The Ageless Theme

"Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul." (Psalm 66:16)

Clovis G. Chappell: Here is a man who is determined to get a hearing. He has a story to tell that simply will not keep. He must share it with others. He has an eye more compelling than that of the Ancient Mariner. Not only so, but he seems to throw all timidity to the winds as he hurries to lay eager hands on any chance passer-by that he may constrain him to hear his story. He even reaches those eager hands far across the centuries and puts them upon our listless and preoccupied souls and undertakes to shake us into wakefulness and expectancy. "Listen to my story," he pleads with joyful earnestness. And he bases his appeal, not upon his own eloquence or upon his own wisdom or personal magnetism. He rather bases it upon the abiding worthfulness and fascination of the story he has to tell.


What is his theme? What has he to say that he counts with such firm confidence upon winning our interested attention?

He is not claiming our attention that he may discuss the topics of the forum and of the market place. These are matters of passing interest. But they are not of supreme interest to any except those who have the misfortune to be spiritually blind. He is not even asking us to listen to him discuss the best in ancient or modern literature. Not that such a discussion might not be greatly worthwhile. The importance of books can hardly be overestimated.

Paul wrote a letter to a young friend of his years ago. As he wrote a chilling breeze from the Alpine hills fanned the thin hair about his temples and made him shiver. "Dear Timothy," he writes, "Be sure to bring my cloak with you when you come. I left it at Carpus' house in Troas." Then he thought that Timothy might be overloaded, and he added: "If you find you cannot bring all my belongings, leave out the coat and bring my books and parchments. I can afford to have colds and rheumatism, but I simply cannot get on without books." (2 tim. 4:13) A discussion of books, therefore, might be vastly important and very fascinating, but it is not of supreme importance.

No more is this psalmist seeking to share with us the latest discoveries and guesses of science. Had he done so, his story would have been flung aside and forgotten long centuries ago. For knowledge grows from more to more. Thus it comes to pass that, in the ever-enlarging circle of our horizon, the wisdom of yesterday is in some measure the folly of to-day, and the knowledge of yesterday is the ignorance of to-day.

Science is vastly interesting and vastly important. To some in our modern times it has assumed the proportions of a god. But much that we think we know to-day will be discredited and thrown away to-morrow, for we are marching on. The theme of this poet is therefore more vital and gripping even than the discoveries of science.

What, then, is his theme? He is undertaking to bring us a sure word from God. He is not, mark you, telling his theories or his hopes. He is not even engaging in a theological discussion. He has adventured in the realm of the spiritual and has come into possession of first-hand knowledge of God. It is not of his own deeds that he would speak, but rather of the dealings of God with his own soul. He has a personal gospel. Like the Gospel of Saint Mark, it is good news about God. No wonder, therefore, that we turn eager and wistful faces toward him this morning. No wonder that we lean forward to hear his message that comes to us across the wide spaces of the years. His theme is the most thrilling and abidingly fascinating that these needy hearts of ours can know.


What is his story? What has God done for him?

1. God has discovered to him that he is a God who answers prayer. No longer does he speculate as to whether prayer is a form or a force. No longer does he question as to whether there is One, other than himself, who hears him when he calls, or whether all the values of prayer are purely subjective. He knows that prayer works because it has worked in his own life. He has come to possess an inner strength that he is sure could never have been his except through prayer. He is feeding upon spiritual bread to which he was a stranger till he prayed. His soul is being flooded with a celestial light that he is confident can only shine in through the clear windows of prayer. Yesterday he was overwhelmed by difficulties that seemed destined to work his ruin. He was in the midst of perils of fire and flood. But in answer to his cry God has worked his deliverance and brought him out into a wealthy place. And now he is singing a song of victory that helps to set our hearts to singing as we share with him his bracing faith.

2. God has taught him one of the fundamental secrets of victorious prayer. This psalmist has not succeeded in opening the door to that audience chamber where the soul and God stand face to face only to forget the combination and never to be able to return there again. He now knows the way of approach. He has learned in some measure how to use effectively this mightiest of all forces. For of all the powers that God has entrusted to these hands of ours, there is none that is capable of such mighty and compelling usefulness as prayer. But the tragedy of it is that so few of us know how to use it. Electricity was just as willing to serve Abraham as it is to serve you and me, but he missed all its benefits because he did not know how to use it. It was just as willing to light the cities and homes of Greece and Rome as those of Europe and America, but they missed its radiance, not because they were prejudiced against it, but through sheer ignorance. And God is just as accessible to you and me as he was to any of the saints of the past. He is just as willing that prayer should be a force in our lives as he was that it should be a force in the lives of Saint Paul or John Wesley or George Miller. But so few of us really know how to pray.

What is the essential of effective prayer that this poet learned? It is obedience. It is a surrendered will. "Whatsoever we ask of him we receive because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight." (1 John 3:22) Prayer is not tugging at God's skirts like a nagging and spoiled child till we persuade him, against his better judgment, to go our way instead of his. If our way is wrong, if we are outside his will and are willing to remain there, we may pray till the undertaker calls, but we will receive no more answer than did the shrieking priests of Baal. O, the agony of those desperate hours when we are trying to coax God into letting us go our own way! O, the hopeless futility of those prayers that we pray out of unsurrendered and rebellious hearts! It is the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man (James 5:16), righteous at least in his motives and purposes and in his willingness to be right, that brings results. All other praying is to a sky of brass. "If I regard iniquity in my heart," said this saint, speaking out of the memory of many a futile visit to his closet, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, God will not hear me." (Psa. 66:18)

But if there were memories of failures, there were also fresher and gladder memories of victories. From his experience he had learned that when he had ceased to regard iniquity in his heart, when he had been willing at any cost to let God have his way with him, God did hear and answer. He found that he did not have to coax God into his life any more than he had to coax the sunshine into his room. Only lift the blinds and the sunshine bursts in eagerly and gladly, however poor the room may be. Remove the obstruction, or even be willing to have it removed, and God will come in. He is infinitely more eager than ourselves. He even stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3:20). The psalmist learned this and thus came into possession of the knowledge of how to use the greatest power on earth. And if he learned the secret, so may we.

3. God's supreme lesson to him was a clearer and deeper knowledge of himself. An answer to prayer is always a thrilling experience. It is a great moment in any man's life when God's messenger can say to him what he said to Cornelius: "Thy prayer is heard." (Acts 10:31) But there is something even better than that. That is the new sense of God that comes to him who really prays effectively. God himself is always the best part of every answered prayer. That is the reason that prayer is so marvelously transforming.

"Why, then, should we do ourselves this wrong
Or others, that we are not always strong?
That we should ever weak or cheerless be,
Anxious or troubled,
When with us is prayer, and joy and peace
And courage are with Thee?"


Here, then, is a man with spiritual springtime bursting upon the morning hills of his heart. No wonder he is eager to tell his story. Why does he tell it? Why do we?

1. We do so from sheer necessity. We cannot but proclaim in some measure what we are. Why is the rose so red? It is not blushing for our pleasure. That is its nature. Why does Niagara thunder? It is not putting on a show to amuse the little handful of tourists that may chance to be present. It cannot help thundering. It has the might of the waters and the shoulders of the heights behind it. Why does Pike's Peak hood itself in white and wrap a fleecy cape of clouds about its bony shoulders? It is not tiptoeing for your benefit and mine. It climbs toward the stars with a beautiful naturalness. Why does the mockingbird sing? It sings spontaneously because of what it is. Even if a staid old apple tree gets springtime into its heart, it cannot keep it a secret. It must needs proclaim it to the world by decking itself in garments more winsome than that of a June bride. And it is for a kindred reason that the psalmist must tell what God has done for his soul. His is the irrepressible speech of a transformed personality.

One day two ex-fishermen, Peter and John by name, were arrested and brought before the highest court of their land. After examination and private conference this wise and learned court reached a decision. "They commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus." (Acts 4:18) But these men told the court frankly that from sheer necessity they must defy their orders. "We should be most happy to obey," they seem to say, "were it within our power. But obedience is for us a rank impossibility. We cannot but speak the things that we have seen and heard." And what they said was nothing more than sober truth. From the moment that they had been brought into the presence of the court they had been giving their testimony. "Now, when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, ... they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus." There was something about these one-time fishermen that reminded this cultured court of the Christ of God. We declare what God has done for us by what we are.

2. We declare what God has done for us because we are specifically commanded to do so. E. Stanley Jones tells us that Gandhi teaches that no man ought to seek to propagate his religion because he can never be sure that he has found the truth. But the saints and the seers of the centuries seem, with almost one voice, to contradict him. Certainly he is contradicted by the Bible, and by the New Testament especially. Above all else he is contradicted by Jesus Christ. When he had healed the poor wretch of Gadara his command was, "Go home to thy friends and tell how great things the Lord has done for thee." (Mark 5:19) And when he had risen from the dead he left as his final charge to those who were his this very definite command, "Go and make disciples of all nations." (Matt 28 etc.) The answer to all who would seek to silence us is that of Peter and John: "We cannot but speak the things that we have seen and heard. ... We must obey God rather than men." Such may have been a part of the constraint of the psalmist. Such surely is one compelling reason for proclaiming our gospel on the part of those of us who in our hearts call Jesus "Lord."

3. Then we speak from an inner urge that seems to be characteristic of all who, through the centuries, have come into possession of a vital knowledge of God.

This urge belongs to all the great prophets. The golden-tongued Isaiah felt it. One moment we find him with his lips in the dust crying: "Unclean, unclean!" (Isa. 6:5) The next, with the consciousness of divine cleansing warming his glad heart, he is crying with a burning eagerness to tell his story: "Here am I; send me." (Isa. 6:8)

The same is true of Jeremiah. His is a sensitive heart and a tear-wet face. Few, if any, have ever had a ministry that was so difficult and discouraging. More than once he has longed for a new charge, as many another preacher has done since then. We hear him sighing for a lodging place in the wilderness, that he might leave his people and go from them. On another day, depressed by a sense of the utter futility of his efforts to help, seeing no better returns from his preaching than scorn and persecution, he resolves that he will use a little common sense and never preach again. He makes this resolution in good faith, but finds himself unable to keep it. For the word, he declares, was as a fire shut up in his bones so that to speak was for him an absolute necessity (Jer. 20:9).

This same urge belongs to the saints of the early Church. There were those who had no desire to hear their story. Every agency that the ingenuity of man could devise was used to put them to silence. But they could not be silenced. They cried through the lips of Peter and John: "We cannot but speak." They declared through the lips of Paul: "Necessity is laid upon me." (1 Cor. 9:16) And this was true, not simply of the leaders, but of the rank and file as well. In truth, it is to these nameless nobodies of whom history takes no notice that Christianity owes its rapid spread. It was these that, "going everywhere preaching the Word," (Acts 8:4) set that ancient world on fire. It was these more than the apostles, even, that caused the wilderness and the solitary place to become glad and the desert to rejoice as a rose. That hard pagan world was remade by the dauntless testimony of those who insisted on declaring what God had done for their souls.

And this same holy urge lives in the hearts of God's saints in every walk of life to this day, though we must often feel that it is heartbreakingly rare. "Why do you wish to return to China?" asked Dr. Jowett of a young missionary who had been invalided home. "Because I cannot sleep at night for thinking about them," was his answer. Their hungry hearts, their wealthy possibilities haunted his dreams. He felt that he must tell them his story. And there is John G. Paton pursued through the night by the bloodthirsty people whom he has come to serve. But he does not grow bitter and resentful. He rather cries as he flees for his life: "O, my Tannese, my Tannese, how can I give you up?" And he, too, is in the grip of this same holy passion.

Years ago it was my very great privilege to hear one Mr. Hotchkiss, a Quaker missionary, who had spent fourteen years in the long grass country of Africa. Month after month he toiled at the task of learning the language of those whom he had come to teach. But there was one word for which he had to wait with great patience. That was the word for "save". Then one night, after three long years of waiting and working, Mr. Hotchkiss sat by the campfire talking with the chief. In the course of the conversation the latter said: "I was coming through the bush to-day and a man-eating lion got after me and this servant of mine saved me." There was the word at last. At once the missionary sprang to his feet and, putting his hand on the black man's shoulder, asked: "What did you say he did for you?" "Saved me," was the ready reply. "That," answered the missionary, "is what the man Christ Jesus did for you." And the black face lighted up just as millions of other faces have lighted through the years at the hearing of that transforming story. "O, my pale-faced brother," he said brokenly, "that is what you have been trying to tell me for all these weary moons."

Then the speaker added this word of testimony that I shall never forget : "I have been for fourteen years in Africa. I have worked for four years without a companion. I have lived for fourteen months on ants and rhinoceros meat and curded milk. I have had forty-two cases of African fever. But, knowing all that it would mean in loneliness, privation, and suffering, I'd gladly go through it all again to get to see that one black face light up by the camp fire as it did that night." May we possess something of the same holy passion! For it is by our telling our story through word and deed and life that the kingdom of God is to come. And it will come in no other way.

from "Sermons from the Psalms" by Clovis G. Chappell, 1931

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