Archibald G. Brown, December 6th, 1868, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"Lord, how long will you look on?" Psalm 35:17
This psalm, as I endeavored to show while reading it at the commencement of the service, is not only as it is entitled "A psalm of David," but also a "A psalm of the Messiah." A greater than David is here. The sweet singer of Israel doubtless expresses in its verses his own experience and his personal longings — but while doing so, he also prophetically sets forth what would be the griefs, sorrows, and prayers of him who, while David's Lord, was in his humanity the "Son of David."
There is a striking resemblance in this psalm to the twenty-second, in which the prophet personalizes the Messiah in his state of humiliation and suffering. In both, felt weakness is expressed. In both, cruel persecutors are described. In both, integrity is maintained. And in both, the lack of comfortings from on high is portrayed as the bitterest drop in the cup. The same one who in the twenty-second psalm exclaims, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?" Psalm 22.1 also gives utterance to the bitter cry of our text, "Lord how long will you look on? Rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions." Psalm 35.17
But as in the exposition I dwelt almost entirely upon the Messianic view of the psalm, I desire now to take the words as David's own (and most assuredly they are) as setting forth the sorrow of soul that he himself endured. The troubles of his heart were many and large.
He was surrounded by implacable foes, by whom no weapon that could inflict a wound was neglected. His character was maligned; his motives misinterpreted; his times of trouble and adversity made the times of their fiercest onset, "in my adversity they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together." Psalm 35.15. His faith in God was derided; and his returns of kindness to them were scorned. Overwhelmed with difficulty, and seeing no way whereby he could extricate himself, he looks up to his God, and with an intensity of earnestness he prays, "Plead my cause, O Lord, with those who strive with me — fight against those who fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for my help. Say to my soul, I am your salvation." Psalm 35.1-3.
But here a fresh trial and unexpected disappointment meets him. The Lord seems deaf to his cry. Not only does man persecute him — but the very God in whom is all his trust, seems to have forgotten him. Earth is ready to swallow him up, and Heaven seems like brass above him. Now is his misery crowned, now has his cup of sorrow received the bitterest drop of gall: the last weight his wounded spirit can bear has been placed upon it, and in an agony he cries, "Lord, how long will you look on?" Let his position at this moment be our theme for meditation this morning. We will notice:
first, a trying experience;
secondly, a cry of anguish;
and in the third place we will try and give some comforting answers.
I.First then — we have A Trying Experience. I will try and explain its nature. Notice, dear friends, that it was not that he doubted whether the Lord saw his trouble. Far from it; for in the twenty-second verse he says (in reference to his persecution) "This you have seen, O Lord." Psalm 35.22. David was far too deeply taught concerning the omniscience of God to entertain for a moment the thought that God was in ignorance of his situation. This sin of unbelief which Israel fell into when it said, "My way is hid from the Lord: my judgment is passed over from my God." No! this was not David's trouble; his trial was that God ONLY seemed to see, and nothing more. He felt as if the Lord was only a spectator of his difficulty, not the deliverer from it. His eye saw — but his right hand remained unlifted.
Let me try and make my meaning plainer by an illustration. David was fighting in a valley. His foes were legion — their weapons deadly. He felt it to be awful odds. Long had the fight continued, and bravely had he kept his ground. Not a foe had seen his back! He declares they never shall. Grasping the sword with both hands, he swings it like a giant would swing a reed, and at every blow an enemy sinks down to rise no more. Brave blow!! Well struck!! Manfully fought!! we cry, as we gaze upon the conflict.
But now numbers begin to tell — they roll upon him like a flood, and though fighting like a lion, he is gradually beaten back; step by step. Everything begins to swim around him; his hand feels as if it were grown into the sword hilt, and his blows begin to lose their fury. Anxiously he looks to yonder hill-top, where in a halo of glory stands his Lord; all day long he has been there, and all day long David has waited to hear the shout, "To the Rescue!" It was this expectation that nerved his arm with might, and filled his heart with courage.
Hour after hour had passed, and still the Lord looks on; and now he feels it must be all over in a few moments; the enemy's steel gleams in his face, their weapons clash by his ear. Now or never! and a cry rings over the battlefield, "Lord, how long will you look on?"
