"The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His Name's sake" (Psalm 23:1-3).
THE time when this Psalm was penned is not clearly to be ascertained, nor is it of any great importance. The mind of a believer is seldom idle; even when he complains of inactivity, barrenness, and sloth, his mind is at work: "I went mourning without the sun?" (Job 30:28) "Why art thou cast down, 0 my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God" (Psalm 42:11). Seldom do we see men of low degree elevated to a throne, as David was; and more unfrequently do we see the rays of gospel light and sound experience burst from the thrones of the mighty. Not many mighty are called.
David saw by faith the matchless beauty of Jesus, and describes Him under that character, which he (David) once sustained. "Jehovah is my Shepherd." This Shepherd is Jesus. "I am the good Shepherd." Yes, blessed Jesus, Thy goodness has been fully made known. Thou didst lay aside Thy riches, and clothedst Thyself with poverty, that we through Thy poverty might be enriched with free justification, complete salvation, eternal life, and sweet peace. "He hath made peace by the blood of His cross" (Colossians 1:20); finished the work assigned Him; obtained eternal redemption for us; gone up with a shout; taken the reins of government in His hands; and now He lives and speaks as One "mighty to save." This Shepherd, to manifest His goodness, laid down His life, and raised it up again; and in raising up Himself, He raised up the whole of His flock. "Thy dead men shall live; together with My dead body shall they arise" (Isaiah 26:19). "Jesus said unto her, I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die" (John 11:25,26). "I am He that liveth, and was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (Revelation 1:18).
The Scriptures clearly prove that there was a necessity for the great Shepherd to die for the sheep: "Ought not Christ to suffer these things?" (Luke 24:26) "I lay down My life for the sheep" (John 10:15). The necessity arose from His infinite love to them, and covenant engagements for them. He loved the church, and gave Himself for the church, to present unto Himself a glorious church, without spot or blemish, or any such thing (Ephesians 5:25,27). The full redemption of the elect was the object He had in view; and His love to them carried Him joyfully through the mysterious work. "Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). How great was the Shepherd's love to die for rebels! to seek and find out wretched wanderers, to lay them on His shoulders rejoicing! This was great love; and to show His greatness of love, He passed by the nature of angels, and took on Him the seed of Abraham; and "was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death " (Hebrews 2:9,16). But from the lowest state of degradation He was raised to the highest state of exaltation; for He "ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things" (Ephesians 4:10).
"The LORD is my Shepherd; "mine by the free gift of the Father; mine by the free surrender of Himself; mine by covenant engagements; mine by the sweet heart-cheering testimony of God the Spirit; mine with all He is, and with all He has. To know that Christ is mine exceeds all knowledge. But a God-taught sinner will not, cannot rest satisfied until he is enabled to say, "My Lord and my God." And that blessing is revealed to the sinner by the Holy Ghost, as our Lord promised: "He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you" (John. 16:14).
Therefore "I shall not want." Spiritual supplies are only to be found in Jesus. "My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19). God the Spirit shows the sinner his real necessities, empties him from vessel to vessel, discovers to him the vileness of his nature, until he finds himself
"Needy and naked and unclean,
Devoid of good and full of ill;
A lifeless lump of loathsome sin,
Without the power to act or will."
The law demands perfect obedience, unspotted rectitude in thought, word, and deed; but, alas! the sinner is all the reverse. He feels it, and under a persuasion of his guilt, by the application of the holy law to his conscience, he cries out, "Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, 0 Lord; for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified" (Psalm 143:2). The gospel speaks of the necessity of faith, and he considers that important article; but what it really is, or how to effect it, he is totally at a loss to know. He imagines it must be some strong effort of the mind, and sets about it with all his might; but the more he strives, the further he seems from the accomplishment of his object. Down he sinks, determined to give it up as lost labor, and yet cannot. His sorrows rise high, and his comforts sink low; he writes bitter things against himself, and his heart frets against the Lord. He imagines the law very severe, and the true path difficult to find indeed. Such a soul is in bitter bondage, and never did a galley-slave work harder. The yoke is on his jaws; he cannot eat gospel food when set before him. The yoke is on his jaws, and he cannot speak with sweet access to Jesus, that he may be refreshed. "The heart knoweth its own bitterness." Now such a soul is really needy; nor can the creature, by all his best proposals, supply him. Now "he putteth his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope" (Lamentations 3:29).
Unexpectedly, when his hope is gone, Jesus draws nigh, and manifests to his soul His immaculate righteousness; discovers the kindness of His heart; disperses the thick clouds of guilt which before enveloped his mind, and thus fulfils His covenant engagements, and makes plain the truth of His blessed promises, "I will feed My flock, and cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God. I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick" (Ezekiel 34:15,16). "Now," saith the soul, "I am satisfied, I dwell in a land of Goschen, I have all and abound."
"All that I want in Christ resides;
How then can I be poor?
With Him the covenant firm abides,
For me for evermore."
