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HAPPY PILGRIMS

‘Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 6. Passing through the valley of Weeping they make it a place of springs; yea, the early rain covereth it with blessings. 7. They go from strength to strength, every one of them appeareth before God in Zion.’—PSALM lxxxiv. 5-7.

Rightly rendered, the first words of these verses are not a calm, prosaic statement, but an emotional exclamation. The Psalmist’s tone would be more truly represented if we read, ‘How blessed is the man,’ or ‘Oh, the blessednesses!’ for that is the literal rendering of the Hebrew words, ‘of the man whose strength is Thee.’

There are three such exclamations in this psalm, the consideration of which leads us far into the understanding of its deepest meaning. The first of them is this, ‘How blessed are they that dwell in Thy house!’ Of course the direct allusion is to actual presence in the actual Temple at Jerusalem. But these old psalmists, though they attached more importance to external forms than we do, were not so bound by them, even at their stage of development of the religious life, as that they conceived that no communion with God was possible apart from the form, or that the form itself was communion with God. We can see gleaming through all their words, though only gleaming through them, the same truth which Jesus Christ couched in the immortal phrase—the charter of the Church’s emancipation from all externalisms—‘neither in this mountain, nor yet in Jerusalem, shall men worship the Father.’ To ‘dwell in the house of the Lord’ is not only to be present in bodily form in the Temple—the Psalmist did not think that it was only that—but to possess communion with Him, of which the external presence is but the symbol, the shadow, and the means.

But there is another blessing. To be there is blessing, to wish to be there is no less so.—‘Blessed are the men in whose heart are the ways.’ The joyous company that went up from every corner of the land to the feasts in Jerusalem made the paths ring with their songs as they travelled, and as the prophet says about another matter, ‘they went up to Zion with songs and joy upon their heads,’ and so the search after is only a shade less blessed—if it be even that—than the possession of communion with God.

But there is a third blessedness in our psalm. ‘Oh! the blessedness of the man that trusteth in Thee.’ That includes and explains both the others. It confirms what I have said, that we do great injustice to the beauty and the spirituality of the Old Testament religion, if we conceive of it as slavishly tied to external forms. And it suggests the thought that in trust there lie both the previous elements, for he that trusts possesses, and he that trustingly possesses is thereby impelled as trustingly to seek for, larger gifts.

So, then, I turn to this outline sketch of the happy pilgrims on the road, and desire to gather from it, as simply as may be, the stimulating thoughts which it suggests to us.

I. Let me ask you, then, following the words which I have read to you, to look with me, first at the blessedness of the pilgrims’ spirit.

‘Blessed are the men in whose heart are the ways.’ A singular expression, and yet a very eloquent and significant one! ‘The ways’ are, of course, the various roads which, from every corner of the land, lead to the Temple, and the thought suggested is that the men whom the Psalmist pronounces blessed, and in whose blessednesses his longing heart desires to share, are the men who are restless till they are on the path, whose eyes are ever travelling to the goal, who have a ‘divine discontent’ with distance from God, and who know the impulse and the sting that sends them ever travelling on the path that leads to Him.

On any lower level it is perfectly true that the very salt of life is aspiration after an unattained ideal; that there is nothing that so keeps a man young, strong, buoyant, and fits him for nobilities of action, as that there shall be gleaming for ever before him in the beckoning distance a horizon that moves ever as he moves. When we cease to be the slaves of unattained ideals in any department, it is time for us to die; indeed, we are dead already. There are men in every civilised country, with the gipsy strain in their blood, who never can be at rest until they are in motion, to whom a settled abode is irksome, and to whom the notion of blessedness is that they shall be out in the free plains. ‘Amplius,’ the dying Xavier’s word, ‘further afield,’ is the motto of all noble life—scientist, scholar, artist, man of letters, man of affairs; all come under the same law, that unless there is something before them which has dominated their hearts, and draws their whole being towards it, their lives want salt, want nobility, want freshness, and a green scum comes over the pool. We all know that. To live is to aspire; to cease to aspire is to die.

