Appendix 2: Properly Applying the Psalms

Psalm  •  25 min. read  •  grade level: 9
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Having now, in our measure, passed through these breathings of the Spirit of God, we might ask, what have we got in them? rather, perhaps, in a large sense, what have we not got in them? For how many passions of the renewed mind, how many acts of divine discipline and their corresponding experiences in the believer, has the Spirit of God here anticipated? And how largely has He traced the ways of the heart of Jesus! His cries, and tears, and praises, His solitary hours, His troubles from man, and His consolations in God; all these are felt here in their depth and power. What was passing in His soul when He was silent as to man, led as a lamb to the slaughter; what they who then surrounded Him did not hear, we listen to in this wondrous Book. His thoughts of men, His worship of God, with all the incense of His various and perfect affections, are understood here. The New Testament tells us that He prayed and sung, but this book gives us His prayers and songs themselves.
And beside this—the whole mystery of Jesus, from the womb to the throne of glory, is rehearsed here in its joys and sorrows. We trace it as far back as “the volume of the Book.” We read Him surrendering Himself before the foundation of the world. The deep silence of eternity is broken to our ear by those words—“Lo, I come to do thy will, O God.” And from thence we see Him onward to the eternity before Him. Taking up our nature; hanging in infancy on His mother’s breast; in His life of shame and grief and poverty; and in His last sorrows, the treason of His companions, the lying of the false witnesses, the deriding of enemies, the spear and the nails and the vinegar, and above all, the forsaking of God. This is all heard and felt here. And then we follow Him in His joys and songs in resurrection, and witness His ascension and His welcome and honors in heaven. And at last we watch His return from thence to the judgment of the nations, and to His glorious headship of Israel and the whole earth. All this is told out in this volume, not merely, as it were, with pen and ink, but in living lines, in fragments of the heart which this book has gathered up.
These are among the vast and wondrous contents of this little book. And, as we have noticed, it delineates the experiences of the saints. For the saints having “the mind of Christ,” and “the same spirit of faith” (2 Cor. 4:13-1413We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; 14Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. (2 Corinthians 4:13‑14)), are able to read their sorrows and joys, and the meditations of their hearts there also.1 Accordingly, this book has been the companion of their souls, when often almost everything else would have been intrusive and uncongenial.
But still, in using it, we should remember that, having the Holy Ghost in us, our experiences are to flow from that. Christian experience is the tasting of the fruit of the presence of the Spirit, and is according to the forms in which, as we are told in Scripture, He acts in us. And how rich should that be, when He dwells and acts in us, as an Unction, an Earnest, and a Witness. What joy of hope, what largeness of understanding, what strength of faith, should be ours! what sense of the divine love, when the Holy Ghost Himself is shedding that love abroad in our hearts! And as this is the due experience of the saint, as far as the Book of Psalms reflects the heart of a righteous Jew merely, the saint is now borne beyond it, or beside it. The Psalmist says, for instance, “My flesh trembleth for fear of thee, and I am afraid of thy judgments;” the saint now is to prove, that “perfect love casteth out fear,” and that he has “boldness in the day of judgment.” So again—“Let me not be ashamed of my hope;” the saint is taught to know, that “hope maketh not ashamed.” In ways like these, the saint now passes beyond the Psalmist, and walks in the warmer, brighter light of the New Testament, in the strength of the Holy Ghost in him.
But many a mistake on this subject of Christian experience has arisen, I believe, from the wrong use of the Book of Psalms. Many, diligently and graciously desiring to walk with God, have made it something of a model for themselves, and sought to have the heart conform itself to the trials, consolations, and other experiences delineated in it. But this is not its proper use. It should be read, rather, as the varied picture of the soul exercised by the Spirit under certain conditions and circumstances. The circumstance, together with the grace and energy of the Spirit, and not any effort of our own souls, is to be the parent of the experience.
This, I believe, is to be remembered. The Psalms were not models to Jesus. He did not, for instance, go through either the patience or the joy of the 16th and 22nd, as though He were conforming the ways of His soul to certain patterns. These Psalms were rather the inspired anticipations of what the paths of His spirit were to be. The circumstances through which He was passing drew out His perfect soul in those utterances.
There are, no doubt, many other sources of mistake connected with this subject. But this I have long thought may be observed as one of them.
