The Testimony of the Psalms.
In the Psalms we have some of the most wonderful unfoldings of the cross in its inner meaning that Scripture furnishes. It is striking that whereas in the gospel narratives themselves it is mostly the external sufferings of the Lord which occupy us, in the Psalms the divine Sufferer utters freely His heart out. The one cry of abandonment which does indeed expose its mystery, and which Matthew and Mark record, finds its full interpretation only in that twenty-second psalm, the language of which it borrows, and to which it thus guides our thoughts. And here we find, under a vail, if we may so say, the vail removed. As the priests, able to enter within the tabernacle, could behold the glories of it, so we whom faith brings within, can listen to the very heart of Christ outpoured, and see earth's failed foundations laid afresh and for eternity by One standing where no other could stand but He. Typically given, according to the Old Testament character, unbelief may doubt or deny the revelation. It is to faith that God reveals Himself; Christ, dumb before His accusers, displays to His disciples His true glory.
There are five psalms which we shall briefly look at in connection with our subject, and which give us different aspects of the cross. Three of these — the twentieth, twenty-second, and fortieth are in the first book; the sixty-ninth is in the second; the hundred and second in the fifth book. I have elsewhere shown the way in which these five books of the Psalms identify themselves respectively with the five books of Moses. Here it will be seen how the Genesis-book, the book, as we may say, of the divine counsels, maintains its character in the way in which it opens up to us the work of Christ: in the twentieth psalm, as victory over evil; in the twenty-second, as meeting the requirement of the divine nature as against sin; in the fortieth, of that which, like the sweet-savor offerings, shows the infinite moral perfection which delights in God, and in which He delights.
The twentieth psalm begins then, where the story of grace began in Eden, with the announcement of the cross as victory over the enemy. The way in which it is introduced is perfect as all else. The first book (Ps. 1 — 41) divides into three parts; in the first of which we find, as connected with the sufferings and deliverance of His people, Christ rejected (Ps. 2) and glorified (Ps. 8). His people are always here Israel, and in the second part (Ps. 9 — 15), their sufferings in the last-day crisis, out of which they are finally delivered, are detailed. In this second part Christ is not found. In the third (Ps. 16 — 41), we have Him in a new character which, penetrating to the heart of the subject, explains and perfects the whole counsel of God. He is seen amongst the people in the lowly grace of perfect manhood, for God, for man, redeemer from misery as and because from sin. The sixteenth psalm thus shows Him in the place of dependence and trial, God His one portion and sufficiency in that path that passes through death itself into the joy of His immediate presence: the path of life through death, for us henceforth open.
Thus the seventeenth psalm shows how He can now associate others with Himself; giving the righteous through the only righteous One their ground of appeal to God. While the eighteenth psalm speaks of His victory over all His enemies, a victory which involves others with whom He is pleased to associate Himself.
The next three psalms show, on the part of His people, the faith which attaches them to Him. In the nineteenth psalm, first of all, setting its seal to God's other testimonies of creation and the law, but to rest only with full satisfaction and delight (in the two following psalms) in Him who is alone their kinsman-redeemer. While Psalm 22 completes the picture by adding to the knowledge of redemption by power that of redemption by purchase, "not with silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot."
The twentieth psalm is in other respects a remarkable one, but, as far as we have now to do with it, is of very simple character. The anointed (or Messiah), king of Israel, is seen in distress and difficulty in the presence of his enemies (compare Ps. 21:8, 11). It is conflict on account of others; and the name of the God of Jacob — i.e., of grace toward sinners, is appealed to in his behalf. From the sanctuary in Israel, and out of Zion, seat of electing love, the help is to come. It is connected with the establishment and triumph of the people plainly, and Messiah's offerings and burnt sacrifice secure this. Hence, in his deliverance they rejoice aloud, and in the name of this God set up their banners. Jehovah, their covenant-God, saves, and to the king also (to Messiah Himself) they call. The next psalm enlarges upon this deliverance and victory.
The twenty-second psalm now unfolds the reality of the sacrifice upon which all is based. It is the well-known psalm of atonement, so solemn and so dear to the Christian heart. It is the sin-offering, — the requirement, as I have elsewhere said, of the divine nature. The forsaking of God is the necessary result of the holy One being made sin.
This is what is throughout put in contrast with all other sufferings. All felt as they are, and no indifference to any, — the bodily anguish, the shame, the heartless wickedness of the assailants, — yet the one agony which outweighs all the rest is this forsaking of God. "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? far from helping Me, from the words of My roaring? O My God, I cry in the day-time, and Thou nearest not, and in the night-season, and am not silent!" "Be not far from Me, for trouble is near; for there is none to help." "But be not Thou far from Me, O Lord: O My strength, haste Thee to help Me!"