He that spared not His only Son, but delivered Him up for me, how shall He not with Him also freely give me all things? I shall not want while Jesus lives. His riches are inexhaustible, and His Name and nature always the same. Providence may frown on God's elect for a season; nevertheless that providence which frowns disposes of human things in such a way, and brings supplies in such a manner, as to surprise the receiver, and fill the heart with unbounded gratitude.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters." Green pastures are choice places to feed sheep. Believers are manifestly the sheep of Jesus; they are not ashamed to own Him as their Shepherd, nor ashamed to acknowledge themselves His sheep. "For He is our God: and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand." (Psalm 95:7) Green pastures may denote the glorious gospel, into the knowledge and enjoyments of which none but the sheep are favored to enter. The glorious gospel is to the saints what green pastures are to sheep, sweet, nourishing, and delightful. Poison was never extracted from the gospel. If men manifest poisoned principles and a poisoned conversation, it arises from the poison of sin, hid in a depraved heart. The daughter of Zion has breasts of consolation, designed to be sucked, not by the serpent's seed, not by those whom the Holy Ghost terms bastards; but by the sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty. These shall milk out and be satisfied with the abundance of Zion's glory. These go in and out, and find pasture, each individual being enabled to bear his decided testimony of the Shepherd's gracious power, saying, "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters." Still waters may denote the fixed purposes of God, the fixed blessings of His covenant love, the inexhaustible fullness of Jesus, who is said to be "as rivers of water in a dry place" (Isaiah 32:2).
The fixed purposes of God the elect are brought to acknowledge, receive, and rejoice in. "To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles" (Colossians 1:27). And Jesus said to His disciples, "It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 13:11); and the Thessalonians are said to have known their election of God" (1 Thessalonians 1:4,5). By the special power of the Holy Ghost they were led to believe that they were of that happy number who were of old chosen to salvation, "through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth " (2 Thessalonians 2:13). The Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of Jehovah's thoughts and purposes in the hearts of the elect, sheds abroad the love of God in their hearts, and refreshes the memory by bringing to their view this sweet truth, that God hath loved them with an everlasting love. On the banks of this river of God His sheep lie down in safety and repose. "There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God" (Psalm 46:4).
Water is the most welcome to those who are athirst. Sinners spiritually athirst may come and welcome. " Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters" (Isaiah 55:1). Dost thou say, reader, "May I come, may I venture, a sinner so defiled, to contemplate and rest upon these deep things of God?" Yes, thou mayest, nothing doubting; nor canst thou ever give greater honor to God than by believing the word He hath spoken. Believing will cheer thy gloom, bring thee sweet peace, and lead thee to walk uprightly. Lord, increase our faith.
"He restoreth my soul." Every heaven-born soul has to lament his frequent departures from God. Perhaps the verb restoreth has a double sense; first, to restore persons to their former places who have been carried away captive; to re-instate a person in his former situation. So Genesis 40:13: "Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place." They shall be carried to Babylon, and there shall they be until the day that I visit them, saith the Lord; then will I bring them up, and restore them to this place" (Jeremiah 27:22). Secondly, to give a fresh discovery of divine love and spiritual enjoyment to a soul who has long been without it. The last sense is, I believe, the meaning of David in the phrase, "He restoreth my soul." This restoring of the soul to the spiritual enjoyment of heavenly life is not done once only, but many times in the course of a believer's life. Union with Christ is one fixed, stable thing; he that is one with Jesus is so for ever. Not so as respects communion; this is not constant, but frequently interrupted by distressing clouds of unbelief, as every soul knows to his sorrow, who is made acquainted with Christ. Sin and iniquity are evils which have a place in every believer. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves" (1 John 1:8). The being of sin in a child of God is no pleasant thing to him, but quite the reverse. The feeling that he has of sin working in his members, is a source of grief to him daily; but if it should break out, his grief is much greater. Not that he can be a greater sinner in the eye of God's most holy law than before; but the breaking out of sin grieves the dear saints of God, and brings dishonor on His sacred cause, puts a weapon in the enemy's hand, and frequently cuts him off from communion with the saints. Such a soul well understands the following scripture: "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:2). Nevertheless there is a cure for this deplorable evil, as many who are in heaven and many on earth can testify.
What is the remedy? Take the prescription and read it, and ponder over it again and again, poor, sin-burdened soul: "If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous" (1 John 2:1). I have not a doubt but this precious scripture has, in the hand of the Holy Ghost, restored the joys of salvation to many a saint; and to her mourners. I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners (Isaiah 57:18). Jehovah shows (in one sense) His displeasure with His people's folly by hiding His face from them; and the hiding of His face is the saints' hell, and their only hell; but in infinite mercy He shines forth again from between the cherubim, remembering for them His covenant and His oath, and says, "I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and as a cloud, thy sins: return unto Me, for I have redeemed thee" (Isaiah 44:22). And I am persuaded that nothing so subdues the power of sin; nothing so fills the heart with gratitude; nothing makes the believer so little in his own eyes; nothing raises the affections heavenward, like the unmerited love of God shed abroad in the heart by the power of the Holy Ghost. This restores to the barren soul the years that the locusts (of vile corruptions) have eaten up.
