The depths of which the Psalmist speaks were those of penitence. We do not know his name, or the nature of his sin, or what led him to repent of it, or what caused him to believe that God would forgive it. But it evidently occasioned him great distress, and out of this he cried to God for mercy. His prayer was answered, and he obtained the for giveness which he sought.
It shows that sin is not a modern thing. It shows that repentance is not a purely Christian sen timent. The sense of guilt is as ancient and as universal as the human race. And whenever and wherever it has been profoundly felt, men have cried to God for pity and for pardon. We observe this in connection with every form of religious be lief, and we observe it in the case of those who have had little thought or care in regard to religion. Whenever the conscience is profoundly stirred, men instinctively cry out to God.
The same is true of one who finds himself plunged into great depths of sorrow. When life is bright and the heart is glad, we are very often unmindful of the fact that all our happiness comes from Him, and that we owe to Him at least the tribute of grad tude. It is not impossible for us even to go on for many days or years, with no distinct acknowledg ment of His goodness, and no recognition of our obligations to Him. But when some overwhelming grief befalls us, we remember Him. We ought to think of Him as the author of our joy. We almost always think of Him as the author of our sorrow. And if we have never before asked anything of Him, we are then very apt to ask His help. Some times it is light that we want, and we demand of Him that He shall tell us why He has thus afflicted us. Oftener still it is comfort and strength. Our burden seems heavier than we can bear. The nearest of our friends cannot help us to bear it. And out of the depths of our distress we cry to God. At such a time we seem to be face to face with Him. Things that have long amused us or absorbed us fade away. And we send up our prayer for comfort to Him who alone can enable us to bear the trial He has sent upon us.
The same is true again of almost any one who finds himself in sudden and imminent peril. You remember the vivid picture in the one hundred and seventh Psalm of those who go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters, and who are thus exposed to the danger of shipwreck."Then they cry, "it says, "unto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses."It happens far oftener now than then. A careless company of people may somewhere at this moment be lounging and chatting on a ship's deck. There is an outbreak of fire, or the crash of a collision. Everything is excitement and confusion. And those who never prayed before cry out to God to have pity upon them and save them. So whenever an unexpected casualty happens, and men find themselves confronting death, or when in sickness the resources of human skill prove unavailing, and the tenderest human love is helpless, in the dire emergency and the desperate danger the soul in stinctively cries out to God. The danger may pass and the old mood of religious indifference return, but one never forgets such an experience; no one ought to forget the lesson which it teaches.
So it is again very often, when one finds himself facing a difficult duty. In the ordinary concerns of life we may not feel any particular need of di vine guidance or help. It is not easy to keep this constantly in mind amidst the innumerable things that we are doing every day. But when an un usual responsibility is laid upon us, and we are compelled to undertake some task of critical im portance, we not only recognize,- but we do not hesitate to confess it. It is not merely a concession to the religious prejudices of the people, or a com pliance with long-established usage when a newly elected president of the United States, on entering upon his office, publicly expresses the sense of de pendence upon God. On the eve of a great battle, many a stout soldier has been heard to pray. Be fore attempting a difficult operation, many a devout physician has been known to ask God's help. At such times we feel that we may properly do this. Out of the depths of our need, we naturally cry to God.
We all do the same thing when we find ourselves in the depths of discouragement and of despond ency. When we are disappointed at the ill success of efforts we have made; when we are baffled by difficulties that we could not foresee and cannot surmount; when we are uncertain as to what we ought to do; when we are in doubt as to those on whom we can depend; in a word, when our judg ment wavers and our courage fails, we are very apt, are we not, to look upward and ask counsel and aid - the counsel and aid of God. Conscious of our weakness, we cry to Him for strength; hope less of success without His help, we pray that He will guide and help us.
And then once more, not to multiply these illus trations, we are all apt to cry to God out of the depths of some unwonted joy. We take, as I have said, the ordinary blessings of life with little thank fulness, with little serious recognition even, of the source from which they come. But now and then there comes to us a happiness so great, so un expected, so overwhelming, that our hearts are lifted by it above their ordinary level, as a ship is lifted by a rushing wave. The ordinary language of life is then insufficient to express our deep emo tion. It is not enough for us to gather in the con gratulations of our friends, or to manifest our new found happiness by any look or gesture of delight."Thank God, "we say, "Thank God."The words may sound strangely on our lips. But they are forced from the depths of our rejoicing hearts by that intensity of feeling which finds no other adequate expression.