This forsaking is also carefully distinguished from any thing that a righteous man ever suffered. "Our fathers trusted in Thee; they trusted, and Thou didst deliver them: they looked unto Thee, and were delivered; they trusted in Thee, and were not confounded. But I am a worm, and no man." Yet a long line of martyrs witness to us that, as to deliverance simply from the hands of enemies, multitudes have cried and not been delivered, the sufferings through which they passed only proving that they were not forsaken, but on the contrary maintained and enabled for whatever they passed through by a power manifesting itself thus the more. How many before and since have proved Paul's experience, "Persecuted, but not forsaken"! None of these patient sufferers, precious and acceptable as their patience was to God, touched even the border of the darkness of the cross, — when the cry of the holy One found no response.
What to Him that desertion was, He Himself alone could know. "Thou art He that took Me out of the womb; Thou didst make me hope even upon My mother's breasts; I was cast upon Thee from the womb; Thou art My God even from My mother's belly." To us, born in sin and shapen in iniquity, to whom estrangement from God is the natural condition, and who, even when by grace redeemed, can so readily slip out of communion with God, how little is it possible to realize the agony of this condition! With us, too, when out of communion, it implies a state which prevents realization. The spiritual sense is blunted, the spiritual affections are not in play; and if even in this state sorrows and troubles surprise us which make us feel vainly after Him, the consequences of the terrible loss are sure to overshadow and obscure the spiritual loss itself; while at the most the darkness that can envelop one who has ever known God is the darkness of a clouded sun compared with a night of total absence in the case of Him who was made sin for us.
Alone in human weakness, with every element of bitterness in the dreadful cup which was His to drink, — He could ask, as none among men beside could, "Why hast Thou forsaken Me?" yet proclaim at the same time the holiness of Him who had forsaken Him. "But Thou art holy: dwelling amid the praises of Israel." Is not here, in fact, the reason of this forsaking, that the holy One would dwell amid the praises of a redeemed people? That worship could never be but for the cross. He must be in the outside place of darkness, that we might be, children of light, in the light with God.
The consequence is, that after He has been brought into the dust of death, and is heard from the horns of the unicorns, the blessing that flows out answers in perfect contrast to the suffering endured. The Son of God, as the fruit of His own abandonment, communicates to now-acknowledged "brethren" the Father's name. He who was in that unique, solitary place, praises in the midst of the congregation which He gathers, and whose praise He leads. Yea, "the meek shall eat and be satisfied: they that fear the Lord shall praise Him:" the heart of the redeemed shall taste the joy of eternal life (26). To the ends of the earth, and to perpetual generations, the wave of blessing spreads, — joy out of sorrow, praise out of desertion, light out of darkness, life out of death; the subjection of adoring worshipers to a Saviour-God, and His righteousness declared in the accomplishment of this great salvation.
Thus ends the wondrous twenty-second psalm, of which atonement in its central feature — He who knew no sin made sin — is the theme throughout. Any full exposition is not here within our scope. But it is the foundation of all true blessing to understand it; its words will give the deep tones to our praise forever.
A number of psalms follow which give us, in very various character, the exercises and experiences which find their answer in, or are the fruit of, this blessed work. At the close of the book are two psalms which give, by way of conclusion, as it were, the moral of the whole. The heart of Christ is shown in its innermost depths, His life in its one principle, in the fortieth psalm. In the forty-first the heart of man is seen in relation to Him who has come into the place of poverty and reproach for men — into a humiliation so low that unbelief can misconceive and discredit His true glory.
The fortieth psalm is significant in its very number, which is that of perfect probation; and here again we find the Lord in those sufferings which were the trial of His perfection, and which brought out the sweet savor of His blessed sacrifice, here put in contrast with all other sacrifices.
In the twenty-second psalm we have seen the Lord taking the sinner's place, that God might dwell among the praises of His redeemed; here we see what was in His heart Godward who did so. It is the perfect Man, with ears which never needed the anointing of blood to consecrate them to God; who, marked out in the book of. God's counsels from the beginning, now comes forth simply, as none else, to do the will of God; His law within His heart. "By which will," says the apostle, "we are sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." This perfect devotedness He manifested there where, in the sharpest and most terrible contrast to it, He cries, "Mine iniquities have taken hold upon Me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more in number than the hairs of My head; therefore My heart faileth Me." Yet, says He, "I waited patiently for the Lord;" even in the "miry clay" of that "pit of destruction."
Plainly this is the psalm of burnt-offering, though the sacrifice represented take the place of all the other offerings. Indeed it is quite in character that it should be so. The burnt-offering was the "continual burnt-offering," as that which was emphatically a sweet savor to God. The sin-offering is what the necessity of man craves and obtains; so with the trespass, and so with the peace-offering; but the burnt-offering, as it goes wholly up to God, expresses that which is the object of His unceasing delight. Thus, when no other sacrifice was there at all, the burnt-offering kept its place upon the altar, which from it, indeed, received its name; for this blessed work it is in which the moral glory of His person (which is what the altar speaks of) shines out most fully.
