How Lovely Is Your Sanctuary!
Archibald G. Brown, August 13th, 1871, Stepney Green
"How lovely is your sanctuary, O LORD Almighty!" Psalm 84:1
Although David's name does not appear in the heading of this psalm, there is but little if any doubt that it was from his pen that the sweet verses flowed. We can feel him near as we read. His spirit breathes through the whole, and the wording has the peculiar ring that we have learned to love so well. The voice of the sweet singer of Israel is not easily mistaken. His notes have been so often heard, and always make themselves so well remembered, that whatever may be their theme, they are sure to be detected.
It is not always necessary to have the name of the visitor who has just called, announced. The voice we heard asking "if we were at home" tells us without any assistance from others, who the friend is that asks for us. So it is with this psalm. The first verse assures us that David is speaking, and we are as certain of the fact as if his name occurred in every other line. The sentiments are not more entirely his, than the manner in which they are uttered. We have but to turn to a psalm that bears his name to be convinced the same man is author of both.
Turn with me to the sixty-third Psalm, the heading of which states that it was written by David when he was in the wilderness of Judah. Read the first and second verses, "O God, you are my God; early will I seek you. My soul thirsts for you, my flesh longs for you in a dry and thirsty land, where there is no water; so I have seen you in the sanctuary, to see your power and your glory."
Contrast that first verse with the second verse of this psalm, and you will see they are almost identical. "My soul longs, yes even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God."
Surely the same heart speaks in both verses. It is generally supposed that it was written during the psalmist's exile through his son Absalom's revolt. This however matters but little. It is enough for us to know that when through some circumstances, he was shut out from the privileges of the tabernacle, his heart yearned after them. The beauty of worship was enhanced in his eyes by his forced absence, and he felt envious of the very sparrows and swallows that made their nests in the tabernacle, and flitted round its altars. At last, out of the abundance of his heart, his lips were obliged to speak, and his feelings found vent in the exclamation, "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty!"
It is no drawback that no name appears as author. It is the psalm of every child of God. Spiritual life, and love for the sanctuary, always run parallel. Where the latter is lacking, there is good ground for suspecting the existence — certainly the health — of the former. If my professed Christianity has not endeared the house of God to my soul, it has not done very much for me, for it is one of the very first-fruits of a renewed nature.
Let us then this morning join in spirit with the psalmist; let us unite our voices with his in singing the beauties of worship, and the charms of the sanctuary. I am free to confess that there has perhaps been something of selfishness in my choice of this text. Most assuredly it is the echo of my own heart. After having been surrounded for five weeks with all the pomp and show and superstition of the Church of Rome — I find God's tabernacles most lovely. After having spent weary Lord's days when the only choice was to hear blasphemy or nothing — I rejoice with a joy more than I can well describe, to find myself again surrounded with the associations of an English Sabbath — to find myself once more among the multitude that keeps holy-day; and above all, to be in this sanctuary, endeared by so many happy remembrances, and among you with whom I have so often enjoyed sweetest fellowship. My heart exclaims — may yours also, "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty!"
I will try and speak to you on this text under four divisions.
First — wherein lies the beauty of the house of God.
Secondly — when this beauty is most seen.
Thirdly — the extent to which it is appreciated, "How."
Fourthly — The only man who is able to discern it.
May the Lord help us in our meditations that this tabernacle may this morning become most lovely.
I. Wherein lies the BEAUTY of the House of God?When David expressed his admiration of the tabernacle — what was it that suggested the exclamation? Certainly not the outside. Whatever beauty there was in the building, was not to be beheld from outside. Brilliant were the hues of the inside curtain that covered the structure. Simpler was the ram's skin dyed red that was placed over it, and the outward covering of badgers' skins was a rough material devoid of all attractiveness. No one gazing at the tabernacle as an art critic would have seen anything to prompt the cry, "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty." It had no inviting look, no flashing colors, no wealthy glitter. It was plain almost to ugliness — unpretentious to a degree.
