Cleaving to the Dust
"My soul cleaveth to the dust: O quicken Thou me, according to thy word."--Ps. CXIX, 25.
In his treatise on the Creed, bishop Pearson brings out strongly and strikingly the truth about the angels, good and evil, that "they which fell are fallen for eternity; they which stand, always stood, and shall stand forever." That is the pure spirits who dwelt in heaven had but one probation. They were tested as to their loyalty in some mysterious fashion of God's arranging, and after that there was never any opportunity given for repentance to Lucifer and his hosts who fell. We are not told why this was; yet we may easily believe that the angels were of such nature that there could be no repentance possible in their case; they of necessity stood or fell for eternity in the moment of their one great probation. The Bible is very solemn and mysterious in the way in which it reveals to us the fate of the devils subsequent to their fall. Their proper abode is called the abyss, or more strongly the abysmal pit. Abyss means the bottomless place, and the thought which such a word presents to the mind is very awful indeed. One likes to think of the limitless character of heaven's bliss, that time and space lose themselves in eternity and infinity, and the joys are ever new, the revelations of loveliness inexhaustible. Correspondingly is the nature of hopelessly lost ones limitless in its reaches of separation from all that is good and lovely. That pit is bottomless. There are several very marvellous things revealed to us however about the lost angels. It is said that they issue forth out of the bottomless pit. They cannot come forth by themselves; their prison house must be unlocked by a key given from heaven. Yet when once the pit is opened the evil hosts go forth to torment men upon the earth. Again we are told how a certain angel came down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain in his hand. "And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season." The fathers of the Church understand by this that during this present period of the world in which we now live, the Christian era we call it, until the days of Antichrist, just before the last judgment, the devil is restrained in the bottomless pit from working his full mischief upon the earth, especially from deceiving people and making them truly believe that evil is good. Now he is in the bottomless pit, yet he is to be set free from it for a little while before his final punishment which is to endure eternally. It is also remarkable that when the Revelation of St. John tells us of the war in heaven in which Satan's hosts were worsted by the army of St. Michael, the devil and his angels were cast out into the earth, not, you observe, into the bottomless pit. Once more we read concerning the legion of devils which had possessed the man in Gadara, that they besought our Lord not to command them to go out into the deep, literally the abyss, that is the bottomless pit, their appointed place of torment. In St. Matthew's Gospel the devils on this occasion said to our Lord, " What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, Thou Son of God? Art Thou come hither to torment us before the time?" The idea is plainly that these particular devils at least were not incarcerated in the bottomless pit, and they were anxious lest the time of their liberty to torment men on earth should be curtailed.
I. All of this concerning1 the fate of the lost angels, which is sooner or later the hopelessly locked bottomless pit, serves to accent strongly what the psalmist in our text, speaking by the Spirit says concerning man: "My soul cleaveth to the dust." The word rendered dust is in the Latin and Greek versions pavement or floor, and the Hebrew seems to be quite patient of the same rendering, if we think of the floor as being of earth or clay, which easily becomes dusty on the surface. St. Augustine comments on the verse in this way: "What then meaneth the pavement? If we look upon the whole world as one great house, we see that the heavens represent its vaulting, the earth therefore its pavement. He wisheth therefore to be rescued from earthly things, and to say with the Apostle, Our conversation is in heaven." Carrying out a little more mystically the same conception I would have you think of the psalmist as here accenting the difference between fallen man and the fallen angels. The angels are cast into the bottomless pit, but our fallen human race still has under it a floor, the solid earth as we say. For we may think of our earth in this present dispensation of time as occupying a middle ground, a neutral point so to speak between heaven and hell. Man was not so cast out of paradise by his sin that only the bottomless pit opened to receive him; but the Almighty in His mercy set His degraded servant upon the pavement, the earth itself, a place far enough away from heaven indeed, but yet, thank God, not hell. It is as if some daring cliff climber in the islands where they gather sea-birds' eggs had fallen from a great height, or his rope had given way, yet instead of having been precipitated into the raging sea at the base of that awful cliff he has been caught, at least temporarily, in some closely knitted branches of a tree which has grown out of a crevice in the face of the great rock.
II. I think the psalmist speaking by the Spirit means to remind us of the peril of fancying our pavement, the earth under our feet, to be a permanent abiding place. The tendency of the human soul is to cleave to the dust, to rest upon the pavement as if it were secure. And it is certainly the common manner of man's life to dwell here in this world as if it were our permanent home, where we should build our houses and plant vineyards, calling the lands after our own names. Theoretically the Christian does not do this. He knows that here he has no continuing city; he confesses in his devotions that he is a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth; his only fatherland is heaven, and so long as he is not in heaven he is in banishment. So there are two senses in which the psalmist's sayings may be taken.
