The Heart's Cry after God!
Archibald Brown, March 30, 1879, East London Tabernacle
"My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God!" Psalm 84:2
It is a matter of very little consequence who penned this psalm, or at what exact date it was written. It is enough for us that it is a psalm which has set forth the desires of God's people in all ages.
But, with regards to the writer, we may remark that although no name is given, yet the psalm is so Davidic (to coin a word) that you feel David must have been the penman. There is a peculiar ring about the composition which betrays the authorship of the sweet singer of Israel; and, as a well-known commentator on the Psalms has said, 'It smells of the mountain heather, and the lonely places of the wilderness where King David must have often lodged during his many wars.' One can feel that it is written by a man of God who has not seen the inside of the sanctuary for some little while.
Through stress of circumstances he has been a fugitive from his home — perhaps from his native land; and as he rests on mountain side, or sits in quiet glen, he begins to think of the time when he went up with the multitude that kept holy day, until he breaks out in the fervent exclamation, 'How lovely are your tabernacles, O Lord Almighty!' It is not a question asked; it is an exclamation made. 'How lovely!' — beyond all description — outside the poet's power to tell.
The sanctuary is just one of the many mercies the worth of which is never known until they are lost. I suppose there is nothing which you or I have on earth, which is fully prized until taken away for a season. Then our eyes are opened to see how large a portion of our life it occupied, and how great an amount of our happiness was yielded by it.
There are worshiping with us this morning some who now find the sanctuary a dearer place than they ever imagined possible. During the weeks you were laid aside, sir; during those weary days when you thought of the company going up to the Lord's house, and sighed because you were not able to join them — did you not come to the conclusion that, after all, there was a charm about public worship, a delight in the songs of the multitude, and an exquisite pleasure in the gathering together of the hosts of the Lord's ransomed company — beyond what you had ever previously imagined?
The whole of this psalm is the uttered desire of a soul for public worship, and, as the psalmist muses upon the matter, his language burns, and he goes as far as it is possible for man to go, for he begins to envy the very sparrows their privilege.
I think I see the royal writer. There he is, an exile from home, for a while camping out, and he thinks, 'I wish I were a bird! Here am I, governor of the land, and yet I cannot go up to the tabernacle; but lo, there is not a sparrow but can fly into the holy place.' And then he remembers how he has even seen the swallows make their nests under the eaves of the altar, and he covets their quiet and holy abode. 'Oh, blessed are those who dwell in your house! Blessed are those who keep the doors, yes, the menials who sweep out the sacred courts, and those who light the candles of the sanctuary!'
If you look into the psalm, you will see that it would be impossible for him to use stronger language than he does to express his desire, for in the second verse, from which we have selected our text, he says, 'My soul longs'. The word in the original is stronger than that. The literal translation would, perhaps, be more after this sort: 'My soul has grown pale. It is ready to faint away for the courts of the Lord.' Just as intense desire will eat into the strength of our manhood, and put a premature paleness upon the cheek, and earlier furrows on the brow — 'so', says the psalmist, 'my soul is literally pining away to be found once more with the Lord's people'.
As if that were not enough, he adds, 'Yes, even faints'; and the idea there is 'consumed' with desire.
And then he goes one step further, 'My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.' They can contain their desires no longer, and so my tongue makes this wilderness to echo with my call. I cry until these rugged mountains send back the sorrowful notes of my voice. 'My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.'
You will see that, after all, the psalmist reaches the climax of desire, not when he speaks of the sanctuary — but of God himself. 'My heart and my flesh cry out' — not for the tabernacle — not for the services of the priesthood there — not for the multitudinous sacrifices and burnt offerings — but for God — the living God. He only rightly prizes the sanctuary who prizes it in proportion as a living God is found within its walls.
Let us this morning dwell for a short time on the desire of the heart and flesh, as expressed by the psalmist.
We will note first, the nature of this desire: 'the living God'.
Then we will ask you to observe, the strength of this desire: 'my heart and my flesh cry out for God'.
And then, if we have time, we will note, lastly, the comfortable assurance that this desire may give us. If you and I can say, 'My heart and my flesh cry out to God', it shows that we belong to David's tribe. There must be something of the grace of God in us, or we should never know such longing.
I. Let us observe then, first, the desire of heart and flesh — the living God. It is old Master Sibbes, one of the sweetest of the Puritan writers, who well observes that the desires of the heart are the best proofs of salvation; and if a man wishes to know whether he is really saved or not, he can very soon find out by putting his finger upon the pulse of his desires, for those are things that never can be counterfeit.
You may counterfeit words;
you may counterfeit actions;
but you cannot counterfeit desires.
