“God With Us”; Or, The One Hundred And Thirty-Ninth Psalm
“Thus doth thy hospitable greatness lie
Around us like a boundless sea;
We cannot lose ourselves where all is home,
Nor drift away from Thee.”
Very few of us understand the full meaning of the words in Matt. 1:23, “They shall call His name Emmanuel; which being interpreted is, God with us.” In this short sentence is revealed to us the grandest fact the world can ever know; that God, the Almighty God, the Creator of Heaven and earth, is not a far-off Deity, dwelling in a Heaven of unapproachable glory, but is living with us right here in this world, in the midst of our poor, ignorant, helpless lives, as close to us as we are to ourselves. This seems so incredible to the human heart that we are very slow to believe it; but that the Bible teaches it as a fact, from cover to cover, cannot be denied by any honest mind. In the very beginning of Genesis we read of the “presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.” And from that time on He is revealed to us always as in the most familiar and daily intercourse with His people everywhere.
In Exodus we find Him asking them to make Him a “sanctuary, that He might dwell among them.” He is recorded as having “walked” with them in the wilderness, and as “taking up His abode” with them in the promised land. He taught them to rely on Him as an ever-present Friend and Helper, to consult Him about all their affairs, and to abandon the whole management of their lives to Him. And finally He came in Christ in bodily form and dwelt in the world as a man among men, making Himself bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, taking upon Him our nature, and revealing to us, in the most tangible and real way possible, the grand, and blessed, and incomprehensible fact that He intended to be with us always, even unto the end of the world.
Whoever will believe this fact with all their hearts will find in it the solution of every difficulty of their lives.
I remember when I was a little girl and found myself in any trouble or perplexity, the coming in of my father or mother on the scene would always bring me immediate relief. The moment I heard the voice of one of them saying, “Daughter, I am here,” that moment every burden dropped off and every anxiety was stilled. It was their simple presence that did it. They did not need to promise to relieve me, they did not need to tell me their plans of relief; the simple fact of their presence was all the assurance I required that everything now would be set straight and all would go well for me, and my only interest after their arrival was simply to see how they would do it all. Perhaps they were exceptional parents, to have created such confidence in their children’s hearts. I think myself they were. But as our God is certainly an exceptional God, the application has absolute force, and His presence is literally all we need. It would be enough for us, even if we had not a single promise nor a single revelation of His plans. How often in the Bible He has stilled all questions and all fears by the simple announcement, “I will be with thee”; and who can doubt that in these words He meant to assure us that all His wisdom, and love, and omnipotent power would therefore, of course, be engaged on our side? Over and over again in my childhood have the magic words, “Oh, there is mother!” brought me immediate relief and comfort; and over and over again in my later years have almost the same words reverently spoken, “Oh, there is God!” brought me a far more blessed deliverance. With Him present, what could I have to fear? Since He has said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee,” surely I may boldly say, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” I remember to this day the inspiring sense of utter security that used to come to me with my earthly father’s presence. I never feared anything when he was by. And surely with my Heavenly Father by, there can be no possible room for fear.
It is because of its practical help and comfort, therefore, that I desire to make this wonderful fact of “Emmanuel, God with us,” clear and definite, for I am very sure but few, even of God’s own children, really believe it. They may say they do, they may repeat a thousand times in the conventional, pious tone considered suitable to such a sentiment, “Oh, yes, we know that God is always present with us, but — ” And in this “but” the whole story is told. There are no “buts” in the vocabulary of the soul that accepts His presence as a literal fact. Such a soul is joyously triumphant over every suggestion of fear or of doubt. It has God, and that is enough for it. His presence is its certain security and supply, always, and for everything.
Let me, then, beg my readers to turn with me for a while to the 139th Psalm, where we shall find a most blessed revelation of this truth.
The central thought of the Psalm is to be found in verses 7 to 12, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee. For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.”
