The Wilderness Wanderer - Part 1
Preached at Providence Chapel, Oakham, on Lord s Day afternoon, September 29, 1867.
Ps 107 we may briefly call an epitome of Christian experience, if we view the Psalms, collectively as a general manual of the experience of God s saints in all ages, and a record or register of the varied phases of divine life in the soul, this Psalm, in particular, we may consider as a concise and expressive abstract of the whole. It is for this reason that it always has been highly valued by, and been particularly dear to every one truly taught of God, and most especially to those who have been led most deeply into the mysteries of the divine life. Thus, though I have termed it an epitome or abstract of Christian experience, yet I should add, that it is more adapted to the advanced stages of the divine life than to its first beginnings, and is more suitable to the tried, the exercised, and the tempted of the family of God than to those who walk in an easier path and are led more gently into the ways of grace and truth.
I may observe, also, that in this Psalm there is this remarkable feature which makes it exceedingly interesting as well as instructive and edifying; that in describing various cases of Christian experience, the Holy Spirit has laid down certain marks and lineaments of the divine life which are common to all that are possessed of the fear and grace of God, and yet has traced out other points in which there is a clear and visible difference. This gives to the Psalm two prominent features, of which the one is unity, and the other variety; and what is thus so beautifully and so graphically wrought out in the Psalm exactly corresponds with what observation shews us is the case in different Christians, which makes it doubly instructive, and edifying. We see in them, as we see in the Psalm itself, a unity of divine teaching and yet a variety, so that though all are taught the same truths by the same Spirit, yet not all are taught in the same manner, nor learn them precisely in the same way.
But let me bring before you this peculiar feature of the Psalm a little more fully and clearly. If we read it with a spiritual and enlightened eye, we shall see four different characters represented in it, whom I may briefly designate as, first, the wilderness wanderer; secondly, the imprisoned rebel; thirdly, the afflicted fool; and fourthly, the storm tossed mariner. At your leisure you can carefully read, as I hope you will, the Psalm through, and I think you will find the four characters which I have just named, distinctly traced in it; and in reading the experience, so beautifully described, of these four characters, you will find also these four following distinctive features stamped upon each and all, whether it be the wilderness wanderer, the imprisoned rebel, the afflicted fool, or the storm tossed mariner.
You will find,
1, that they are all brought into trouble;
2, that they all cry unto the Lord to bring them out of their trouble;
3, that they are all delivered by God s special power and interposition; and
4, that all bless and praise Him for His manifested deliverance.
It is because they all unite in these four points that there is what I have called a unity in their experience; and it is similarly because they differ in other points that the Psalm is stamped with such an interesting and instructive variety. I cannot at this time dwell upon these points at greater length; but you will find them full of matter for your private meditation, and as giving you an insight into the mind and meaning of the blessed Spirit in what I have called this epitome or abstract of Christian experience.
We will now, then, with God s blessing, this afternoon, look at the character whom I have briefly named as "the wilderness wanderer." I will begin by reading the first verses of the Psalm, for, as is often the case, they strike what I have sometimes called the key-note, and in so doing give us, as it were, a divine key to the meaning of the whole. The Psalmist calls upon God s people to praise the Lord: "O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever." The goodness of the Lord is thus set before our eyes as the grand key to all His dealings with His people, both in providence and in grace, for in both these dominions of His hand, the goodness of the Lord forms the theme of the Psalm. But His goodness, as celebrated here, is not merely such a goodness as our Lord meant when He said to the man who called Him good, "there is none good but one, that is God;" for in this sense He is "good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works." Ps 145:9 He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust; is kind to the unthankful and to the evil; and loveth the stranger, giving him food and raiment. But His goodness, as traced out in this Psalm, and as calling for the thankfullness of the redeemed, is that goodness which is connected with mercy, and is therefore a goodness of grace.