But to return. On the difference in the language of the Psalms and the New Testament, we may say, all this is perfect in its season, but strikingly intimates a difference in heavenly and earthly persons and things. And this going beyond the book of the Psalmist in our experiences, is like going beyond the books of the Prophets in our hopes and calling. For the earth, its people, its judgments, and its glory, are the due theme of the prophets. And heavenly things are not to be expected to come within the mind of the Spirit in the Psalmist more largely than in the Prophets. Saints find their sympathies in this book, and use it for their spiritual comfort, but their calling and glory in the heavens is not the subject of the book. The Jerusalem of the Psalmist is not the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation 21, but the Jerusalem in the land of Israel. And the people of this book generally are her people, or that Remnant which our meditations have so largely contemplated.
And let me here observe something more particularly as to this idea of “a Remnant,” so common in Scripture.
It has its formal foundation in the incorrigibleness of man. Man may smart and cry out under the rod, but he returns to his naughtiness again and again. The Book of Judges illustrates this. And Isaiah 1 shows us that the idea of a Remnant, as I have said, arises from this. For the prophet there tells us, that those who had been brought up as loved children had rebelled, and that afterward, chastised as disobedient children, they had refused to repent. They were incorrigible. Piped or mourned to, they had no answer. And upon this the Lord has only to act on the sovereignty of grace, or on the principle of a Remnant—as the prophet further says, “Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been made like unto Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:1-91The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. 2Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. 3The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. 4Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward. 5Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment. 7Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. 8And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city. 9Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:1‑9)).
The Lord was constantly, through Israel’s times, exhibiting this sovereignty of grace in the election and manifestation of a Remnant. Such seasons have been called (and justly so) “Revivals.” The times of Samuel, David, Hezekiah, Josiah, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, mark so many revivals or eras of spiritual recovery from a state of disease. But the present condition of Israel tells us, that again the bloom has gone up as rottenness. Their summer is departed. The land and the people witness this. But it is not to be always so. There will be still the greatest revival of all. Those which we have here traced were only the occasional recoveries of a diseased system, which carried the principle of death in it! but this last revival will be effectual, for it will be in the resurrection life and strength of the Son of God. For while nothing in man can be trusted, and nothing committed to man abides, in Him all the promises of God are yea and amen (2 Cor. 1).
And in the time of this last and glorious revival in Israel, there will be a great doing of the Lord, as at such seasons there has always been. Samuel was exercised in heart before he was manifested, and David likewise, and Ezra, and Nehemiah, and the rest of them, though variously. The Spirit of God was getting ready the instrument ere the hand of God used it. As we read of Samson, “and the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times in the camp of Daniel between Zorah and Eshtaol” (Judg. 13:2525And the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Judges 13:25)). And so, in the coming days of Israel, there will be the secret work of the Spirit again in the election from the midst of the nation.
The Prophets, again and again, tell us the fact, that they, a revived people, will be brought through much exercise of soul; namely, that they will bear the indignation of the Lord because they have sinned against Him—bewail their leanness and that they are only as grape gleanings—wait for the God of their salvation—remember His former doings—be an afflicted and poor people, abstaining from iniquity and from speaking lies, and shutting their eyes from seeing evil—come with weeping and supplication—be led into the wilderness and there spoken comfortably to—return and seek God and David their king—take with them words—acknowledge their offenses—speak often one to another and more. All this is given to us, historically, of the Remnant by the Prophets, as the Evangelists give us, historically or as facts, the ways of Jesus. And then, this book of Psalms comes, and, in its turn and place, under the same Spirit, gives us the hidden path both of Jesus and of this His elect Israel through these circumstances thus recorded by Prophets and Evangelists.
Of this election from the midst of Israel, or the Remnant of whom we have so much spoken, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and others, give us samples. Their righteous souls were drawn out into godly exercise over the state of the nation, and over the oracles of God. So, Josiah is exercised in a day when the judgment could not be averted from the people, but the righteous seed would be preserved (2 Chron. 34).
And as the voices of Haggai and Zechariah animated the people in the work of the Lord’s house, so will revived attention to the words of the Prophets give quickening and direction to the hearts of a kindred Remnant by and by, destined, through grace, to be the sons or citizens of the earthly Jerusalem. (See Ezra 5).