Here, accordingly, it is not the outside place that His cry expresses, but the "iniquities" which, as taking them upon Him, He could call "Mine" this was the miry clay of the pit into which He who came to do God's will had descended. This, therefore, is the character of suffering most suited to display, as a dark background, that personal glory. Unbelief might indeed take such confession to justify its rejection of the holy One, while faith, adoring, finds in it its eternal blessing. And this is the key to the psalm which follows this.
The Testimony of the Psalms. — Continued.
The next psalm of atonement we find in the last section of the second book. And here, whatever difficulty of interpretation may attach to it otherwise, there is nothing to dim the assurance that the sixty-ninth psalm gives us the trespass-offering. The very word for sins — "My sins are not hid from Thee" should be rather "trespasses." While the restitution character of the trespass-offering comes out with unmistakable plainness in the fourth verse, — "Then I restored that which I took not away." In the words of the eleventh verse we may discern with little more difficulty the ram of the trespass-offering. The difficulties of the psalm belong rather to its exposition, which I am not attempting here. With this brief notice, therefore, we may pass on to the final psalm.
This is the hundred and second, whose place in connection with the book to which it belongs is full of interest. The fourth book speaks, as the fourth book of Moses does, of the world as the scene of man's strangership through sin. Its first psalm, the ninetieth, shows him thus; his link with eternal blessedness snapped with his link with God. It is a strain of the wilderness, a lament over that generation of men who because of their unbelief died there, and who thus could be used as a fit exemplification of the general condition. The Lord, man's dwelling-place, has been forgotten. He who brought man from the dust bids him return to it. Sin and God's righteous anger explain this terrible anomaly. "Thou hast set our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance; for all our days are passed away in Thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told." The psalm concludes with a prayer: "Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent Thee concerning Thy servants;" but no ground is given for such repentance till we come to the following psalm.
And here we have, not the first man, but the second; and in plain contrast to the first. Man has forgotten the name of his God: how clearly this comes out in Moses' question at the bush! — "And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say unto me, 'What is His name? what shall I say?'" (Ex. 3:3.)
But this lost name of God is the key to man's condition. It reveals him as a wanderer (how far!) from the Father's house, "without God in the world;" without, therefore, a hiding-place from the forces of nature now in league for his destruction! How wonderful that "a Man shall be as a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest," a Man, but the "Second Man"! It is He who, abiding in the secret place of the Most High, shall lodge under the shadow of the Almighty; He who in the path of faith takes Jehovah for His refuge and fortress, His God, in whom He trusts. Here is One who, at least for Himself, can claim fully the divine protection an unfailing, perfect Man.
But how does this avail for men? God's name revealed is "Jehovah;" and "Jehovah" is "the God of redemption" — the name under which He intervened to redeem His people of old. Redemption, too, by power is seen in the following psalms. Jehovah's throne is established upon earth; the wicked are destroyed; the righteous flourish. The earth also is set upon a permanent ground of blessing — "The world also is established, that it cannot be moved." Jehovah comes (96 – 100) to His restored creation; which claps its hands, rejoicing in His presence.
This closes the first half of the book, but the fullness of the blessing is not yet told out, nor the ground of it. This, redemption not by power but by purchase, and at the hands of the Kinsman-Redeemer, can alone disclose.
In the hundred and first psalm we find accordingly once more the Second Man, into whose hands now the earth is put, King of Israel evidently, but with another name and a wider title soon to be declared. For in the hundred and second psalm, not only Zion's time of blessing is come, but for the earth also to be blessed, "when the peoples are gathered together, and the kings also, to serve the Lord."
But all this blessing waits upon One who in the meanwhile is seen, not only in human weakness, but under the wrath of God. Alone in the presence of His enemies, His heart smitten and withered like grass; and why? "Because of Thine indignation and wrath; for Thou hast lifted Me up and cast Me down."
But how then is the blessing to come, if Israel's King, the Second Man, upon whom all depends, is cut off under the wrath of God? "He weakened My strength in the way; He shortened My days. I said, 'O My God, take Me not away in the midst of My days: Thy years are throughout all generations.'"
What, then, is the answer to this prayer? It is the amazing declaration as to this humbled One: — "Of old hast Thou laid the foundations of the earth; and the heavens are the work of Thy hands: they shall perish, but Thou shalt endure; yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed: but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall have no end."
Thus Creator and Redeemer are the same wondrous Person: Jehovah, whose throne is set up upon earth, is that very Second Man into whose hands the restored earth is given; and this, and the blessings resulting from it, the hundred and third and hundred and fourth psalms celebrate. This weakness of man is the power and grace of God for man's salvation. God's name is indeed decisively declared, and man finds his happy hiding-place in God Himself, never to be a wanderer again.
How fit a conclusion to the picture of atonement which the Psalms, and indeed the whole of the Old Testament, present! May our joyful adoration grow in equal pace with our apprehension of them.