You cannot always tell a Christian by his actions; for sometimes true Christians act in a very ugly style, and sometimes those who are not Christians act in a very beautiful way, and hypocrites often act the best. The whole of a hypocrite's life may be a simple counterfeit.
Nor are our words always a true test. Of course, a hypocrite will lie in his throat; and often the most beautiful experience, as far as language goes, is the experience that falls from the lips of a man whose heart knows nothing about the grace of God. And, even with no hypocrisy in us, our language is not a very safe test. It is possible to mix with God's children until you pick up a sort of Christian dialect, and talk of others' experiences as though they were your own. Just as a man sojourning in a foreign country will learn a good deal of the language of its inhabitants by simply hearing it talked — so it is possible to dwell among Christians until their language is in great measure acquired. Talking a language does not constitute a nationality.
But there is one thing which cannot be picked up or counterfeited, and that is a desire. Let me know my desire — then do I know myself; for I can no more counterfeit a desire than I can counterfeit fire. I think it is the same old Puritan who says, 'Do you want to know what you are? Go ask your desires, and they will tell you. Do you wish to know where you are? See where your desires tend.'
A good action may be done without any love to that action. And, on the other hand, an evil action may be avoided — not from any hatred to that evil. The good action may be done from an impure motive; the evil may be avoided simply from a selfish motive. But the desire of the soul — that is the immediate issue of the heart, and let me find my desire, then do I find myself.
A caged bird cannot fly — does it therefore cease to be a bird? No; that it does not fly is because it is in a cage. Open the door — see, now, how quickly it darts through the opening, and flies, skimming through the air, heavenward. It has the bird's nature. It had the desire for flight even when the cruel wires kept it in.
And so is it with the child of God. Often does he get caged, and if you were to judge simply by appearances, you would say, 'Surely he has not the nature of the Christian within.' Only open the door. Only give him a chance of flight; you will see then that, after all, the desire of his soul has been towards God, for, in the language of my text, he says, 'My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God!'
Having noted, then, that the desire of a man is the best proof of his saintship, let us go a step further, and observe that the desire of the true Christian is after God himself. 'My heart and my flesh cry out for — for God.' Oh, here is a marvel of grace! Surely it is unnecessary to go farther than this in order to prove that, when a man is converted, he receives altogether a new nature! He must be a new creature in Christ Jesus! Imagine! — the desire of a man's heart finding expression in the words — 'for God'.
Scripture tells me that poor human nature wishes anything rather than God, for 'there is none that seeks after God'; and, so far from desiring God, the natural heart would like to do away with him; and as he cannot do away with the throne of God in Heaven, he seeks to abolish the throne of God from his mind, and, therefore, tries to forget God. If the natural man can banish God from his thoughts and from his reckonings — he will. And, therefore, if I can honestly say before the Lord this morning, 'My desire is for God', I need no other proof — no other magnificent demonstration — that there is a something wrought in me which is not of the world. It is this which puts the line of demarcation between the real saint and the counterfeit. A man who is born of God, can not do without God.
Now, I want you to note that this desire swallows up all others. Supposing, as in all probability is the case, that David is the penman of this psalm; see how beautifully this thought comes out. The desire for God drowns all others. I can imagine that when he penned this psalm he was out on one of the many wars that occupied him, or else, maybe, a fugitive before his own son Absalom. At any rate, we know he was away from the courts of the sanctuary, and yet I do not find him saying, 'My heart and my flesh cry out for my home.' Yet David was essentially a home man, for he always returned, when he could, to bless his household. He was certainly a man with plenty of patriotism in his heart — but I do not hear him saying, 'My heart and my flesh cry out for Jerusalem.' No, nor even for the sanctuary itself. His soul longed for it; but it was not the edifice. It was not the costly service. It was not the priesthood. It was not the reared altar. It was not the sacrifice. It was God himself for whom his soul cried out.
Methinks there is a lesson here to many who are devotees either to a building or to a style of worship. My dear friend, if you really have the grace of God in your heart, all that will concern you is to have God in the service. You may, of course, have your likes and dislikes; you prefer one style of building to another; but it will be to you a matter of supreme indifference whether you worship in a place with a steeple or without. Much as some of us may object to steeple-houses, we would sooner far worship in a steeple-house, and have God, than in this tabernacle if we had not a sense of his presence. But who, on the other hand, would not rather worship in the plainest building that could be put up, with bare whitewashed walls, and have the Lord, than worship in the grandest cathedral that the art of man or the wealth of a nation ever produced — and yet lack the presence of a living God? All these mere externals, beloved, are of very, very little worth.
Choose your building if you like; but after you have reared it, think but little of it. It is the God in the building, who must be the object of the soul's delight.