I cannot conceive of a more definite or sweeping declaration of His continual presence with us, wherever we may be or whatever we may do, than is contained in this passage. People talk about seeking to get into the presence of the Lord, but here we see that they cannot get out of it; that there is no place in the whole universe where He is not present; neither heaven, nor hell, nor the uttermost parts of the sea; and no darkness so great as to hide for one moment from Him. And the reason of this is, that He “has possessed our reins,” which means that He is not only with us, but within us, and consequently must accompany us wherever we ourselves go.
We must accept it as true, therefore, that the words of our Lord, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,” were the expression, not of a beautiful sentiment merely, but of an incontrovertible fact. He is with us, and we cannot get away from Him.
We may be in such thick darkness as to be utterly unable to see Him, and may think, probably often have thought, that, therefore, He does not see us. But our Psalm assures us that the darkness hideth not from Him, and that, in fact, darkness and light are both alike to Him. We are as present to His view and as plainly seen when our own souls are in the depths of spiritual darkness, as when they are basking in the brightest light. The darkness may hide Him from us, but it does not hide us from Him. Neither does any apparent spiritual distance or wandering take us out of His presence; not even if we go into the depths of sin in our wandering. In the uttermost parts of the sea, or wherever we may be, He is ever present to hold and to lead us. There is not a moment nor a place where we can be left without His care.
There are times in our lives when delirium makes us utterly unaware of the presence of our most careful and tender nurses. A child in delirium will cry out in anguish for its mother, and will harrow her heart by its piteous lamentations and appeals, when all the while she is holding its fevered hand, and bathing its aching head, and caring for it with all the untold tenderness of a mother’s love. The darkness of disease has hidden the mother from the child, but has not hidden the child from the mother.
And just so it is with our God and us. The darkness of our doubts or our fears, of our sorrows or our despair, or even of our sins, cannot hide us from Him, although it may, and often does, hide Him from us. He has told us that the darkness and the light are both alike to Him; and if our faith will only lay hold of this as a fact, we will be enabled to pass through the darkest seasons in quiet trust, sure that all the while, though we cannot see nor feel Him, our God is caring for us, and will never leave nor forsake us.
Whether, however, this abiding presence of our God will be a joy to us or a sorrow, will depend upon what we know about Him. If we think of Him as a stern tyrant, intent only on His own glory, we shall be afraid of His continual presence. If we think of Him as a tender, loving Father, intent only on our blessing and happiness, we shall be glad and thankful to have Him thus ever with us. For the presence and the care of love can never mean anything but good to the one beloved.
The Psalm we are considering shows us that the presence of our God is the presence of love, and that it brings us an infinitude of comfort and rest. He says in verses 1 to 5, “O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising; thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.”
Our God knows us and understands us, and is acquainted with all our ways. No one else in all the world understands us. Our actions are misinterpreted, it may be, and our motives misjudged. Our natural characteristics are not taken into account, nor our inherited tendencies considered. No one makes allowances for our ill health; no one realizes how much we have to contend with. But our Father knows it all. He understands us, and His judgment of us takes into account every element, conscious or unconscious, that goes to make up our character and to control our actions. Only an all-comprehending love can be just, and our God is just. No wonder Faber can say: —
“There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.”
Some of you have been afraid of His justice, perhaps, because you thought it would be against you. But do you not see now that it is all on your side, just as a mother’s justice is, because “He knoweth our frame and remembereth that we are dust”? No human judge can ever do this; and to me this comprehension of God is one of my most blessed comforts. Often I do not understand myself; all within looks confused and hopelessly tangled. But then I remember that He has searched me, and that He knows me and understands the thoughts which so perplex me, and that, therefore, I may just leave the whole miserable tangle to Him to unravel. And my soul sinks down at once, as on downy pillows, into a place of the most blissful rest.
Then further, because of this complete knowledge and understanding of our needs, what comfort it is to be told that He knows our downsitting and our uprising; that He compasses our path, and takes note of our lying down. Just what a mother does for her foolish, careless, ignorant, but dearly loved little ones, this very thing does our God for us. When a mother is with her children she thinks of their comfort and well-being always before her own. They must have comfortable seats where no draught can reach them, no matter what amount of discomfort she may herself be compelled to endure. Their beds must be soft and their blankets warm, let hers be what they may. Their paths must be smooth and safe, even though she is obliged herself to walk in rough and dangerous ways. Her own comfort, as compared with that of her children, is of no account in a loving mother’s eyes. And surely our God has not made the mothers in this world more capable of a self-sacrificing love than He is Himself. He must be better and greater on the line of love and self-sacrifice than any mother He ever made.