So it is then very often with men of different na tures, different training, different opinions and beliefs. When life moves calmly on upon its ordi nary level, they seldom think, perhaps, of God, they care little about Him. He is not in all their thoughts, and perhaps not in any of them. They are not conscious of their dependence upon Him, they do not recognize their obligations to Him. But as soon as they find themselves in some one of the graver and more critical experiences of life, when the depths of their souls are stirred, and the voice of human nature makes itself heard, you find them crying out to God. It may be in faith and hope. It may be in terror and despair. But His is the name which then leaps to their lips. Out of the depths of their souls there goes up to Him an instinctive though perhaps involuntary prayer.
Now there is, I think, something extremely sug gestive in this. It may not prove anything, but it certainly seems to indicate that there is a natural affinity between our souls and God. For these are occasions when our true nature speaks and acts. The restraints of conventionality and of habit are laid aside. The influences of training and of envi ronment no longer control us. There is no fear of men before our eyes. But we feel that we must reach, and reach at once, the highest source of aid and comfort which we can possibly attain. We are face to face with supreme realities. And what do we do? We cry out for God. It is as if we knew that our souls can find their true satisfaction, that our nature finds its real completeness, that our wants attain their full supply, in Him alone. It is as if we realized that we are made for Him as well as by Him, that there is an indestructible bond of kinship between us. So a mother and child, after long separation, rush into one another's embrace, heedless of the throng of unknown or indifferent strangers who may be standing by. So the elec tricity that is in the cloud recognizes its affinity with that which is in the earth, and leaps to unite with it, forcing its way through whatever obstacles may intervene. If there were not such an inde structible bond between us and the infinite and eternal One above us, we certainly should not so promptly, invariably, passionately, cry out for Him from the deepest experiences of life and in those moments when the deepest impulses of our nature are aroused. Augustine's familiar words are true, "Thou, 0 God, hast made us, and made us for Thyself; and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."While we are floating calmly on the bright current of our ordinary life, we easily forget this. We feel no need of rest. But when the waves and billows of some tempestuous experience threaten to overwhelm us, it becomes to us a reality in comparision with which everything else appears unreal. The depths are then uncovered, and the fact is revealed to us that we are akin to the Infin ite, that we bear the image of our Maker, that we are the children of God.
Then again this habit which we so often observe shows how profound and how ineradicable is the faith of man in God. There is in the world not a little formal atheism; there is much more practical atheism. Men lose themselves in speculation and conjecture as to everything that lies outside the sphere of the senses. Unable to demonstrate that which can be subjected to no sensible tests nor brought within the range of an inexorable logic, they persuade themselves that there is nothing there, or that at least they can know nothing about it. As to the old doctrine of a personal God, who is in living relations with His creatures, on whose care and bounty they depend, whose moral law it is their duty to obey, they declare that they do not believe in it, that no really intelligent man can any longer believe in it. And yet all the time there is in the depths of their souls an underlying and inextinguishable faith in such a God. It is not a matter of tradition or of early training. It is
not a conclusion to which they have been led by processes of philosophic thought. It is one of the elementary principles, one of the primary convic tions of the human mind. Look over the world, study its various races, examine its different reli gions, you will find everywhere the belief in God. Take the men of highest culture and widest knowl edge, in this or any other Christian land, those who say that they do not believe in Him, or who act as if they did not, and let some critical experi ence uncover the foundations of their thought and feeling, and you will find, far down below all the doubts and questionings that may appear upon the surface, a faith in Him and a reverence for Him which have not been and which can never be de stroyed.
Then again the fact of which I am speaking shows why it is that men so often do not look to God in the spirit of obedience and the spirit of confidence, - why they are so often indifferent or skeptical about Him. It is because they are mov ing on the surface of life. The inmost depths of their nature have never been disturbed. It is in some respects fortunate that this has been the case. One cannot bear to pass very often through these critical experiences to which I have referred. They are as exhausting as they are illuminating. But so long as one sails calmly and prosperously over summer seas, he has little conception of the great depths beneath him or of what the fury of the storm can do. And there are few of us who really know what is in the depths of our own souls. We are cheered and charmed by the brightness and beauty of the world around us. We do not sus pect the energy or the significance of the tremen dous forces within us. And so it is that in their easy-going and comfortable lives men often fancy that they can get along as well without God as with Him. They feel no need of His guidance, His help, His comfort. Why should any one fancy that he needs these or that it is possible to have them? And the skepticism or indifference of those who speak and act in this way affects multitudes of others. Ah, but if you are going to take the testi mony of anybody in this matter, take that of some one who knows what life really is, some one who has really lived, some one who has gone down into the depths of sorrow or fear or penitence. Do not be satisfied with the superficial views of life which are very naturally the common views of it. But let the nobler, more serious, and deeper thinkers of the world tell you what they have found out in regard to human nature, its capacities, its needs, its aspirations, and its moral helplessness. Search the Scriptures, or if you will not do that, study the poets from Sophocles to Dante, from Shakspeare to Browning. You will learn from them that life is no holiday matter, that the human soul has both powers and wants of which you, perhaps, have never dreamed. Before you make up your mind either that there is no living God whom you can cry to, or that there is no use in appealing to Him in your need, consider the witness that has been borne to Him by those who have not been content or been able to drift lazily upon the surface, but have sounded the awful depths of life.
