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“Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”
THESE words end the Book of Psalms—the volume of the Book of God’s praise. The Spirit of God, who filled psalmists and seers with these songs of Divine joy, utters here the great law of creation as the last note of this heavenly strain. God made the world for His glory; and the breath of all living is due to Him in praise. “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.” We need not straiten these words to the letter. Breath is life; and it is a summons to all living, in heaven and in earth and under the earth, to all spirits of men and angels, to pay their homage of praise to the Lord of all.
It is a remarkable token of the unity of the 277mystical body of Christ, both before and since His coming, that the Catholic Church should receive from the Church of Israel its chief songs of praise. Though “they without us” could “not be made perfect,” yet we without them should have inherited no Psalter of Divine joy. Without doubt, the Spirit of Christ, who dwells in all fulness with His Church, would have multiplied the sweet singers of His true Israel, so that praise should never have been silent before His altars. But it may be, that He would teach us a lesson of perfect sympathy and of mutual help among the members of His body; and above all, a lesson of humility and fear. He has so ordained His kingdom, that the Psalter should every day admonish us to remember that we bear not the root, but that the root bears us; lest, being high-minded, we, like them, should be cut off.
In the history of Israel there is, perhaps, nothing more striking than the spirit of praise which broke forth at solemn seasons from the whole people of God. They seem to move before us in a procession of joy. “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea. . . . And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her 278with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.”164164 Exod. xv. 1, 20, 21. Again: “So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David with gladness. And it was so, that when they that bare the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed oxen and fatlings. And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.”165165 2 Sam. vi. 12-15. “And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of music, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy. . . . And David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, and all the Levites that bare the ark, and the singers, and Chenaniah the master of the song with the singers: David also had upon him an ephod of linen. Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting, and with sound of the cornet, and with trumpets, and with cymbals, making a noise with psalteries and harps.”166166 1 Chron. xv. 16, 27, 28. And again: “It is well seen, O God, how Thou goest; 279how Thou, my God and King, goest in the sanctuary. The singers go before, the minstrels follow after; in the midst are the damsels playing with the timbrels.”167167 Ps. lxviii. 24, 25. “Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the Lord, to the mighty One of Israel.”168168 Isaiah xxx . 29.
This sets vividly before us a state of heart, a temper of love and thanksgiving, a filial and almost childlike simplicity of grateful joy; and in this way it brings out, more clearly than any words, what is the full meaning of praise; from what source it springs, and in what ways it is expressed. If we are to define it in words, we may say that praise is thankful, lowly, loving worship of the goodness and majesty of God. And therefore we often find the word ‘praise’ joined with ‘blessing’ and ‘thanksgiving’: but though all three are akin to each other, they are not all alike. They are steps in a gradual scale—a song of degrees. Thanksgiving runs up into blessing, and blessing ascends into praise: for praise comprehends both, and is the highest and most perfect work of all living spirits.