Now, in the deep trials and exercises described in this Psalm, the goodness and mercy of God would be much out of the sight of those passing through them. They both would be obscured by the temptations, afflictions, and exercises described in it; and those who were passing through them would be often tempted to say, "Is his mercy clean gone forever, and will He be favourable no more?" The Holy Spirit, therefore, stamps this grand truth in the very front of the Psalm, to stand there as its permanent headpiece; "His mercy endureth for ever." You doubtless remember the Psalm, Psalms 136 consisting of many verses, and yet in every verse of it the Holy Spirit sounds the same trumpet note: "for His mercy endureth for ever." It is not only mercy, but enduring mercy, and that for ever and ever-enduring through all trials, temptations, afflictions, desertions, sins, and sorrows; it is, I say, because this mercy can never fail, but lives, and lasts, and stands through every thing which can most strongly try it, that it is so suitable and so precious. The Psalmist, therefore, or rather the Holy Ghost by the Psalmist, before He enters upon the trials and temptations, afflictions and sorrows of the exercised family of God, calls upon them, under a solemn review of what they have known and felt of the enduring mercy of God, as bearing them up and carrying them through all their trials, to give thanks unto a God so good, unto a God of such enduring mercy.
But observe further, how clearly this people are marked out; for who are they who are thus called upon to give thanks unto the Lord because He is good? Who are they who have a testimony that His mercy endureth for ever? It is "the redeemed of the Lord." "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy." I need not enter into any long explanation of who these redeemed are; for it is a point which in time past I have so often brought before you. I shall only then say, simply, that the redeemed of the Lord are those whom He has redeemed by price and redeemed by power; in other words, those whom He has redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, as the ransom price of their deliverance from sin and all its dreadful consequences, and those who have known the strength of His mighty arm, whereby
He has brought them out of the house of bondage.
But we may observe a still further description of their character: "And gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west; from the north, and from the south." At a hasty glance, you might think that these words referred to God s gathering His people out of Egypt. But a second look will convince you that they were not spoken in reference to Israel of old. The words run: "gathered them out of the lands." Now Israel was not scattered in the lands. Israel was in one land, the land of Egypt. It was not therefore true in their case in days of old that they were gathered out of the lands. But where is Israel now-I mean the literal Israel-Israel after the flesh? Are they not scattered in almost all the lands of the earth? God has fulfilled in their case this threatening of old: "And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee." De 28:37 And again, "My God will cast them away, because they did not hearken unto Him: and they shall be wanderers among the nations." Ho 9:17 How literally have these predictions been fulfilled. God s ancient Israel are now "wanderers among the nations," and, according to His declaration, He has scattered them among all people, from one end of the earth even unto the other. De 28:64
There seems to be, therefore, in the words, a prophetic and prospective reference to the future gathering of God s dispersed people, when He will bring back the captivity of Zion, and then it will be literally verified. He will gather them out of the lands, "from the east, and from the west; from the north, and from the south." These words afford a further proof that the redeemed of the Lord who are gathered from the four quarters of heaven, do not represent the children of Israel as brought out of Egypt under Moses. The literal Israel, when brought out of Egypt, was not in the east nor west nor north, but in the south, and in the south only; for Egypt lay to the south, or a little to the south-west of the land of Canaan, as we find it said of Abram: "And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south. And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land." Ge 12:9,10 These words, therefore, cannot refer to the literal redemption of Israel out of the house of bondage, when He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through, and made the waters to stand as a heap. But viewed prophetically, with reference to the future gathering of the ancient people of God, they remarkably agree with the language of the prophet: "Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, give up; and to the south, keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth." Isa 43:5,6 But if you recollect, I commenced with observing that the Psalm was an epitome of Christian experience, and that there were four characters spiritually represented in it. Now, you may be inclined to ask me how I reconcile that assertion with the interpretation which I have just advanced. In order to clear up this apparent difficulty, you must bear in mind the key which Peter gives us to unlock prophecy: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation." 2Pe 1:20 By this he means, that in interpreting Scripture prophecy, we are not to limit it to any one particular, for that is the meaning of the word "private," or peculiar interpretation. The very beauty of Scripture consists in the largeness of the interpretation; and in this is especially shewn its divine inspiration, as Peter adds: "For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." 2Pe 1:21 "Prophecy," he tells us, that is prophecy generally, not "the prophecy," as it is incorrectly translated, but prophecy generally, "came not in old time by the will of man," which would have tied and limited it to one particular and definite interpretation, " but holy men of God," being as it were the mouthpiece of the Holy Ghost, for they spake as they were moved by Him, uttered words which had a meaning deeper and larger than any one peculiar and limited interpretation.