"He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His Name's sake." All the paths of the Lord are righteous paths, and all His dealings are right, be they ever so crooked to carnal reason and corrupt sense; nor will the Lord fail to lead His chosen therein. In these paths all the patriarchs walked, together with all the prophets: "These all died in faith" (Hebrews 11:13); and while they lived they obtained a good report through faith.
"Paths of righteousness" may denote the following things. First, the true understanding of the rich and precious promises. The Holy Ghost directs the eye of the new man, which is faith, to the absolute, unconditional promises of Jehovah. In these promises shine forth the love, wisdom, and faithfulness of a covenant God. 0 my reader, to be led into these paths is to be led to Mount Zion indeed. Every promise applied to the heart is a spiritual fragrance, a drop from the ocean of love, a true light in a dark place, a communication from the Prince of life, a real token for good. No sinner can derive any consolation from the promises, unless he can believe them to be his own; and no sinner can believe them to be his, unless God accompany the promises with evidence and power to his heart.
Secondly. A godly, upright conversation. And is it possible for a sinner to be thus led and thus instructed, and live in rioting and wantonness, in chambering and drunkenness? Does not the influence of spiritual teaching lead him who is taught of God to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly and righteously in this world? Are not the elect delivered out of the hands of their spiritual enemies, that they might serve their Deliverer without fear, in holiness and righteousness all their lives? But, reader, to what purpose do we contend that the doctrines of grace have a good tendency? Much time is thrown away in vain contention and in foolish speculation: the more important question is, or should be, "Have I felt their influence in my heart? and have they constrained me to reckon myself dead unto sin, and alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord? Can I make a solemn appeal to the great Searcher of hearts in the words of David, 'Search me, 0 God, and try me, and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting'?" While the foregoing prayer is honestly put up from the heart, I do not imagine it possible for a soul to sink into foul practices nor into mischievous errors. Into the truth that soul shall be led; and truth shall prove his shield and buckler. Moreover God has His own honor in view in maintaining the cause of His people. It is for His Name's sake that He leads and guides His own elect into His righteous paths. His care of His church arises out of His own love and purpose; and their being guided and preserved, yea, being guided by His strength to His holy habitation, is designed to reflect the highest honor on His perfections of wisdom, mercy, and faithfulness.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me: Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me."
THE firm promise of God is the basis upon which the faith of His people rests. The word of His faithfulness is the shield and defence of Jehovah's sheep, affording them the most blessed security in all their wanderings, and leading them (at times) with heartfelt pleasure to anticipate the blissful day when they shall no more be torn with the briars of the wilderness, no more be terrified with the wolves, no more be smitten with the scorching beams of persecution and temptation; but safely lodged in the presence and bosom of the great Shepherd, shall pass a long eternity in wonder, love and praise. However, while we are here we are continually exposed to the attacks of our enemies, and have need to take unto ourselves and wear "the whole armour of God, that we may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand."
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." I read of no such place that David expected to pass through in a literal sense; but that David had passed through many a gloomy vale in soul matters, any one who reads with a little attention his life in the Psalms and other places, must clearly perceive: and what has been may be again.
"The valley of the shadow of death" may refer to the gloomy prospects which are frequently the lot of God's elect; as, sore temptations from Satan; "Lest I should be exalted above measure, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, to buffet me" (2 Corinthians 12:7). If Satan does not find the believer in the valley, he will be sure to bring him there before he has done with him; and he that has been in close combat with the enemy, will find his own strength quite insufficient to repel the fiery darts of the devil. Satan always takes advantage of the believer's fears. Is he low? Satan will try to bring him lower. This state may be called "the valley of the shadow of death," because everything in and about a believer wears the appearance of death and despair.
"To cause despair's the scope
Of Satan and his powers;
In hope, believing against hope,
My brethren, must be ours."
Now, were it not for the powerful arm of the Shepherd of Israel no soul would get safely through this valley; but the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation. Here I cannot withhold the striking description given by Bunyan in "Pilgrim's Progress." After Christian had mastered Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation, he entered the Valley of the Shadow of Death. On one side of his path was a quagmire into which David fell, and there would have continued but for the powerful arm of our gracious Shepherd On the other side was the deep ditch into which the blind and those that lead them eventually fall. Ah, for a man to keep in the even path in this dark valley, is attended with many difficulties.
"Deep quagmires choke the way,
Corruptions foul and thick,
Whose stench infects the air, and makes
The strongest traveller sick."
