Practical Reflections on the Psalms: Psalms 49-54

Psalm 49‑54  •  20 min. read  •  grade level: 6
Psalms 49
Psa. 49 gives a commentary, showing the emptiness of the world, connected with the judgment of God at the end, but which is applicable in all times, though publicly proved then. Death proves the folly of all human wisdom and foresight, of all human grandeur—a common observation, little acted on, but always true. As it is said of wisdom, death and destruction have heard the fame thereof with their ears. They cannot give positive wisdom, but they can negatively show that only what does not belong to mortal man has any value. Man establishes his family, perpetuates his name, but he is gone: nothing stays the hand of death. Ransom from that is out of man's power. There is a morning coming when the righteous will have the upper hand of those who seem wise as regards this world. Death feeds on these, or, as neglecters of God, they are subjected to the righteous, when His judgment comes. But the power of God, in whom the righteous trust, is above the power of death. He saves the remnant from death. So those who are alive when Christ comes for the Church, will not die at all; those who are will be raised. Such is the confidence of the believer: death does not alarm him, because he trusts in One who is above it, who redeems, frees from its power altogether, or raises. But the Christian goes yet farther, though this be true of him. He can say, “That I should not trust in myself, but in God that raises the dead.” But he says more: “I had the sentence of death in myself.” He does not at all take, as the remnant, his portion this side death; so that deliverance from it to live here is the object of his soul. Christ having died, his connection with this world has ceased, save as a pilgrim through it. He has the sentence of death in himself. He knows no man after the flesh, no, not even Christ. His associations with the world are closed, save as Christ's servant in it. He reckons himself dead. He is crucified with Christ, yet lives; but it is Christ lives in him, and he lives the life he lives in the flesh by the faith of the Son of God, who loved him and gave Himself for him, so that he is delivered from this present world. This, while it puts the believer on the ground of this psalm, as far as it goes as to its great principle, yet sets him in a totally different position. There is not a question about escaping death (though outwardly he may, for we shall not all die), for death is a gain, and he reckons himself dead and his life hid with Christ in God and Christ to be his life. Yet this only shows still more what the psalm insists on, the folly of laying up and making oneself great, and counting on a future in a world where death reigns, and in the things to which its power applies. Man being in honor abides not. How difficult, even if happy and heavenly minded in Christ as to one's own joys, not to look upon the things that are seen, to think that the wisdom, and talents, and success, and approval of men is simply nothing, the food of death; and that all the moral question lies behind, save so far as these may have deceived men! The saint has to watch still, not to be afraid when success accompanies those who do not accept the cross. We await God's judgment of things in power—we exercise it in conscience. There is no divine understanding in the man whose heart is in the glory of the world. Men will praise him. How well he has got on, settled his children, raised himself in his position! The fairest names will be given to it. He has no understanding. His heart is in what feeds death, and that death works it. All the motives of the world are weighed by death. After all, in them man is only as the beasts that perish, with more care.
Psalm 50
Psa. 50—But if death tells this tale, divine judgment is executed; and this brings in other considerations too, the contrast of ceremonial religion which God may have ordered in His goodness to man, and that practical righteousness which God must have in order to own man. But this will be found in special relationship to God, and that in His own way. Saints are gathered by sacrifice. Redeeming grace and the sense of its need must come in to be owned as such by God; but these are gathered to God. Judgment proceeds on the ground on which man stands; for abuse of privileges if he has them, but on the moral ground on which his conscience stands. So here as to Israel, God does not complain of want of sacrifices. No ceremonial religion will be in question, but wickedness. Because God had kept silence in long patience, the world may fancy he is to be dealt with as man is, with outward forms, sacrifices, ceremonies, and no conscience, and that God sees no further, but God sets before man what he has done. He who so knows God as to praise Him, who owns what He is, blesses Him for what He is, and orders his conversation aright, he will have the governmental blessing of God. Him who makes offerings as though he would quiet God so, and goes on without taking heed to Him in his conscience, He will reprove, and set in order before him all he has done. If here, for salvation; if in judgment, there is none to deliver.