Yet this badger-skin-covered place outshone in David's eyes, the silken luxury of ten thousand tents. While absent from it, he never ceased to picture its outline in his mind, and the remembrance stirred his heart to its lowest depths. The lack of it made the most fertile land as a dry and thirsty wilderness, and beyond his city or his throne, he longed to tread its courts. In a few minutes I will show you what was the charm — but at present I am only pointing out what the charm certainly was not.
May we not learn from this, dear friends, that no mere outward loveliness of a church building can ever satisfy the spiritual soul? To such, the exterior is a matter of comparative indifference. I know that I will be looked at by some almost in the light of a fossil for venturing such an assertion. Perhaps I am in this respect — but I am still certain I am correct.
In proportion, as one learns to worship God in the spirit — he becomes unconcerned about the particular architecture of the building. As a piece of workmanship, he may admire it as much as any; but as a place of worship, it possesses no more charm than the country barn devoted on the Lord's-day to the preaching of the gospel.
I fear that in the present day, reverence for mere bricks and mortar is becoming a very fashionable error. Beauty of design in the church structure is thought more of, than beauty of holiness in sanctuary worship. This is the result of a religion that goes no deeper than the eye can see. But to the man educated of God, mere external symmetry will be powerless to evoke the psalmist's exclamation of "How lovely is your sanctuary!" He wants something more, something that touches the inner springs of the soul.
During the past five weeks it has been my privilege to see some of the great masterpieces of religious architecture. I have gazed upon the Cathedral of Cologne with exquisite pleasure, and marveled at the skill that could rear a building so vast — and yet so exquisite that it appeared more like lacework than solid stone. I have wandered round about the majestic Cathedral of Milan, built of white marble, and glittering in the sun like a snowdrift. I have roamed through the peerless churches of Venice, the queen of the seas, and been captivated with their exquisite mosaics, altars of boundless worth and pictures beyond price!
But not in any one of these has such a feeling been excited as induced David to utter the words of our text. I left them as I entered, or perhaps more truthfully speaking, with a sickening desire for something that spoke to the heart as well as captivated the eyes.
It is easy to imagine that in any one of these, the great architect could spend a day or week with growing pleasure. All around him would speak to the genius within. He could feast his eyes upon the tapering spires without, and the rich wood and stone carvings within. Every monument would be a study, and every shrine a fountain of delight.
The gifted painter might linger here with ecstasy among the incarnations of a Rubens' genius. But if either the architect or painter were a child of God, his soul would be as unmoved, as his mind was delighted. These things serve the intellectual taste — but they leave the spiritual unsatisfied. No brick, no wood, no stone, no marble, however lavish the skill expended on them, can ever constitute the beauty of the sanctuary in the eyes of the saint. It does not consist in the outward.
Where is it then? I answer, in the worship within.
When David longed for the tabernacle, and thought of its beauty, he went in imagination within the covering. Yes, it was not the place itself that in any way filled his heart — but the worship of God within it. How significant is the second verse, and how clearly it shows what it was that he wanted. "My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God." Yes, it was the living God, not lifeless stones or silver, that he valued.
He remembered that it was in the tabernacle that the sacrifices were slain, and there that the typical blood dyed the altars red. It was there that the incense rose in clouds — a sweet-smelling savor unto God. It was there that the united songs of the Levites ascended. It was there that his heart had met with its God, and the thousand hallowed recollections of communion draped the place in loveliness. Beloved, is it not so with us?
Though our worship is far plainer and simpler — these things of outward ritual having been done away with by our Lord — the same charm still remains. Granted that we have no sacrifices and flowing blood — yet we have "Christ crucified" set forth in the preaching of the word as the one great and all-sufficient sacrifice for sin! If no incense floats in clouds above our heads — yet we have the joy of united prayer, when prayer blends with prayer, together rising more fragrant to our God than the perfume of Aaron's censer. If no band of Levites with trained voices chants His praise — yet we have the united song of grateful hearts.
