A psalm of David.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Life is a journey. In the sunny morning of existence we set out and advance by easy stages through the golden mountains of love ; we bask in the sun, we run joyously from side to side and gather flowers : we lead a kind of charmed life, caressing all things, and confiding in the love and goodwill of all around us. It is, doubtless, the intention of the Divine Providence, that we should gather in this early stage of life stores of affection, of confidence, of trust, and of encouragement, and happy are they who traverse this part of life’s journey with no rude shocks which why may give them knowledge of the existence, in their path, of selfishness and sin. As we advance in life, we come to scenes less warm, but bright, beautiful, and varied. We have the love of knowledge ; we seek for truths and welcome them. We listen with full faith to all around us. We walk in wonderland, but it marvels are to us not astonishing. All things come and go, and all our wants are attended to without care, contrivance, or anxiety on our part, and we are ready to receive, nay, are formed to receive, all that the highest truth can tell us of our Heavenly Father, of His unceasing bounty, and His glorious kingdom. Our parents and the good people around us seem loving and disinterested, to come and go wonderfully, and to do wonderful things, and we delight, undoubtingly, in all that we are told of still higher good people, who are invisible to us — the angels. It is our age of faith, and happy are those who are supplied with the food their states demand : who are provided thus early and fully with the conviction expressed in the first verse of this Psalm, ”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.”
After a while, however, we come upon lower ground, and walk among sterner scenes. We enter the darker realities of life, and are amazed to find wild beasts begin to appear on our road; we become aware of gloomy jungles ; mysterious thickets skirt our road, and sometimes lie before us. Our remembrances of the sunny heights of infancy and childhood become more faint, as the scenes themselves become more distant, and we find often we are walking in a valley ; sometimes it is one of deep and awful shade. It is such a valley of which our text speaks. ” Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil : for thou art with me.”
The correspondence of valleys easily suggests itself when we remember the correspondence of mountains. The latter corresponding to high principles within the soul, which are connected with our inmost motives ; the former, or the valleys, will correspond to the lower principles of the soul, those which have especially to do with action and with outward life. Such is the correspondence, and such its use in the Word. It was said by the prophet Isaiah, when announcing the Lord’s coming into the world, ” Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” — Isa. xl. 4. The valleys were exalted when men’s lives were made better, animated by purer and nobler purposes. The mountains and hills of self-love, and worldly love, which were exalted by pharisaic pride, were laid low when judgment came upon them, and their power over the souls of others was broken by the Saviour God. The crooked were made straight, when men were led to adopt rectitude instead of perversity, straightforwardness for double-dealing: and when the entangled meshes of traditional absurdity were exchanged for the simple precepts of the Gospel, surely the rough places became plain.
An interesting use of valley is made in Psalm lxxxiv.: “Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee ; in whose heart are the ways of them. Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well ; the rain also filleth the pools. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.” — ver. 5-7. The spiritual sense alone enables us to see the force and beauty of a passage like this. Baca is the Hebrew for weeping. The valley of Baca, therefore, means the external affections of the mind in sorrow. The passage declares, therefore, the blessed effect of adversity rightly borne. When our fortunes are a wreck, and our darling dreams have vanished; if amid our tribulations, we learn to prize eternal possessions as the only sure ones, and go to the Divine Word to seek them, then blessed are we. Perhaps, a beloved child has been called away, and the bruised affections are pouring out their woes in tears. Perhaps the only one has to be sent to herald our path to heaven. The child of our constant love, our daily solicitude, has pined, and died. We strove and prayed, and hoped and feared, and laboured, but all in vain. The ties of earth were too feeble to hold the rising immortal, and we are left to mourn in the valley. We are overwhelmed with grief. We are at first inconsolable. But after the early bursts of sorrow are over, a calm comes over us, and we feel as if it were the presence of the dead raising our attention upward, heavenward, and a secret assurance enters the soul, and intimates, He is risen. Heaven becomes to us more of a real home, since it already contains those who were the charm of our home here. We resolve to become more spiritual, more angel-like. We go to the Holy Word again and again for consolation, and we find it a well whence we can constantly draw the living waters of pure and holy truth. We have gone through the valley of Baca, and made it a well. Of all such it may truly be said, “Every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.”