EVERY believer who has been any time in Zion's path has not only Satan, but the carnal mind to plague him; and to be carnally minded is death to his comforts. It is true he is not in the flesh, but the flesh is in him, and which is a source of grief to him daily; and in proportion as the old man predominates, will his sorrows abound. He would look to the hills whence cometh his help (Psalm 121:1); but carnality is like dust thrown into his eyes. It makes him blink, yea, almost blinds him. Happily there is a Fountain open for sins of most deadly poison; and thither he repairs of deep necessity. "In that day there shall be a Fountain opened to the house of David, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness " (Zechariah 13:1). Here a soul laboring under a sense of fresh contracted sin, is obliged to come again and again. He washes in those healthy streams that flow from the Throne of God, and looks afresh into the perfect law of liberty. None know the deadly influence of sin but those who have suffered by it; yet the Valley of the Shadow of Death was the pilgrim's right path. Go there he must, and be brought through it too. God commands deliverances for Jacob. However, before God grants deliverances from the deadly power of the carnal mind, Satan frequently assaults the child of God with horrid temptations, and he finds a ready access. He comes where he will be sure to find entertainment amongst his old friends, the carnal mind, the flesh, the old man; and he must be a wise pilgrim indeed who can at all times discern the difference between the suggestions of Satan and the sudden emotion of his own heart. "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) How far the influence of Satan may extend it is not for me to say; but certain I am that he seldom lets the flock of Christ alone, either by fraud or by force. To the noontime of persecution the church of Christ has been severely exposed: "As it is written, For Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us" (Romans 8:36,37). So that the Good Shepherd always found out a way to feed His flock at noon in answer to that prayer, "Tell me, 0 Thou whom my soul loveth, where Thou feedest, where Thou makest Thy flock to rest at noon" (Song of Solomon 1:7). Where should the flock rest but under the protection of the great Shepherd? In times of persecution it is very blessed to have the protection of the great Shepherd manifested unto us. It was this which made the martyrs tread the flames of Smithfield as a bed of roses; yea, many of them shook the gates of hell, and filled fallen angels with double fury with their triumphant song.
Many good men understand by "the valley of the shadow of death," death itself; but I do not consider this the primary sense, neither did Bunyan. However, if any consolation can be derived from so receiving the sense by those who may be exercised at times with the fear of death or the dread of dying, I see no evil in their so receiving it, and therefore I shall make a few remarks on the subject of death. Death to the child of God is a shadow, and an enemy who has been deprived of his power by One mightier than he: "0 death, I will be thy plagues; 0 grave, I will be thy destruction" (Hosea 13:14). This mighty work Jesus did by dying, and proved it by rising again from the dead. He "destroyed death, and him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;" and "brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (Hebrews 2:14 ; 2 Timothy 1:10). The great Shepherd of the sheep died for His flock, and rose again for His flock. Consequently they shall never die or be deprived of their precious life, it being "hid with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3), 0 consoling thought! But do not the saints die? Yes, in one sense, for it is appointed unto all men once to die; but theirs is rather a falling asleep in Jesus. The saints are still in Jesus. So that "whether we live, we live unto the Lord, and whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's " (Romans 14:8). But is there no evil in death? None to that soul who has ever tasted that the Lord is gracious. Death is rather a friend than an enemy, come when he may. "To die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). And whether God sends much or little pain to put a man to sleep, Zion's security is the same. Stephen was stoned to sleep, and every stone perhaps raised his heaven-born spirit higher in affection to his dear Redeemer; till the last stroke was given, and then he rested in his bed. But how is it that many of God's dear people are filled with dread at the thought of the king of terrors? Because their eye is off the dear Shepherd of Israel, and they are looking at things which are seen, and listening to Satan's logic. Then their language is, "Suppose I should have been deceived; and what if death should find me in this dreadful, dark state of soul? How will it go with me then?" And who can relieve them? Not any power but the power of Omnipotence, And will the Lord certainly deliver them? Most certainly. Poor, troubled, death-fearing soul, when Jesus gives you a token for good, and sheds abroad His love in your heart, the ground seems firm, and the prospect of death seems very different then. Yea, you can adopt the language of David as your own: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me." How different are the feelings, even of the strongest believer, when Christ is present, to what it is when Christ is absent! Christ's presence casts out fear, which is too often Zion's perplexity: " There were they in great fear, where no fear was" (Psalm 53:5). Christ's presence fills the heart with true joy; makes the lame man leap like an hart, and the tongue of the dumb to sing. Christ's most gracious presence is the foretaste of that heaven of delight where all the elect of God shall meet, and join in one everlasting song, "Unto Him who hath loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood!" (Revelation 1:5) Christ's presence deadens a man to this vain and transitory world, makes him hold with a light hand all creature good. 0 most blessed and gracious Redeemer, grant me and all Thy dear family more of Thy lovely presence while I am a pilgrim here below, that I may forget the things which are behind, and reach forth to those things which are before; that I may not think to be fully satisfied till I awake up after Thy likeness.
I dare aver that God's children are as sensible when they have the gracious presence of their Shepherd as they are when it is open daylight, and as sensible of His absence as they are when it is a dark night. But when Jesus returns, He gives light to them that sit in darkness, and chases away the thick clouds of unbelief that frequently hide Him from our view. He "turneth the shadow of death into the morning" (Amos 5:8). Then our breaches are all healed, and we walk in the light of His countenance. The sun is a well-known emblem of Christ. When the sun is not seen in our hemisphere, it is night; so, when Christ is out of sight, it is and must be night with the soul. Faith may be in exercise when the soul is in the dark, so far, at least, as to expect His return; but to expect His return, and to be brought into His presence, are two things very different. Whoever has had the gracious presence of Jesus with Him will burn in dark seasons with intense heat for the shining forth of His countenance, saying, "When wilt Thou comfort me? Where is Thy zeal and Thy strength, the sounding of Thy bowels and Thy mercies towards me? Are they restrained?" In dark seasons the believer is apt to imagine he differs in nothing from the world, but that is a mistake; there is just as much difference between him and those who are in the flesh, even when he walks in darkness, as there is between a dead body and a living one. The faith of God's elect is a living, active principle; and it shows itself in the most solitary hours of a child of God. The out-goings of the heart's desires after God, the lamentations of the soul on account of its sensible barrenness, are proofs that he differs in his worst condition from those that are dead in sin. Also, out of his deepest perplexity frequently arises real cause of rejoicing.
"Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me." Spiritual comfort is the cream of religion, and one of the believer's best evidences; with which when the soul is blessed, he can with difficulty keep to himself. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."
The rod of the Shepherd of Israel may denote His kingly power, His divine authority. Jesus has a rod or scepter to rule over His enemies, and for His friends. And where does the kingly power and divine authority of Jesus appear? In the word of His gospel, for the gospel is the rod of His strength, and is styled by the apostle, "The power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Romans 1:16). "The Lord shall send the rod of Thy strength out of Zion: rule Thou in the midst of Thine enemies" (Psalm 110:2). God's servants speak as He directs them; and if any good is done, it is done by the rod of Christ's strength. And does this rod feed the sheep? Yes, most delightfully; but at the same time it falls heavy upon the goats, who have no business in the sheep-fold. "We are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish. To the one we are a savour of death unto death, and to the other the savour of life unto life" (2 Corinthians 2:15,16). And the more plain and honest a servant of God is, the more infuriated will be the persons who have fiery zeal, naked knowledge; who have stolen their religion from men. But still the gracious Shepherd feeds His slaughtered flock, according to the commission which He received from His Father: "Feed Thy people with Thy rod, the flock of Thy heritage, which dwell solitarily in the wood" (Micah 7:14). And again, "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd, He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young" (Isaiah 40:11).
As the rod of Aaron excelled all the other rods, became fruitful, and bore almonds, so the rod of Jesus, our spiritual Aaron, even the gospel of His grace, is the most excellent of all testimonies, the most fruitful to the soul's comfort and to God's honor. It is "the glorious gospel of the ever-blessed God" (1 Timothy 1:11), and glad tidings of good things. And Jesus is the Preacher of it as well as the Substance of it. "I will publish the Name of the Lord. I will declare Thy Name unto My brethren. The Lord God hath given Me the tongue of the learned, that I should speak a word in season to them that are weary" (Isaiah 50:4). Jesus feeds the souls of His dear family by the grace of His speech. "My doctrine shall drop as the rain, My speech shall distil as the dew" (Deuteronomy 32:2). And when God the blessed Spirit accompanies the word of His grace, in reading, preaching, or meditation, then Christ fulfils His promise, "I will feed the flock of slaughter, even you, 0 poor of the flock" (Zechariah 11:7) "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." (John 10:10) And still further to confirm and comfort His dear saints under their manifold temptations, and many fears of coming short of the promised rest, He assured them that their security lay in the purposes and power of their heavenly Father. "Fear not, little flock; it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32) And again, "My Father, who gave them Me, is greater than all; and none is able to pluck them out of My Father's hand" (John 10:29).
The gospel is the sweet music of the Shepherd's reed; and as music has a tendency to animate the spirits, and chase away dullness, so the precious language and free testimony of the gospel and the things concerning Christ prove "a savour of life unto life," stimulating the receivers to say, "Because of the savour of Thy good ointments, Thy Name is as ointment poured forth" (Song of Solomon 1:3). It is the power and sweetness of it that makes the publishers of it welcome to the church; and every soul taught of God cannot despise, but love them for their work's sake. "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace" (Isaiah 52:7)
But the Shepherd uses a staff, as well as a rod, to comfort His flock. The best staff I ever knew or heard of is the absolute promise of a covenant God. On this staff the Shepherd Himself leaned, when He was "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with griefs;" and in the midst of His unparalleled conflicts, pleads with His Father and our Father on the ground of His faithfulness to His promise. In the days of His flesh He poured out strong cries and tears unto God, and was heard in that He feared. If the reader will read the promises made by the Father unto Christ, he will see how minutely they have had their fulfilment. The promises were made first with Christ, and fulfilled in Him; and next, to us who were in Christ, and shall have their fulfilment in us, His sheep, as sure as God is true. Hence the Shepherd gives the staff unto us for our support. There are "given unto us exceeding great and precious promises." "All the promises of God in Him are Yea, and in Him Amen" (2 Corinthians 1:20), certain and sure. Lean here, believer, and this staff will not prove a broken reed of Egypt, but a firm and solid support in all the trouble that may assail thee in this the house of thy pilgrimage. Yea, it will bear thee up when heart and flesh shall fail, enabling thee to glorify God in the fires.