1. First of those who willingly settle down upon the earth as if there were nothing else to live for; cleaving to the dust from choice.
2. Or again, and this is clearly the sacred writer's own case, it is spoken of those who in spite of their better knowledge and spiritual sense find the seductions of the world, and of their lower nature--their dust-pan one might say, for God formed man out of the dust of the ground--to be causing them to cleave to the pavement, to the temporal life, while all the time they realize the folly of this course. Circumstances and their own nature are too strong for them, therefore each loyal hearted man goes on with the psalmist to cry; "O quicken Thou me, according to Thy word."
III. The pavement under our feet, the surface of this lower world, often seems very solid and secure to us, yet there are not wanting divine warnings as to its treacherous character. That is surely one of the applications to be made of the story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, in the Old Testament. They had set themselves in rebellion against Moses and against God. Under the sun they stood defiant, resting securely on the solid ground, no evil seemed to threaten. Yet in a moment " the ground clave asunder that was under them; and the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They and all that appertained unto them went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them; and they perished from among the congregation." It is not said indeed that this pit was the bottomless one, it is in the original hades or sheol.
One may think in this connection also of our own way of burying the dead. We open the earth, and let down the cold body into the grave, and then close up the place, leaving the flesh of our dear ones there to be tenderly cared for in the bosom of mother earth, according to the gracious plan of the wise God. It all seems to me very suggestive, this going down into the grave. Still more significant and solemn must be the burial of a body at sea. The shotted shroud, the solemn words of committal, then the melancholy splash, and the mortal remains of the departed one sink down into the great depths to remain till the sea shall be called on in the last day to give up its dead. One instinctively goes on from the thought of the body to that of the soul. It is quite separated from the flesh in the moment of departure; it eludes all our observation, it never reports itself to us again in this world. What determines its state of existence, its resting place in hades? It is to be noted that the Jews always thought and spoke about the soul in much the same way as they did about the body. It also went down into the pit, that is into hades or sheol, represented as a prison house beneath the earth.
1. When Saul came in the dead of the night to the witch-woman at Endor and desired her to bring up to him the ghost of Samuel, I do not suppose that she had any power to do so. Nevertheless, for His own wise purposes, God allowed the spectre of the departed prophet to manifest itself. The words of Samuel are very significant. He says to Saul, "Why hast thou disquieted me to bring me up." The suggestion is certainly that of a dwelling-place beneath the earth.
2. Again we ourselves in the Creed always speak of our Lord ''descending' into hell, or hades. And it would at first sight appear that the Jews supposed that the souls of all the departed, evil and good alike, went down into a common pit or prison house beneath the earth. Our Lord however in the story of Dives and Lazarus makes it sufficiently plain that there was a very clear distinction between the conditions of the wicked and the righteous in that lower world. Though all alike descended into the pit, for the faithful there was found as it were another pavement, a place of secure resting, in the bosom of father Abraham. The impenitent sinners could not obtain entrance into that comfortable abiding place, they found themselves in the pit, if not yet realized as the abyss, at least perceived to be hopelessly separated from the dwelling of the loyal servants of God. The picture is a very strong one which the Master draws in His own perfect way--Dives tormented in flame beseeching in vain for a drop of cooling water.
3. We must never overlook the fact that this story of Dives and Lazarus is spoken concerning the condition of hades before our Lord had redeemed mankind by the death of the cross. So soon as the ransom for the sins of the whole world had been paid by the precious sacrifice of Calvary, the Redeemer began to make His work effectual in the land of departed spirits. His descent into hell must have meant everything of blessing and joy for the righteous ones who waited as prisoners of hope in Abraham's bosom. His entrance transformed in an instant that sombre abode into the loveliness of heaven itself. He could not have meant less than this when He said to the penitent thief " To-day shall thou be with me in paradise," for paradise elsewhere in the Bible always means heaven. Being divine He of natural right bore with Him the Beatific Vision. There is no reason to think that the Master's descent into hades made that dreary prison house more tolerable to the souls of the lost, such as Dives. They were not saved by His death. That death has in it power enough to save every child of man that ever came into the world, and countless millions more were there such to be saved. And there was will enough on the Saviour's part to redeem them every one. Only it was impossible for those who would not believe and repent, for those who made no honest effort of their own will to live according to the light of their conscience. Therefore for such as Judas and Dives there was no improvement of condition because our Lord descended into hell. Rather I suppose by the withdrawal from its realms on Ascension day of all the true-hearted ones, by the eternal removal from that lower world of the paradise of God with its blessed occupants, the woe and pain of the lost souls in the pit was increased. It would seem likely that for awhile, from Good Friday until Ascension day, they had beheld, across the great gulf of which Abraham speaks, the beauteous garden of the Lord, as perhaps the children of Adam, until the time of the deluge in Noah's days, had been able to look with longing eyes upon the wall of Eden, and it may be through its angel-guarded gates to catch glimpses once in awhile of all the loveliness within. After the deluge there was no longer any Eden upon earth; after Ascension day we may reasonably suppose there was no more paradise in hades, but that happy country was only thereafter to be found on high, about the throne of God. Then we may believe the lost ones in the pit realized as they had not before that there was no longer any pavement beneath their feet, no longer anything to restrain their descent into the abyss.