Let us, then, see in what praise consists, what are its elements, or rather from what source it flows.280
1. First, then, it arises from a consciousness of blessings already received. In one sense we may say that all the promises of God are actual possessions; for in Christ, whom the Father has given us, “all the promises of God are yea, and in Him Amen;”169169 2 Cor. i. 20. that is, all are sealed and sure. And again, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.”170170 Heb. xi. 1. The faithful do really possess even things to come; and they, therefore, praise God for His promises, on which they rest as if they were already fulfilled. But this is not the consciousness we are now speaking of: I mean, the consciousness of particular blessings bestowed upon us, one by one, of which we have personal and present enjoyment. As, for example, the gift of regeneration; the grace of conversion; the spirit of repentance; the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of Christ: or again, the blessings of life, health, peace, happiness, and home; or restoration from sickness, danger, and the gates of the grave; and the numberless, and therefore nameless, blessings and gifts of this world and of the next, both for the body and for the soul, of which our life is full. Now one great difference between Christians is this, that multitudes take all these as things of course, without any conscious recognition of the gift as such, and of the Giver. The rest see in every blessing 281a several token of God’s loving care, and are conscious that each one comes direct from His hand, and is an expression of His good-will. Those of whom we spoke first, imagine to themselves a general scheme, in which such things are so interwoven, as to make a kind of woof or texture—one undistinguished continuous whole, beginning, indeed, in the will of God afar off, and all along drawn onward by the movement of His providence—this they at once, when reminded of it, will acknowledge; but they have no sustained and separate consciousness of His direct personal care of them in detail. I pass by, of course, all who receive God’s blessings in unbelief, or cold unthankfulness. We are now speaking of a better kind of people. And yet this vague general way of taking the gifts of God, produces great evils in the heart. . It forms a habit of insensibility, and, therefore, of undesigned ingratitude. We well know what we think of a friend who takes all kindnesses as matters of course, and makes no remarks; who enjoys all, and gives no tokens of acknowledgment. So some men deal with God: and the evil does not stop here; for unthankfulness, though it sounds only like a negation—that is, giving no thanks—is really a positive sin; for such people are repining, impatient, and gloomy, if blessings are withheld. What they give no thanks for, they use 282as if it were their own; and when it is kept back awhile, or taken away, they feel as if they were defrauded; forgetting that they have been all the while robbing God, not God them. Now as lights are best seen against a darkened sky, so we shall best see what is the spirit of conscious gratitude, by setting it against such a spirit as this. It consists in a watchful, minute attention to the particulars of our state, and to the multitude of God’s gifts, taken one by one. It fills us with a consciousness that God loves and cares for us, even to the least event and smallest need of life; and that we actually have received, and do now possess as our own, gifts which come direct from God. It is a blessed thought, that from our childhood God has been laying His fatherly hands upon us, and always in benediction; that even the strokes of His hands are blessings, and among the chiefest we have ever received. When this feeling is awakened, the heart beats with a pulse of thankfulness. Every gift has its return of praise. It awakens an unceasing daily converse with our Father: He speaking to us by the descent of blessings, we to Him by the ascent of thanksgiving. And all our whole life is thereby drawn under the light of His countenance; and is filled with a gladness, serenity, and peace, which only thankful hearts can know.283
2. Another source of praise is a sense of our own unworthiness. To receive blessings as if they were no more than we may expect, betrays a strange unconsciousness of what we are, and of what they imply. Even though we were as pure as Adam when he was created, we should have no claims on God. He cannot be our debtor. The very gift of life is free, and makes us debtors to Him in all we are. Our whole being is His by creation: He might sustain or forsake us at His sovereign will. How much more after we became sinners, fallen and dead. Every blessing, therefore, is to us as the ring and the best robe which were given to the prodigal, a token of forgiveness, and gift of fatherly compassion. Of what peace and solace do people rob themselves! They abound in blessings which to their palate have each its own natural sweetness, but they perceive in them no further or higher tokens of especial grace. They do not, perhaps, challenge God’s gifts upon their own deservings, but they do not see in them God’s love to sinners. A sense of their own unworthiness would change all into a revelation of compassion. Every blessing would then be a pledge of eternal love, which even in our sins still holds us fast. Our daily bread would be a sign of pardon, and, if I may so speak, a sacrament of perpetual grace. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from 284above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”171171 St. James i. 17. His love is changeless; and His mercies, as the light and life-giving influence of heaven, flow down in an everlasting flood, pouring forth in boundless streams upon all “things that have breath.” “He maketh His sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and sendeth rain upon the just and on the unjust.” In His sight there is none good, none clean: “Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in His sight.”172172 Job xxv. 5. “His angels He chargeth with folly:”173173 Ib. iv. 18. and “putteth no trust in His saints.”174174 Ib. xv. 15. and yet upon us descends, without measure or stay, the fulness of goodness and of grace. Unworthy of the least, we have the greatest gifts: life and being, and all sustenance of life; the Blood of His Son, the Spirit of holiness, the earnest of “the inheritance of the saints in light.” The more conscious we are of our unworthiness, the larger will His gifts appear, the more full of all kind of sweetness. It is this that fills the humble with such especial joy. Therefore St. Paul says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace;”175175 Gal. v. 22. and again, “We joy in God.”176176 Rom. v. 11. There is no surer sign of a heart which knows the love of God and its own sinfulness than a 285spirit of joy. It is a great mistake to think that clouded and heavy looks, mournful tones, and great words of humiliation, are signs of pure repentance. Even in its lowest depths the spirit of penitence is a spirit of praise. “Great is Thy mercy toward me, and Thou hast delivered my soul from the nethermost hell.”177177 Ps. lxxxvi. 13.