Again. By the staff we may understand the Shepherd's crook, by which He lays hold of His sheep, and pulls them back, when running astray. The sheep is prone to wander, and needs be continually under the eye of the shepherd; so the church of God, they are prone to wander in affection, if not in action. Of this David complains, Psalm 119:176: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep: seek Thy servant." Nor is there a soul upon earth born again of God, but what feels it and laments it, and finds it an infinite mercy to be under the eye and care of Him who neither slumbers nor sleeps. Believer, it is better to receive a pinch of the Shepherd's crook than be suffered to run on in the way of thine own heart to thy great injury. The Lord scourges every son whom He receives.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." The Shepherd of Israel has formed His flock for Himself, that they might show forth His praise; and He is said to inhabit the praises of Israel. There is not a blessing which they receive, not a deliverance they are blessed with, but their Shepherd and Prince receives the praises in bestowing; and with one heart and one mouth they glorify God for His mercy. "Not unto us, not unto us, 0 Lord, but unto Thy Name give glory." (Psalm 115:1) Who should have the praise of infinite skill in building, but He who built the house and is the foundation? Who should have the praise of all salvation but He who wrought out and brought in an everlasting righteousness, and who still continues to give out of His fullness to the poor and needy? Those who have received nothing at the hands of Jesus will not, cannot, praise Him; but such as have received abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness, in proportion as they are sensible of their mercies, will praise Him with joyful lips. While David expresses his full persuasion and rich enjoyment of all blessings, he does not forget to ascribe the whole to Him who giveth liberally to him that asketh, and upbraideth not; which sentiment is uniform in the church of God in every part of the habitable globe. Every one of the sheep of Christ is a witness "Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord" and as such can bear the most unequivocal testimony to the love and daily care of their great Shepherd. Does He prove His kindness as a God of providence, power, and grace? they are ready to acknowledge it, although they cannot do the thing that they would (Galatians 5:17).
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine
i. Every one of Christ's sheep has enemies,
ii. Every sheep of Christ has a special providence over him.
iii. Every child of God has a full table of rich provision spread by the hand of infinite wisdom for his abundant supply.
Each of these parts I shall examine in the order stated.
i. Every sheep of Christ has enemies. The world is an enemy to every heaven-born soul, being filled with malice against both the Shepherd and the sheep. Hence the intimation of Christ, "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18). And again: "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:19). This malice took its rise at an early date. It began with Cain against his brother Abel, and manifested itself in his brother's death; and all Cain's race kept up the siege, till a new captain arose named Ishmael, who persecuted Isaac, the legitimate heir of promise; until by the command of the God of heaven, both Ishmael and his mother Hagar were turned out of Abraham's house. "Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free" (Genesis 21:10; Galatians 4:30). Nor did this enmity cease with Ishmael; for we see the same enmity in Esau, the son of Isaac, against his brother Jacob: "And Esau hated Jacob, because of the blessing" (Genesis 27:41). The fact is, there were always two seeds; and "he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit: even so it is now" (Galatians 4:29). All attempts to unite the two seeds are not only lost labor, but contrary to the designs of God, and opposite to the plain testimony of His holy Word: "I will put enmity between Thy seed and her seed" (Genesis 3:15). The Redeemer distinguishes the two seeds by calling one seed goats and the other sheep: nor can all the wooing of blind ministers remove the barrier which God has fixed. "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated" (Romans 9:13).
This enmity was carried on through successive generations until the Heir of promise came, and Him these enemies took and slew, according to the prophetic parable: "This is the Heir, come, let us kill Him, and the inheritance shall be ours" (Mark 12:7). Nor did the enmity cease with the death of the Shepherd, for no sooner did the apostles go forth declaring the testimony of God, but the whole Jewish Sanhedrim, with the Gentiles, made sad havoc with the churches, all striving to extinguish that light which was designed to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be for the glory of His Israel. And whoever reads Church History must perceive that, in one form or another, the church of God has been scattered and driven about as the off-scouring of all things, by not only the baser sort, but by those who pretended to piety, and trumped up the doctrine of good works.
It appears, then, plain that the church has had enemies from its first formation down to the present time; but we must not forget that the enemies of the church and the truth frequently assume the character of friends. Paul was in many perils, but no perils to which he was exposed equalled perils amongst false brethren. These drew forth the apostle's affection, and took an advantage of his kindness, as hypocrites do now towards the ministers of Christ. An enemy within the house is more dangerous than an enemy without. They were in the house of God, at least by profession, and they polluted the holy things of God's sanctuary, and wounded the soul of that holy man of God. They went with him, no doubt, in a professed attachment to the doctrines of Christ; but they were strangers to heart-work, to the Saviour, to a daily cross, to a humble mind, and consequently, to a godly, upright conversation. And I believe that these false brethren and their abominable conduct is one cause of a great deal of reproach cast on the truth, and on those who declare it. However, Christ's words will be verified in them in due time: "Every plant that My heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up" (Matthew 15:13). The day draws nigh when "every man shall bear his own burden" (Galatians 6:5). "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. He that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; and he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting" (Galatians 6:7,8). "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me (Luke 19:27). But it is the prerogative of Jesus to make a separation, and root up hypocrites. The disciples would have rooted up the tares, but Jesus bade them desist, saying, "Let them both grow together until the harvest" (Matthew 13:30). And Paul had a wish that they were cut off: "I would they were even cut off which trouble you" (Galatians 5:12) But heresies and heretics must be, that those who are approved may be made manifest. By these the Lord Jesus tries the hearts of His chosen, yet maintains their lot amidst all, keeping them with a tender conscience by His daily care, with a prayer in their hearts, dictated by the Holy Ghost, "Lead me in Thy truth and teach me; for Thou art the God of my salvation: on Thee do I wait all the day" (Psalm 25:5).