Well then, looking all round our horizon there stands out one path for aspiration which is clearly blessed to tread—one path, and one path alone. For, oh brethren! there are needs in all our hearts, deep longings, terrible wounds, dreary solitudes, which can only be appeased and healed and companioned when we are pressing nearer and nearer God, that infinite and divine Source of all blessedness, of all peace and good. To possess God is life; to feel after God is life, too. For that aim is sure, as we shall see, to be satisfied. That aim gives, and it is the only one which does give, adequate occupation for every power of a man’s soul; that aim brings, simultaneously with its being entertained, its being satisfied; for, as I have already said, in the one act of faith there lie both these elements of blessedness—the possession of, and the seeking after, God. The religious life is distinguished from all others in two respects; one is the contemporaneousness and co-existence of desire and fruition, and the other is the impossibility that fruition shall ever be so complete and perfect as that desire shall die. And because thus all my nature may reach out its yearnings to Him, and in reaching out may find that after which it feels, and yet, finding it, must feel after it all the more; therefore, high above all other delights of search, high above all other blessednesses of pilgrimage, high above all the buoyancy and concentration of aim and contempt of hindrances which pour into a soul, before which the unattained ideal burns beckoning and inviting, there stands the blessedness of the man ‘in whose heart are the ways’ which lead to God in Zion.

II. And now notice the blessedness of the pilgrims’ experience.

If you use the Revised Version you will see the changes upon the Authorised which it makes, following the stream of modern critics and commentators, and which may thus be reproduced: ‘Passing through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs, the rain also covereth it with blessings.’ No doubt the poet is referring here to the actual facts of the pilgrimage to Zion, No doubt, on some one of the roads, there lay a gloomy gorge, the name of which was the Valley of Weeping; either because it dimly commemorated some half-forgotten tragedy long ago, or, more probably, because it was arid and frowning and full of difficulty for the travellers on the march. The Psalmist uses that name with a lofty imaginative freedom, which itself confirms the view that I have taken, that there is something deeper in the psalm than the mere external circumstances of the pilgrimages to the Holy City. For, he says, ‘passing through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs.’ They, as it were, pour their tears into the wells, and they become sources of refreshment and fertility.

But there are other kinds of moisture than tears and fountains. And so he goes on: ‘the rain also’ from above ‘covereth it with blessings’; the blessings being, I suppose, the waving crops which the poet’s imagination conceives of as springing up all over the else arid ground. Irrigated thus by the pilgrims’ labour, and rained upon thus by God’s gift from heaven, ‘the wilderness rejoices and blossoms as the rose.’

Now, translate that—it scarcely needs translation, I suppose, to anybody who will read the psalm with the least touch of a poetic imagination—translate that, and it just comes to this. If we have in our hearts, as our chief aim, the desire to get closer to God, then our sorrows and our tears will become sources of refreshment and fertility. Ah! how different all our troubles, large and little, look when we take as our great aim in life what is God’s great purpose in giving us life—viz. that we should be moulded into His likeness and enriched by the possession of Himself. That takes the sting out of sorrow, and although it leaves us in no morbid condition of insensibility, it yet makes it possible for us to gather our tears into reservoirs which shall be to us the sources of many a blessing, and many a thankfulness. He puts them into His bottle; we have to put them into our wells. And be sure of this, that if we understood better the meaning of life, that it was all intended to be our road to God, and if we judged of things more from that point of view, we should less frequently be brought to stand by what we call the mysteries of Providence and more able to wring out of them all the rich honey which is stored in them all for us. Not the least of the blessednesses of the pilgrim heart is its power of transmitting the pilgrim’s tears into the pilgrim’s wells. Brothers! do you bring such thoughts to bear on the disappointments, anxieties, sorrows, losses that befall you, be they great or small? If you do, you will have learned, better than I can say it, how strangely grief changes its aspect when it is looked upon as the helper and servant to our progress towards God.

But that is not all. If, with the pilgrims’ hearts, we rightly use our sorrows, we shall not be left to find refreshment and fertilising power only in ourselves, but the benediction of the rain from heaven will come down, and the great Spirit of God will fall upon our hearts, not in a flood that drowns, but broken up into a beneficent mist that falls quietly upon us, and brings with itself the assurance of fertility. And so the secret of turning the desert into abundance, and tears into blessings, lies in having the pilgrim’s heart.

