ashen grey monotony of the waterless land in which he was. One of our most accurate and least imaginative travellers describes it thus: "There were no signs of vegetation, with the exception of a few reeds and rushes, and here and there a tamarisk." This lonely land, cracked with drought, as if gaping with chapped lips for the rain that comes not, is the image of his painful yearning for the Fountain of living waters. As his men plodded along over the burning marl, fainting for thirst and finding nothing in the dry torrent beds, so he longed for the refreshment of that gracious presence. Then he remembers how in happier days he had had the same252 desires, and they had been satisfied in the tabernacle. Probably the words should read, "Thus in the sanctuary have I gazed upon Thee, to see Thy power and Thy glory." In the desert and in the sanctuary his longing had been the same, but then he had been able to behold the symbol which bore the name, "the glory,"—and now he wanders far from it. How beautifully this regretful sense of absence from and pining after the ark is illustrated by those inimitably pathetic words of the fugitive's answer to the priests who desired to share his exile. "And the king said unto Zadok, Carry back the ark of God into the city. If I find favour in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me again, and show me both it and His habitation."
The fulfilment is cotemporaneous with the desire. The swiftness of the answer is beautifully indicated in the quick turn with which the psalm passes from plaintive longing to exuberant rapture of fruition. In the one breath "my soul thirsteth;" in the next, "my soul is satisfied"—as when in tropical lands the rain comes, and in a day or two what had been baked earth is rich meadow, and the dry253 torrent-beds, where the white stones glistered in the sunshine, foam with rushing waters and are edged with budding willows. The fulness of satisfaction when God fills the soul is vividly expressed in the familiar image of the feast of "marrow and fatness," on which he banquets even while hungry in the desert. The abundant delights of fellowship with God make him insensible to external privations, are drink for him thirsty, food for his hunger, a home in his wanderings, a source of joy and music in the midst of much that is depressing: "My mouth shall praise Thee with joyful lips." The little camp had to keep keen look-out for nightly attacks; and it is a slight link of connection, very natural under the circumstances, between the psalms of this period, that they all have some references to the perilous hours of darkness. We have found him laying himself down to sleep in peace; here he wakes, not to guard from hostile surprises, but in the silence there below the stars to think of God and feel again the fulness of His all-sufficiency. Happy thoughts, not fears, hold his eyes waking. "I remember Thee upon my bed."
The fruition heartens for renewed exercise of254 confidence, in which David feels himself upheld by God, and foresees his enemies' defeat and his own triumph. "My soul cleaveth after Thee"—a remarkable phrase, in which the two metaphors of tenacious adherence and eager following are mingled to express the two "phases of faith," which are really one—of union with and quest after God, the possession which pursues, the pursuit which possesses Him who is at once grasped and felt after by the finite creature whose straitest narrowness is not too narrow to be blessed by some indwelling of God, but whose widest expansion of capacity and desire can but contain a fragment of His fulness. From such elevation of high communion he looks down and onward into the dim future, his enemies sunken, like Korah and his rebels, into the gaping earth, or scattered in fight, and the jackals that were snuffing hungrily about his camp in the wilderness gorging themselves on corpses, while he himself, once more "king," shall rejoice in God, and with his faithful companions, whose lips and hearts were true to God and His anointed, shall glory in the deliverance that by the arbitrament of victory has flung back the slanders of the rebels in255 their teeth, and choked them with their own lies.