It is for this reason that the words of our text bear an experimental interpretation as well as that prospective and prophetic interpretation to which I have alluded. We are, therefore, warranted to give them an experimental interpretation, of which I may observe, as an additional proof, that it makes it harmonise more fully with the general character of the Psalm. We must give an experimental interpretation to the imprisoned rebel, the afflicted fool, and the storm tossed mariner. It would, therefore, dislocate the harmony of the Psalm if we assigned to the wilderness wanderer, and to his being gathered out of the lands, wholly a prophetic interpretation; and we seem thus confirmed in the view, that whatever reference it may have prophetically to the future, it is experimentally true in the present. Bearing, then, this in mind, and viewing the words as applicable to the saints of God generally, is it not spiritually and experimentally true that God gathers His redeemed out of the lands? And it is often literally true also. We have a gathering here this day, and a large gathering, for instance. This is not a parish gathering: it is a gathering from east and west, from north and south. And what has gathered you together? To hear the word. This has brought you from various places, and you have come far and near this day to hear the word from the lips of your old minister and friend. May you not hear it in vain, and may the Lord bless our meeting together this day.
But it is time to come to the character on whom I shall lay principally my hand this afternoon. And I shall attempt to describe it as here drawn so graphically and beautifully by the inspired pen of the Holy Ghost. I will read my text again that you may see it in the connection to which I have referred: "They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way: they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. 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."
Observe with me, then, four features stamped upon our text with some degree of prominence.
I.- First, the wanderer himself, as straying in the wilderness, and finding there no settled habitation.
I- Secondly, the hunger, the thirst, and the faintness of the wilderness wanderer.
III.- Thirdly, his cry in his trouble, and the deliverance vouchsafed him out of his distresses.
IV.-And lastly, the way in which the Lord ultimately led him forth, which was, "by the right way, that he might go to a city of habitation."
I.-I have first to describe the wilderness wanderer, that you may have some evidence in your bosom how far the character is yours.
1. The wilderness wanderer we may briefly characterise as one whose heart grace has touched, and to whom the Lord the Spirit has communicated divine life. Now what are the feelings, the exercises, the experiences of a soul thus quickened into divine life?
One of the very first is to find this world a wilderness. There is no change in the world itself: the change is in the man s heart. The world is whatever it was, and whatever it will be to worldly men. He may think it altered -a different world from what he has hitherto known. His friends, his companions, his very relations, the employment in which he is daily engaged, the general pursuits of men, the cares and anxieties, hopes and prospects, amusements and pleasures, and what I may call the general din and whirl of life, all seem to him different to what they were; and for a time perhaps he can scarcely tell whether the change is in them, or in himself. This however is the prominent and uppermost feeling in his mind, that he finds himself, to his surprise a wanderer in a world which has changed altogether its aspect to him. The fair, beautiful world, in which was all his happiness and all his home, has become to him a dreary wilderness. Sin has been fastened in its conviction on his conscience, and a sight and sense of sin in himself have shewn him sin in others. The Holy Spirit has taken the vail of unbelief and ignorance off his heart, and shewn him light in God s light. He now sees the world in a wholly different light, and instead of a paradise it has become a wilderness: for sin, dreadful sin, has marred all its beauty and happiness.
As the figure of a wilderness is of such constant recurrence in the Scriptures, and as it is so very expressive, it may be as well to look for a few moments at its character naturally, so as to gather from it what the Holy Spirit intended to convey by it spiritually. In this climate, naturally so humid and so continually refreshed with rains at almost every season of the year, giving us ever verdant fields and trees clothed in leafy green, except in the dead of winter, we have no idea of a wilderness, such as was familiar to those for whom the Old Testament Scriptures were expressly written. And yet I think I can give you a little idea of it. Many of you have been by the sea-side, and have there seen a heap of shingle or sand spreading itself as far as your eyes could reach along the beach, and as you looked at it you would have observed what a contrast there was between this far-spreading beach of shingle or sand, and such a prospect as we are familiar with in the Midland Counties, where, on every side, we see grassy meadows, green hedges, and corn fields laden with crops of grain. Now in imagination take that long tract of desolate shingle or sand into a very hot clime and spread it in all directions, so as to have nothing else before your eyes, wherever you look, to the utmost verge of the visible horizon, and then picture a burning, almost vertical sun above your head, and conceive it beating down with tremendous heat upon this wide and desolate sand, without the least shade of the smallest tree to protect you from its beams. Toiling along a dusty road in the heat of summer, without a single tree, may give you some little idea of the heat.