In the prophecy of Hosea there is a similar use of the idea of a valley (ii. 15). “I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope : and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt.” The valley of Achor is the valley of trouble. And all our troubles really take place in the natural mind, where spiritually this valley is. Our temptations are there. All our battles against our passions take place there. Our sins and our sorrows are alike experienced in this region of care and disorder. But if we truthfully stand in temptation, struggling manfully and trustingly for the right ; heeding neither the whispers of lust, the cravings of covetousness, the violence of passion, nor the hisses of hate ; but watch and wait for help from above, to aid us still to walk on the path to heaven, each trouble borne and conquered will become ” a door of hope,” assuring us of final victory. And with each fresh temptation overcome, we shall sing there, as in the days of our youth ; or, in other words, as in the day when we first devoted ourselves to do the Divine will, as in the day when we were first brought out of Egypt. The prophet Jeremiah speaks with a like use of valley. ” How canst thou say, I am not polluted, I have not gone after Baalam? See thy way in the valley, know what thou hast done.” — ii. 23. Thy way in the valley is the evil which they had brought into into act. Ezekiel had a vision, which while it is typical in the letter of the sad political state of the Jews, then enslaved in Babylon, is also the type of the unregenerate man at all times. ” The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, and caused me to pass by them round about and, behold, there were very many in the open valley ; ant they were very dry.” — xxxvii. 1, 2. A striking representation this of the mind, dead to the holy life of religion, and of heaven. No warm and generous sympathies with virtue and truth there ; no living activity in goodness is there. The doctrines of religion which would have formed the framework of a new man lie like disjointed bones, in the memory here and there, without life, and very dry. When the soul in this state comes under a notice, and we observe how careless, how heedless it is of its highest interests; how indifferent to things of the weightiest moment, and only alive to trifles, or to polluted pleasures, which drain up all its energies, we are tempted to exclaim with sacred speaker, ” Can these bones live ?” They are very dry. And, if man were left to his own unaided exertions, to improve himself, doubtless it would be impossible to make them live. But the Divine mercy would be over them, and breathe heavenly life into the otherwise motionless mass, and those who were dead become alive again, and those who were lost are found.
But the valley mentioned in our text is said to be the valley of the shadow of death, and some have supposed that the allusion is to the hour and pains of death in the body. It is, however, not so. It is the valley, not of death, but of the shadow of death. Besides, death in the Bible seldom alludes to earthly dissolution. The living death of sin is usually meant by the term death, with its related terms in the Scriptures. The death of the body is not properly death at all. It is but the change of a lower for a higher kind of life. It is but the stripping off of the husk that the grain may come forth. The shell is removed, but the kernel is still uninjured, and is freer for being stripped of its bonds The covering of man is thrown aside, but the man himself arises, unencumbered by his clay, to display powers before but feebly exerted, because in their swaddling clothes, but now triumphant for they live in their own element, the world of mind. Oh, no, the death of the body is no real death ; it is but a change, a removal, a throwing off of the clothes worn out in the world, for the enjoyment of new life in a new dress. The messenger of death is, to the good man, only the herald of everlasting life. It is the nuncio of the King of kings who summons us, from our outpost in the wilderness, to return home to the palace. He calls to perfections, to joys, and to company, which are all a reward, and a welcome, to the good. ” For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
The death that is to be feared, is the death which moral evil inflicts upon the soul. The first time death is mentioned in the Scriptures is where it is said, “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” And that death is undoubtedly spiritual death, for no other death did man suffer that day. ” To be carnally-minded is death ; to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” — Rom. viii. 6. Love is the life of the soul, hatred is its death. All hatred bears within its horrid heart death to the person hated. Indeed, all sin carries death within its bosom. “Then, when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin : and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” — James i. 15.