Then, since He has assured us that He knows our downsitting and our uprising, that He compasses our path and our lying down, we may be perfectly and blessedly sure that in even these little details of our lives we get the very best that His love, and wisdom, and power can compass. I mean this in a very literal sense. I mean that He cares for our literal seats and our literal beds, and sees that we, each one, have just that sort of a seat or that sort of a bed which is best for us and for our highest development. And just on this last point is where He is so much better than any mother can be. His love is a wise love, that sees the outcome of things, and cares more for our highest good than for that which is lower. So that, while a mother’s weak love cannot see beyond the child’s present comfort, and cannot bear to inflict or allow any discomfort, the strong, wise love of our God can bear to permit the present discomfort, for the sake of the future glory that is to result therefrom.
At home and abroad, therefore, let us commit the choosing of our seats, and of our beds, and of all the other little homely circumstances of our daily lives and surroundings, to the God who has thus assured us that He knows all about every one of them.
For we are told in our Psalm that He “besets” our path. We have some of us known what it was to be “beset” by unwelcome and unpleasant people or things. But we never have thought, perhaps, that we were beset by God, that He loves us so that He cannot leave us alone, and that no coldness nor rebuffs on our parts can drive Him away. Yet it is gloriously true! And, moreover, He besets us “behind” as well as before. Just as a mother does. She goes after her children and picks up all they have dropped, and clears away all the rubbish they have left behind them. We mothers begin this in the nursery with the blocks and playthings, and we go on with it all our lives long; seeking continually to set straight that which our children have left crooked behind them; often at the cost of much toil and trouble, but always with a love that makes the toil and trouble nothing in comparison to caring for the children we love. What good mother ever turned away the poor little tearful darling who came with a tangled knot for her unraveling, or refused to help the eager rosy boy to unwind his kite-strings? Suppose it has been their own fault that the knots and tangles have come, still her love can sympathize with and pity the very faults themselves, and all the more does she seek to atone for them.
All this and more does our God do for us from our earliest infancy, long even before we know enough to be conscious of it, until the very end of our earthly lives. We have seen Him before us perhaps, but we have never thought of Him as behind us as well. Yet it is a blessed fact that He is behind us all the time, longing to make crooked things straight, to untangle our tangled skeins, and to atone continually for the wrong we have done and the mistakes we have made. If any of us, therefore, have that in our past which has caused us anxiety or remorse, let us lift up our heads in a happy confidence from henceforth, that the God who is behind us will set it all straight somehow, if we will but commit it to Him, and can even make our very mistakes and misdoings work together for good. Ah! it is a grand thing to be “beset” by God.
Then again what depths of comfort there are in verses 14 to 16: “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are Thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.”
One of the things which often troubles us more than we care to confess, is our dislike of the way we have been put together. Our mental or moral “make-up” does not suit us. We think if we had only been created with less of this or more of that, if we were less impulsive or more enthusiastic, if we had been made more like someone else whom we admire, that then our chances of success would have been far greater; that we could have served God far more acceptably; and could have been more satisfactory in every way to ourselves and to Him. And we are tempted sometimes to think that with our miserable make-up, it is hopeless to expect to please Him.
If we really realized that God Himself had made us, we should see the folly of all this at once, but we secretly feel as if somehow He had not had much hand in the matter, but as if we had been put together in a haphazard sort of way, that had left our characters very much to chance. We believe in creation in the general, but not in the particular, when it comes to ourselves. But in this Psalm we see that God has presided over the creation of each one of us, superintending the smallest details; even, to speak figuratively, writing down what each “member” was to be, when as yet there was none of them. Therefore we, just as we are naturally, with just the characteristics that inhere in us by birth, are precisely what God would have us to be, and were planned out by His own hand to do the especial work that He has prepared for our doing. I mean, of course, our natural characteristics, not the perversion of them by sin on our parts.