Psalm 51
But where there is a work of God, it goes much deeper, and this we see in Psa. 51. God, had announced judgment. Here mercy is looked for by the divinely moved soul, that He who alone can do it should make us clean, as is suiting to Himself; for the soul thus taught, feels it has to do with God, and looks for cleansing suited for that. Compare John 13 — a “part with Me” — (He came from God and was going to God, and the Father had given all into His hand). The sin, too, is confessed. Having to say to God Himself is what marks this psalm, and the feeling of him thus concerned; and, as I have said, it goes much deeper than what is spoken of in judgment. From verse 5 the inward principles are looked at, for it is a question of having to say to God, not merely of judgment of acts.
There is the sense of sin in the nature and in the origin of our being; and that God must have truth in the inward parts; but confidence in God that He will give divine wisdom to be known in the heart, that which the vulture's eye hath not seen. This is precious to understand. The soul looks to humiliation with pleasure as against, and the breaking down of, an unholy will; for as it hates it, so it desires it to be broken. The bitterness of humiliation is in this respect sweet. There is the blessed consciousness, that, when the Lord washes us, we are clean every whit, whiter than snow. A blessed thought to be clean before His eyes: how little believed, because men do not believe in His washing! Thus far it has been more the intrinsic preciousness of being clean, clean for God—what is necessary for God and what the heart delights in. Now, gladness is looked for, but from God; as all is seen, the humiliation and chastisement, as the rest, from God's hand—joy, gladness, God's face can be rightly looked for now, not before. That would have been selfish comfort, though natural enough; but God does not give it till the heart is right. The heart must be real, truly purified in accord with God to enjoy here favor and joy. Nor, while looking to God to hide His face from its sins and blot out its iniquities, is this separate from the desire after cleanliness of heart; only now it is looked at, God's goodness being in view; not as the requirement of His holiness, to which the heart assents, but the work of His grace, something from Him. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Give it me, and renew (not a right, but) a fixed, settled spirit within me—one that calmly, settledly thinks on God, the heart's only object, and peacefully counts and waits on Him. The soul thus taught cannot do without the presence of God. Its dread is to be cast out of it. It is not yet intelligent in grace and the sureness of God's favor, but cannot do without His presence. To be removed from it would be everlasting misery, as indeed it would, and felt the more, the more the eye is opened upon Him. It craves, therefore, this above all, not to be cast out from His presence; known in truth, desire, and the necessity of the soul; if not, no joy.
The action of the Holy Spirit is known as the power of joy; His indwelling is not. The soul pleads not to be deprived of the former. Here a difference must be noted with the case of a Christian, whether we consider his first conversion or his restoration to communion. Hitherto we have been able to weigh the great essential principles of the communion of the soul with God. In these verses the occasion comes in. An intelligent Christian could not say literally, Take not thy Holy Spirit from me; he views the effect of his sin quite in another way. He has grieved the Spirit, he has sinned against love. He does not believe that God will ever take His Holy Spirit from him. If the extreme of chastisement is on him, and the shield of faith is down, he doubts or disbelieves he has or perhaps ever had it, but does not ask that it should not be taken away. He despairs, all but; thinks himself a reprobate; and if he thinks he had it outwardly, as Heb. 6, thinks it impossible he can be renewed to repentance because he has lost it. But, save in this extreme case or the use of Heb. 6 (common before real peace is obtained) to our own condemnation, there is no such thought in a Christian. A man may doubt whether he has the Holy Ghost, but an intelligent Christian does not think of God taking it away. It is quasi despair, or grieving because he has grieved the Spirit which is in him. Its present action in Israel, inasmuch as God owned the nation, or the returning remnant hoped so, that remnant may plead for. Compare Hag. 2:55According to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so my spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not. (Haggai 2:5). And David in the same way, having sinned, could so speak; but a Christian could not. The cry might come from an inexperienced Christian who had not found peace, nor knew that God does not take His Spirit from the Christian, but not from one who knew the truth. A Christian knowing the truth, but having failed in walk, and assaulted by the enemy, might deprecate the practical loss of that action of the Spirit which alone keeps us in communion, and the shield of faith up, and this would be all right. So could one