"Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses. And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation. Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men."--PSALM cvii. 6-8.
This 107th Psalm is a noble psalm--a psalm which has given comfort to thousands in suffering and in danger, even in the sorrows which they have brought on themselves by their own folly. For it tells them of a Lord who hears them when they cry to Him in their trouble, and who delivers them from their distress.
It was written on a special occasion, as all the most important words of the Bible are written--written seemingly, after some band of Jews struggling across the desert, on their return from the captivity in Babylon, had been in great danger of death. They went astray in the wilderness out of their way, and found no city to rest in; hungry and thirsty their soul fainted in them, so they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He led them forth by the right way, that they might go to the city where they dwelt. That was the plain fact, on which the psalmist built up this noble psalm.
In the blazing sandy desert, without water, food, or shade, they had lost their path, and were at their wit's end. And they cried unto the Lord their God for guidance, for they could not guide themselves. And the Lord answered their prayer and guided them. We do not read that God worked a miracle for them, or sent an angel to lead them. Simply, somehow or other, they found their way after all, and got safe out of the desert; and they believed that it was God who enabled them to find their way, and praised the Lord for His goodness; and for His goodness not only to them, but to the children of men--to all men who had the sense to call on Him in trouble, and to put themselves in their right place as men--God's children, calling for help to their Father in heaven.
Therefore the psalmist goes on to speak of the cases of God's goodness, which he seems to have seen, or at least heard of. Of wretched prisoners, bound fast in misery and iron, and that through their own fault and folly, who had cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and been delivered by Him from the darkness of the dungeon. Of foolish men who had ruined their health, or at least their prospects in life, by their own sin and folly, till their soul abhorred all manner of meat, and they were hard at death's door. But of them, too, he says, when they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, He delivered them from their distress. He sent His word--what we now foolishly call the laws of Nature, but which the Psalmist knew to be the ever-working power and providence of God--and healed them, and they were saved from their destruction.
Then he goes on to speak of the dangers of the sea which were especially strange and terrible to him--a Jew. For the Jews were no sailors; and if they went to sea, would go as merchants, or supercargoes in ships manned by heathens; and the danger was really great. The ships were clumsy; navigation was ill-understood; the storms of the Mediterranean sea were then as now, sudden and furious; and when one came on, the heathen sailors would, I doubt not, be at their wit's end, their courage melting away because of the trouble, and call on all their gods and idols to help them; but the men of whom the Psalmist speaks, though they were no seamen, knew on whom to call. It was by the word of the Lord that the stormy wind arose which lifted up the billows. He could quell the storm if He would, and when He would; and to Him they cried and not in vain. "And He made the storm to cease so that the waves thereof were still. Then were they glad, because they were at rest, and so He brought them to the haven where they would be."
My friends, this was the simple faith of the old Jews. And this was the simple faith of our forefathers by land and sea. And this faith, as I believe, made England great. The faith that there was a living God, a living Lord, who would hear the cry of poor creatures in their trouble, even when they had brought their trouble on themselves. Our forefathers were not mere landsmen like the Jews, but the finest seamen the world has ever seen. And yet they were not ashamed in storm and danger to cry like the Jews unto the Lord, that He might make the storm to cease, and bring them to the haven where they would be. Yes! faith in God did not make them the less brave, skilful, cautious, scientific; and it need not make us so. Skill and science need not take away our faith in God. I trust it will not take it away, and I believe it will not take it away, as long as we can hear what I once heard, on board of one of the finest men of war [80a] in the British Navy--the ship in which and from which, all British sailors may learn their duty--when I saw some six or eight hundred men mustered on the deck for daily morning prayer, and heard the noble old prayer, which our forefathers have handed down to us, to be said every day in Her Majesty's navy: [80b]
"O eternal God who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; who hast compassed the waters with bounds, until day and night come to an end; be pleased to receive into Thy Almighty and most gracious protection, the persons of us Thy servants, and the fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy, that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Victoria and her dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of our island may in peace and quietness serve Thee our God, and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labours, and with a thankful remembrance of Thy mercies, to praise and glorify Thy holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Then, as I stood upon that deck, and heard that solemn appeal to God, before each man went about his appointed duty for the day, said I to myself, "The ancient spirit is not dead. It may be that it is sleeping in these prosperous times. But it is not dead, as long as this nation by those prayers confesses that we ought at least to believe in a God who hears our prayers, by land and sea. Those grand words were perhaps nothing but a form to most of the men who heard them. But they were a form which bore witness to a truth which was true, even if they forgot it--a truth which they might need some day, and feel the need of, and cling to, as the sailors of old time clung to it. Those words would surely sink into the men's ears, and some day, it might be, bear fruit in their hearts. In storm, in wreck, in battle, and in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment, these words would surely rise in many a brave fellow's memory, and help him to do his duty like a man, because there was a living Lord and God above him who knew his weakness and would hear his prayers."