There is something very glorifying to the Creator in this way of looking at it. Genius always seeks expression, and seeks, too, to express itself in as great a variety of forms and ways as possible. No true artist repeats himself, but each picture he paints, or statue he carves, is a new expression of his creative power. When we go to an exhibition of pictures, we should feel it a lowering of art if two were exactly alike; and just so is it with us who are “God’s workmanship.” His creative power is expressed differently in each one of us. And in the individual “make-up” which sometimes so troubles us, there is a manifestation of this power different from every other, and without which the day of exhibition, when we are, each one, to be to the praise of His glory, would be incomplete. All He asks of us is that, as He has had the making of us, so He may also have the managing, since He alone understands us, and is, therefore, the only one who can do it.
The man who makes an intricate machine is the best one to manage it and repair it; any one else who meddles with it is apt to spoil it. And when we think of the intricacy of our inward machinery and the continual failure of our own management of it, we may well be thankful to hand it all over to the One who created it, and to leave it in His hands. We may be sure He will then make the best out of us that can be made, and that we, even we, with our “peculiar temperaments,” and our apparently unfortunate characteristics, will be made vessels unto honor, sanctified and meet for the Master’s use, and fitted to every good work.
I met once with a saying in an old Quaker writer which I have never forgotten: “Be content to be just what thy God has made thee.” It has helped me to understand the point upon which I am dwelling; and I feel sure contentment with our own “make-up” is as essential a part of our submission to God as contentment with any other of the circumstances of our daily life. If we did not each one of us exist just as we are by nature, then one expression of God’s creative power would be missing, and one part of His work would be left undone. And besides, to complain of ourselves is to complain of the One who has made us, and cannot but grieve Him. Let us be content, then, and only see to it that we let the Divine Potter make out of us the very best He can, and use us according to His own good pleasure.
Verses 17 and 18 bring out another view of God’s continual presence with us, and that is, that He is always thinking about us, and that His thoughts are kind and loving thoughts, for the Psalmist calls them precious. “How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.”
So many people are tempted to think that God is not paying any attention to them. They think that their interests and their affairs are altogether beneath His notice, and that they are too unworthy to hope for His attention. But they wrong Him grievously by such thoughts. A mother pays as much attention to her smallest infant as to her oldest children, and is as much interested in its little needs and pleasures as in theirs. I am not sure but she is more. Her thoughts dwell around the one who needs them most; and He who made the mother’s heart will not Himself be less attentive to the needs and pleasures of the meanest and most helpless of His creatures. He even hears the young lions when they cry, and not a sparrow can fall to the ground without Him; therefore, we, who are of more value than many sparrows, need not be afraid of a moment’s neglect.
In fact, the responsibilities of creating anything require an unintermitting care of it on the part of the Creator; and it is the glory of omnipotence that it can attend at once to the smallest details and to the grandest operations as well.
“For greatness which is infinite makes room
For all things in its lap to lie;
We should be crushed by a magnificence
Short of infinity.”
I do not know why it is that we consider a man or woman weak who attends to large affairs to the neglect of little details, and then turn around and accuse our God of doing this very thing. But if any of my readers have hitherto been guilty of this folly, let it end now and here, and let each one from henceforth believe, without any questioning, that always and everywhere the “Lord thinketh upon me.”
The remainder of the Psalm develops the perfect accord of thought between the soul and God, where this life of simple faith has been entered upon. Having learned the transforming fact of God’s continual presence and unceasing care, the soul is brought into so profound a union with Him as to love what He loves, and hate what He hates; and eagerly appeals to Him to search it, and try it, that there may be no spot left anywhere in all its being which is out of harmony with Him.
In the sunlight of His presence darkness must flee, and the heart will soon feel that it cannot endure to have any corner shut away from His shining; for in His presence is “fulness of joy,” and at His right hand “there are pleasures forevermore.”