And as for the order of service, I care not. Only give me a service which has plenty of God in it. If hymns are sung that praise him, I mind not whether they be long, short, or common metre, exquisite in composition, or homely rhymes. If a sermon only brings me up to God, I mind not whether it be preached with polished words — or in rough, rugged sentences. If the service only leads me nearer to a living God, you may begin with the sermon and leave off with a hymn, or begin with a hymn and leave off with the sermon. All these mere etceteras are nothing.
It is 'My heart and my flesh cry out for God', for nothing less than God can satisfy the craving of a believer's soul. There is a hunger in the heart of the saint which only God himself can satisfy. You may fill his mouth with everything you can think of, and it will yet hunger and cry out for 'God! God! God!'
If you are really a saved man — the world cannot make you content, let it try its utmost. If all the wealth of the universe were yours, and all the honors that society can give were lying at your feet — if everything a natural heart can wish for were in your possession — you would be as wretched as Hell with it all, if you had not the living God. If, on the other hand, you are a child of God, and walking in the light of his countenance, though trade may be bad — though children may be sick — though sorrows may come like Atlantic billows one after another, in ceaseless roll — you will yet be able to say, 'My soul rejoices in God.' He who has the divine presence, and nothing else — knows he is rich to all the intents of bliss. He who has all things else — but lacks the realized presence of his God, feels unutterably poor. All the experiences of the Christian resolve themselves into this: 'My heart and my flesh cry out for God.'
There may be someone who says, 'How do you account for this?' Well, I think there are three things quite sufficient in themselves to account for this desire God-ward; and the first and chief is that every saint has within his breast that which is actually born of God, and therefore it cries out after its own Father. It is no figure of speech — no symbol — no type — when we read in the Gospel of John that we are 'born of God'. It is a positive fact. There never was a more actual or real birth in any home, than there is within the bosom when the Spirit of God comes to a man in regenerating power. There is a new nature begotten of God by the incorruptible seed of the word. There is something within the believer's bosom which nature never put there — which self did not put there — which the world did not put there. It comes directly from God, and has a divine parentage. Do you marvel, then, that this holy thing which is born of God is always tending towards its original? It must. You cannot show me anything in nature, but what tends to its original.
Water will always try to rise to the level of its spring. Fire will ever flash upwards, because, in the first instance, it came from on high. The sun's rays long buried in those submerged forests, and imprisoned in coal, will leap upward to their source in tongues of fire the moment their dungeon door is opened.
And child of God, you and I have that within our heart which is restless until it reaches its original. Born of God, I must fly to God. The new nature God has begotten can never rest short of him, and so heart and flesh cry out for God.
This accounts for the misery of a backslider. I have often been astonished when such have asked me so simple a question as 'How is it, sir, I am so miserable? I feel as if I were being torn in two.' Of course you do. The new nature never dies out when once it is within a man, however much it may be slighted and neglected. There it is in the heart, crying, 'God! God! God! God!' and there is the old nature shouting with loud voice, 'The world! the world! the world! the world!' and the unhappy man is dragged between the two — the new nature struggling God-ward — the old nature earthward, until he cries out in his pain and anguish. Poor soul have you wandered, and lost your joys? Thank God for your misery, while you deplore your wanderings, for it is one of the best proofs that, after all, the birth of the divine nature has taken place within you.
Then another reason is that every believer has the Spirit of God dwelling within him, and if he has the Spirit of God dwelling within him, it is only natural that he should desire God. I hope and believe that, in preaching to you this morning, I am speaking to those who believe that it was no mere figure of speech on our Lord's part when he said, 'And we will come and take up our abode within him'; or on the apostle's part when he said, 'Know you not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?'
Within the breast of every believer there dwells the third person of the Trinity, the ever blessed Spirit. The moment you remember this, you can understand the desire of my text. What is the one great work of the Spirit which I tried to show you the other Sunday morning? Is it not to glorify Christ? Surely it is, and the great work of Christ was to glorify the Father. Therefore, if I have the Spirit within my breast, He will always be leading me up to God through Christ. Long as ever the Spirit of God dwells within the breast, all His motions, all His teachings, all His tendencies are to the eternal Father through Jesus. Therefore, 'My heart and my flesh cry out for God.'
But once more, and I will leave this point. Do not you think this desire after God becomes intensified by your earthly experience? I ask you to mark the words I employ — 'becomes intensified by your earthly experience'. It is not that your earthly experience makes you long for God — but I believe your earthly experience often makes you long more for God. After you have discovered the hollowness, the emptiness, the disappointing nature of the world — after you have had a little experience of the amount of sham there is abroad when, perhaps, over and over again, you have been most bitterly disappointed in the one you trusted most — when all things, too, begin to fail you and you feel that troubles huge are coming on apace — then it is that the soul cries out more earnestly than ever for God. Oh for something real in a world of unreality — for something true in a world so false! Oh for something abiding in a world which is so fleeting! And so your earthly experience inflames the soul's desires after God.
