HOW plain and simple it all is! The eye takes it in at a glance. Things and people stand out in their true characters. It is all black, or all white. And black is very black, and white is very white, and there are no shadowy gradations, and no vague, floating, illusive outlines. The conscience is in full possession of the scene, and the facts are as clear as daylight. There are the ungodly; just look at them. They are known; they are a fixed and established class, certified as ungodly. Everybody can see who they are; and they know themselves to be ungodly; that is so strange! They would not deny it, apparently; they intend it; they are ungodly on purpose; their minds are made up; they have taken their line quite deliberately and resolutely and continuously; they spend their lives in it. They are determined to be against God, to refuse His service, to break His law. They are wicked doers; they consciously prefer to do wickedness; they like it; they choose it; they are proud of it; they make a boast of it, we are told, and speak disdainfully of anything else; they carry it on right through to victory. They do not stop anywhere; they do it with thoroughness, they do it with triumph; they are loud in their professions of it, in their audacities; they are openly defiant; they stick at nothing. If they see any people of God they stamp them down; they are foes, and they are meant to be smitten. There is nothing disguised or palliated about their action. This is the heritage of the Lord, and they set to work to harry, and trouble it just because it is the heritage, of the Lord. And the widow, and the orphan, and the stranger, they are weak and defenceless, and they are to be put to death. They see in their weakness a reason for taking advantage of them; they can be killed with impunity; and they are contemptuous of God's judgments; they are sceptical and cynical. "What does it matter? "they say. "Tush, God will not see it." "The Lord does not care." Nobody minds; nothing matters; there is no justice, no over-ruling Providence, no watchful Eye. Why hold in? Why be afraid? Why not sin, and sin, and sin?
That is the black; that is the world as it is described here.
And the white? That is as obvious, and as unqualified. The man who speaks in this Psalm is on the side of God, and he knows it; and he says it, and means it. He has no part or lot with those others. There is no self-criticism or self-suspicion in him as he speaks; he stands for God and clamours for judgment against the evil-doers. He invokes the great Divine vengeance, and he passionately desires the Judge of all the world to appear. Let the day of vengeance begin! He will be glad; it will be a day of victory for all those who are true of heart as he is. And he wants helpers against the evil-doers, he is rallying the good around him. They will meet with opposition and trouble, but let them be perfectly loyal, let them learn patience in adversity; the Lord never fails His own, never forsakes His inheritance; and he is the Lord's, and therefore his courage is very high: and he knows that though the hosts may gather together against the souls of the righteous, and condemn the innocent blood, yet since he is perfectly righteous, and since he is truly innocent, he cries, "The Lord is my refuge." He will see them all destroyed. "Yea, the Lord our God shall destroy them."
There it all stands in that fervid human document, and we feel, I suppose, that the simplicity of such an outlook is very far off us indeed to-day. What meaning has it for us? These crude child-like antitheses are so puzzling, so bewildering to us. Who are the godly? and who are the ungodly? We do not know. So strangely mixed is good with bad that we cannot say of anything, this is all good, this is all bad. Oh! the startling surprises that meet us as the one shifts into the other; the metamorphosis, the shifting drama, the interchanging motives going swiftly to and fro! What sudden changes we often see of what we thought was hopelessly bad, into an angel of light; and angels of light suddenly become Satanic; there are up-rushes of good that break through the blackest night; there are invasions of strange and horrible evil that darken and blacken the best. A whole literature lies behind us exhibiting this. We have had our faculties dissected down to the very bone. We have our George Eliot unravelling motive; we have our Browning trying to dig out the soul of good in everything that is evil, dragging it out from its lair, as it were, seeking whether he cannot discover in the darkest thing of the world that which can be transformed into something good. Or again, dark places are unearthed, and behind what is seemly and fair we are shown all the evil and all the cruelties that lurk there. There are the blindnesses of good people; the intolerable wrong-headedness of the religious, how we know it all! and the sins they commit. Whole worlds open out before us; comedies and tragedies are there, with all their disturbing pathos, dealing with all the mystery of heredity and the problems of environment. Or again, we go down into the world of moral disease, into the hospitals and asylums, all showing the problem in some new form. This dim tumult of confused and swarming life, what does it all mean? Where are we? Where are our sharp judgments? Where are the ungodly and the wicked? Nobody to-day sets out deliberately to be bad. People do not propose deliberately to murder somebody else, to kill the innocent, to oppress the widow because she is a widow. They do it, but they do not mean to do it. People do not deliberately hate the good because they are good; they only hate them because they are not what they pretend to be, because they are not what they profess. Nobody defies God believing Him to be God; they only doubt that He exists.
As we think of these things, we feel how thick the veils are which have fallen over life.
And what of ourselves? Are we quite clear that we are on God's side?
Alas! of all the problems in the world to-day, we ourselves are the greatest problem of all to ourselves. We have looked into ourselves, we know the strange surprises that are there, and which startle us by what we learn about ourselves. We know the horrible possibilities, the weaknesses, the infirmities, that lurk there. Are we the people who are going to stand up and invoke the judgment of God on this sinful world? O God of Vengeance! dare we call upon Him to come out? Can we lift our hearts to heaven and bid the thunder fall and the lightning flash? Why, the first persons over whose head it should roll would be ourselves! This pit which is to be digged up for the ungodly, is it not digged for us? We ourselves are the first to be humiliated, and terrified, and ashamed as we cry out for judgment. Nay! We cannot utter the cry. Rather, we plead, "Not yet, O Lord, not yet the thunder and the lightning! Not yet the great Day of Judgment. I dare not face it any more than these!" And all S. Paul's dialectic is working in our souls, saying that there is hardly any distinction in the law of God between the best and the worst; and we ourselves are as the very worst sinners; we have had the highest privileges, and we have come short most of all; we are all saved by the one grace, whether we be Jew or Gentile, bond or free.