An old woman, living in a rather desolate part of England, made considerable money by selling ale and beer to chance travelers who passed her lonely cottage. But her conscience troubled her about it. She wanted to be a Christian and to go to Heaven when she died, but she had an inward feeling that if she did become a Christian she would have to give up her profitable business, and this she thought would be more than she could do; so that between the two things she was brought into great conflict.
But one night, at the meeting she attended, a preacher from a distance told about the sweet and blessed fact of God’s continual presence with us, and of the joy this was sure to bring when it was known. Her soul was enraptured at the thought of such a possibility for her, and forgetting all about the beer, she began at once with a very simple faith to claim it as a blessed reality. Over and over again she exclaimed in her heart, as the preacher went on with his sermon, “Why, Lord Jesus, I didn’t know as thee wast always with me! Why, Lord, how good it is to know that I have got thee all the time to live with me and take care of me! Why, Lord, I sha’n’t never be lonely no more!” And when the meeting closed and she took her way home across the moors, all the time the happy refrain went on, “Ah, Lord Jesus, thee art going home with me tonight. Never mind, Lord Jesus, old Betty won’t never let thee go again now, I knows I have got thee!”
As her faith thus laid hold of the fact of His presence she began to rejoice in it more and more, until finally, when she had reached her cottage door, her soul was full of delight. As she opened the door, the first object her eyes rested upon was a great pot of ale on the table ready for selling. At once it flashed into her mind, “The Lord will not like to have that ale in the house where He lives,” and her whole heart responded eagerly, “That ale shall go.” She knew the pot was heavy, and she kneeled beside it saying, “Lord, thee hast come home with me, and thee art going to live with me always in this cottage, and I know thee don’t like this ale. Please give me strength to tip it over into the road.” Strength was given, and the ale was soon running down the lane. Then the old woman came back into her cottage, and kneeling down again thanked the Lord for the strength given, and added, “Now, Lord, if there is anything else in this cottage that thee does not like, show it to me, and it shall be tipped out too.”
Is not this a perfect illustration of the close of our Psalm? “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with a perfect hatred; I count them mine enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Just as light drives out darkness, so does the realized presence of God drive out sin, and the soul that by faith abides in His presence knows a very real and wonderful deliverance.
And now I trust that some will ask, “How can I find this presence to be real to myself?” I will close, therefore, with a few practical directions.
First, convince yourself from the Scriptures that it is a fact. Facts must always be the foundation of our experiences, or the experiences are worthless. It is not the feeling that causes the fact, but the fact that produces the feeling. And what every soul needs in this case first of all, is to be convinced beyond question, from God’s own words about it, that His continual presence with us is an unalterable fact.
Then, this point having been settled, the next thing to do is to make it real to ourselves by “practising His presence,” as an old writer expresses it, always and everywhere, and in everything. This means simply that you are to obey the Scripture command, and “in all your ways acknowledge Him,” by saying over each hour and moment, “The Lord is here,” and by doing everything you do, even if only eating and drinking, in His presence and for Him. Literally, “whether, therefore, ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
By this continual “practice of His presence,” the soul at last acquires a habit of faith; and it becomes, finally, as difficult to doubt His presence as it was at first to believe it.
No great effort is required for this, but simply an unwavering faith. It is not studied reasonings or elaborate meditations that will help you here. The soul must recognize, by an act of simple faith, that God is present, and must then accustom itself to a continual conversation with Him about all its affairs, in freedom and simplicity. He does not require great things of us. A little remembrance of His presence, a few words of love and confidence, a momentary lifting of the heart to Him from time to time as we go about our daily affairs, a constant appeal to Him in everything as to a present and loving friend and helper, an endeavor to live in a continual sense of His presence, and a letting of our hearts “dwell at ease” because of it, — this is all He asks; the least little remembrance is welcome to Him, and helps to make His presence real to us.
Whoever will be faithful in this exercise will soon be led into a blessed realization of all I have been trying to tell in this book, and of far more that I cannot tell; and will understand in a way beyond telling, those wonderful words concerning our Lord, “They shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”