IV. If then it be true that this present world is but a temporary pavement, a floor of mercy enduring but for a little space, interposed by God in order that His unhappy creatures might not be precipitated into the abyss without a chance of restoration, how earnest ought we to be, one and all of us, not to cleave to it, as if it were to be our dwelling place forevermore, but to beseech the Lord continually to quicken us, according to His word, that when our pavement shall fail us we may be ready to mount up on high and not to descend helplessly and hopelessly into the abyss. And there is great reason why we should regard this matter with the utmost seriousness. I do not believe that any one can continue for many years honestly endeavouring to serve God without realizing how miserably weak he is against sin, and how utterly helpless he is unless aided by the divine grace. There are many non-religious folk and even of nominal Christians who live easily and carelessly in the world never thinking at all about sin save in its grosser forms which popular sentiment condemns. These people are not disquieted by thoughts of the breaking up of the pavement beneath their feet and the awful judgment of God which will then ensue. I should like to believe that none of us here belong to that indifferent class of human beings; rather that we are supremely concerned about our spiritual state, and therefore are constantly crying out in the words of the psalmist "O quicken Thou me, according to Thy word." For the quickening which is promised in God's Word is a veritable new life. It is no mere re-invigoration of the old, no simple tonic and reinforcement of man's weakened will. It is the making him all over again, a gift of life such as was never possessed even in possibility before.
1. That is what our Baptism means. We were at the font given the true life of heaven, quickened by the Holy Ghost, according to the divine Word born again. That is what our Confirmation means, the reinforcement of the baptismal gift with the plenitude of spiritual power from on high, in order that the believer may prove himself a good soldier of Jesus Christ. That is what our Communions mean, the great sustenance and new vigour of the life of God brought as super-substantial food into our inmost being. That is what our Confessions mean, the washing clean of the sin-defiled soul, over and over again in the precious Blood of Christ, for the healing and rejuvenation of that life when the diseases of sin have weakened it. The Master is never weary of forgiving if only we will not weary of repenting.
2. Very likely it does not manifest itself much to the world, this new life which is imparted from on high to the soul. It is possible indeed that it should hardly be recognized by the soul of the quickened one himself as a reality already existing. He is willing to take it for a truth on God's word, which does not deceive men. Nevertheless the divine life is present whenever the sacraments are faithfully and loyally used. Their result may be likened to the effect upon some poor prisoner's shackles of the powerful acid which a friend has in secret put into his possession. The bonds are strong beyond any human ability to break, nevertheless day by day according to what it was told him to do he pours upon them a little of the potent contents of his precious phial. There is no outward sign of any effect upon them, so far as a casual observer-such as his jailor could see; howbeit patiently and trustingly he applies the secret acid. If the pavement beneath him should give way before the beneficial work is accomplished the weight of his shackles would drag him down surely to destruction. It is not so ordered in the case of the soul. The pavement of this present world remains secure until all the strength of the new life from above has developed in the inner man, then, as in a moment, the fetters quite rusted through and weak as threads, drop off from hands and feet, the old life of sin is gone, the new life of grace asserts itself, and the soul mounts up towards its celestial destiny.
3. It may be indeed that the upward flight of the redeemed after this life is ended is a slow one, nevertheless, thank God, it is always upward not downward There may remain many sin-stains to be erased, many stripes yet to be endured for evil deeds done in the world, before the grand consummation can be effected. Yet just as by gravity every heavy body descends, and every one lighter than the air mounts upward, so does every soul which is not quickened from on high go down inevitably into the abyss, and irresistibly when once the pavement of this world mercifully interposed between it and perdition is broken up, while every soul endowed with the new life from above ascends surely and irresistibly towards the land of the blessed. In His good time, at the last day, God shall give back to His faithful one's their bodies, quickened in the resurrection, fitted to be the vehicles ci grace-lightened souls, that together body and soul may dwell like the angels with never fear of falling more, in the bright regions of everlasting beatitude.