The love of self, which is the antagonist to the life of God in the soul, is essential death. It threatens the destruction of generous and holy emotions in the soul. It craves possessions, pleasures, power, fame, unceasingly, and against all who place obstacles in its path it breathes revenge and war. Such a spirit is in opposition to truth, to order, to the universe ; hence it conspires for the death of all these. Hence originate murders, wars, and all those terrible crimes which tend to destroy the human race. Sins are anomalies, unnatural in the universe. They choke up and hinder the divine life wherever they are manifest. Every sin tends to destruction. The wages of sin is death, because the fruit of it is death, and cannot be otherwise. Let any one attempt to conceive a society founded on any evil principle, on universal covetousness for example, and all that is worth calling life would be impossible. Universal sullenness, universal suspicion, universal distrust, universal jealousy, universal hatred, universal rapacity, universal misery would prevail. First, the property, and then the life of each, would be greedily sought by every other, and hence universal destruction would ensue. So would it be in a society where all were thieves. The purpose of each one to take from every other would turn the whole into a herd of malignant plotters, schemers for plunder, and fierce assailants. The wildest struggle, the deadliest cruelty, and universal destruction, would be the result. So would it be with any other evil, for in each one there is the essence of every other, and thus the germ of all hell. Hence it is that the apostle James writes, ” that he who offends in one commandment of the law is guilty of all.” — chap. ii. 10. Not that a person who, from weakness, cannot yet yield perfect obedience, is equally guilty in the sight of our Heavenly Father with him who recklessly breaks all the divine laws : but that he who deliberately breaks one commandment because it suits him, has no love for any, and would break any if it suited his purpose ; he is already, in the sight of God, guilty of all. Because death is inherent in sin, in the Word death is spoken of not as passive so much as active. Death shall come up into their dwellings. Death shall feed upon them. ” O death, I will be thy plagues : O grave, I will be thy destruction.” — Hosea xiii. 14. ” O death, where is thy sting ? O grave, where is thy victory ? The sting of death is sin.” — 1 Cor. xv. 55, 56. ” Death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.”— Rev. xx. 14.
Sin, then, is essential death, and the only death that the good man needs to fear. The kingdom of darkness, where sin in all its horrid forms is wrought out and prevails, is the region of death. One awful absence of all which constitutes true life prevails. There is no powerful purity, no happy innocence, no active disinterested love, no generous self-sacrificing friendship, no active earnest zeal for a neighbour’s good, no love of truth, of virtue, or of God. Death lives a horrid kind of life, and all is gloomy and malignant misery. The unhappy beings who live there seek to bring others under their dominion, and hence they approach us, and cast their fearful shades, at times, around us. The gloom they induce is the shadow of death. When we are in it we are in the valley of the shadow of death.
When we reflect that shadows are cast by a dark body coming between the object shadowed and the sun, we shall see, readily, that the shadow of death is the darkening which evil causes in the soul, and which shuts out light from the Sun of the mind.
When evil spirits excite self-love within us, it darkens within us the light and the presence of God. The Psalmist exclaims : “The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes ” (Ps. xxxvi. 1) ; where it is clear that there is a temptation described from evil spirits to induce insolence to the Divine Being. This would cause gloom and depression of mind. The pilgrim would walk in the shadow of death. So when discontent sets in upon us, we undervalue all our mercies and blessings. Ten thousand provisions for happiness go for nothing. We have got a speck upon the mental eye, and that shuts out the sun and all his universe. We are in shade and darkness until we remove the speck. Or, perhaps, some tendency to evil desire is stirred up. Some lust or passion is excited, which, for the time, makes a spiritual smoke around us. We lose our clear discernment of the truth. The bright light we once had is hidden in sadness at the discovery of so much to lament over. We feel desires which are impure and unholy, but which we can scarcely resist. We look up to the Source of all good, and pray earnestly against the besetting sin, but for a while no help appears. We labour on, still struggling for purity and right, but the darkness thickens upon us ; we sink almost to despair. We are then in the valley of the shadow of death. And how well it is to remember and believe, that the Lord is with us! It is dark, and we cannot see Him, but assuredly He is there. This is the hour and the power of darkness. We seem to be alone. The Lord and Master who trod this vale when it was ten thousand times darker than it can ever be with us, said, “I am not alone, but the Father is with me.” So it is with us. Our Father is with us ; we are not alone. He will not leave us in the hands of our enemies. He will never forsake us, and He is too powerful to be overcome. If we but walk firmly and trustingly we are sure to be triumphant.