Or to describe the experience by another illustration which may be more expressive of the feelings of some present. David was being swept away in a swollen river. He is out in mid-stream. The black waters are singing a death-song in his ears, sometimes for a moment they gurgle in his throat. He strikes out strongly for the shore — but despite all his efforts, he is hurried at a race-horse speed towards a yawning gulf ahead, down which the waters roar. He has been sucked down by the eddies many a time, and as often risen again, to see his Lord upon the bank, beholding his peril. And now the thunder of the cataract can be heard each moment more distinctly. The waters seem to laugh as they hurl him along. He can bear the agony no longer, and the shriek is heard above the flood, "Lord, how long will you look on?"
This trying experience, when the Lord seems to be only a spectator of our misery, is not David's alone — but also that of most (if not of all) saints during some part of their Christian life. Have we not sometimes passed through it ourselves; and do we not find its best illustration in the book of our own memory, or perhaps in the feelings of our heart this morning?
1. It is often the experience of the saint in his struggles with SIN. Old nature seems to have gained fresh strength. Old sins we imagined long since slain — revive. Rebel lusts we thought we had long ago nailed to the cross — appear arrayed against us. The waters of iniquity we supposed securely dammed up — break out afresh, and we tremble lest we should be swept away before their power! A fresh revelation is made to us of the depravity of our own hearts. We hate the sins, and war against them. We abominate the iniquity of our hearts, and struggle against the tide; yet, despite all, we sometimes feel we are losing ground in the fight, and are being carried on by the overwhelming stream. Horror-struck, and dreading the very thought of a fall, we cry, "Plead my cause, O Lord!"
"Almighty King of saints,
These tyrant lusts subdue.
Drive the old serpent from his seat,
And all my powers renew."
And yet for the time our prayers seem unanswered; our corrupt nature seems no weaker — and the new man appears no stronger. We dare not leave off fighting. Hoping for a rescue, we still continue struggling on, until at last, palsied with fear and failing in strength, we exclaim, "Lord, how long will you look on?" How trying an experience this is, only those know who have passed through it, or who perhaps are passing through it now; who have waited, and are waiting still for their Lord to put their foes beneath their feet.
2. It is frequently the experience of the saint in relation to his TROUBLES. The religion of Jesus brings no exemption from trial; indeed, often on the contrary — the holiest seem the most tried. Have we not all known some whose piety could never be doubted, and yet who always seemed to be walking under the deep shadow of some cloud. Or to come nearer home, are there not some in this Tabernacle now, who love the Lord with all their hearts, and are yet pressed almost beyond measure? Your experience has been a second to Job's. You have scarcely realized one calamity, before another has overtaken you. You hardly escaped from one wave and just feeling the shore, before a larger billow has swept over your head. Losses, crosses, and bereavements, have followed one another, thick and fast.
If the trial has not been in the body, it has been in the family. If not in the family, it has been in the business. If not in the business in something else. You (as we pictured David) have been sucked down by the strong eddies of life over and over again, always struggling to get on firm ground, yet always in the mid-stream of trouble.
It is with a heavy heart you have come up to the house of God this morning, and that which perplexes you the most is, that God only seems to "look on." You have been expecting a rescue from on high, for months and years. You have told many that "you are certain you will be helped out of all." You have encouraged your own heart many a time, in your efforts to encourage them — but the deliverance has not come yet. Things, if not worse with you, are quite as bad as ever. "Hope deferred makes the heart sick." Pro 13.12. You have found it to be so, and with fainting spirit you are this morning crying out, "Lord, how long will you look on?"
3. It is perhaps most often the experience of the saint in relation to his PRAYERS. It is difficult to believe that delays are not denials. One came to me only the other day in great trouble about this very thing; she had herself been recently converted in this place, and had become, as was most natural, exceedingly anxious about her husband; he was at the time abroad, being a sailor. Full of the joy that faith in Jesus gives, she wrote and told him of the blessed change she had experienced, and begged him to seek the same. She never for a moment doubted that the prayers accompanying the letter would be answered. Anxiously she waited for the return letter which was to confirm her hopes — and bitter was her disappointment when it arrived; it had never entered her thoughts that God might try her faith by keeping her waiting for a season before the answer came; so she came to me to know "what was she to do?"