who had thus lost it, say, Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, though in the extreme of such a case; neither is that the state of soul, but only where it is getting back. In the extreme case it is the thought of being lost, though, after all, hope is never absolutely given up. But on the returning of such a soul verses 11 and 12 are practically used, though never “take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” But there is a constant action of the Holy Ghost which keeps faith alive—may be, a source of great joy when we walk with God, but, when we have not joy, keeps the enemy from bringing doubt on our souls before God; keeps, as I said, faith alive. He is not between our souls and God, the power of darkness. This is, practically, what is desired here, and the sensible joy of God's salvation to be restored, but without the knowledge of the indwelling Spirit founded on redemption. What verse 12 looks for we may have to look for, the joy of salvation to be restored, and the having the heart established with God's free Spirit, that liberty before God and in His service which is enjoyed through the ungrieved Spirit by the soul that knows redemption and the blessed light of God's countenance. In David there was the uncertainty of repeated forgiveness, abiding acceptance being unknown, and of great sin. In Israel, in the latter days, the knowledge of long enjoyed relationships, all now in question, though God be trusted for them. But this is not the Christian state: if' he knows that the Holy Ghost dwells in him, he knows it abides there. The soul in which God's Spirit works may, as to this, be in the following states. First, exercised, but ignorant, having a general idea of mercy, it may apply all these consequences of sin to itself vaguely but with terror. When forgiveness is known (and specially when it is known with little depth of conviction of sin), but the righteousness of God not, the soul, losing the sense of forgiveness through failure or carelessness, sees judgment before it, without having righteousness, and all previous joy becomes bitterness, and the sense of loss (Heb. 6), is applied, and all the passages which speak of continuing as a condition or of falling away. But the soul is not really set free here. It has known forgiveness, not righteousness. It has known the blood on the door post, not the Red Sea. It is in the path of learning divine righteousness and abiding peace before God in Christ risen. There is yet the case, where, with the truth known, sin has been trifled with, and there the enemy gets power—a case I have already spoken of, where there is no power to apply the word or promises, and every bitter sentence is applied to oneself. Yet, God's justice seen to be right, Satan, so to speak, is the interpreter of the word, not God. Yet this God uses as chastisement, to set the soul right; and the soul, through grace, clings to God in spite of all.
I have said rather more on these verses than might seem natural, because they are so often misused to put Christians on the ground of Old Testament knowledge, and deprive the Christian of the truth of the constantly indwelling Spirit. All this is a misapplication of it. I close with some remarks on the last verses of the psalm.
The soul is not yet restored in the psalm, nor free before God; it is looking for it. When it is, it can teach others freely. But while a clean heart is looked for, there is another character of sin which presses on the soul rejecting Christ, blood guiltiness. We cannot, of course, kill Him, but the sin is the same. Thus there is not only uncleanness in sin, but the affections are wrong—there is hatred against God shown in enmity to saints, but above all to Christ. We can understand how Israel will have to look for this: they have called for His blood on them and on their children.
But practically our hearts have rejected Him, and would none of Him. Yet the soul, brought near in grace, can look for cleansing from this also: more than this, in forgiveness of this, sees that God is indeed the God of its salvation, not of judgment; but in the extremest of sin is a Savior—saves in love. Then it sings aloud of God's righteousness. In its actual relationship with God there was only sin. The cross was God meeting sin, and sin meeting God in man. Man, i.e., the sinner, had only sin. There he showed what he was in respect of God present in love—hatred and violent will. This was all he was; but there God became, not a restorer, but a Savior—a complete Savior, and showed His righteousness in respect of the work of Christ by setting man, him as man, at His right hand. God's righteousness only now is known; and as it has triumphed in salvation, the soul sings aloud of it. This is true freedom—the Holy Ghost, thus given, the power of it. The necessary consequence is, sacrifices have no place. Where would they be? How would they own God? A broken spirit is what suits the cross, suits Christ's broken body and forgiven sins. Nor does God despise this. It answers to His mind in the cross, to His grace towards the sinner. Then comes peace, blessing, and service. Here, according to Jewish millennial order, of course, but true in spirit in the Christian.