III. Notice the blessedness of the pilgrims’ advance.

‘They go from strength to strength.’ I do not know whether the Psalmist means to use that word ‘strength’ in the significance which it also has in old English, of a fortified place, so that the metaphor would be that from one camp of security, one fortress to another, they journey safe always, because of their protection; or whether he means to use it rather in its plain and simple sense, according to which the significance would be that these happy pilgrims do not get worn out on the journey, as is the wont of men that set out, for instance, from some far corner of India to Mecca, and come in battered and travel-stained, and half dead with their privations, but that the further they go the stronger they become; and on the road gain more vigour than they could ever have gained by ease and indulgence in their homes. But, whichever of these two meanings we may be disposed to adopt, the great thought that comes out of both of them is identical—viz. that this is one of the distinguishing joys of a Christian career of pressing forward to closer communion and conformity with our Lord and Master, in whom God is manifested—viz. that we grow day by day in strength, and that effort does not weaken, but invigorates.

And now I have to put a very plain question. Is that growing strength anything like the general characteristic of us professing Christians? I wonder how many people there are listening to me now that have been members of Christian churches for half a century almost, but are not a bit better than they were away back in the years that they have almost forgotten? I wonder in how many of our cases there has been an arrested development, like that which you will sometimes see in deformed people, the lower limbs all but atrophied? I wonder how many of us are babes of forty years old, and from how many of our minds the very conception of continual growth, as an essential of Christian life, has altogether vanished? Brother! are you any further than you were ten years ago?

I remember once, long ago, when I was on board a sailing ship, that we had baffling winds as we tried to run up the coast; and morning after morning for a week we used to come up on deck, and there were the same windmill, and the same church-tower that we had seen last night, and the night before and the night before that. That is the sort of voyage that a great many of you Christian people are making. There may be motion; there is no progress. Round and round and round you go. That is not the way to get to Zion. ‘They go from strength to strength,’ and unless you are doing that, you know little about the blessedness of the pilgrim heart.

IV. Lastly, note the blessedness of the pilgrims’ arrival.

‘Every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.’ Then there is one road on which whosoever travels is sure to reach his goal. On all others caravans get lost, overwhelmed in a sandstorm, or slain by robbers; and the bleached bones of men and camels lie there on the sand for centuries. This caravan always arrives. For no man ever wanted God who did not possess Him, and the measure of our desire is the prophecy of our possession. Surely it is worth while, even from the point of view of self-interest, to forsake all these lower aims in which success is absolutely problematical, or, while pursuing them as far as duty and necessity require, in and through them, as well as above and beyond them, to press towards the one aim in which failure is impossible. You cannot say about say other course—‘Blessed is the man that enters on it, for he is sure to reach what he desires.’ Other goals are elusive; the golden circlet may never drop upon your locks. But there is one path on which all that you seek you shall have, and you are on it if ‘in your hearts are the ways.’

I need not say a word about the ultimate fulfilment of this great promise of our text; how that there is not only in our psalm, gleaming through it, a reference to the communion of earth rather than to the external Presence in the sanctuary, but there is also hinted, though less consciously, to the Psalmist himself, yet necessarily from the nature of the case the perfecting of that earthly communion in the higher house of the Lord in the heavenly Zion. Are all these desires, these longings, these efforts after God which make the nobleness and the blessedness of a life on earth, and which are always satisfied, and yet never satiated, to be crushed into nothingness by the accident of bodily dissolution? Then, then, the darkest of all clouds is drawn over the face of God, and we are brought into a state of absolute intellectual bewilderment as to what life, futile and frail, has been for at all. No, brother! God never gives mouths but He sends meat to fill them; and He has not suffered His children to long after Him, to press after Him, only in order that the partial fulfilment of their desires and yearnings which is possible upon earth should be all their experience.

‘He thinks he was not made to die,

And Thou hast made him; Thou art just.’

Be sure that ‘every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.’

So, brethren! let us take the pilgrim scrip and staff; and be sure of this, that the old blessed word will be fulfilled, that we shall not be lost in the wilderness, where there is no way, nor grope and search after elusive and fleeting good; but that ‘the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.’

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