3. And once more: this sense of unworthiness opens another, and that the highest source of praise—the pure love of God. It is in every way both right and lawful that we should love God from a sense of His goodness to us; from a grateful acknowledgment of His manifold gifts; which sustain the life both of our body and soul. He is the Giver of all that gladdens and cheers our hearts; the fountain of all peace and solace. He is our shelter, home, rest, and everlasting bliss; and as such we must love Him who is the true end for which we were created. But this love is not pure. It may not, indeed, be mercenary, or for our own sake; though some desire to love God only because it is the way to be happy in themselves. The pure love of God is to love Him as He loves us; freely, because He is love. He loves us, all sinful as we are; but He is mercy, love, goodness, and beauty. Pure love loves Him not for the sake of obtaining the inheritance of life, nor of 286being saved from death; but because the Father loves us, and gave His Son for us: because the Son loves us, and gave Himself to die in our stead; because the Holy Ghost loves us, and with miraculous long-suffering still dwells in us. We love Him because He is love, and because He first loved us; because He is our King and our God; because “great is His goodness,” and “great is His beauty.” To this perfect state pure love aspires as the flame points to heaven. God is the desired end of love, as the running brook is of thirst. Here is the true fountain of praise and worship—love ascending out of self to rejoice in God. This is the meaning of the Psalmist. Let all created life bow itself before the majesty of God; before the beauty of holiness, the glory of uncreated love. “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.”
Such, then, is praise; a high gift of God’s Spirit in us, a sure token of His presence in the soul of man.
1. It is, therefore, a sacrifice most acceptable in His sight. There is in praise this special grace, that it looks for no answer, no wages, no reward. It is the free loving joy of a heart grateful for the past, and for blessings now in our hands. And this shews us why it is so much harder to praise than to pray. Our necessities bring us to our knees: our sins, fears, sorrows, the thought of 287death, the vision of the Face before which heaven and earth flee away; these bring us down upon the earth. Prayer may be, and often is, no more than the cry of self in pain or terror. Even in sincere and religious minds prayer is the ready utterance of a burdened and troubled heart. The memory of disobedience, a sense of personal sinfulness, a desire of forgiveness, repentance, and the love of God, drive us day by day to Him. The more we know our own needs, emptiness, weakness, and estrangement from God, the more we are excited to pray. And many live in the practice of habitual and persevering prayer, to whom praise is still a difficult task, a conscious effort, in which the heart lags behind the lips. We may all know this from the fact, that we find it easier to realise the thoughts and the spirit of Lent than of Easter; so that there is a strange sense of regret and fear when the forty days are at an end, and Easter-eve comes in. We feel as if we were parting from the presence of a true though mournful friend, a sad but a safe instructor; as if the freeness and brightness of Easter-day were come too soon, and were all too high for us. And so in truth it is; for festivals are foretastes of heaven—the praise of eternity begun. They raise us up from earth towards God, and demand uplifted hearts. The tones of spiritual joy are loftier than the notes of litanies and penitential 288 psalms. To feast with God needs more trust, more hope, more thankful joy, more kindling love. And therefore it is more acceptable before Him, who so desires our bliss, and loves our love, that He has made it the first law of His kingdom, that we should love Him with all our strength. He not only suffers us to love Him; He commands it. And praise is the voice of love lifted up in thanks, blessing, and worship. Sorrow, tears, sighing, humiliation, penance, confession, self-affliction, these things are not the genial tokens of God’s kingdom. They came with sin, and with sin they will pass away. To Him they are acceptable only as the just abasement of sinners: He accepts them in us for His Son’s sake, as signs of our submission to the sentence of death recorded upon the Cross: He accepts them, because He accepts us in the Beloved. In themselves they have no favour before the eyes of love. They are shadows which follow sin, and with sin they shall be cast out, when “God shall wipe away all tears” from the eyes of His children; “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.”178178 Rev. xxi. 4. Blessing, gladness, and praise, festivals of spiritual joy, and the great sacrifice of thanksgiving, the perfect Eucharist of the whole mystical body with its glorious Head—289this is the homage in which God delights, the true worship of His kingdom.