And so the reason is apparent why God often sends us down into these depths. It is not that He has forgotten us or wishes to destroy us. It is only that we may find Him there. He knows very well that otherwise we may fail to discover Him. He knows how easily we are dazzled and misled by the lights that sparkle and dance around us; He knows how easy it is for us to be content with what the passing hour may bring. He knows that when our immediate desires are gratified, we are only too apt to forget that we have any deeper desires. And so He sends disappointment upon us, or perplexity, or sorrow and affliction. He lets all His waves and billows go over us. He suffers us to struggle vainly and in the darkness, until our strength is exhausted and our hope itself extinct. There was, perhaps, no other way by which we could be taught our ignorance, our weakness and our need of His almighty and ever-present help. Out of the depths we were forced to cry to Him, and our cry has brought Him to the rescue. We sometimes pity those who are called to pass through such an ex perience. We are tempted to ask, like the Phari sees of old, "Who did sin, this man or his par ents, "that such a calamity should overtake him? And yet they are richer than we in the knowledge of life, and richer far in that knowledge of God which comes by a deep experience of life. He who cries to Him out of the depths, learns in this way to say, wait for the Lord; my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning; I say, more than they that watch for the morning. For with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption."It is not a costly experience which teaches us that lesson. It is one from which we need not shrink. It is one for which we shall be forever grateful.
And here is the ground of our belief in the permanence of religion in the world. We some times feel, no doubt, as if the ages of faith had passed, or were, at all events, swiftly passing away; as if religion were losing its hold on men; as if after one or two generations more have come and gone, it will forever have disappeared. There is so much unbelief around us. And what is worse than unbelief, there is so much indifference to all spiritual things, to all moral obligations. Is not religion something which is peculiar to the earlier stages of human development, and which men will soon be able to dispense with? No, because human nature is really the same to-day that it has always been. Life is more complex, more showy, more exciting. The things that are seen have more power than they once had to shut out of human view the things that are not seen. And life is not only more varied and intense, it is vastly more fascinating and more joyous for most people than it used to be. But great crises of thought and feel ing still come. They come as often as ever. Sooner or later they come to all of us. The great capacities and needs of which men were conscious in the days of Abraham and of David, are just as really in us. Now as then, we are called from time to time to go down into the depths, where no human hand or voice can reach us, and where we are utterly alone and utterly forlorn, unless we cry to God and He hears and answers us. It is only the surface of life which is changing. The depths of life remain from century to century the same. And therefore religion, which appeals to that which is deepest in human nature and in human experi ence, is not going to lose its power over the mind or heart or conscience of mankind. And those of us who are interested in extending its influence, - what we want is simply to get below the surface of men's lives, and touch if we can their deeper nature. We need to rouse their consciences. We need to stir their hearts. We need to get behind the web of sophistry in which they so often wrap themselves up, to that which is most radical, vital, and essential in their thought. We shall fail very often, no doubt, and be discouraged. But in its appeal to the deepest convictions and the most secret desires of human nature, has always lain the power of religious truth. And God still speaks to men's souls and in them, with an authority and a power which they recognize when the accidents of life are torn away, and they face its eternal and un changing realities. Nothing less than God can ever fully satisfy the human heart. And the time will never come when men will cease to cry to Him out of the depths.
And yet it is not only in our times of distress that we need Him; and He who alone is able to deliver us in the hour of trouble, is our ever-present Friend and Guide and Helper. We need Him in our bright days as well as in our dark days, - when all goes well with us, as truly as when the depths are uncovered and the foundations of the earth are seen. We owe to Him our gratitude, our rever ence, our obedience, and our love, when He leads us in the green pastures and beside the still waters, just as much as when we are toiling, bewildered and almost exhausted, across the desert places of life. And we shall know how to seek His help in time of need, we shall rely upon it with a tranquil confidence, if we have come to know Him and trust Him in other and happier days. Is it not a sad and humiliating fact that there are so many of God's children who never think of Him or care anything about Him, except when they are forced to cry to Him out of the depths? Happy is he who lives in daily converse and communion with God; who in joy and in sorrow alike, in sunshine and storm, in life and death, waits patiently, submissively, cheer fully, on Him! He shall know the present com fort and in time of need shall receive the blessed fulfillment of the promise, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee; for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour."