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Psalm xlii. 2.-When shall I come and appear before God.
THE FIRST PART.
THE holy Psalmist was now absent from his usual place of public worship, and restrained from coming near to the ark of God which was the token of the divine presence in the days of the Jewish church; and when he had been meditating on his past and present circumstances in this respect, both what he enjoyed heretofore, and what he was deprived of now, he breaks out into a divine rapture: As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. And he goes on to describe the frame of his spirit in this holy song : The substance and sense of the whole psalm is, as it were, epitomized and drawn up into these few words, when shall I come and appear before God? I shall not spend time to shew in how many senses man may be said to appear before God; but shall content myself to say, that in this place it signifies attendance on public worship, in the place where it was usually celebrated and performed. In the words of the Psalmist we may find the temper of his heart expressed under these two general heads.
I. A belief of the special presence of God in his ordinances of public worship.-II. An earnest longing after them on that account.
I shall enlarge a little on each of these, and make remarks as I go along, under each head.
First, The words express David's firm belief of the special presence of God in his ordinances, insomuch that he calls an attendance on them, an appearance before God. We are always in the view of God, and every creature is naked and open in his sight, and for ever appears before him as the all-seeing and all-knowing Creator and Governor of all things; but it is a peculiar, a gracious, and favourable presence of God that belongs to his sanctuary, his appointed worship: God is taking special notice of our carriage toward him, and manifesting his designs of special mercy towards us.
David well knew this, that the great end of appointing public
worship, was, that there might be a communication between God and man, who were so dreadfully separated by sin : He knew the gracious promise, that where God recorded his name, there would he come and meet his people, and bless them; Ex. xx. 24. He knew what sensible tokens of divine presence were found in the sanctuary; there was the ark of God, and the mercy-seat that covered it, upon which God dwelt in a bright shining cloud between the golden cherubims, to signify his dwelling in light among the glorious angels in heaven; beside the many sweet experiences which David had of sensible discoveries of God in counsel and grace, strength and consolation, in his public worship.
And have not christians, under the gospel, as great a reason to expect the special presence of God among them in his ordinances! Are they not appointed on purpose to bring God near to us, and to bring us near to God? Have we not an express promise of God himself, dwelling in flesh, that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he will be in the midst of them; Mat. xviii. 20. and is not Christ worthy of credit ? Have we not his word there published and preached? Doth not God appear there very eminently, in the glory of his truth, in the beauty of his holiness, in the purity of his commands, in the terror of his threatenings, in the sweetness of his promises, in the wonders of his wisdom and power, and more amazing works of his grace and love? Doth not the Lord discover himself there in the majesty of his government, in the miracles of his providence, and the divine glory of his fore-knowledge in prophecies exactly fulfilled? Surely that man must be blind indeed, who sees not God in the scriptures.
Will you say, “ All this may be seen and read at home in private, as well as in a public assembly?” But you must remember that even the written word of God was communicated to the most part of mankind only in public worship, for some thousands of years : for before the art of printing was invented, one bible was scarce to be found in several hundred houses, and very few of the common people were capable of reading ; nor could they know the written word, but by their attendance on the public ministrations of it. And in our day, how many are they who either do, or will know very little of religion, but what they hear at church.
Besides the written word of God is given to be expounded by his ministers, that the gospel being preached at large, and the truths of it being particularly applied, his presence and glory may appear therein. Many parts of scripture are so obscure, that God stands, as it were, behind a veil, or a curtain, till, in the ministry of the word, the sense is explained, the veil removed, and God stands forth to sight in the open glories of his majesty, or his mercy. It was for this purpose that Christ, at his departure from earth, engaged the promise of his presence with his ministers in the preaching of his gospel. Lo I am with you always even to the end of the world; Mat. xxviii. 20. And is not this sufficient ground for men to expect and hope to see God there?
Besides all this, have not christians enjoyed blessed experiences of the presence of God in his sanctuary, in the assemblies of his saints? One can say, “ I was all darkness and ignorance, and there I found divine light, discovering to me my sin and misery, and his salvation.” Another can say, I was dead in sin, and found my soul raised to a divine life there; “ I was mourning and despairing, and there I found a word of support and holy joy, such as no mere words of men could convey into me; and I am forced to confess God was in this place of a truth;" 1 Cor. xiv. 25.
Remarks on the first head.-I. How much should we guard hypocrisy in divine worship, because it is an appearance before God? We do then, in a solemn manner, set ourselves before God, and, as it were, humbly call God to look upon us, and take notice of our hearts. Let us remember this, every one of us, when we go to public worship, we do in effect say to God,“ O Lord, we are always in thy sight, but in a special manner we now come to shew thee our hearts, to acquaint thee humbly with our wants, our sorrows, and our sins, our desires and hopes; and God will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain; He is a jealous God, he will not be mocked ; Gal. vi. 7. He is a Spirit, and he will be worshipped in spirit and in truth; John iv. 24. He is sharp-sighted, he sees through our souls, and knows the ends and designs of our coming, whether to see creatures, and be seen of them, or to see himself, our Creator : Whether to observe the modes, dress, and behaviour of our fellow-creatures on earth, or to learn the will of God, and the mode of heaven. Suppose Jesus Christ, in his human nature, were there, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, and through your countenances can discern the most secret thought of your souls, would you not stand in awe of bis majesty ? Would not this glorious appearance fix the most vain and fluttering imagination in a pious solemnity? How solicitously would you watch over your minds, lest they wander from worship! How carefully would you keep your hearts! Or suppose you saw the holy angels there which attend the churches in worship, would you not be ashamed to trifle in their presence ? And has not the spiritual presence of the great God as much real, though invisible awfulness and majesty in it!
How do persons both of the polite and the vulgar world, all agree to dress fine and gay, and make the best figure of all the Week, to appear before men on the day of the Lord ? remember that we come not only before men, but before the living God, in whose sight, ornaments of the body are of no account, and, 0, what pains ought we to take, to put on our best ornaments of the mind! To see that our graces all shine, when we are to stand before God! And not to suffer one vain thought, one corrupt affection to work in us; nor a spot or blemish, if posşible, to be found upon us !
Alas! what millions of hypocrites have we in the world! How many may we fear in every congregation? How many come to attend at prayers, but never seek to join in their own wishes and desires with the words of him who speaks? How many voices follow the tune in a psalm, but their souls feel no joy, 110 inward elevation of praise? How many hear the word as the word of man, and their hearts have no sense of God speaking to them? They sit before God as his people, but their heart goes after their covetousness; Ezek. xxxiii. 31. after their idols of business, or carnal pleasure, after every vain object of their eyes, or vainer images of the fancy. Let us take heed therefore, how we shut our eyes, or harden our hearts against a present and a speaking God;
for the word of the Lord is quick and powerful; God speaking by his eternal word, or by his ministers in the sanctuary, pierces the secret recesses of the soul and spirit: God sits there : discerning the intents and thoughts of the heart ; all things are naked and open before his eyes with whom we have to do; Heb. iv. 13.
II. Remark. In attendance on public worship, we should fix all our hope and expectation of profit upon the presence of God in it; for the design of ordinances is to bring us to appear before God. Now, if in things of this life, God should be our chief hope, much more in things of another ; Ps. lxii. 5. My soul, wait thou only upon God, my expectation is from him.
How ready are we, even in spiritual concernments, to depend on outward forms and ceremonials! and to hope, or despair of success, according to some circumstantial attendants on worship One is ready to say, “ If it were a nice enquiry into some deep doctrine, I should get something by hearing the word.” Another complains," Alas! If it had been a sermon of grace and privileges, I had not been so careless in my attention, nor wasted my time." And a third satisfies his conscience with this, “ If I had heard moral duties enforced powerfully on our practice, then I could profit by the preaching; or if he who ministers had but more skill in composing, more fervency of speech, more warmth in delivery, more graceful pronunciations, more strength of argument; surely I should feel more lasting impressions of religion under every sermon.” And thus we go on from week to week, and worship without any sensible benefit, because we seek all from men.
But, alas ! if all these things were exactly suited to our wishes, tie matter ever so agreeable, the manner ever so entertaining, the voice ever so charming, and the performance ever so affectionate; if God be not there, there is no lasting benefit ; Paul may plant, and Apollos water, but God gives the increase : 1 Cor. iii. 6. The ministration of the word is committed to man, but not the ministration of the Spirit. What can a man do to give eyes to the blind? To give ears to the deat? Can a man make the lame to walk ? or raise the dead to a divine life? and turn sinners into saints? Who is sufficient for these things?
A minister is ready to say, “ When shall I preach to such a people ? they would learn and profit by my sermons.” A christian is ready to say, When shall I hear such a minister, or partake of such an ordinance, or hear a discourse on such a subject managed in such a particular method? And they are ready to go away discouraged, as though all hope were gone, when they find a disappointment in the pulpit; as though the graces of God were confined to a particular instrument, or as though the words of a man were our only hope.
When any of us have been at church, and waited in the sanctuary, let us examine what did we go thither to see ; a shadow of religion? An outside of christian forms ? a graceful orator? The figures and shapes of devotion? Surely then we might with as much wisdom, and more innocence, have gone to the wilderness to see a reed shaken wilh the wind. Can we say as the Greeks at the feast; John xii. 21. We would see Jesus? Or, as Absalom; 2 Sam. xiv. 32. It is to little purpose I am come to Jerusalem, if I may not see the king's face. "To little purpose we go to church, or attend on ordinances, if we seek not, if we see not God there.
III. Remark. What everlasting thanks are due to our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath made way for our appearance before God with comfort and hope? You are called by the name of christians, you profess to believe in him, but you know little what you have to do with him, or what use his name is of in religion, if you can go daily to appear in the presence of God without him; you know not the nature of christianity, if you do not feel a want of Christ when you bow yourselves before God.
Consider a little what God is, and what you are, that you may have a due sense of the necessity of Christ ; say to yourselves, “ I am going to appear before the great and glorious God, a God of infinite perfection, and I am a little vessel of mere imperfection and infirmity; what shall I do to stand in his sight? He is a God of majesty' and judgment, and I traitor, a rebel ly nature and action; I want some person to introduce me into lus