Our space forbids more than a brief reference to psalm lxii., which seems also to belong to this time. It has several points of contact with those already considered, e.g., the phrase, "sons of men," in the sense of "nobles" (ver. 9); "my soul," as equivalent to "myself," and yet as a kind of quasi-separate personality which he can study and exhort; the significant use of the term "people," and the double exhortations to his own devout followers and to the arrogant enemy. The whole tone is that of patient resignation, which we have found characterising David now. The first words are the key-note of the whole, "Truly unto God my soul is silence"—is all one great stillness of submissive waiting upon Him. It was in the very crisis of his fate, in the suspense of the uncertain issue of the rebellion, that these words, the very sound of which has calmed many a heart since, welled to his lips. The expression of unwavering faith and unbroken peace is much heightened by the frequent recurrence of the word which is variously translated "truly," "surely," and "only." It carries256 the force of confident affirmation, like the "verily" of the New Testament, and is here most significantly prefixed to the assertions of his patient resignation (ver. 1); of God's defence (ver. 2); of the enemies' whispered counsels (ver. 4); to his exhortation of his soul to the resignation which it already exercises (ver. 5); and to the triumphant reiteration of God's all-sufficient protection. How beautifully, too, does that reiteration—almost verbal repetition—of the opening words strengthen the impression of his habitual trust. His soul in its silence murmurs to itself, as it were, the blessed thoughts over and over again. Their echoes haunt his spirit "lingering and wandering on, as loth to die;" and if for a moment the vision of his enemies disturbs their flow, one indignant question flung at them suffices, "How long will ye rush upon a man? (how long) will ye all of you thrust him down as (if he were) a bowing wall, a tottering fence?" and with a rapid glance at their plots and bitter words, he comes back again to his calm gaze on God. Lovingly he accumulates happy names for Him, which, in their imagery, as well as in their repetition, remind us of the former songs of the fugitive.257 "My rock," in whom I hide; "He is my salvation," which is even more than "from Him cometh my salvation;" my "fortress," my "glory," "the rock of my strength," "my refuge." So many phases of his need and of God's sufficiency thus gathered together, tell how familiar to the thoughts and real to the experience of the aged fugitive was his security in Jehovah. The thirty years since last he had wandered there have confirmed the faith of his earlier songs; and though the ruddy locks of the young chieftain are silvered with grey now, and sins and sorrows have saddened him, yet he can take up again with deeper meaning the tones of his old praise, and let the experience of age seal with its "verily" the hopes of youth. Exhortations to his people to unite themselves with him in his faith, and assurances that God is a refuge for them too, with solemn warnings to the rebels, close this psalm of glad submission. It is remarkable for the absence of all petitions. He needs nothing beyond what he has. As the companion psalm says, his soul "is satisfied." Communion with God has its moments of restful blessedness, when desire is stilled, and expires in peaceful fruition.258
The other psalms of this period must be left unnoticed. The same general tone pervades them all. In many particulars they closely resemble those of the Sauline period. But the resemblance fails very significantly at one point. The emphatic assertion of his innocence is gone for ever. Pardoned indeed he is, cleansed, conscious of God's favour, and able to rejoice in it; but carrying to the end the remembrance of his sore fall, and feeling it all the more penitently, the more he is sure of God's forgiveness. Let us remember that there are sins which, once done, leave their traces on memory and conscience, painting indelible forms on the walls of our "chambers of imagery," and transmitting results which remission and sanctifying do not, on earth at least, wholly obliterate. Let David's youthful prayer be ours, "Keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from much transgression."
It does not fall within the scope of this volume to deal with the suppression of Absalom's revolt, nor with the ten years of rule that remained to David after his restoration. The psalter does not appear to contain psalms which259 throw light upon the somewhat clouded closing years of his reign. One psalm, indeed, there is attributed to him, which is, at any rate, the work of an old man—a sweet song into which mellow wisdom has condensed its final lessons—and a snatch of it may stand instead of any summing-up of the life by us:
"Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and enjoy security;
Delight thyself also in the Lord,
And He shall give thee the desires of thy heart.
Commit thy way unto the Lord.
Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him.
I have been young and now am old,
Yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken.
I have seen the wicked in great power,
And spreading himself like a green tree....
Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not."
May we not apply the next words to the psalmist himself, and hear him calling us to look on him as he lies on his dying bed—disturbed though it were by ignoble intrigues of hungry heirs—after so many storms nearing the port; after so many vicissitudes, close to the unchanging home; after so many struggles, resting quietly on the breast of God: "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the260 end of that man is peace?" Into this opal calmness, as of the liquid light of sunset, all the flaming splendours of the hot day have melted. The music of his songs die away into "peace;" as when some master holds our ears captive with tones so faint that we scarce can tell sound from silence, until the jar of common noises, which that low sweetness had deadened, rushes in.
One strain of a higher mood is preserved for us in the historical books that prophesy of the true King, whom his own failures and sins, no less than his consecration and victories, had taught him to expect. The dying eyes see on the horizon of the far-off future the form of Him who is to be a just and perfect ruler; before the brightness of whose presence, and the refreshing of whose influence, verdure and beauty shall clothe the world. As the shades gather, that radiant glory to come brightens. He departs in peace, having seen the salvation from afar. It was fitting that this fullest of his prophecies should be the last of his strains, as if the rapture which thrilled the trembling strings had snapped them in twain.
And then, for earth, the richest voice which261 God ever tuned for His praise was hushed, and the harp of Jesse's son hangs untouched above his grave. But for him death was God's last, best answer to his prayer, "O Lord, open Thou my lips;" and as that cold but most loving hand unclothes him from the weakness of flesh, and leads him in among the choirs of heaven, we can almost hear again his former thanksgiving breaking from his immortal lips, "Thou hast put a new song into my mouth," whose melodies, unsaddened by plaintive minors of penitence and pain, are yet nobler and sweeter than the psalms which he sang here, and left to be the solace and treasure of all generations!Contents
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