2. And this shews us further, that as praise is most acceptable to God, so it is most blessed for us. To live in a spirit of praise, is to live a life as near to heaven as earth can be. What can be more blissful than the state of the Psalmist: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy Name:”179179 Ps. ciii. 1. that is, my whole living spirit: my heart, with all its trust and all its love, all its gratitude and all its joy; my conscience, with all its witness of righteousness and equity; my will, with all its obedience and all its patience; my understanding, with all its reason and all its light; my whole being, with a full assent and fast adherence to God, my “exceeding great reward.”180180 Gen. xv. 1. Can the spirit of a man reach nearer to the blessedness of angels; of those pure spirits who dwell in God, and live in Him by knowledge, love, and service? “I will praise Thee with my whole heart; I will shew forth all Thy marvellous works. I will be glad and rejoice in Thee.” “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped: therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise Him.” “I will also praise Thee with the psaltery, even Thy truth, O my God: unto Thee will I sing with 290the harp, O Thou Holy One of Israel.”181181 Ps. ix. 1, 2; xxviii. 7; lxxi. 22. And that, too, even in darkness and affliction.
This is a sure test of the purity of our love. We are ready to praise when all shines fair: but when life is overcast; when all things seem to be against us; when we are in fear for some cherished happiness; or in the depths of sorrow; or in the solitude of a life which has no visible support; or in a season of sickness, and with the shadow of death approaching,—then to praise God; then to say, This fear, loneliness, affliction, pain, and trembling awe, are as sure tokens of love, as life, health, joy, and the gifts of home: “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away:” on either side it is He, and all is love alike; “blessed be the Name of the Lord:” this is the true sacrifice of praise. What can come amiss to a soul which is so in accord with God? What can make so much as one jarring tone in all its harmony? In all the changes of this fitful life, it ever dwells in praise. “The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime”—in all the full activity and bright lights of life,—“and in the night”—in sorrow, sadness, and chastisement—“His song shall be with me.”182182 Ps. xlii. 8. “O send out Thy light and Thy truth, that they may lead me: let them bring me unto Thy holy hill, and to Thy tabernacle. Then will I go unto 291the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy: yea upon the harp will I praise Thee, O God, my God.”183183 Ps. xliii. 3, 4. What is this but the spirit of heavenly bliss? What is this light but the uncreated Brightness; this truth, but the eternal Wisdom? What is this holy hill, this sanctuary, and this altar, but the presence of God, already seen by faith—the object of all praise, the fountain of all joy? This is heaven itself in the soul of God’s servants, who shall one day reign among His saints. Here in this life for awhile prayer is our chief work: yet praise is mingled with it as a promise and an earnest of blessedness to come. Our worship, like ourselves, is encompassed with infirmity. And our necessities draw us about Him, as the lame, blind, dumb, and maimed, who came that they might be healed. Blessed are they who rise from the life of prayer into the spirit of praise, and learn that prayer is but the earthliest form of worship. They are passing on into that state where praise begins to fill all spirits with the fruition of endless joy. They who are waiting in the outer courts of the Eternal Presence, while our great High Priest is within the veil, cease not to pray; but their chiefest homage is the sacrifice of praise.
In the perfect bliss of Heaven prayer shall 292rest for ever. What room shall there be for prayer, when there is no more sin? And what rest from praise, when all eyes shall see “the King in His beauty?” In that Home of Saints, “they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. . . . And fall down before Him that sat on the throne, and worship Him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before Him, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.”184184 Rev. iv. 8, 10, 11.293
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