” O never sit we down and say,
There’ll nothing left but sorrow :
We walk the wilderness to-day,
The promised Land to-morrow.”
When the pillar of a cloud no longer leads us, in the night of our distress and darkness the pillar of fire will still be there. The Divine Presence will inspire hope ; will inwardly soothe and comfort ; and we shall be able to say, ” Why art thou cast down, O 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.” — Ps. xlii. 11.
It will, occur, perhaps, to thoughtful minds, that valleys are more fruitful than mountains, and yet their correspondence is to lower principles in the mind. Mountains represent exalted affections, valleys the lower determinations, which are visible in life and conduct. In the valleys growth, fertility, and richness, are chiefly found, and not on the mountain-tops ; but, nevertheless, all which makes the valley fruitful owes its origin to the mountains. Without mountains there would be no rivers ; even the soil which forms the rich bottom in which the heavy-laden fruit-trees grow, is brought down by winds and rills from the mountain sides, and settles in the hollows at their feet. So is it in the Christian’s mind. It is in his life that the fruits of his religion are manifest. There are his virtues seen. But all that enables him to be actively good, just, and true, is from within. The exalted sentiments which unite him to God and heaven, the high aspirations for the holy and the pure, the intense yearnings after the divine likeness, which distinguish the real Christian, these, with the wisdom that streams from above, are the powers within to which all the virtues of character, the fruits of the mental valleys, owe their rise. Principles, like mountain-tops, are bare themselves, but they are the great sources of abundant benefits and blessings in their results. They really make the valleys smile.
” Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
It is well to notice, that sorrow itself is not an evil. It may, in its purifying effects, be to us a great good. Temptation is not an evil, but is the only way by which we can come at the knowledge of ourselves, and of the evil tendencies within us. Nothing is an evil, but a disorderly impulse, which we make our own by practice. Though, therefore, we may be enveloped for a time in darkness, we need fear no evil so long as we trust in the Lord. The evil stirred up in us we can remove. The evil suggested to us we can reject ” We will fear no evil, for thou art with us.” One thing, however, we must not omit to notice. We must walk through the valley. We must not willingly stop, nor must we turn back, but walk on, and walk through the valley. In other words, we must continue to live according to the commandments of the Lord, for this is to walk. Our prayer should ever be that we may be kept still doing our duty. ” O let me not wander from thy commandments.” And we are promised that this shall be the case. There is a beautiful declaration in Isaiah to this effect. “And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of section, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a comer any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers : and thine ears shall hear a voice behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.” — Chap. xxx. 20, 21. Sometimes this walking on will be very difficult, and very threatening, but we must fearlessly persevere. Terrible scenes are often manifested to the soul in temptation. The lusts and passions, like wild beasts, are excited in fearful energy. We had supposed, in the earlier part of our journey, because the Lord had in mercy restrained and hid them from us, that they no longer existed. But now we find it is far otherwise. They were muzzled and overawed, but not exterminated. They are raging with fury, excited from hell. They are the lions and serpents which prowl and creep in the dark valley. Often will our experience be like that described by David : ” My soul is among lions : and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.”(Ps. lvii. 4.) But in all this fearful struggle we must still keep a firm and lively faith in the presence, power, and protection, of our great Saviour. The Psalmist continues, often describing his terrible position : ” Be thou exalted, God, above the heavens; let thy glory be above all the earth.” — Ver. 5. And such must be our confiding, courageous exclamation, — “Though the powers of evil surround and fiercely threaten us, be thou exalted, God. Though they would induce me to think I am forsaken, and there is no help, yet will I trust in thee. Be merciful unto me, God, be merciful unto me; for my soul trusteth in thee : yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast”
