"I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant; for I do not forget Thy commandments." - Psa. 119:176.
James Moffatt, 1927: That is the last word of a long psalm, a very long psalm. And what a strange last word it is! You expect something by way of a climax or a crescendo. Most of the psalms end upon a clear, ringing note of assurance and confidence, or leave us in a rapture. They may begin low, but they commonly rise and close upon higher ground. Whereas this psalm seems to die away in a wistful, humble cry of confession: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep."
In the Anglican Prayer Book (and there is no change in the revised edition) such a confession comes at the beginning of the service: "We have erred, and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep." Here it is the crowning word of all the pleas and cries that have preceded.
I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek Thy servant;
for I do not forget Thy commandments.
A strange ending, and yet one that sounds very honest. It is the pleading of a man who is trying to tell the truth about himself, neither extenuating nor exaggerating the facts. He does not minimize what he has done. Yet neither does he make himself out to be worse than he really is. And sometimes people do that.
Exaggeration is one of the vices of our religious vocabulary, for we are constantly tempted to use swollen language about our souls and perhaps unconsciously to overstate things. To hear some folk talk, for example, about a person who has gone wrong, one would imagine that they had never been tempted at all. They speak of the scandal from such a lofty height of superior virtue that they convey the impression of living far above the common risks and frailties of human nature.
Others, again, may accuse themselves of all manner of evil in a heat of self-reproach; they charge themselves loudly, till, as we listen, we feel that they cannot surely be as bad as they make out. This is, no doubt, a nobler habit than the other. Still, however generous and faithful, it is apt to become unreal; and we ought to be real, honest, and accurate in speaking of ourselves to God or to our fellow-men. There is always something impressive and convincing about a man who does not spare himself, but who, at the same time, does not try to paint himself blacker than he really is.
"I have gone astray," says the psalmist; "I've been stupid, I've got myself into a wrong position, I'm in danger." He blames nobody else for his plight. He is too honest to talk of circumstances, but owns up frankly to his personal responsibility for having got off the right track. But then he is not content to remain where be is. "Seek Thy servant," he adds at once, "for I do not forget Thy commandments." Conscience tells him that he is meant to be under the orders of God instead of obeying his own impulses or following the crowd. I have forgotten myself, he means, but I have not quite forgotten the true end of life; I have still some sense of the will of God and some desire to regain the straight road.
Such is the right view to take of our faults: without being lax, we ought to take them quietly; we must not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, or to imagine that everything is lost. No one who is flippant or superficial would say, "I have gone astray like a lost sheep." But there is no use in being cast down, as though we had dropped too far for recovery. The first instinct ought to be that our lives are still within reach of God. "Seek Thy servant." When a lapse comes, when we have given way to some temptation, and failed badly, there should be an instant sense that we are out of our right place. We belong to God; we have no business to be where we are; we have landed ourselves in a false position by yielding to our lower impulses.
"I think," says Walt Whitman in one of his wild outbursts, "I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained. They do not sweat and whine about their condition; they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins." No, for they are animals and not human beings. And we are more than animals. We are not sheep, but we are like sheep when we sink below ourselves.
Conceivably we might bring ourselves to rest content with the life of mere impulse and placid, natural desire. If we did not remember who we are and whom we promised to serve, there would be no dissatisfaction at all. But there is. And as we feel a grievance against ourselves for having sunk to a lower level, it is a positive encouragement; for it means that our faults and failures have not yet stifled the sense of life's true end and aim. "I do not forget Thy commandments."
Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows,
But not quite so sunk that moments,
Sure though seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit's true endowments
Stand out clearly from its false ones,
And apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way
To its triumph or undoing.
Perhaps most people tend to take their faults far too lightly nowadays. There is a reaction against the stress on sin which characterized the religion of the last generation in its evangelical aspect. The emphasis has shifted. Indeed if we look farther back, one striking contrast emerges between our modern age and the period which we call the Middle Ages.
On the whole medieval folk, so far as they were religious, were preoccupied with sin and strangely indifferent to suffering; they seem to have been much more sensitive to offenses against God than to the pain endured by their fellow-creatures. Nowadays it is the opposite. The modern conscience is extremely sensitive to pain, even sensitive to the point of sentimentalism, but it is not nearly so alive to sin. The present age is by no means so callous to certain forms of suffering in the world as the Middle Ages often were, but it has nothing like the acute consciousness of sin as sin. The average person to-day is not greatly cast down by faults and failings, not sobered when he goes wrong, not moved to be thoughtful and penitent.