Now conceive the case of a man, who having been accustomed to live among corn fields and green pastures, and to walk amidst blooming hedges, finds himself unexpectedly in such a wilderness as this, with nothing but the burning sun above, and the hot, parched and glowing sand beneath. I have given you but a faint and feeble description of a desert or a wilderness, such as is known in Eastern climes, and especially in that part of the earth in which Palestine was situated. As far as regarded the land of Canaan itself, it was not a wilderness; for Moses describes it as "a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills, a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates, a land of oil olive and honey." But on every side of this favoured land there stretched, especially to the east and south, what Moses calls "a terrible wilderness," a "waste, howling" desert. The figure, therefore, of a wilderness was very familiar to every Israelite.
But now, having thus gathered up what is a wilderness, literally and naturally, let us see how it bears upon the experience of a child of God when quickened by divine power, and made for the first time to feel what this world is; for you will recollect that this was the view which I took of it just now in my explanation. As I said before, it is not because the world itself is changed that he feels it to be a wilderness, but because he himself is changed. Most of us know that our happiness, even naturally, does not consist in outward things. With everything around him that is naturally gladdening and beautiful, a man may be truly miserable; and many a young heart, with blighted affections and crushed prospects, has found a gloomy pall drawn over the whole face of nature, so that the very sky above, and the very earth beneath, seemed clothed in mourning. She who once was so gay and happy is now thoroughly miserable and the most beautiful scenes of nature cannot restore her to happiness and peace. So it is spiritually with a soul quickened into divine life. There is nothing in this world which can really gratify or satisfy it. What once was to him a happy and joyous world has now become a barren wilderness. The scene of his former pursuits, pleasures, habits, delights, prospects, hopes, anticipations of profit or happiness, is now turned into a barren waste. What once was a blooming corn field, a verdant pasture, a glorious prospect of hill and dale, trees and flowers, is now turned into sand and shingle, with the burning sun of God s wrath above, and the parched sand of his own desolate heart beneath. He cannot perhaps tell how or why the change has taken place, but he feels it, deeply feels it. He may try to shake off his trouble and be a little cheerful and happy as he was before; but if he gets a little fancied relief, all his guilty pangs come back upon him with renewed strength and increased violence.
But even assuming that he is not thus powerfully dealt with, but is led in a somewhat milder way, it still comes much to the same point. God means to make the world a wilderness to every child of His that he may not find his happiness in it, but be a stranger and a pilgrim upon earth. He has various ways of effecting this end. I will name some, that you may compare your experience with it.
1. You have perhaps married the woman or man of your affections, and, in thus obtaining the desire of your heart, imagined to yourself a long series of years of wedded happiness; and the Lord may, for a time, have allowed you a share of the happiness thus pictured to yourself. But He knows full well that the heart of man so rests in, so idolises the creature, that it must be dislodged from this nest, that it may find happiness in Him, and in Him alone. Thus it often happens, that before the Lord quickens the soul into spiritual life, or sometimes at the very time, using it as an instrument, He brings a blight over this happiness. Sometimes, for instance, He brings the body down with ill-health, or takes away the beloved husband at a stroke, or removes the wife out of her partner s bosom. Or if He spare the root, He may cut off some of the branches; He may afflict or take away the children. Now where is all the pleasure which you once so fondly anticipated, and even for a time enjoyed? It is all broken up, fled, and gone like a dream of the night. And now, what is this world to you? A wilderness; a barren, waste, miserable wilderness.
2. Or take another case which may have been the experience of some here. The Lord may have brought you down in circumstances. You have taken, perhaps, a nice farm, and were expecting crops that would repay you for your outlay of capital and unwearied industry; or you have entered into business, and seemed at one time to have had good prospects; or have embarked in the exercise of some professional pursuit, where everything appeared in your favour. But after a longer or shorter time, a reverse came over the scene, and everything seemed to go wrong; your crops failed, or your business fell off, or the profits of your profession dwindled almost to a starving point; and in this, or in some such similar way, all your blooming prospects were blighted, and poverty came in like an armed man.
3. Or assume another case, for I wish to meet the varied experiences of God s people as much as I can. The Lord may have sent upon you, from different quarters, trial after trial, and affliction after affliction. All has gone seemingly wrong with you-business, family, the poor body; and a variety of other circumstances have all opened up continual sources of grief and sorrow. Now what do you learn from these dispensations of God s hand? One of the first lessons is, that this world is not a place of corn fields and green pastures, with nothing around you but happiness and pleasures, but a barren wilderness. You begin to feel, that after all the attempts that you and others may use to make it a place of joy and happiness, it is a miserable world, and that you are a poor miserable sinner in it.