A Banner for the Truth
‘Thou hast shewed Thy people hard things:
Thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment.
Thou hast given a banner to them that fear Thee,
That it may be displayed because of the truth.’
Psalm 60 Verses 3 & 4
In these words we have the Church pouring out her heart in complaint to God. Observe that she ascribes all her trials to Him : ‘Thou hast shewed thy people hard things.’ When worldly men meet with difficulties and disappointments they ascribe them to their own lack of foresight. They simply say ‘How unfortunate that I forgot to do this or to think that. Then I would not have met with such a disappointment.’
The Church on the other hand, sees the purpose of God in every step, and believes that all has been ordered by unerring wisdom. She sees that the cup she has to drink, and the road she has to travel, have been ordained of old in the counsels of eternity. This is a source of comfort to the poor and afflicted children of the covenant as one trial after another comes to them. It is but a reminder of the promise, ‘In this world ye shall have tribulation.’
Let us consider these verses in the following order:
1. The Church’s complaint
2. The honour bestowed upon her.
3. The purpose of the honour.
1. The Church’s Complaint
‘Thou hast shewed thy people hard things.’ The first of these hard things is to become convinced that we are by nature lost sinners, and that all our opinions of our own goodness, so pleasing to the flesh, are absolutely false. When the Spirit shines into our hearts our darkness is illuminated, and we discover the woeful depths to which the Fall has brought us. It is this sight that makes our righteousnesses appear as filthy rags.
It is hard to discover that our hopes of entering heaven by our own natural goodness and good works were but dreams, and that if we to be kept out of hell it must be against our own wills and by sovereign grace. It is hard to discover that it is an evil thing and a bitter thing to sin against God, by having the arrows of conviction sticking fast in our conscience, and the sight of God’s wrath drinking up our spirits, and an infinitely holy law demanding fulfilment and retribution.
Another hard thing arising out of the first is the discovery of our own inability to do anything meriting salvation. The awakened soul read in the Bible, ‘Repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’ A holy law says, ‘Do and live.’ But the Spirit convinces him that he can neither repent nor believe. The law demands fulfilment and curses all who fail. ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them’ (Galatians 3:10).
He tries, but is met by the flaming sword that turns every way to guard the tree of life. It is a hard thing to discover that ‘it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.’ It is a hard thing to see God’s people shut within the ark, and you yourself are shut out.
Other hard things are daily trials of a spiritual and temporal nature. ‘Many are the afflictions of the righteous.’ They are many and varied. Some have spiritual conflicts daily. They are forever wondering what is to be the end of it all. With the Psalmist they can say:
For daily and all day throughout,
Great plagues I suffer’d have;
Yea, ev’ry morning I of new
Did chastisement receive.
Others are steeped in poverty all their lives. It is ever a question with them where are they to get the next day’s sustenance. Some of the brightest stars in the Christian communities of our own beloved Highlands were thus exercised. Not a few of them lost many a night’s sleep wrestling with God to open His hand and send food to their hungry children.
They were poor in circumstances and poor in spirit, but out of their spiritual poverty they made many rich. They were troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair. Ever and anew they had to acknowledge, ‘Thou openest thine hand and satisfiest the desires of every living thing.’
Some of God’s dear children also live near snares daily. Wherever their lot is cast in providence snares appear already set for them. This is a source of grief to them, arising out of their being painfully conscious that when they would do good, ‘evil is present with them;’ and while God keeps them ‘in the hollow of His hand’ they are ever conscious that they cannot keep themselves.
Many, indeed the great majority of them, carry the cross of a broken body, and shattered health. The state of their body weighs down their spirit, and often their trouble is such that others cannot understand or sympathise with them, all of which makes their cross harder to bear.
Some too, like Jacob, have ungodly families. Others are unequally yoked to unbelievers, every day proving how unequal the yoke is. Others again are visited by cruel death. One by one their dear ones are cut down and laid in the silent grave, and they are left to journey on alone.
Thus the Church of God marches on like a shattered and broken army, wounded and scarred and plague-stricken, all bearing their burdens and helping one another on to the final goal. Through the hosts of darkness they march, ever advancing but never retiring, like the bush of old, ‘Burning, yet not consumed.’