Yet, on the other hand, some are still deeply moved.
Generalizations are misleading things, and under the surface of life to-day there are still a number of people who secretly are almost crushed by the sense of their unsteadiness, and apt to be depressed by their breakdowns, till they may feel that it is little use for them to try to be religious any longer, when the will seems so easily twisted to evil and bent to lower things. Some of you may feel this, or may know some who are in this desperate position, either through some sharp, definite failure, or through the slow accumulation of things which have silted up like sand and covered the nobler aspirations of the past.
It is the position in which one feels that one has taken such liberties with oneself in the body or in the spirit that one has departed from the living God. For some reason or another the clean mind, the honest heart, the straight discipline of the religious life, are practically memories; and one wakens suddenly to the sense of this. A moment of insight arrives, when in a flash the contrast between what we are and what we were meant to be stands out before our startled eyes. It is not a morbid mood, not to be pooh-poohed as an unhealthy feeling. But neither are we to yield to it as final.
The true word for us in such a mood is the word of this old psalmist, who plainly was facing just such an experience. Instantly he turns from his faults to God. "Seek Thy servant," he cries, "for I do not forget Thy commandments." You see, it is not only that we desire to get back, but that there is One who seeks to have us back. It is something to be conscious that, in spite of what has happened, we still remember the true end of life.
But it is more, it is everything, to feel that our wistful desire to regain the right track is only the echo of God's desire to have us back. We are His sheep, His servants. That is, the meaning of life lies in our relation to Another, not in self-gratification or self-interest; and our lingering consciousness of this is the outcome of the working of God's Spirit still within us. The saving thing is this sense that we are still wanted by Him. As Mr. A. C. Benson put it, " As soon as one realizes that, one is on the right track; because not only does one know that one is seeking something, but one becomes aware of a much larger fact, that one is being sought by Some One else, sought, not as a dog may trace a wounded creature through the grass and lose the scent at last, but sought patiently and faithfully."
This is what Jesus came to do and comes to do, to "go after that which is lost till He finds it" (Luke 19:10). That curious twinge of conscience, that uneasiness of mind after you have committed a fault, that sense of inward shame, that self-reproach, that restless feeling - that is God stirring you up! It means that you are not being left to yourself. The Lord to whom you belong is seeking you out till He brings you to your right mind again. He will not let you go. He needs you in His service still. Life does not leave you face to face with your past, your weak, bad past.
No,no! Even in that far-off age the psalmist knew better than to imagine such a thing. And now that Jesus has come, we should know better still. There is One coming in search of us, to put us back into our right place in His service and fellowship. "Seek Thy servant," is our cry, when we are moved to the depths. And the answer from the heights of heaven is this: "As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered abroad, so will I seek out My sheep; I will seek that which is lost, and will bind up that which is broken, saith the Lord God." (Ezek. 34:12)
Such is the promise and power of the Lord for you and for me, in our faulty, unsteady lives, so forgetful of His orders, so easily swerving from His care and control. We make slips, pretty bad slips. We give way to temptation. We are wilful, stupid creatures; we fail deplorably.
Well, but are we not living in a year of the Lord, and in a world full of forgiveness, where He is ever following up His people to set them right again and to restore them? "Seek Thy servant!"
Lord, Thou knowest we are poor servants, and sometimes not servants of Thy will at all. But we are meant to be, and, despite all that has happened, we mean to be.
So it comes to this. It is a real thing, this failure of yours, this shameful collapse, a fault not to be hidden or ignored. Yes, but this is real too, the seeking Lord, the Lord coming to you at once and never ceasing till He finds you and has you back in His service. He misses you, as well as you miss Him. If you wish one of the shortest and most hopeful prayers of penitence, say to yourself, or rather say to God, "I have gone astray like a lost sheep - a silly creature; seek Thy servant, for I do not quite forget Thy commandments." I think that is one of the best pillow-texts in the Bible. You can rest on it with an honest and a good conscience, and waken to-morrow morning better able to keep straight and to be more obedient.
Sermon by James Moffatt, Bible translator, Professor, Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1927
Go to Literature Index Page
This URL is abcog.org/moffatt.htm