While, at some times, fiery passions sorely try us, like beasts of fiery breath : at others, deep and raging waters of false principles have to be faced, struggled through, and passed. Persuasions full of malignant fallacy come on and on, like terrible waves, across our path, and forbid our advance. We persevere, however, in spite of them, but are at times nearly overwhelmed. Often the internal assault is accompanied by the reasonings of associates in business or in society, which advance and retail pernicious notions, vile, blasphemous, and intolerable. This is especially so, often in the large workshops of the manufacturing population. The spirits of young men are sorely tried. There are their own hereditary impulses inclining them to evil, and to those false ideas which favour evil. There are scoffers at hand sneering at everything sacred, and exulting in impurity ; there are cunning reasoners for wrong sedulously seeking to undermine every just and virtuous principle; and, withal, a persevering prolongation of these varied attacks, until the spirit well nigh fails, and cries out, ” Save me, God, for the waters are come in upon my sou;. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing : I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. I am weary : my throat is dried, mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.”
Such are some of the awful experiences of the dark valley ; not infrequently increased by worldly disappointments and sorrows ; failures in business prospects, and destruction of earthly hopes ; yet there is no need for despair : the Lord is with His servants in their gloomiest hours, and His grace is sufficient for them.
Happy is it for those who have early learned that such trials will come, and are prepared to meet them with the confidence expressed in our text. ” Yea, though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art me.” A friend of mine was once brought into the deepest gloom on the subject of the Divine character of the Lord Jesus. The human necessities He condescended to assume, when He truly assumed our nature, were so pressed upon my friend’s mind. The Saviour’s growing, eating, drinking, sleeping, weeping, seemed for the time the only things of which he could think. The gloom continued and deepened. Ideas of the Saviour’s form, of His sorrows, and of His death, hemmed him closely round, and there appeared no escape from the conclusion that we had only a human Redeemer. Still this was struggled against by my friend; proofs to the contrary were wished for, looked for, but nothing came: only the conviction remained deep in the soul, that the Divinity of the Saviour had been seen in days gone by: that the deepest assurance had been obtained that Infinite Love had embodied itself in human sorrows for the redemption of the universe, and had laid hold of our humanity, and raised and glorified it in Himself, for the perpetual restoration of fallen men in all ages. This he had seen, but it only remained as a heartfelt conviction to which he clung ; he could not see it now. He prayed for help, and looked and looked, and trusted for it, and slowly but surely it came. There darted amidst the gloom, like a flash of light, the divine words of the Lord Jesus Himself—” All power is given unto Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. xxviii. 18.) Then a succession of declarations were opened upon him. The promises of Jehovah, again and again, that He would save mankind, and there was no Saviour beside Him : the declaration, at the Lord’s birth, that He was God manifest in the flesh: the display of creative powers in His miracles showing, on the sea and on the land, that the Lord of Nature was there; the declarations of the Gospel and of the Book of Revelation, announcing that He was the Father as well as the Son, the First as well as the Last, all shed a flood of light around the tried one’s mind ; and now the darkness entirely fled, and he felt that his Father and Saviour had been with him and succoured him at the right time; and with greater confidence than ever he could say, ” Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
Often we are brought into the dark valley by family afflictions. A child whom we have fondly loved, and carefully nurtured, is a victim of painful and slow disease. We have been alarmed by the attacks of a serious nature; we have, however, laboured, and with apparent success, for improved health; and again we rejoice in the beloved one’s recovered strength, the manifestation of distinguished talents, and of all those amiable qualities which the daily virtues of a religious youth disclose. We forget the fears and pains of the past, and are rejoicing in the present and the future, when again the insidious destroyer appears, and again our beloved one suffers, and we recognize a similarity, to the former painful symptoms. A suspicion flits across