So we stand paralyzed in front of a psalm like that. And yet, if that temper of the Psalmist has become impossible, it is rather a serious case; for its range and its volume spreads throughout the whole Bible; it is always there. Psalm after psalm, prophet after prophet, deliver the same searching verdict. Page after page of the Bible is full of it. The judgment at the Divine bar, the invoking of the God of Vengeance, why the whole Bible clamours for nothing else but that. Our Lord takes up the whole prophecy on His own lips, and lays it all out--the day come, the judgment set--the books opened--the sheep and the goats--heaven and hell. If that has lost its meaning to us, then the Bible has lost its meaning to us. How are we to recover this sense, how make it at all real?
Well! If, subjectively, looking inside men's souls and our own, these sharp distinctions vanish; if in the analysis of motives we find ourselves hesitating and doubtful; yet, nevertheless, all that the Prophets and Psalms have to say reasserts itself very objectively in the realities and facts that are shown outwardly before our eyes.
We look out upon this great City, and there evil is as emphatic and as defined and downright as you could wish. You can see it clearly enough; and as you see it the old, strong language of the Bible springs to your lips. All the old, fiery wrath is natural enough, as you look out on the vast world of drink to-day, or on lust; with the streets so full of horror, of filthy and broken wreckage. You look out on the world of gambling with its mad egotism, shattering home after home; you see all the cruelty in the merciless tyranny of things that beats down the weak, so that the widow and the stranger and the fatherless are broken today by London, and murdered and killed just as of old. The weak go down, the weak go under, and we walk over them.
Think of the babies that are being murdered in London to-day; take up the percentage of the death of babies in any of our worst parishes; hundreds and hundreds in every thousand are dying. Why? Because we kill them, and for no other reason at all. They are dying to-day, they are killed--murdered by us, through sloth, through ignorance, through indifference. We go on committing those old intolerable crimes to day; and, somehow, out of the life of London there seems to rise up the old cry, saying "Tush, the Lord will not see it." Anyhow, we act as if we said it; we act as though He did not care, and would not see. And, as we see all this, the old language springs to our lips. O God of vengeance shew Thyself! Let there be a pit digged up for the ungodly; let the thing end!
It is all quite real to-day; and what are we to say to it, what are we to do? Simply use the natural horror that is in the hearts of all of us at the objective wrong, and turn it against ourselves; vitalise with that horror the judgment that we pass on ourselves and on the subjective subtleties which confuse us.
What strangely disguised motives build up our life! They are so insinuating, so self-excusing, so natural, so hidden! Yes, but these do it; these make London what it is to-day. They are motives that you can so easily pass over, so easily forget. Ignorance, just ignorance for instance, that is enough; it is ignorance that is doing it. Ignorance murders the babies; kills the women; treads under the weak--sheer, unmitigated ignorance on the part of thousands and thousands of people, who choose to live in ignorance--that is all. A little moral laziness, the refusal to face facts, that is quite enough. A touch of indifference, a sense of boredom; we have been told about these horrors so often; we are tired of it all. That is quite enough to make you powerless for good, and to leave you guilty of the murders that are done. A little carelessness; a little forgetfulness; a slack habit, which is not only your habit, but the habit of those with whom you live; strong vested interest which hold us in; all these things have their effect. There is all the accumulated weight of "low tone" about these things of cheap judgments; the accumulated force of a bad spirit behind us, and in us, and about us; these are quite enough to create all the sorrow and misery of our streets to-day. There are the sins against good citizenship, sins against the public welfare.
Well, we are learning at last the wickedness of such sins, and their awful results. We are really plundering people, are we? We are really murdering people, are we? We are really treading under those who are weak, are we? and riding roughshod over the widow and the stranger? and all through a little slackness of mind! We are not in earnest about the remedies; we dread them, because they are so troublesome and perilous. As if any great wrongs could be remedied, except by action, that was troublesome and perilous! And each of us contributes just a little something, so small, so unnoticed, to the dead weight of indifference; and these contributions are swept up into the rest. And you say, Oh, it is all so vague and intangible, how can it be so wicked? Yet it is just because it is so vague and intangible that it is so wicked,
If only on this Ash Wednesday we could revive the sense of vengeance, and recover the conscience of the prophets, and look out and see wickedness as it is, so strong and powerful, and not be afraid to lift up our voice and call down vengeance, even though the vengeance may fall on us! To call down vengeance on this social idleness, this social indifference, this habit of slothful ease with which we have excused time after time--our acquiescence in old habits, our carelessness of what is going on.
Oh down, down upon them, let the Divine vengeance fall! We will pray that to-day, we will invoke the wrath of God upon these things! Why have I been so blind and so forgetful, saying again and again, "Tush, the Lord will not see?"
"O Lord God, to Whom vengeance belongeth, shew Thyself! Arise, Thou Judge of the world, and reward the proud after their deservings!"
Who will rise up? who will lift up his hand to heaven to-day, and swear that he will stand against wickedness? That he is going to pronounce a verdict, and that he will stand by it? Who will rise up with me against the wicked? Who will take my part against the evil-doers? Who will take my part, my part against myself, who am the evil-doer? Who will look out into the world and not be afraid to call upon God to come, and to come to-day? Who will stand for the judgment of God at any cost, or at any risk of what he finds in his own soul!