Oh, who can recount the afflictions of the righteous? None, none, but God! No wonder they say: ‘Thou hast shewed thy people hard things.’ ‘For thou didst prove and try us, Lord, as men do try silver.’ And yet I think that these ‘hard things’ were but ordinary trials. Trials of a different nature are implied in the words of our text.
Let us now turn to these – the Church’s extraordinary trials. ‘Thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment.’ The figure is taken from the effects of strong drink on a person. We know that when one is under the influence of strong drink all the powers of his being, body and soul, are out of order. His vision is distorted, his hearing is blunted, and he staggers in his walk. When he tries to walk in a straight path he stumbles and side-slips. His thoughts are out of control; he has no power to keep them fixed; his whole being is aflame from hell.
This is how the Church felt. Is this not your experience? Sometimes, under the influence of powerful temptations, the corruptions of your heart are stirred up, and they, like the troubled sea, ‘cast up mire and dirt.’ Your thoughts astonish you. The air seems thick with snares, and foul thoughts are cast into your mind. You try to keep to the road – the path of holiness, but you reel and stagger.
They reel and stagger like one drunk
At their wit’s end they be.
Your vision is distorted, you become deaf to the truth, and you are amazed at yourself. You wonder if this could be the same person who professed to have been a follower of holiness, and who sat, not so long ago, at the Lord’s table.
There is, however, another kind of wine. After such experiences, and when we are cast down and sorrowing, wondering if the Lord will ever again look our way, suddenly we are made conscious of His presence. Through shut doors He comes, and instead of experiencing His wrath, we are made conscious of His love and the cleansing power of His blood being conveyed to our wounded conscience.
His peace reigns in the soul, while sorrow and shame and love mingle as we look upon Him whom we have pierced anew. Our tears mingle with our gratitude. We are as much astonished at the wine of gladness as we were with the wine of astonishment.
I think that is what David Brainerd’s convert felt when the Spirit descended, and she broke out with joyful thanksgiving, expressing the desire that she might die so that she might sin no more. And as this poor Indian felt, so often feels the believer.
2. The Honour bestowed upon the Church
‘Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee.’ Observe those to whom the banner is given and their character – ‘them that fear thee.’ Do you fear Him? If you do, you have the banner. I believe this banner simply means love to Christ, love to His people, His cause, His Gospel and His truth. And I am persuaded that nothing strengthens this love more than the ‘hard things’ and the ‘wine of astonishment’, we have been discussing. It is peculiar to God’s people that the more their trials abound, the more they increase in love to Himself and all that are His.
The army of Christ has a banner – it is their rallying ground. It leads them into battle. In other armies once hostilities cease the banners are folded and put away. This banner is never folded. This army is ever at war.
This banner distinguishes the Christian from the world. This is all the world knows him by, his love to the truth, and God’s people and his cause. In pulpit or in pew he displays his banner. At his lawful calling, in his family, in his congregation, he holds it aloft. Paul displayed the banner when he said: ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.’ ‘God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ And where was ever such love revealed for the banner as in the words: ‘For whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as dung?’
And again, ‘For me to live is Christ.’ We are well aware of two methods by which the devil will try to prevent us displaying the banner. First, by flattery, and the second by persecution. If the one fails, he will try the other. But if both fail, the devil flees. The former method is the more dangerous. Many have fallen by this weapon, and great was their fall.
‘Persecution has slain its thousands, but flattery its tens of thousands.’ In persecution you know who your enemies are, and who are God’s enemies. With flattery this is not so easy. When flattery fails the devil generally employs your flatterers to persecute you. He will sometimes employ a saint to make the persecution appear more justifiable, and the whiter his hair the more his designs attain their end.
3 The Purpose of the Honour
‘That it may be displayed because of the truth.’ The purpose of any banner is that it may be displayed. If you are a Christian you know how difficult it is to bear it aloft. Wherever it is, there is trouble. Not that the bearer of the banner seeks trouble. Nay! It is the banner of truth and love. Its aim is the unity of mankind. It is ever saying:
Behold, how good a thing it is,
And how becoming well,
Together such as brethren are
In unity to dwell.