the mind that a fatal disorder lurks there. But we strive against it, and the disease again seems mastered. We hope, but tremblingly, that all is now right, and again are delighted with the progress, both in mind and body, of the object of our care. For a time nothing disturbs us; but at length come fresh attacks with increased virulence. We put forth fresh exertions; we persevere ; alternately hope and fear rise uppermost; at length the loved one, perhaps the only one, dies, and we feel the hope of our life blighted. We are alone and forlorn. No wonder that darkness comes round us, and we sometimes find ourselves muttering discontent, and believe that no sorrow is like our sorrow. Yet the Lord is surely with us. It is our natural state that makes our bereavement seem so hard. The loved one is not lost, but gone before. In a little time consolation manifests the presence of the Divine Comforter. We are turned to think how long we have enjoyed the blessing of an angel in the house, rather than too deeply to repine at the loss now sustained. The thought comes down, Is he not safe from shipwreck? Shall we not certainly find him in heaven ? What a blessing it is that we have seen our flower sown, reared, early matured, and transplanted to paradise ! Is it not much better that the cherished object of our affections should have gone before, and be ready to welcome us heaven, than to be left struggling with a diseased and feeble frame, with the harsh necessities of a selfish world, and be left by us far from confident that he will be either naturally or spiritually victorious? Ah, no, it is well.
“The vernal flower, by early blight
Expires, to bloom again no more;
But youth’s fair blossom snatched from sight,
Blooms fairer on a happier shore.
” What solace for parental love !
What antidote to dark dismay !
To know life’s dosing scene shall prove
The herald of eternal day !”
So in this dark valley the Lord is with us, and will be ever with us. Happy, thrice happy are they who have learned this sacred faith, this hallowed trust, ” Yea, though I walk through valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil : for thou art with me.” Shades we shall have to pass through, many, and some very gloomy. Yet fear not; our Almighty Friend and Helper will be with us, and fulfill His own assurance. ” Fear not : for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will with thee ; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned: neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” — Isa. xliiL 1, 2.
The divine text goes on to say, ” Thy rod (shehvet) and thy staff (mishgehneth) they comfort me.” There are here marked two sources of comfort, the rod and the staff. As comfort can only be imparted to the mind, the allusion will be to such appliances as afford comfort to the mind. These are furnished in the Holy Word. It comprehends, therefore, both the rod and the staff. The spirit of the Word is the rod, the letter of the Word is the staff. The rod is an instrument for the hand. It is used to direct, and is the symbol of power. It is the word commonly rendered sceptre, and is the symbol of royalty. The staff is a support to assist the feet in walking, and is the symbol of truth as applied to the daily life. The spirit of the Word is to letter as a king is to a subject, or as a sceptre to a staff.
The rod plays a very important part in various portions the sacred volume. The rod of Moses is introduced on the occasion of every miracle. It represented the power of divine truth employed in saving the good, and manifesting the evils and false principles of the wicked.
Because divine truth in its interior brightness and beauty reigns in the true kingdom of the Lord, it is said, ” The sceptre (shehvet) of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.” — Isa. xlv. 6. The rule of truth from love is the only government acknowledged by the Lord as true. “The sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. ” But with righteousness shall He judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth : and He shall smite the earth with the rod (shehvet) of His mouth.” — Isa. xi. 4. The rod sceptre of His mouth must undoubtedly mean His divine truth. “Feed thy people with thy rod, the flock of thine heritage, which dwell solitarily in the wood, in the midst of Carmel : let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old.” — Micah vii. Where under the image of bringing his flock from the western woods to the rich mountains of the east, Bashan and Gilead, the desire of the Lord is expressed, that His people should be elevated from the perplexities of a low earthly state, to the sublime wisdom of a heavenly one. To be fed with the rod, means to receive the directing and exalting lessons of sacred truth, and spiritual to live upon them.