And we, my friends, here safe on land, we have a national prayer, or rather a series of prayers, to Christ as God, which ought to remind us of that noble truth which the 107th Psalm is meant to teach. You hear it all of you every Sunday morning. I mean the Litany. That noble composition, which seems to me more wise as a work of theology, more beautiful as a work of art, the oftener I use it--That Litany, I say, is modelled on the 107th Psalm; and it expresses the very heart and spirit of our forefathers three hundred years ago. It bids us pray to be delivered from every conceivable harm, to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then it prays for every conceivable blessing, not only for each of us separately, but for this whole nation of England, Great Britain, and Ireland, and for all the nations on earth, and for the heathen and the savage.
Of course, just because it is a National prayer, and meant for all Englishmen alike, all of it does not suit each and every one of us at the same time. Each heart knows its own bitterness. Each soul has its own special mercy to ask. But there is a word in the Litany here, and another there, which will fit each of us in turn, if we will but follow it. One may have to pray to be delivered from pride, vain-glory, and hypocrisy--another to be delivered from foul living and deadly sin--another to be delivered, or to have those whom he loves delivered, from battle, murder, and sudden death. Another to be delivered from the dangers of affliction and tribulation; another from the far worse danger of wrath; but all have to pray to be delivered from something. And all have to pray to the same deliverer--Christ, who was born a Man, died a man, and rose again a man, that He might know what was in man, and be able to succour those who are tempted, seeing that He was tempted in all things like as we are, yet without sin.
But there is a part--the latter part--of that Litany which, I think, many do not understand or feel. Perhaps they have reason to thank God that they do not understand or feel it; yet, the day may come--a day of sadness, fear, perplexity, sorrow, when they will understand it, and thank God that their forefathers placed it in the prayer-book, for them to fall back upon, as comfort and hope in the day of trouble; putting words into their mouths and thoughts into their hearts, which they, perhaps, never would have found out for themselves.
I mean that latter part of the Litany which talks of the evils which the craft and subtilty of the devil or men work against us, that they may be brought to nought, and by the providence of God's goodness be dispersed, that we may be hurt by no persecutions--which calls on Christ to arise and deliver us, for His name's sake and His honour, which pleads before God the noble works which He did in the days of our forefathers; and which continues with short prayers, almost cries, which have something in them of terror, almost of agony. What have such words to do with us? Why are they put into the mouths of us English, safe, comfortable, prosperous, above almost all the nations upon earth?
Ah! my friends, those prayers, when they were first put into our prayer- book, were spoken for the hearts of Englishmen. They were not prayers for one afflicted person here, and another there,--they, too, were National prayers. They were the cries of the English nation in agony--in the time when, three hundred years ago, the mightiest nations and powers of Europe, temporal and spiritual, were set against this little isle of England, and we expected not merely to be invaded and conquered, but destroyed utterly and horribly with sword and fire, by the fleets and armies of the King of Spain. In that great danger and war our forefathers cried to God; and they cried all the more earnestly, because they felt that their hands were not clean; that they had plenty and too many sins to be "mercifully forgiven," and that at best they could but ask God "mercifully to look upon their infirmities," and, "for the glory of His name, turn from them those evils which they most righteously had deserved." But nevertheless they cried unto God in their great agony, because they had the spirit of the old Psalmist, who said, "They cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distress."
And what answer God made to their prayers all the world knows, or should know. For if He had not answered their prayer, we should not be here this day, a great, and strong, and prosperous nation, with a pure Church and a free Gospel, and the Holy Bible if he wills, in the hands of the poorest child. Unless prayer be a dream, and there be no God in heaven worth calling a God--then did God answer the prayers of our forefathers three hundred years ago, when they cried unto Him as one nation in their utter need.
But some will say--this may be all very true and very fine, but we are in no such utter need now. Why should we use those prayers?
My dear friends, let me say, if you are not now in utter need, in terror, anxiety, danger, if you have no need to cry to Christ, "Graciously look upon our afflictions; pitifully behold the sorrows of our hearts," how do you know that there is not some one in any and every congregation who is? And you and I, if we have said the Litany in spirit and in truth, have been praying for them. The Litany bids us speak as members of a Church, as citizens of a nation, bound together by the ties of blood and of laws, as well as self-interest. The Litany bids us say, not selfishly and apart, Graciously look on my afflictions, but on our afflictions--the afflictions of every English man, and woman, and child, who is in trouble, or ever will be in trouble hereafter. Oh, remember this last word. Generations long since dead and buried have prayed for you, and God has heard their prayers; and now you have been praying for your children, and your children's children, and generations yet unborn, that, if ever a dark day should come over England, a time of want and danger and perplexity and misery, God would deliver them in their turn out of their distress. And more; you have been teaching your children, that they may teach their children in turn, and pray and cry to God in their trouble; and thus this grand old Litany is to us, and to those we shall leave behind us a precious National heir-loom, teaching us and them the lesson of the 107th Psalm--that there is a Lord in heaven who hears the prayers of men, the sinful as well as the sorrowful, that when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, He delivers them out of their distress, and that men should therefore praise the Lord for His goodness, and declare the wonders which He doeth for the children of men.
[80a] H.M.S. the Duke of Wellington.
[80b] Form of prayer to be used at sea.
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