But the purposed fruit of all this discipline of soul and of all other discipline, is only this—“to take away their sin” (Isa. 27). For, when all this purifying is over, “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old.” The valley of Achor is to be a door of hope, as it was before (see Josh. 7; Hos. 2)—from the sorrow and discipline (assuredly through that blood of Jesus which is the only fountain for all sin, whether theirs or ours, Zech. 13:11In 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)), is to spring for them joy and honor. Their wilderness is to yield a vineyard, or a garden of roses (Isa. 35; Hos. 2). Achan must be removed, and the land shall then be taken. The rebels must be purged out, and then the flock shall be saved, again lie down as “under the shade of Lebanon,” and David be their shepherd again.
These simple considerations may prepare us for hearing the voice of this people, the true Israel of God in this book. They will, in their day, be led to find in it what will suit the condition of their souls from the circumstances into which their obedience to God will bring them. For the Spirit of Christ, in sympathy with them, has indited these Psalms for their use in their day. And of this, Acts 4:25-2725Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? 26The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. 27For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, (Acts 4:25‑27) gives us a very simple and yet very clear instance. For there, the circumstances then around them so form the mind of the disciples (under the Holy Ghost surely), that their souls are at once cast into fellowship with Psalm 2; and, without effort or delay, they get the proper utterance of their hearts through it.
This is just a sample of what we mean; and it is a very happy warrant for our saying, that Psalms are prepared by the Spirit of Christ for His Israel in the day of their quickening, which is to be the day of their trials also. And we may observe that Psalm 78 was, in this way, prepared for other distant generations, as we are told at the very opening of it. So, Moses tells us, that his song was for all generations of the people, and would be used for blessing in testifying against them, and leading them to know the grace in God that aboundeth, the mercy that rejoiceth over judgment (Deut. 32). These, therefore, are further warrants for our saying, that ancient words of God’s Spirit in the Scriptures have been prepared for the future use of His people, in the day of the softening of their hearts. And is not such a Scripture as Isaiah 53 clearly of this character? We all now use it as our own to the full; but surely, from the very terms of it, we must see that Israel will use it, as though it had been altogether written for their sakes (see 1 Cor. 9:1010Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. (1 Corinthians 9:10)), in the day of their repentance.
Certain Psalms, then, we doubt not, are written by the Spirit of Christ for His people in the time of their revival. And this comes from the sympathy of Christ with His elect Israel; which sympathy we might be prepared to find in the Psalms, for we hear of it continually in other Scriptures—“In all their afflictions He was afflicted;”—“His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel;”—“He that touches you toucheth the apple of His eye.” Here is the doctrine of the Lord’s sympathy with Israel. And still more in the words of the Lord by Nathan to David—“Wherever I have walked with all Israel, spake I a word to any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to feed my people, saying, Why have ye not built Me an house of cedars?” For He would not rest till His people rested, but still go, as He farther says, “from tent to tent, and from one tabernacle to another;” as He had walked with David “whithersoever he had walked” (1 Chron. 17). A beautiful scripture on the Lord’s full sympathy with His David and His Israel. And His ways had exhibited the same. For when they were in the Egyptian furnace, He was in a burning bush; when they traveled through the desert, He was in a cloudy chariot; when they were seated under the hostile walls of Jericho, He was as captain of their host. As afterward, He was in the field with the judges or deliverers of Israel; as Deborah encourages Barak—“Up, is not the Lord gone out before thee?” Here is sympathy. Here is the Lord speaking and acting as one with Israel. And in like manner, He was tending the flock with David, when the lion and the bear met him: and with him in the plain of Elah, when the uncircumcised Philistine came out against him.
Now the Psalms (as far as they are these utterances prepared by the Spirit of Christ for His people) are but the expression of all this over again. They are, so to speak, the voices of Jehovah—Jesus again from the burning bush, or from the chariot cloud, or from under the walls of Jericho the night before the battle. In them, we may say, Jesus is again with Moses and David, with Joshua and with Gideon; again alive to the entrance of the sword of the persecutor, and saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” And these are among the utterances we listen to in this wondrous, precious book. For the experiences of the soul of Jesus, either in His own personal history, or in His sympathies with His people, may have been as fully matter for the anticipations of the Spirit in the Psalmist, as the facts and circumstances of His life were for the anticipations of the same Spirit in the Prophets.
