SERMON XXII. GOD IS OUR REFUGE
Westminster Abbey, 1873.
Psalm 46:1. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."
This is a noble psalm, full of hope and comfort; and it will be more and more full of hope and comfort, the more faithfully we believe in the incarnation, the passion, the resurrection, and the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. For if we are to give credit to His express words, and to those of every book of the New Testament, and to the opinion of that Church into which we are baptised, then Jesus Christ is none other than the same Jehovah, Lord, and God who brought the Jews out of Egypt, who guided them and governed them through all their history—teaching, judging, rewarding, punishing them and all the nations of the earth. This psalm, therefore, is concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom all power is given in heaven and earth, and who ascended up on high; that He might be as He had been from the beginning, King of kings and Lord of lords, the Master of this world and all the nations in it. This psalm, therefore, is a hymn concerning the kingdom of Christ and of God. It tells us something of the government which Christ has been exercising over the world ever since the beginning of it, and which He is exercising over this world now. It bids us be still, and know that He is God—that He will be exalted among the nations, and will be exalted in the earth, whether men like it or not; but that they ought to like it and rejoice in it, and find comfort in the thought that Christ Jesus is their refuge and their strength—a very present help in trouble—as the old Jew who wrote this psalm found comfort.
When this psalm was written, or what particular events it speaks of, I cannot tell, for I do not think we have any means of finding out. It may have been written in the time of David, or of Solomon, or of Hezekiah. It may possibly have been written much later. It seems to mo probably to refer—but I speak with extreme diffidence—to that Assyrian invasion, and that preservation of Jerusalem, of which we heard in the magnificent first lesson for this morning and this afternoon; when, at the same time that the Assyrians were crushing, one by one, every nation in the East, there was, as the elder Isaiah and Micah tell us plainly, a great volcanic outbreak in the Holy Land. But all this matters very little to us; because events analogous to those of which it speaks have happened not once only, but many times, and will happen often again. And this psalm lays down a rule for judging of such startling and terrible events whenever they happen, and for saying of them, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." It seems from the beginning of the psalm that there had been earthquakes or hurricanes in Judea—more probably earthquakes, which were and are now frequent there. It seems as if the land had been shaken, and cliffs thrown into the sea, which had rolled back in a mighty wave, such as only too often accompanies an earthquake. But the Psalmist knew that that was God's doing; and therefore he would not fear, though the earth was moved, and though the hills were earned into the very midst of the sea. It seems, moreover, that Jerusalem itself had, as in Hezekiah's time, not been shaken, or at least seriously injured, by the earthquake. But why? "God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed." It seems, also, as if the earthquake or hurricane had been actually a benefit to Jerusalem— which was often then, and has been often since, in want of water—that either fresh springs had broken out, or abundant rain had fallen, as occurs at times in such convulsions of nature. But that, too, was God's doing on behalf of His chosen city. "The rivers of the flood" had made "glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the most highest."
Moreover, there seem to have been great disturbances and wars among the nations round. The heathen had made much ado, and the kingdoms had been moved. But whatever their plans were, it was God who had brought them to naught. God had shewed His voice, and the earth melted away; and (we know not how) discomfiture had fallen upon them, and a general peace had followed. "O come hither," says the Psalmist, "and behold the works of the Lord, what desolations He has made in the earth." Not a desolation of cruelty and tyranny: but a desolation of mercy and justice; putting down the proud, the aggressive, the ruthless, and helping the meek, the simple, the industrious, and the innocent. It is He, says the Psalmist, who has made wars to cease in all the world, who has broken the bow and snapped the spear in sunder, and burned the chariots in the fire; and so, by the voice of fact, said to these kings and to their armies, if they would but understand it, "Be still, and know that I am God"—that I, not you, will be exalted among the nations—that I, not you, will be exalted in the earth.
Such is the 46th Psalm, one of the noblest utterances of the whole Old Testament. And is it not as true for us now, ay, for all nations and all mankind now, as it was when it was uttered? Is not Jesus Christ the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever? Have His words passed away? Did He say in vain, "All power is given unto me in heaven and earth?" Did He say in vain, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world?" I trust not. I trust and I hope that you, or at least some here, believe that Christ is ruling and guiding the world, the church, and every individual soul who trusts in Him toward—
"One far off divine event,
I hope you do have that trust, for your own sakes, for the sake of your own happiness, your own sound peace of mind; for then, and then only, you can afford to be hopeful concerning yourselves, your families, your country, and the whole human race. It must be so. If you believe that He who hung upon the cross for all mankind is your refuge and strength, and the refuge and strength of all mankind, then, amid all the changes and chances of this mortal life, you can afford to be still calm in sudden calamity, patient in long afflictions; for you know that He is God, He is the Lord, He is the Redeemer, He is the King. He knows best. He must be right, whosoever else is wrong. Let Him do what seemeth Him good.