As I was listening to a brother praying at a recent prayer meeting here, I remarked to a friend of his, 'I never heard him pray like that before.' 'No', was the answer, 'he never had so much trouble before.' I could tell, all the way through that prayer, that there were cries and groanings after God, which, though begotten by the Spirit, had been intensified by earth's bitter experiences. Perhaps if the psalmist had not been out on the mountain side, away from the courts of the Lord's house, there would not have been so deep an emphasis on this cry — 'Oh for God!'
II. Now, only for two or three minutes, I want you to observe the intensity of this desire. 'My heart and my flesh cry out.' Do you see, heart and flesh being both mentioned, we are taught that it is the desire of the whole man. Every faculty of the mind and every affection of the heart cry out. Now, this word 'cry out' — what does it mean? In the original it means the cry of a company of soldiers as they attack the foe. When the word of command is given for the battle to commence, a wild cry rises up from the ranks — the cry of the men as they dash forward. There is expectation, eagerness, desire, all concentrated in its note.
For a moment look at it in this light. This desire after God has intensity. All the soul, the heart, the flesh, join in the cry. A man never knows how he can cry to God — until he cries after God. You may put that down as certain. No man knows how intense prayer can become — until the subject of the prayer is God himself. Then he is startled by his own eagerness — almost afraid at his own earnestness.
The idea of our text is also a cry of distress — such a cry as I should imagine would break from the lips of one who had been wandering late in the afternoon along a seacoast, and become caught by the advancing tide. He is not acquainted with the shore, and does not know that the tide runs round inside the bank on which he is walking. As he wends his way, the shadows of the evening come down, and he can see in the distance the lights of the spot where his temporary home is. But the tide has come in between him and the shore. He climbs from rock to rock. The waters rise. He can go no further. Nothing but a boat can save him. How he wishes that the evening were not advanced! It is no use waving his handkerchief now. He cannot be seen. But lights are moving about on shore. Now listen to him. There is anguish in the cry which he sends across the waste of waters. 'Help! HELP! HELP!' 'My heart and my flesh cry out for God' — nothing but God can meet the exigencies of the case.
It is an intensity that drowns all other desires — 'cries out for God'. I passed a little boy the other day being led by the hand by a kind-faced policeman; and as the little thing walked by his side, I could hear him, amidst its sobs, continually crying, 'Father! father! father! father!' Yes, in this great city — full of people, the only face the child wanted to see was the face of its father. He knew he had lost a father's hand, for he had wandered from a father's side, and he wanted father back again.
'My heart and my flesh cry out for God.' Just as a lost child cares not for a million faces it may meet along the road — it wants to look at its father's face — so the true born child of God can rest satisfied with nothing short of a sight of his God. 'My heart and my flesh cry out for God.'
Once more, it is an intensity of desire that creates pain. The language of our text is the language of a soul which can bear its anguish no longer in silence. It is a cry extorted by inward pangs.
We will not dwell on our last points — (as our time is gone) — but only say there are some very comforting assurances to be gained from this subject.
Have you been able to say, step by step, 'Yes, I know this — I have borne that — I have gone right through that — the pastor has just been describing my experience this morning'? Then let me say here, lift up the hands which hang down, and let the feeble knees be confirmed, and the sad heart be glad. You say, 'Be glad because I am so miserable'? Yes, be glad because you are wretched without God. That longing after God is a more infallible proof you are God's, than your longest prayers, your most zealous services, or the very best of your actions. These might be counterfeit: this longing after God cannot be.
And if there is within your soul an aching void that nothing but a living God can fill, write it down, 'I am born of God'; for none but those who are born of God know anything of this sweet pain.
Oh what must Heaven be! If all the desires of a saint are concentrated in this one for God — then what must the satisfaction of Heaven be when it is all God — God on the throne, God before me, God leading me, God delighting my eyes, God in my songs — the world, its cares, its sorrows, its worries, all gone — a heavenly atmosphere of God all around! How unutterably deep the satisfaction! My heart and my flesh will no longer cry out for God — but will eternally rejoice in him.
Do not I love thee, O my lord?
Behold my heart, and see,
And chase each idol far away,
That dares to rival thee!
Thou know'st I love thee, dearest Lord,
But, oh! I long to soar
Above the sphere of mortal joys,
And learn to love thee more!