By the late Rev. D. B. MacLeod, M.A.
This sermon, now abridged in editing, was preached by Mr MacLeod at Dingwall communion, on Monday, 8th August 1994, about six months before his death.
TEXT:“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain,” Psalm 127:1.
WE have just read, in the twenty-eighth chapter of the First Book of Chronicles, about the preparations for building the temple in the city of Jerusalem. King David had prepared much material for the building, for it had been in his mind to build a house for the Lord. “Surely I will not come into the tabernacle of mine house,” he said, “nor go up into my bed; I will not give sleep to mine eyes nor slumber to my eyelids until I find out a place for the Lord, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob” (Psalm 132:3-5). The Lord said to David that it was good that it was in his heart to build the temple, but because he was a man of war he was not to be permitted to do that work. Instead, Solomon his son, whose reign would be a reign of peace, was to build it.
It was to be a glorious temple; the dwelling place of the Lord Himself. This was the glory of the temple when it was built: that the Lord dwelt there. The divine glory shone above the mercy seat and from between the two golden cherubims. At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, the glory of the Lord so filled the house that the priests could not stand to minister. This display of the divine glory showed the pleasure that the Lord took in the temple, and that the temple was for the manifestation of His glory.
The text says, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” The builders needed to remember that however earnestly they might labour in building the temple, their labour would be in vain unless the Lord Himself would build it. The Psalmist also says, “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” Not only was the temple to be built: it had to be preserved also. The watchmen were to remember that all their vigilance in guarding Jerusalem and its temple would be futile unless the Lord kept the city.
The figures used in our text teach us important lessons about the church. We may notice therefore, as the Lord may be pleased to help us:
- first, that the church of God must be built up, but that the builders labour in vain except the Lord build it. It is the Lord who will build His church and make it a glorious edifice, one that shall never perish; and
- secondly, that the church of God must be preserved from its enemies. Her enemies are very numerous, and watchmen must be upon the walls of Zion for the preservation of the city – but “except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain”.
First, we shall notice that the Church of God must be built up, but that the builders labour in vain except the Lord build it.
We know from the Word of God that there is the church of God which is visible; that is, the church as consisting of all those who profess the true religion, together with their children. It will be built up.
There is also the invisible church, that is, the church which is made up of all those who are spiritually and truly the people of God. This building also is being built up. The members of this church, belonging as they do to the election of grace, are known infallibly only by God. They are being built up, a glorious church, stone by stone. That glorious church will be presented at last without the least defect, before God by Christ Himself. But it is the building of the visible church which we are to consider at the present time.
In Old Testament times, the tabernacle was built, and then the first and second temples. In them God was worshipped, in them He dwelt, and in them He manifested His glory. And He gave directions as to how they were to be built.
When we consider the visible church in New Testament times – the church in which the Lord Himself dwells, for He dwells in the midst of the worshipping assemblies of His people – we see that He has given directions about the building of it. This He did when He commanded His disciples: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” These were the instructions of the Master-builder to the builders, His disciples. In building the church, they were not left to their own devices. They were to build according to His own instructions, observing all things whatsoever He had commanded them. As surely as the Lord gave specific instructions in Old Testament times for building the temple, so He did for building the New Testament church also. It was these instructions that the apostles followed.
It is only by the instructions of the divine Master-builder that the church is to be built up today. What a strange building would have been built in Solomon’s time if the builders of the temple said, “The plan does not seem altogether suitable for a temple for the God of Israel. We will change this and we will change that. We do not think that this part is necessary, and we think there should be an addition there.” That was not the mind of the builders then, and Solomon would not have allowed such a thing to take place even had they been of that mind. Therefore, the builders were to say, “The house is to be built according to the directions of the Master-builder, who is the Lord Himself.” And this is to be remembered by the builders of the church today.
But this is not the thinking in the visible church today. Many in it are not satisfied with the pattern that the Lord has given; they think they know better than He who is the builder of His church. They say that many things which the Lord required to be in His church were appointed a very long time ago; that they were suitable for that age but are not suitable for today. “Changes must be made,” they say. “The gospel must be adapted to the needs of the generation in which we live.” How active men have been in the church of God for a century and more, altering the pattern that the Lord has given in His word, and trying to build a building that is according to their own ideas. Do you think that the Lord, in Solomon’s time, would have owned the dedication of the temple by manifesting His glorious presence if the temple was different from the one that He had directed Solomon to build? No! When men alter the pattern given by God and build another kind of church, then we may be sure of this: He will not honour it; He will not manifest His presence and His power in it.
The Lord is to build His church in His own way. Therefore, those whom He sends as builders are to have regard to His will in building His church. He has commanded that the gospel be preached to poor sinners, and that it be preached in its fulness nothing of it to be withheld, nothing added to it. Yet, men arose in the church of God who had another mind to that of the Master-builder. Instead of preaching all the counsel of God, they preach a false gospel. Their thought is this: “If we keep back this part or that part, which is so unacceptable to many people, then we will soon build up the church. Multitudes will be brought into it and we will have a great edifice reaching up to heaven.”