Now I cannot but feel (what wiser and better men than I am feel more deeply), that this old-fashioned faith in the living Christ is dying out among us. That men do not believe as they used to do in the living Lord and in His government, in that perpetual divine providence which the Scriptures call "the kingdom of God." They have lost faith in Christ's immediate and personal government of the world and its nations; and, therefore, they are tempted more and more, either to try to misgovern the world themselves, or to fancy that Christ has entrusted His government, as to a substitute and vicar, to an aged priest at Rome. They have lost faith, likewise, in Christ's immediate government of themselves; their own fortunes, their own characters, and inmost souls; and, therefore, they are tempted either to follow no rule or guidance save their own instincts, passions, fancies; or else, in despair at their own inward anarchy, to commit the keeping of their souls to directors and confessors, instead of to Christ Himself, the Lord of the spirits of all flesh.
Yes, the faith which keeps a man ever face to face with God and with Christ, in the least as well as in the greatest events of life; which says in prosperity and in adversity, in plenty and scarcity, in joy and sorrow, in peace and war,—It is the Lord's doing, it is the Lord's sending, and therefore we can trust in the Lord—that faith is growing, I fear, very rare. That faith was more common, I think, a generation or two back, in old-fashioned church people than in any other. It could not help being so; for the good old Prayer-Book upon which they were brought up is more full of that simple and living faith in the Lord, from beginning to end, than any other book on earth except the Bible. It was more common, too, and I suppose always will be, among the poor than among the rich; for the poor soon find out how little they have to depend upon except the Lord and His good providence; while the rich are tempted, and always will be, to depend upon their own wealth and their own power, to trust in uncertain riches, and say, "Soul, take thine ease, thou hast much goods laid up for many years." It was more common, too, and I suppose always will be, among the old than among the young; for the young are tempted to trust not in the Lord, but in their own health, strength, wit, courage, and to put their hopes, not on God's Providence, but on the unknown chapter of accidents in the future, most of which will never come to pass; while the old have learned by experience and disappointment the vanity of human riches, the helplessness of human endeavour, the blindness of human foresight, and are content to go where God leads them, and say, "I will go forth in the strength of the Lord God, and will make mention of Thy righteousness only. Thou, O God, hast taught me from my youth up until now: therefore will I tell of Thy wondrous works. Forsake me not, O God, in mine old age, when I am grey-headed; until I have showed Thy strength unto this generation, and Thy power to all them which are yet for to come."
But, for some reason or other, this generation does not seem to care to see God's strength; and those that are yet for to come seem likely to believe less and less in God's power—believe less and less that they are in Christ's kingdom, and that Christ is ruling over them and all the world. They have not faith in the Living Lord. But they must get back that faith, if they wish to keep that wealth and prosperity after which every one scrambles so greedily now-a-days; for those who forget God are treading, they and their children after them, not, as they fancy, the road to riches—they are treading the road to ruin. So it always was, so it always will be. Yet the majority of mankind will not see it, and the preacher must not expect to be believed when he says it. Nevertheless it is true. Those who forget that they are in Christ's kingdom, Christ does not go out of His way to punish them. They simply punish themselves. They earn their own ruin by the very laws of human nature. They must find hope in something and strength in something; and if they will not see that God is their hope, they will hope to get rich as fast as possible, and make themselves safe so. If they will not see that God is their strength, they will find strength in cunning, in intrigue, in flattery of the strong and tyranny over the weak, and in making themselves strong so. They want a present help in trouble; and if they will not believe that God is a present help in trouble, they will try to help themselves out of their trouble by begging, lying, swindling, forging, and all those meannesses which fill our newspapers with shameful stories day by day, and which all arise simply out of want of faith in God.
Moreover, it is written, "Be still, and know that I am God." And if men will not be still, they will not know that He is God. And if they do not know that the gracious Christ is God, they will not be still; and therefore they will grow more and more restless, discontented, envious, violent, irreverent, full of passions which injure their own souls, and sap the very foundations of order and society and civilised life. And what can come out of all these selfish passions, when they are let loose, but that in which selfishness must always end, but that same mistrust and anarchy, ending in that same poverty and wretchedness, under which so many countries of the world now lie, as it were, weltering in the mire. Alas! say rather weltering in their own life-blood—and all because they have forgotten the living God?
Oh, my dear friends, take these words solemnly to heart—for yourselves, and for your children after you. If you wish to prosper on the earth, let God be in all your thoughts. Remember that the Lord is on your right hand; and then, and then alone, will you not be moved, either to terror or to sin, by any of the chances and changes of this mortal life. "Fret not thyself," says the Psalmist, "else shalt thou be moved to do evil." And the only way not to fret yourselves is to remember that God is your refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. "He that believeth," saith the Prophet, "shall not make haste"—not hurry himself into folly and disappointment and shame. Why should you hurry, if you remember that you are in the kingdom of Christ and of God? You cannot hurry God's Providence, if you would; you ought not, if you could. God MUST know best; God's Laws MUST work at the right pace, and fulfil His Will in the right way and at the right time. As for what that Will is, we can know from the angels' song on Christmas Eve, which told us how God's Will was a good will towards men.
For who is our Lord? Who is our King? Who is our Governor? Who is our Lawgiver? Who is our Guide? Christ, who died for us on Calvary; who rose again for us; who ascended into heaven for us; who sits at God's right hand for us; who sent down His Holy Spirit at the first Whitsuntide; and sends Him down for ever to us; that by His gracious inspiration we may both perceive and know what we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same. With such a King over us, how can the world but go right? With such a King over us, what refuge or strength or help in trouble do we need but Him Himself?—His Providence, which is Love, and His Laws, which are Life.