The worship of the new covenant is greater in holy joy, if less in outward grandeur, than the old covenant. We still have the living God in our midst. That makes any place a sanctuary. What would the Jewish tabernacle have been without the divinely-appointed worship within? Nothing; only a collection of meaningless and worthless curtains, skins, pillars and ropes. Just the same value has any place of worship, apart from the worship of the place.
I know there are some to be found who have a silly, superstitious reverence for the building, who almost imagine that some kind of sanctity lingers in the bricks and mortar. Let us do away with such folly. No building is one iota holier than another. Where God is worshiped in the spirit, whether a room, a barn, or in the open air, while the worship lasts, there is a house of God. A house of God without worship is a fiction and a lie.
But here I must meet an objection that has doubtless risen in the minds of some. It shapes itself something after this form: "All you have said may be very true — but does it not apply equally to private worship? Can we not commune with Christ, sing His praises, and engage in prayer as much when alone as with His people? And if so, where is the peculiar beauty of sanctuary worship?"
God forbid that these lips should ever utter a word in disparagement of secret worship. Only those who know what it is by experience, know its sweetness. He who loves public worship the most, will also most prize private fellowship the most. Yet I venture to say that higher joys and greater blessings may be expected from public worship than from private worship, and therefore it is worship of a higher kind. I will try and prove this point in four ways.
First, clearer manifestations of God may be expected in public worship more than in private. It would be impious to imagine that he who uttered the words of our text was not a man who enjoyed much secret communion with his God. Doubtless David knew far more of it than any of us. He could say, "I cry to You all the day." Psalm 86.3. In the night watches he had his songs, and in the morning his thoughts were with his God. Yet this same man often speaks as if it was only in the sanctuary that he obtained his grandest views of God, and he longs for public worship so that he may obtain what he seems unable to obtain in private.
Turn with me to the twenty-seventh psalm, fourth verse, and you will read, "One thing I have desired of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." Why? Mark the reason, "To behold the beauty of the Lord." Psalm 27.4. This certainly seems to imply that David found he could obtain a grander view of the beauty of his Lord in the sanctuary than in the palace. All the manifestations of God's power and glory that he beheld in solitude, left his soul still longing for the more magnificent views of the sanctuary.
So it is with us. To see our God in all His royal robes, and view Him in His regal splendor — we must enter the courts of His house. It is there that we exclaim, "We have seen the goings of our God and king!" There are some snow-crowned mountains in Switzerland that can only be fully seen from the summit of a lower hill top. Looking at them from the valley, half their glittering peaks are hidden. Just so, to see Him who is our high mountain in all His magnificence, it is necessary to ascend the hill of Zion. For this reason if for no other, public worship excels private.
Again, public worship has a greater power to help the soul than private worship. Every person is to a great extent a creature of circumstances, and all are greatly influenced by surroundings. I willingly grant that when the soul is in a serene and happy frame, there are gentle joys in secret fellowship that cannot be surpassed by anything in the sanctuary — but this frame of soul is unfortunately more the exception than the rule, in the experience of most. Now in an unprepared state of heart there is a yearning for outward help, a longing for something that will make its power felt. The soul wants something that will, with happy force, carry it along when it feels too weak itself to press its way. Just this something is found in the united worship of the Lord's people. The very atmosphere is congenial to spiritual progress. Every surrounding speaks of God, and prompts his worship.
There may be some, and I believe there are, who live so habitually near their Lord that they become in a great measure independent of outward helps. Wherever they are, they make a sanctuary, because they carry one in their own breasts. But such Christians as these are few indeed. I question if we have one in our number this morning. Most of us feel that, instead of living above our circumstances, we are as sensitive to them as the mercury of the barometer is to the atmosphere that surrounds it. To such, how precious is the influence of God's house.