Satan is also an enemy to the flock of Christ, as the names by which he is distinguished in the Word clearly prove, as well as the experience of the children of God. Mark his names: the serpent, and afterwards with an adjective, the old serpent, a roaring lion, the father of lies, the dragon, the wicked one, the accuser of the brethren, &c. Satan is made up of all sorts of mischief, murder, lies, envy, hypocrisy. These and many more are the original natural produce of the devil; and with these he is sure to tempt the elect of God, working with every sort of wile upon the feelings, and according to the conditions of the children of God. Nor is there any successful way of resisting him but by steadfastness in the faith. "They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony" (Revelation 12:11). All the forces that a believer may muster are too feeble to repel the force of Satan's temptations. Nothing less than grace is sufficient. "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). There is not a spiritual principle in a saint but what Satan attacks. The judgment he attempts to confuse by injecting the poison of error. "I fear, lest as Satan beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:3). The conscience he denies by filling it with sin, and then stops up mouth-gate by filling it with mud, as saith the wise John Bunyan in his "Holy War." The will he injures by stirring up rebellion against Christ, divine sovereignty, and divine providence. In truth, Satan is a restless, dark spirit, the prince of the power of the air, working in the children of disobedience, and tempting night and day those who are translated out of his kingdom into the kingdom of God's dear Son.
But the old man is also an enemy, or rather, a host of enemies, and his name may be called Legion. "Out of the heart proceeds all evil." It has been a question with some whether human depravity in God's people can act without Satan's working upon it; but I believe it sometimes acts without, and at other times with, Satan's helping hand. One remarks,
"Sometimes we take the tempter's part,
Nay, often tempt him first."
Now, if the believer had no more from his God than the world, Satan, and unbelief would allow, he would have little indeed, or rather, nothing at all. But God sends help from the sanctuary, and frequently in answer to those groanings which cannot be uttered.
ii. Every sheep of Christ has a special providence over him. The providence of God is indeed a book of wonders, even though it be written within and without with mourning, lamentation, and woe. It is thy privilege, believer, to watch the special hand of providence towards thee, which, if thou art enabled so to do, will afford thee profit and pleasure. Nature, corrupt nature, is an enemy to, knows nothing of, real dependence upon the arm of omnipotence for providential supplies. He can best appreciate the blessings of providence who receives them as so many tokens for good from a merciful God; and that at a time when human refuges fail him, when no man will know him, and his friends stand aloof from his sore. Let those whom the Lord sees fit to keep poor commit their cares to God; but let not those of the household of faith who abound with more than they are likely to want in this world, tell the poor disciple that he must look to God for supplies!
That there is a general providence over all human beings I
verily believe. "Thou openest Thine hand, they are filled with good" (Psalm 104:28). But there is a more special providence over the heirs of the grace of life: "Bread shall be given him, his water shall be sure" (Isaiah 33:16). This special providence our Lord enforces at large to His disciples, Luke 12:22 to 31, in order to strengthen their weak minds against those anxious cares which are the bane of the soul's peace.
. . . Who can read the history of Abraham, of Jacob, of Joseph, of Moses, the Israelites in the wilderness; of Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the apostles of Christ, without clearly perceiving the footsteps of a special providence? Also a sight of the past kindnesses of God strengthens the faith of a believer in a persuasion that God will give him all needful things. "I will cry unto God most high, unto God that performeth all things for me" (Psalm 57:2). And Paul points out the proper line of conduct for every exercised believer: "Be careful for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your heart and mind through Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6,7). A firm belief in the special providence of God bears up the mind under the many cross dispensations which frequently cross the believer in this dismal vale. And having the promise of the life that now is, as well as that which is to come, he has a right to rejoice in his all-providing God. Every enemy is in the hands of his covenant God. Every circumstance attending his body and mind, family and connections, is known to, and regulated by, his most adored Father: "All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).
iii. Every child of God has a full table of rich provisions spread by the hand of infinite wisdom for his abundant supply. "Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: she hath killed her beasts, she hath mingled her wine, she hath also furnished her table" (Proverbs 9:1,2). To what purpose hath Wisdom done all this? To furnish well the table for the entertainment of the poor, the blind, the lame, the hungry and the thirsty. He who has furnished the table invites in the most generous manner His guests, and compels them to come in. Indeed, without the Lord compel poor sinners, by His constraining love, to come in and partake of the rich bounties of His grace, they will stand at a distance and plead their unworthiness as an excuse, nor can any human arguments prevail on them to "take of the waters of life freely" (Revelation 22:17). "Troubled sinner, your misery and wants render you such a sinner as Jesus came into the world to save: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13), are His own words. You are a law-breaker; He is a Law-f ulfiller: "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Romans 10:4). He took the whole of your debts upon Himself, and honorably discharged the vast sum! Are you reduced to extreme weakness? Jesus is "mighty to save," (Isaiah 63:1) and is your strength as well as your righteousness. Are you sinking under a sense of your deplorable ignorance? Your great High Priest "can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way." Come, for all things are ready.
"Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." David stands as a type of Christ, whose Hebrew name Messiah signifies the Anointed. Kings and priests were anointed prior to their officiating in that high capacity. Spiritually it applies to Jesus: "I have found David My Servant; with My holy oil have I anointed Him." (Psalm 89:20) Hence the church's address: "Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows" (Psalm 45:7). Aaron's head was anointed with precious ointment, and it extended from his beard down to his skirts (Psalm 133:2). Aaron was a type of our precious Lord Jesus in His High Priestly character, and as the anointing of sweet perfume distinguished the person of Aaron, so the rich anointing which Jesus our Lord received, distinguishes His glory and excellency above every other, in the view of every chosen sheep. The Shepherd of Israel is the Father's Anointed. Moreover He received the anointing Spirit in rich profusion, that He might render His voice melodious to His own people. When He first appeared in the Jewish synagogue, He thus spoke, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor." Luke 4:18) Such was His voice then, and such is His voice now, and such it will be till the last scattered sheep is brought into the fold. "The time is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live" (John 5:25).
View, believer, thy precious exalted Head, with all the fullness of grace in Him, possessing in Himself all the stores of wisdom, mercy, and power. Dost thou want a Priest? He is just such a One as thy necessity requires. Dost thou want a Prophet? He is just such a One to instruct thee as thy soul needs. Dost thou want a King? Jesus is King immortal, eternal, invisible. He reigns for thee, and must reign until all thine and His enemies be made His footstool.
Nor is the Anointing confined to the Head of the church; but it is communicated to His seed, who are said to be "kings and priests unto God and His Father." (Revelation 1:6) This rich Anointing descends upon them in regeneration when, according to the gracious designs and promises of their Father, they are made to possess the vital energy of the Holy Ghost, quickening their before dead souls, to hunger and thirst after a personal acquaintance with the perfect righteousness of the Son of God for their complete justification in the presence of the Most High. Nor is it possible for a soul quickened by the Most High to sit down satisfied that all is well with him, until he is brought into Jesus by a living faith, as into a blessed city of refuge. The work of the Almighty on the hearts of His chosen proves invincible: he who has received the first displays of His energetic power will most assuredly receive the second, and be led in due time to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, of the Father, and of Christ.
. . . The vessels and various things of the tabernacle were anointed with oil. Every vessel of mercy is anointed with holy oil. "He that hath anointed us is God, who hath also sealed us, and given us the earnest of His Spirit in our hearts" (2 Corinthians 1:21,22). When this takes place, sorrow and sighing fly away; for to such a soul the promise is fulfilled: "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs, and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isaiah 35:10). Now the soul assumes a spiritual boldness at the Throne of grace; can say, "Abba, Father," and finds freedom of access to enter by the blood of Jesus. Everlasting joy is on his head; the Anointing oil is to him a proof of victory by faith. Now he can venture near the feet of the Heavenly Boaz with a modest boldness, and claim relationship to Him, having an unction from the Holy One by which he knows the things that are freely given unto him of God; and confess before the church, "My Beloved is mine, and I am His;" (Song of Solomon 2:16) and to God, "Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runrieth over."
But may a sinner expect such, a fullness of satisfaction in this life as to say, "My cup runneth over"? If a sinner be brought to a true sense of his wants, he has a right to expect it; nay, he cannot expect too much. As far as the promise goes, so far is he privileged to expect abundant consolation. God has never found fault with His people for asking too much, that I can recollect; but He frequently has found fault with them for asking too little. "Ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24). "I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them." (Ezekiel 36:37) I know Satan will reason, unbelief will oppose; and nothing is more common than for a sinner to put away the blessing, and refuse to be comforted, under an idea that his case is too bad, that he has no real sense and feeling of his sin, that nervous weakness, or some other natural cause, is the ground of his alarms. Also such a sinner will hug his chains, and take a sort of miserable pleasure (if I may so term it) in self-pity and fear; and such is the strength of his reasoning and the fruitful produce of his unbelief that to reason with him is almost lost labor. Entering into life is attended with many struggles. It is a strait gate and a narrow way, and so the soul finds it. Nor does he obtain the promise by all the labor of his mind, but by the Spirit taking of the things of Jesus, and showing them unto him. Now he is brought to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, to the blood of sprinkling. Being justified by faith, he has peace with God. He takes the cup of salvation, and finds it to be the cup of blessing; he drinks, and finds it as full as ever; yea, his cup runs over. He is surrounded with infinite goodness; and his whole soul is wrapped up in blessings and praises. He has a blessed Jesus, a blessed hope, a blessed promise; and his language is, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ." (Ephesians 1:3) And this leads him to the very natural conclusion: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."