Psalm 52
Psa. 52 requires few words. It looks to judgment in Israel, but there are some principles which directly concern the believer at any time. Where he looks in the prevalence of evil power—not to circumstances. Evil boasts itself in power, but faith sees another thing. The goodness of God, before whom men are as grasshoppers, endures, however evil prevails yet continually. There is no moment where it is not fully in Him, no day when anything escapes Him or anything is out of His reach. It is not only the power of God, but His goodness. This is a great general truth; but we say, Our Father. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father. Yet on the other hand there is something specially precious in the thought here. It is not the goodness of the Lord in His relationship with Israel, but what is in the nature of God. The goodness of God, what a resource against evil! It cannot cease or be interrupted, if it be thus. The end of pride is ruin, but he who trusts in the Lord and His faithful love shall be green when all else withers, and planted in the courts of God's house.
Psalm 53
Psa. 53, as we know, convicts those who have the best advantage of entire sinfulness. But the secret of this course is old too, and on that a few words. All the path of the wicked comes from this. For him God is not. Faith does not exist, and God is not seen. This is the secret of all error in practice and in human reasoning. The more we examine the whole course of human action, the faults of us Christians, the various wanderings of philosophy, the more we shall find that an Elohim is at the root of all. Here it is the case that the conscience takes no notice of God. The heart has no desire after Him, and the will works as if there were none. He says so in his heart. Why should he say it? Because his conscience tells him there is one. His will would not have one; and as He is not seen in His workings, will sees only what it will. God is set aside, and the whole conduct is under the will's influence, as if no God existed. He takes pains to prove there is not, if he thinks, because he cannot get on if there is; but he lifts himself up, and deceiving himself, comes in practical condition to will there should be none—and not to think, but to act as if he thought, and that in purpose as well as act, as if there were none. In a certain sense, he even thinks so; for, being entirely occupied with present things, and blind through his alienation from God, his moral feeling dead, judging from present things, he can draw conclusions, not believe that there is none, and living in his own thoughts thus formed, live in the thought there is none—says so in his heart. If conscience awakes, he knows well there is; but he lives in his will and the thoughts of his will, and for him there is no God. But it is wonderful how habitually human reasoning goes on as if this were so. Man cannot look at all that is around him without feeling the mass of evil there is. If he does not accept the fall and salvation, what can he think when there are no immediate present interventions, as in Israel? Men leave God out, and account for all as if there were none. Men will not put all on the ground of truth. If not, they cannot bring God in it at all, and account for all without doing so. And this is called philosophy, and it leads on necessarily to the power of evil, for evil there is, and consequently the power of evil; and if God be not brought in, the power of evil must have the upper hand, for who is to hinder it having so? God does till His time is come, the time when no more good is to be done by waiting. Evil then comes to a head, which is embodied in this psalm; and the result is, the judgment spoken of at the end. But the principles of the world are such at all times. Whenever I act as if God was not (that is, without reference to His will), I so far say in my heart, “There is no God.” If the fear spoken of in verse 5 be of the congregation of the just, as I suppose, there we see how needless the fear of the godly is in the day of the power of evil. The more it increases, the more the question becomes God's. At its height it is wholly so; consequently, the less reason there is to fear. It is when at their height God despises them. The psalmist, as a Jew, longs for this time—the time of the restoration of Israel. In a certain sense we desire it, for we desire the disappearing of evil and the rest of the earth; but it is not the highest good.
Psalm 54
Psa. 54 gives one, but a most weighty, practical, principle—God alone and His name; that is, the revelation of Himself is the resource of the soul. Strangers have not set God before them, the believer has, and all hangs from His name. Dependence is expressed, and God is sought according to His name. This, the name of God, holds the first place in this psalm. We must remark that God is not known here in subsisting covenant relationship. It is not Jehovah until the end of the psalm, but God, as such, in contract with men and all else; and in Himself known in what He is—the source of mercy and good, on which we depend. But God has revealed Himself—made Himself known to men; His name, that which expresses what He is, is known, and the heart trusts in this. And how sweet it is to do it! In itself it is joy and rest; and what can man do when God is for us? I may not know what God will do, but he is trusted. God says he is mine helper. When delivered, or in the thought of deliverance, all that God is in relationship with His people comes into the soul for praise; but what God is as God is the resource of the soul.