The rod or sceptre represents the power of the spiritual sense of the Word, and is the highest source of comfort. The staff, as a support to assist the feet, corresponds to the power of the literal sense of the Word, rightly understood, to aid man in his daily life, to help him to walk. ” Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path” — Ps. cxix. 105. To be a lamp unto feet, is to illuminate and direct us in our daily conduct. To be a staff to the feet, is to strengthen us in the right, in every action of life. This attention to the feet is often overlooked in the religious life, yet it is of the highest importance. Without that, we are attempting to raise an everlasting pyramid without a base : we are building a house without a foundation, and it can be nothing but a visionary fabric. The true Christian is therefore directed in the Sacred Volume, and especially in the Psalms, to be ever mindful of his feet. “Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord ; for He shall pluck my feet out of the net.” — Ps. xxv. 15. Where it is obvious, that to pluck the feet from the net, is to deliver the life from the meshes of a false and corrupt system. “Thou hast set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.” — Ps. xl. 2. ” For Thou hast delivered my soul from death : wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that may walk before the Lord in the land of the living ?” O that this were the prayer of every professing Christian ; to walk before the Lord ; to have the feet preserved from falling. Many there are who are careful to make their heads religious, but totally neglect the feet. This is, however, emphatically our part. By means of the feet we make progress. And if we watch well our practical daily life, we shall find how prone we are there to act a part unworthy of our Christian profession. We shall often have mournfully to say, ” But as for me, my feet were almost gone ; steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” — Ps. lxxiii. . Still, if we are true to our principles, look earnestly to our Divine Helper, and pray sincerely for His aid, we shall be preserved from falling in the hour of danger, and we shall be able gratefully to take up the language of the Christian conqueror: ”Return unto thy rest, my soul ; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” — Ps. cxvi. 7-9.
To aid us when we are weak and weary, the Lord has given us a staff in His Divine Word. There we have every direction how to proceed, and constant strength afforded us. It is a staff on which we can lean. In the beautiful description of the Church, the prophet Zechariah, such as it would be in the future, it is described as ” Jerusalem, a city of truth; the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the holy mountain ;” and it is written, “There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age.”— viii. 3, 4. To have the staff in the hand, means to be well sustained and strengthened by the letter of the Word, so as to have for every duty, and every state, a direction from divine truth, a “Thus saith the Lord.” In such case, our weakness is made strong, our doubts are dissipated, and where we hesitated and trembled, we feel the everlasting arms around us. The rod and the staff of Jehovah, they comfort us.
And, now, what a beautiful feature of the hallowed Word, both of its spirit and of its letter, is that which is presented before us, ” They comfort us.” And this is the real purpose of both its divine senses. The whole Word is intended to comfort. It is Divine Love, drawn out, and especially calculated to kindle love to God above all things, and to our neighbour as ourselves. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
What is so great a source of comfort as to know that God is Love ? And this the whole spirit of the Word unfolds. From Love He desired to create immortal beings, that He might bless them. This world, with its countless varieties of bounty and of beauty, this universe of innumerable worlds, is the grand school where Love places its children to be trained and taught. Down all the myriad forms of creation Infinite Love pours its life, and light, and blessing. Oh, what a comfort it is to be assured of this. ” The Lord is good to all : and His tender mercies are over all His works.” — Ps. cxlv. 9. What gratuitous discomfort do they cause themselves, who do not credit this great, this gracious truth!” Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Do we feel at times uncertain of the Divine mercy? Does our changing nature suggest the uneasy idea that perhaps He also has changed, and become forbidding and vindictive? The Word unfolds the answer. Our Creator is our Saviour. He has been our unchanging Preserver and Redeemer. Almighty Love following His erring children to reclaim and save them. All good men and all good angels are made His instruments for man’s salvation. The spirit of the Word unfolds throughout men’s declensions and God’s mercies. I cannot find in myself any evil, but in the Scriptures are the means unfolded by which Omnipotent Love and Wisdom have overcome it, and are willing to overcome it in me ; while the letter of the Word loudly and distinctly proclaims, ” Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The Word unfolds to us our spiritual nature, and our relation to the spirit-world. It opens to us the mystery of those alternations of joy and sorrow, brightness and gloom, pain and peace, which come over us, independent of the outer world. And when I Am conscious of awe and dread at the idea of beings unseen, influencing my states and feelings, I am comforted by the disclosures of the whole of Revelation, that angels are all assisting me up the ladder of spiritual progress, at whose summit is the Lord, the Director of the whole. Evil spirits are only suffered to operate to produce the highest eventual good for those who love the divine commandments. Under Him who is King of kings, and Lord of lords, all things are working together for those who love God. ” Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The Word, too, opens to my delighted gaze my relation to the everlasting home of the good, the pure, and the great of all ages, Heaven. This is my spirit’s home. To prepare for this, is the object of all my training, all my struggles. For this I must be born again. For this have I been born at all. All the circumstances of my life have been ordained or permitted as they have had a beneficial bearing on my unending career in heaven. And what a glorious world it is that is opened to the wondering soul. All those who have loved the good and the true, for the sake of the good and the true, perfected to their highest capability, and arranged in a spiritual world, where all is so plastic, from their own forms to all the innumerable objects by which this more perfect sphere of things is enriched, by the inexhaustible beneficence of infinite goodness, that it reflects exactly the perfections and beauties of the heavens within them. What glorious forms their pure, loving, dignified souls will have generated! What scenes of paradise will exist as correspondences of the inner excellencies, where every soul is a paradise. What gems will glitter around, where every soul has sought the goodly pearls of heaven’s own wisdom. All that is magnificent and grand on earth must there be immeasurably surpassed, for though all ideas of art and beauty come from that inner world to us, we receive them so faintly, and unfold them so imperfectly at the best, that all we have of beauty here must only feebly indicate the boundless loveliness of heaven. And when we say love reigns there, the spirit willing only the happiness of others, we give the principle from which comes all delight.
Truly then, may we say of the spirit and letter of the Word which unfold to us these blessed realities, ” Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
All the trials and troubles of earth become as nothing when we see they are to terminate in an everlasting abode in joys and scenes like these. Why need I care that I am to suffer a cross, when it is the way to so glorious a crown ? Welcome the fire that purifies my gold! Welcome the storm that clears my mental air ! Welcome the temporal trials which hallow, and soften, and sanctify my affections, and draw them upwards! ” At thy right hand there is fulness of joy, even life for evermore.”
It is a comfort inestimable that God has spoken to us, and given us a revelation of His will. We look around in Nature and are astonished at its silent grandeur, its stupendous majesty, but it is silent. We ask its meaning, but no answer comes, gives no account even of itself, much less of its Maker and its Maker’s gracious intentions. Only by man can nature speak, even of physical objects. When we examine her diligently, ideas come into our minds concerning her, but not from her. Nature cannot give what she has not got, and she has no ideas. She has only physical objects. Ideas come into our minds from he spiritual world, from that ”true Light which enlightened every man who cometh into the world.” — John i. 9. These ideas correspond to Nature, but come not from her. And, Nature cannot be unfolded except through men, much more is the case that God’s will and wisdom can only be declared through men, inspired for the purpose. Holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Spirit of the Highest. And thus we have Revelation. And blessed be the Divine mercy, it is sceptre to rule us, a staff to sustain us. May it for ever be to us a guide and a support. Especially shall we find it essential to us when we are in the gloom of affliction or temptation, ”the valley of the shadow of death.” And by its counsels we shall ever come safely through, and each one can take up the triumphant language with which the psalm concludes, ” Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Author: JONATHAN BAYLEY –From The Divine Word Opened (1887)