These sympathies are, truly, deep and fervent; and they help to tell us, as all Scripture does, that when the Lord returns to Israel, He will return with all the fervency of “first love.” For it is not only whom He loves He loves to the end, but as He loves He loves to the end. First love never cools there. “Nothing changes God’s affection.” Happy truth, whether for Israel, or the church, or any saint. When the Lord visited Israel in the days of righteous Jehoshaphat, there was a sample of the restored days of Solomon—the Gentiles bring him presents, his officers of state wait around him, and the fear of the Lord falls on all the world because of Jehoshaphat. Here was something of the palmy days of Solomon again. And all this shows that the ancient glory was still in waiting. It had but retired within a thin veil. And so now; let but Israel learn to say, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord,” and the departed glory will return.
Has He changed? Has the Lord become a wilderness to Israel, or a land of darkness? Or does He still remember the kindness of youth, and the love of espousals, when all who would devour Israel offended Him? Surely He does. And when He returns, in the day of her repentance, it will be in the fullness of His “first love” to her, in this kindness of her youth. Love holds its first warmth, as well as its object, in “God’s affections.” Therefore Isaiah says of the return of the Lord to Zion, that it will be thus—“As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee” (Isa. 62). So Hosea 2, so Zephaniah 3, so all Scripture. And so our Apostle writes, “As touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake,” words which tell us that the early love, the first affection, is still remembered; that it is the love towards Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that is to gather and delight over Israel, in the day of their covenant. And the end will prove that repentance is hid from His eyes; and that the manner as unchangeably as the object of His love is remembered to the end.
But this we will not pursue farther, but notice another subject, which these short meditations have also suggested—the Lawless one, or the proud Apostate of the latter day.
As we said before of the Jewish Remnant, so now may we say of this one, that the Prophets again and again tell of him. And no wonder. For this wicked one will perfect the history of human apostasy. And so special a place does he hold in the accomplishing of the divine purposes in the earth, that he has had his type throughout Scripture, from beginning to end—Nimrod, and Pharaoh, and Amalek, Balak, Adonizedek, and Abimelek, Saul, and Absalom, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, and Herod—these, stretching along the whole line of Scripture history, present him in different features of his character and actions. And, at last, he appears under the symbol of the Beast, to whom the Dragon gives his power and his seat and great authority, and who at last falls before the brightness of the coming of the Lord.
The enmity of this Willful king, the infidel pride of this Lawless one, will close that course and power of the world which opposed Jesus in His day, and has been ever in revolt, in contradiction of God.
And from this we may expect to find (as we have) this great Apostate of the latter day much noticed in the Psalms. For, in the prophetic Scriptures, the Spirit of God is continually looking at the great crisis—the solemn closing scenes of the conflict between light and darkness, between Christ and the enemy; and if so, the Jewish Remnant and this Apostate and his faction must be seen also, for they have each their distinguished part in that crisis. Not forgetting, however, but fully allowing, that we have more personally and immediately to do with those principles and workings of iniquity which are leading to this crisis—“the mystery of iniquity,” which, with greater or less energy, has been at work from the days of the apostles. And it is more important for our souls to know the false principles now thus working, than to have great knowledge about the Antichrist or Willful king.
But though this is our point of observation, and our wisdom and duty in watchfulness, still the Prophets and the Psalms have to do (prophetically) with the crisis. And a wrong direction will be given to the soul of a believer, if, in their prophetic character, the Psalms be not so applied. Just like the misdirection that was given, in days before ours, to the minds of many children of God, from reading the wars of the Israelites, as though they were the types of the proper actings of the saints now, and thus getting from them a warrant for taking the sword, and going to battle as on the Lord’s side. But all this was zeal without right direction. For we are not now to call on the Avenger to show Himself, as the Psalmist does—to call on the Lord to pluck His hand out of His bosom, or to lift up His heels to the perpetual desolations. In contradiction of this, we are rather to be willing to wait for our inheritance, rejoicing that the delay or the long-suffering of God is salvation to others (2 Peter 3).