"What," I said, "has your faith failed because your first attempt has not been crowned with success; why there will be scores in the Tabernacle next Sunday whose faith has not only received one rebuff — but hundreds, who are still waiting and praying, praying and waiting."
And is it not so? Are there not some here now, who have prayed and prayed, again and again, and yet "the heavens seem like brass" above them? Even the cloud "no bigger than a man's hand" has not yet risen. Over and over again, when you have felt more than ordinary power at the mercy-seat, you have arisen from your knees and said "now I think I have it!" and yet in a few days you have answered "no;" and this has now lasted not only for months — but years.
There are parents who pleaded for their children's conversion when they were but infants, and although the infants have grown to be men and women, the answer to those prayers is still in abeyance. Faith begins to stagger. Hope's beams grow pale, and an element of almost despair mingles in the oft-repeated cry. "Why doesn't he answer?" is the question asked a thousand times, each time with a deeper anguish. Trying indeed is the experience of the saint, who while praying with indomitable perseverance, still feels as if his Lord only looked on; and often the heart expresses its sorrow in the language of David, "Lord, how long?"
4. Lastly on this point. It is often the experience of the FAITHFUL SERVANT of Christ. Most humbly, and with deep gratitude to God from whom alone the blessing has come, this morning I have to acknowledge that such has not been my experience, while laboring in your midst. This is now the last month in my second year's pastorate, and I cannot but look back through the two years so nearly gone, with wonder and thankfulness that defy language. God has been pleased to give us as a church such prosperity as is given to few; he has permitted us to reap with one hand, while we have sown with the other. The converts are not numbered by tens only, but by hundreds. In no spirit of pride do we say this; for what have we that we have not received? It is his work and his only, and at his feet we delight to cast all the glory.
But while rejoicing in manifest success, we cannot help but remember that there are hosts of God's faithful servants, far holier and far more able, who have been called to toil and labor on with but little encouragement. How many there are whose studies have echoed with their sobs and prayers, whose voices have trembled with earnestness while imploring men "to be reconciled with God" 1 Cor 5.20 and who have yet done scarcely anything else than drive the plough and scatter the seed — without the joy of singing any great "Harvest Home."
They are preparing the soil for others, and perhaps long after they have gone to their reward, someone else will "enter into their labors" John 4.38 and reap the grain which they scattered and watered with many a bitter tear.
Such labor as this requires much grace. It is comparatively easy to work when the reward is given almost daily, when the tears are those of grateful joy, not of bitter disappointment. But to labor on and on and on, amid a thousand discouragements and but little to cheer, is terribly hard. All honor to the men who do so; for of all the trials God's ministers are called to bear (and they are many) the greatest is to feel as if his Master were only a spectator of his labors, and only an onlooker upon his toil.
Thus I have tried to show that David is not alone in this trial; but that it is shared and will be shared by saints in all ages. Let us now, and far more briefly, notice in the second place,
II. The CRY OF ANGUISH."Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks" — and poor David could no longer restrain the cry, "Lord, how long?" The soul feels it can no longer bear in silence the wearying suspense, its agony finds vent in the exclamation, "How long?" Now this cry is either right or wrong in accordance with the spirit in which it is uttered.
It is unquestionably SINFUL when it is:
A. The language of bitterness, when the soul has become soured instead of sanctified by the affliction; when hard thoughts concerning God arise in the heart; when the soul ceases to say with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." Job 13.15
When the real interpretation of the cry is "Have not I waited long enough? What is the use of my waiting any longer? Might I not just as well give up fighting, praying, or working altogether?" This is the language of a rebel, not of a child. And yet, are there any present who would dare to say that such thoughts have never for a moment either entered or been harbored in the heart? Alas! Lord, yes! sometimes in the bitterness of our souls we have cried, "how long?"
B. It is also wrong when it is the language of deep despondency. In this case the soul does not murmur against the dealings of God; it feels too acutely its utter unworthiness to receive the slightest tokens of his favor. It knows that were all its desires denied, it would be nothing more than it deserves. It feels that as Hell was its rightful desert, anything less than Hell must be a mercy, yet, at the same time, it longs for the blessing, the language of its heart is,
"Lord, I hear of showers of blessing
You are scattering full and free;
Showers the thirsty land refreshing,
Let some droppings fall on me, even me."