The cause of the trouble is not the banner but the sin that is in this world. The world’s ways are not the ways of truth. The world lies in the wicked one. His laws rule the world, so that when the banner comes, it comes to announce another law – the law of liberty. The world mistakes the banner for a troublemonger – its bearers are termed ‘the men who turn the world upside down.’
The banner does not come to compromise. It comes to turn the world’s way upside down, and set Christ reigning. The preaching that does not raise the opposition of the world, the flesh and the devil hides the banner. If you find a congregation where all is peace, as a rule there no banner is displayed. And usually the minister of whom all speak well does not display the banner. Are you a professor who is never persecuted or tempted?
Do not boast. Why were the faithful in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chapter 11) subjected to such horrors and cruel death? They displayed their banners. Why were our forefathers hunted and harried on the hills and moors of Scotland? Why were thousands hanged and quartered and burned and beheaded? They displayed their banner because of the truth. Why are so many professors of the Christian religion getting on so well with the world? Because they are ashamed of the banner.
Now, wind is necessary to raise the banner from the pole. I remember being in the city when the Jubilee celebrations were in progress. Almost every building displayed its banner. But there was no wind, and the banners drooped so that you could scarcely know they were on the poles. But later the wind rose, and the banners were properly displayed.
From every building and tower they floated majestically on the breeze, all displaying their various inscriptions. What does this teach us? That we need the wind of the Spirit to keep aloft the banner of truth and love. Without it, the banner cannot be displayed. I think it is the want of this that makes the Church utter her complaints so often. I seem to see her almost exhausted in the conflict, and cast down at the opposition she is meeting with in displaying her banner, and saying: ‘Thou has shewed thy people hard things’ – as if she said, ‘This is hard work we have been given – it is impossible.
When I started off I felt so full of love to Thee and to poor sinners, and I saw the way of salvation so easy and so suitable that I felt I could persuade all to accept it. I never expected enmity and opposition. I did not intend to raise any. But I now find that the more O love, the less I am loved.
I think I now understand what is meant by the words ‘a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ I am filled with sorrow and grief at the hardness of their hearts, and the enmity they bear to Thee. Like Thee I can say; ‘They hated me without a cause.’
In this frame the Church, like Jeremiah of old, felt she could speak no more in His name. Like Isaiah, she felt she had laboured in vain, and had spent her strength for nought. Then, as if suddenly remembering her glory, and whose she was, and with what price she had been purchased – not with ‘silver or gold….but with the precious blood of Christ’ – she adds, as she rouses herself and advances in the strength of the Lord God, ‘Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth.’ As if she said, ‘This is no place for such a banner. I was not entrusted with it in order to hide it or to trail it in mire, but to display it. So Lord, do Thou be our strength, and in Thy name we will display our banner.’
You, Jacobs, who wrestle with God and prevail, wrestle on. Give Him no rest until He rends the heavens and comes down, and the mountains of sin and unbelief fall down at His presence; until He makes ‘the place of his feet glorious’ in our assemblies and families; until He makes Jerusalem a glory in the earth.
And you who are afraid that your prayers avail nothing, and who say, ‘Our bones are dried and our hopes are lost, and we are cut off for our parts,’ ‘stir up the gift of God that is in you.’ Say from the heart ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ Then and then only shall we see our poor unconverted friends and families, like the dry bones in the valley, coming together, and standing up ‘an exceeding great army.’
Pray for the messengers of God instead of criticising them. You are to account for yourself not for them. They are to account to God. Pray, then, that they may give in their account with joy and not with grief. If you knew of their sorrows in secret you would not add to them. If you knew of their wrestling with sin and keeping their body under that God would use them as vessels of mercy and denying themselves that others may gain; if you saw their agony of spirit as they view their own unworthiness and unfaithfulness, and as they weakly wrestle with the Angel of the Covenant, Jesus Christ, bidding Him that He would not go till He bless them, and make them a blessing: I say that if you knew this you would be oftener wrestling for them.
The messengers of God are little esteemed in the world. They labour, ‘by honour and dishonour, as deceivers and yet true: as unknown and yet well known.’ Help them with your prayers that they may display their banners, so that as the oil comes down into the golden candlesticks, they are filled with the Holy Ghost and with faith.
Then instead of regarding them as enemies, all may welcome them as the Church of old, saying, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!’