When the day of the Avenger is come, the saints will sing (Rev. 19). For the present season, they have their tears over the corruptions around them, and such tears are the fruit of a godly mind. But still, though this is so, such sorrow is to have its measure. We weep over a defiled creation, a forfeited Eden, a lost land of Canaan, or the present ruin of Christendom. But there is to be measure in such mourning. Jesus bewailed the unbelieving cities, but He had relief in the counsels of the Father (Matt. 11). Paul could be grieved over apostate professors, but he had relief in the sureness of God’s foundations (2 Tim. 2). Samuel, in older days, had tears over Saul’s sin and the dishonor of the anointed of the Lord, but they were dried up by the Lord Himself (1 Sam. 16). And in the Psalms, Jesus, in sympathy with the afflictions of the righteous, when iniquity is filling up its measure, waits for vengeance and vindication, knowing that there is resource in God for all the mischief that men can work. Thus, as they show us, He desires the deliverance and prosperity of the righteous—the raising of the humble, the abasing of the proud, the vindication of the name of the Lord, and the settling of all things according to right. He can say, it is true, “O that My people had hearkened unto Me” (Psa. 81), as in the days of His flesh, He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” But still, His Spirit in the Psalms is generally exercised on the righteous and settled counsels of God. Jeremiah, in the like spirit, calls for judgment (Jer. 17). For it is resistance to God that He sees: as Paul, in his measure, when he speaks in Galatians 1:8,8But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8) and in 2 Timothy 4:1414Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: (2 Timothy 4:14). And He sees much of this, as I have said, in sympathy with the suffering Remnant of the last days, when iniquity is filled up. As another has said, “Once that the gospel has run its course, Christ will demand righteous judgment against the world. It is Christ calling for righteousness, asking it (generally by His Spirit in the humble and lowly ones of the Jewish nation) against the proud and violent man. It is not David asking to rule over his enemies, but Christ who demands judgment, because the time is come.”
This has been said, I believe, very justly, on much that we get in the Psalms, and simply accounts for breathings and desires there, which are not, and ought not to be, in concert with the present movings of the renewed mind of the saints. But we will not pursue this further.
The book of Psalms gives us, as we may say, fragments from the history of Redemption. They are not the orderly parts of a narrative, or of an argument, or even of a poem. They are but fragments, and scattered also here and there. Still, however, there is to be discovered something of method even in the scattering. It is not altogether wild disorder. And the Apostle, naming one Psalm as “the second,” witnesses that there is something of order in the Book known to the Holy Ghost. And so, in these short meditations, we have found some Psalms grouped together, while others lie alone before the eye. But there should be holy care in the soul to gather up these fragments, and to put them together with a cautious hand, and to walk over the ground where they are lying with unshod feet. Surely we should esteem it “holy ground,” since Jesus is there in His sorrows and in His joys. The strings of David’s harp are the strings of Christ’s heart; and when they are touched we should be still. There should be something of the deep silence of those who listen to distant music; for the melodies of that heart are far enough away from this coarse and noisy world.
It should be thus with our souls in our meditations here. What sorrows, trials, temptations, groans, prayers, meditations, joys, songs, shouts, and praises, do we listen to in this wondrous Book! It is the seat of the affections—the heart, as it were, of the whole inspired volume, as we have before taken leave to call it. And how many exercises of spirit have been awakened in the saints through them! How have they soothed and raised the hearts of the Lord’s people, regulated the motions there, and, like the prophet’s minstrel, enabled them to take their easy and happy course again! The presence of the King of Israel disturbed the mind of Elisha, and ere he could prophesy he needed to hear the harp of a minstrel. And so has this harp of David, this harp of many strings, done for many a saint of God when other occasions have arisen to grieve them. This has been its gracious ministry under the Holy Ghost, the Comforter of the saints, and still is every day.
But, as these meditations show us, the passions of the soul, uttered in this Book, are not descriptions merely, but the felt power of real circumstances. They are experiences in actual scenes of life; so that we learn events in the utterances. The passion of the soul is the principal thing, but the event or circumstance, which had produced it is disclosed through it. In this way a Psalm is like a song. In a song the music is principal, the subject is only secondary, though it may have given occasion to it. So the passion of the soul is principal in a Psalm, though the event conveyed through it occasioned it. The Lamentations of Jeremiah and the Song of Solomon of Solomon are of this kind—the one, the deep-toned sorrows of the Spirit in Jeremiah, or in the righteous Remnant in Israel, or of Christ Himself; the other, the joyous motions of that soul that has learned to delight itself in the Beloved, and is longing for more of His presence. And the event being intimated through those utterances, gives us the historic or prophetic ministry of this Book.
This Book, therefore, yields twofold service to us. As devotional, it soothes, and regulates, and cheers our souls, and is the welcome companion of all our trials of heart: as prophetic, it teaches us the counsels and works of the Lord, and much of what has been, or is to be, His way.