And when this blessing is delayed for some time, and the Lord only seems to "look on," its trembling faith is almost put to the rout. The frail flower droops its head, and the trembling heart exclaims, "Lord, how long will you look on? I begin to fear that you will never come, and that I shall die while you are looking on."
But it is a RIGHT CRY when it is the language of intense desire, when it means "Lord, I have waited long, and I am waiting still — and I will wait your time, however long it is. No harsh thoughts, Lord, have I toward you; I know you are "Too wise to err — and too good to be unkind."
"I believe you will come to my rescue; I have no doubt of that. But oh, if it pleases you, come now, even when my foes say, 'there is no help for him in God.' Lord, prove that there is. Make my enemies and yours, liars before you. Ride royally to my help.
"O God, arise, and let all these fears of mine be scattered. Your servant waits, he prays, he fights, he works, and by your help will still do so; but come, Lord, come, and show that I am your servant — let it be seen that you are at my right hand! Oh, vindicate your honor, and declare that You are a God who hears prayer. So shall my heart be made glad. Lord, hear this cry, 'how long will you look on?' Make haste to rescue me."
III. Thirdly, I will try and give some COMFORTING ANSWERS.
"Lord, how long will you look on?"
1. Long enough, child, to TRY YOUR FAITH. The Lord loves to strengthen the faith of his people — and faith gains strength by being put to a strain. The furious wind that threatens to uproot the young sapling — only makes it strike its roots deeper in the earth. The strong winter wind is as necessary for its stability as the summer's fierce heat is for its growth. Our faith was never intended to be a hot house plant — but a giant tree bidding defiance to the storm. Anything, therefore, that puts our faith to the test is a blessing.
To prove this, I will quote a text well known — but generally misunderstood, "The trial of your faith being much more precious than gold." 1 Peter 1.7. Now, how often is this text quoted to prove only the preciousness of faith, whereas it teaches much more; namely, that not only is faith precious — but faith's trial also; that the very fact of having our faith tested, is no matter for sorrow — but rejoicing.
Now the Lord looks on until he sees that the faith of his child has been sufficiently tried, and that the trial has sufficiently strengthened that faith. Then he works out a deliverance. May not this give the clue to the mystery of some present, why the Lord has not helped before? He is "looking on" for the strengthening of your faith.
"Lord, how long will you look on?"
2. Long enough to TEACH YOU YOUR OWN WEAKNESS. There is still an immense amount of self-ignorance in us all; particularly of our own weakness — and that weakness is only learned in the painful school of experience. We think we can do this, and do that, and do the other, and nothing will persuade us of our mistake. So the Lord lets us try our own resources, and find out experientially, that of ourselves we can do nothing; he watches our vain-glorious endeavors, and withholds his help, until beaten at every point, and our pride thoroughly humbled — we learn the truth of the text "without me you can do nothing;" John 15.5. Then the lesson being taught, God no longer looks on — but rescues.
"Lord, how long will you look on?"
3. Long enough to make you VALUE THE DELIVERANCE. That which is easily obtained, is little valued. The longer the water is waited for, the sweeter it tastes. The greater the hunger, the greater the gratitude for food.
The Lord "waits to be gracious" in order to make us put a higher price upon his mercy. Long-tried soul, you will value your Lord's deliverance when it comes, all the more for having so often cried "how long?"
"Lord, how long will you look on?"
4. Until the RIGHT MOMENT. Not a moment too soon for his own glory — and not a moment too late for your good. Our clock is always too fast, we call upon the Lord and say, "Lord, now is the time, the hour to deliver has struck!" But no answer comes, because he does not keep his time by ours; and his clock still lacks some minutes to the hour. But when that has struck, swift as the lightning flash . . .
he is at our side;
the tide of battle turns;
the foemen melt away like mist before the rising sun;
we are snatched in a moment from midstream;
our feet are placed upon a rock;
our goings are firmly established; and
a new song is put upon our lips!
Trust him then, believer, and even while you cry "Lord, how long?" obey the prophet's words, "Though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come." Hab 2.3
May the Lord add his blessing to this word, for Jesus' sake. Amen.