There is something sweetly contagious in worship. The grand song of praise rising from hundreds of grateful lips lifts our soul up with it before we are aware. In the stream of united prayer our soul finds itself swept up to the mercy-seat. There is a stimulus in seeing others in the spirit that quickens our flagging powers. God who has provided these means of grace, alone knows how dependent we are upon their use. We only discover that, when we are deprived of their help.
Another reason also gives the sanctuary an additional beauty in the eye of the saint, namely, that there the Lord still performs His greatest works. We are told that the age of miracles is passed, and only fools expect them. I am not prepared to say so myself. I know the age for expecting them seems past, and that is perhaps the reason so few are seen. But whatever may be the case in the outside world, they still take place in the sanctuary. If in our streets, no blind are made to see, no lame to leap, no deaf to hear, no dead to live — yet in our sanctuaries these things are common occurrences! Far higher than the miracle which heals the body — is the miracle that saves the soul. Every conversion is a miracle of grace! Who can tell what marvels are done during one service?
Yonder is a sinner who came into the place stone blind as far as any spiritual sights are concerned. Lo! he leaves exclaiming, "One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see!" John 9.25. Upon those sightless orbs, the Lord has laid His hands, and night is turned into day.
There is one who entered deaf to all the music of a Savior's name. But wondrous change, he sings, "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds!"
The lame man who has long been begging in the streets, now starts upon his feet, and walks and leaps, singing praises to his God.
Yes, the soul that has been dead for years hears a voice, "Come forth!" and at the mandate, he lives.
While God is pleased to make the assemblies of His house the arena of His saving might, every saint must exclaim with the psalmist, "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty."
Lastly on this point, and only for a moment, public worship more resembles that of Heaven than private. Every picture we have of heavenly worship sets it forth as the united worship of a countless host, and the very multitude of worshipers makes its grandeur. The congregation we are told consists of a number that no man can number, and their singing is as the sound of many mighty rushing waters. Their song is one — their music one — their worship one.
In the service of the sanctuary, the nearest approach is made to the likeness of the heavenly. It is there above all places, where we may anticipate a foretaste of our future bliss.
So much then for our first point. I think we have together seen that the beauty of the sanctuary does not consist in anything external — but in the gracious manifestations that God is pleased to make of Himself there, manifestations that exceed in glory those obtained in secret communion.
II. When this beauty is most seen.The loveliness of God's tabernacle is not always equally perceived. There are times when we are led to utter the words of our text with a deeper emphasis than usual — seasons when an unprecedented glory fills the house. I will just mention a few times when God's house seems to possess a charm almost beyond description.
Certainly we must place first on the list, the few Sundays immediately following conversion. What a blessed freshness there is about the worship then. It is something so new, so different to any joy experienced before, that its very novelty lends enchantment.
Do you not remember it this morning, friend, although many a long year has passed since then? Over and over again you had passed by that plain "meeting house" as you called it. Sometimes perhaps you dropped in, and "endured" a service. Right glad were you to get outside again, and sweeping were your criticisms about the uncomfortable pews, bad singing, and long sermon.
Well, God in His mercy met with you. Old things passed away and everything became new — among them your opinion of the village meeting house. When you first entered it as a Christian, you thought the place must have been changed as much as yourself. The old dingy place, had become delightful. It seemed to you as if the foot of Jacob's ladder rested in your very pew, and on every rung an angel stood. The services were all too short to fit your taste, and too few to satisfy your longings. It was the most beautiful building in town to your eye. Deep from the heart came the words "How lovely is your sanctuary!"
Ah, friends, I wish that we could ever carry on us the dew of our spiritual youth, and ever maintain that happy freshness!
Who does not remember the first time he saw the ocean? Has it ever looked so blue since, or its waves appeared so fresh? I think not. We may perhaps imagine that it was a peculiarly fine day then. No doubt it was! But there must have been as fine a day since. Surely the first glimpse had something to do with the beauty that we have never seen repeated.
So is it with the service of the sanctuary — wonder is mingled with the bliss we feel. O, that first time at the Lord's table!! Do you remember it? No, can you ever forget it? How the hand trembled as it took the bread and cup! Not with fear — but through the very excitement of the joy. The Lord's tabernacles were then indeed most lovely.
The beauty of the sanctuary is also wonderful when there is something in the service specially suited to our present experience. Have you not known what it is to feel every part of the service intended for you above all others? The Holy Spirit seemed to have planned it all for your peculiar benefit. The very hymns sung were just the ones you were singing over to yourself before coming. The prayer expressed the desires of your heart as exactly as if you had offered it yourself. As to the sermon, you felt there must be something more than chance in it. God made the man say just the very things your soul needed. If he had been listening to your difficulties for an hour, he could not have spoken more home to your soul. It was a blessed service to you, no matter what it was to others. It was a red letter day in your Sundays, and it can never be forgotten. When God gives us such seasons as these, dear friends — and we wish we had them more often — then the beauty of the sanctuary shines forth with increased charms, and we exclaim, "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty!"
I would add lastly on this portion, that the beauty of the sanctuary can only be fully seen after a season of forced absence. Can you ever forget the joy you felt when for the first time you managed to crawl up to the house of God after that long sickness? You had passed many a weary Sabbath within the four walls of your bedroom. Little better were those you were permitted to spend in the sitting room. But one day the doctor said, "If next Sunday is fine, you may venture out." And when the day came, and once more you found yourself in the beloved spot, what an extra beauty there seemed in the service. True, you were too weak to stand or join in the singing — but your heart kept singing "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty."
But from whatever cause the absence may come — so long as it is forced absence — the joy of return is immense. Speaking personally, I can say I never knew how much I loved the sanctuary until several weeks ago. For three Lord's days I had been surrounded by nothing but superstition, pomp and priests! Weary days they were, and the remembrance of the happy seasons here only served to make them worse. On the fourth Sunday, being at Lucerne, I was enabled to attend the free church of Scotland. The service was held in a Roman Catholic Church — the use of which had been secured in some manner — the altars were all covered up and the place was made to look as plain and as Christian as possible. About seventy or eighty were present. The service was commenced by the minister giving out that well known psalm:
"All people that on earth do dwell.
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice!" etc.
We then started the singing. The tune was the "old hundredth." Some perhaps may smile and think I was rather weak when I tell them that after a few bars had been sung, my voice failed me and I felt as if I must weep. That simple song of true praise did what all the peals of the cathedral organs had failed to do. The change was so great — the worship so simple — God so manifestly present — that looking at that place with all its supposed beauty covered up and hidden, I was forced to say "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty!" Lucerne will long linger in my memory as the place where I learned how beautiful the place of true worship is to the child of God.
Only a minute or two remains to describe,
III. The extent to which the beauty is appreciated, and the only man who can appreciate it at all.The first word of the text gives us an idea of the extent of David's appreciation, and well may the verse close with a note of admiration. The psalmist felt that it was impossible to tell in words the beauty of the place. He could but exclaim, "How lovely!" and leave it for hearts which have felt the same, to fathom the depths of the word. This we know however, that in his eyes the tabernacle made of skins — outshone in beauty all the silken tents of luxury and sin; and one day in its courts was worth more to him than a thousand spent elsewhere.
The "HOW" defies all measurement and description. The only man who can behold this beauty is also learned from one word — the little word "YOUR." It was because the tabernacle was God's that its beauty appeared so great. Now none who is alien from God can find joy in anything, because it is God's. Someone who does not love a person can ever see beauty in that person's house, simply because it is his. Affection for the inhabitant must precede love for the habitation. The only person, therefore, who can truthfully utter this text as his own experience, is the one who, loving God, has learned to love all that belongs to God, and all that aids him in communion with God. Can we say from this cause, "How lovely is your sanctuary, O Lord Almighty!" May the Lord give us grace to do so for Jesus' sake. Amen.