And of course, in this multifaith age in which we live, there are professed builders of the church who not only alter the gospel of Christ, but also include with it the good parts, as they see it, of other religions. They think that their composite gospel will build a church that will be massive indeed, embracing those of all religions Christians and Hindus, Muslims and Jews, and many other sorts, all worshipping together, and all serving, as they think, the same God.
That is not the mind of God. He is to build His own church of living stones, hewn and fashioned by Himself for “a holy temple”. It is by the preaching of the gospel that this is done. It is by the glorious gospel of the blessed God that poor sinners are plucked as brands from the burning, brought out of Satan’s dark kingdom and into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, so that His church may be built up. But in the visible church there are men who teach teachings other than those given by the Lord in His Word, although He commands them that they are to teach men “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”.
As they have introduced false doctrines to the visible church, so they have introduced unscriptural worship. “If the church of God is to flourish,” they say, “we must bring in parts of the Old Testament worship. Surely if instrumental music was suitable in the temple in Solomon’s time, it is suitable for the New Testament church.” They do not understand the more spiritual nature of New Testament worship, nor that the music of the temple was a shadow of good things to come and was superceded by the redemptive work of Christ.
They have also introduced hymns of human composition, setting aside the Psalms of David, the God-given psalmody for the church of God in Old Testament and New Testament times. Surely if the mind of God had been to have another psalmody in New Testament times, we would find it in the New Testament. But no other psalmody has been given but The Psalms of David. These Spirit-indited psalms alone are to be sung to the praise and glory of the Lord, in the church of God, to the end of time.
Other unscriptural practices, such as mime and dancing, are found in the worship of God today. Some people say, “Did not David dance before the ark?” When David danced before the ark of God, he “danced before the Lord”, glorying in the Lord in his dancing. That is not the dancing that is brought into the church in our day, but that which is dishonouring to the God of heaven. In any case, David’s dancing before the Lord was not in the house of God. Also, the form of rule in the New Testament church has been established by the Lord Himself. In His mercy and kindness He has given that presbyterian system of polity which we still have. This scriptural form of church government, yet preserved to us, that is the pattern is to be followed.
The church of God, then, is to be built up in the way which the Lord Himself prescribes. He will bless what He has appointed. He will bless those who are not thinking that they themselves will build the house of the Lord, but who are depending upon the Lord, believing that “except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”. Let them be ever so diligent in proclaiming the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, the servants of Christ will still say, “What is that without the blessing of God. Paul may plant, and Apollos water, but it is God who gives the increase.” No servant of Christ ever brought a soul out of darkness into light. It is the Lord that does this work, and takes the glory of it to Himself. And it is to the Lord that the church gives the glory of it, saying:
but do thou glory take
unto thy name, even for they truth,
and for they mercy’s sake”
(Psalm 115:1 metrical).
Surely then, in building the church of God, the builders are to have their eye always upon the Master-builder, depending upon Him when engaging in any duty in the building up of His church, for it is when the Lord gives the blessing that fruit will appear to His glory. If there are to be sons and daughters born in Zion, it is not by the power of man but by God accompanying His Word with the power of the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. The Lord takes delight in His people waiting upon Him, pleading with Him to come to do a work that would be to His glory. The Lord hears the cries of His people, as He did the groans of the Children of Israel in Egypt. He comes down for their deliverance.
And surely this dark day is a day in which the Lord should be hearing such groans. Where are the Spirit-indited groans ascending to the throne of God for the deliverance of His church? The need of the church in our day is that it would be cleansed of all that is opposed to the will of the great Head of the Church, and that He might be glorified in the building up of His Zion. Are we pleading that Scotland, which was so favoured in days gone by, would see times of blessing and of the right hand of the Son of Man? “There were glorious days in Scotland in the past. Oh, that such days would return:” this is the spiritual exercise of the exercised people of God. They are not thinking that they themselves can build Zion, but they are pleading with the Lord that He would come and do so, turning young and old and middle-aged unto Himself by the mighty power of the gospel, and bringing them into the kingdom of His dear Son.
Oh, would it not be a good day for you who are yet out of the kingdom if such a day would come, a day of the power of the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. Therefore you, as well as the people of God, have an interest in the coming of better days, and in the coming of a day of power to your own soul.
Oh, what a desolate wilderness the people of God feel their souls to be because of the low state of Zion. As they plead for the Lord to come, they plead that He would visit their own souls, for they see no souls in greater need of reviving than their own needy souls. Prior to times of revival coming to the church in the past, the Spirit was poured out upon the people of God to plead for such a time. The Lord will yet stir up the hearts of His people to earnestly plead that He would come over the mountains of their sins and provocations. They have no doubt that they have heaped up mountains of separation between themselves and their God, and they grieve over that. But they seek that He Himself would come to build up Zion by His almighty power. “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”.
Secondly, let us notice that although the church must be kept from its enemies, and watchmen must be upon the walls of Zion for its preservation, the watchmen watch in vain, except the Lord keep the city.
“Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.” The ministering servants of Christ are watchmen upon the walls of Zion. The church of God must not only be built up, but also preserved from enemies outwith it and within. These enemies are ever seeking the destruction of the church of God; this is their constant aim. Therefore the watchmen upon the walls of Zion must be constantly vigilant for the approach of the enemy, from whatever direction he may come. Satan does not approach in the same manner on every occasion. He is a subtle enemy who comes one way at one time, and another way at another time, but his objective is always the same: the bringing down of the church of God.
If the enemy will get within the walls, what great havoc he will cause. How much harm and damage the enemies of Christ have done within the visible church in our own day, when they have arisen in the church. Enemies within can do far more damage than those who are outside. Therefore Satan seeks to put within the church of God those who are his agents those who have a name to live but are dead; those who profess to be followers of Christ but yet at heart are enemies of Christ, of His church, of His kingdom.
We read in Scripture of the kingdom of God being like a field in which a householder had sown wheat, but in which his enemy also secretly sowed tares. When the stalks grew up and the grain began to appear on the stalk (not when the seed started to sprout), then appeared the tares also. What did the householder say about the tares when he was asked where they came from? “An enemy has done this!” he said. Whenever false professors appear within the church of God, it must be said that it is an enemy that has done this. This is Satan’s work. When the tares are appearing and are getting a place more and more in the church of God, the church is not being built up but broken down. The tares do their hidden work and cannot be plucked up without tearing up the wheat also. They were to be left until the time of harvest. Then there will be a separation, and the tares will be put in bundles to be cast into the fire.
When we think of the church of God in our own beloved land what havoc have the enemies of Christ done within it. As they rose up within the church, how much damage they have done! For a century or more, and at other times also, they have sought Zion’s destruction. As we have said already, they have been altering the pattern that the Lord has given in His Word and trying to build a church that is according to their own ideas. They preach doctrines other than those which the Lord has given in His Word; instead of preaching the gospel of God, they preach a false gospel. And they bring into the worship of God that which He has not prescribed. They are intent in breaking down the walls of Zion. The complaint of the Psalmist was that the enemies of the sanctuary were breaking down the carved work thereof with hammers and axes, (Psalm 74:6). So it is today: how numerous and active are the enemies of Christ within His visible church in this land, destroying what was glorious in the church.
The Word of God speaks of times when the enemy shall come into the church like a flood. This is true today. The enemy has come in like a flood to the visible church in Scotland, England, and other lands. When the enemy comes in like a flood, what hope is there for the church then? Surely it must be destroyed; surely it must perish when the walls have been broken through and the enemies have gained entrance? No! The promise of God is that when the enemy comes in like a flood the Spirit of the Lord shall raise up a standard against it. Therefore the people of God, as they see the enemy coming in like a flood, may plead the promise of the Lord with regard to the deliverance that He promises: that He by His Spirit will raise up a standard against the enemy, so that the enemy will be conquered. So there is no remedy for the church but that the Lord by His Spirit would raise up a standard against her enemies. “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”
When the visible church, or any part of it, is by divine grace in a state that is according to the mind of the Lord, that is, when she possesses the ordinances of God’s appointment, and holds to the faith once delivered to the saints, and has faithful servants of the Lord as watchmen on the walls of Zion, she cannot then relax and be at ease. She is ever to keep this in mind: Except the Lord keep the city, the watching of the watchmen will be in vain. It is by the Lord’s keeping that the city is to be preserved, and to Him she must look constantly.
The visible church in Europe, at the time of the Reformation, was favoured with the gospel, and had in it those who were obedient to the Lord’s will in establishing the church in a way that would be to the glory of the God of heaven. They proclaimed the truth of God’s Word and sought to set up the church on a proper, Scriptural foundation. But all the time they were looking to the Lord for the blessing, believing that only He could gather a people to Himself, and only He could preserve His church.
The Lord was pleased, at the time of the Reformation, to highly favour our own land of Scotland also. He raised up shepherds of the flock, watchmen in Zion who stood against the enemy, watchmen such as John Knox and his fellow Reformers who set themselves for the defence of the gospel of Jesus Christ and for the proclamation of that gospel. But as they engaged in this work for which they were raised by God, they knew full well that “except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”. They understood well that the Lord Himself must keep His church, and that His preserving care must be exercised over it, for “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”
What now of the church today? And what of our own Church? The founding ministers of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland were only two in number. These two watchmen on the walls of Zion were found faithful to the Lord when the enemy came in then. Their concern was not only for the glory of God but also that they would preserve a heritage of truth for the generation following. That heritage has been handed down to us in the kindness and the love of God. No thanks to us for that. The thanks belong to Him who procured that by strengthening His two servants, and others with them, to stand in an evil day, to oppose the treachery they saw in the church, and not yield to the enemy within. Their determination was that the truths of the gospel would continue to be proclaimed, so that a seed would be raised up to serve God. They saw clearly that the Word of God had to be preserved in its entirety for those who would come after them, and that the Scriptural worship, discipline and government of the church must be preserved for the generations to come. So, in the mercy of the Lord, these privileges have been handed down to us.
We are living in an age when the enemy of the church is attacking from all directions, and is using every device he can to destroy the church of God. His objective is to obliterate from off the face of the earth any church that will adhere to all the counsel of God. What great need we have of the preservation of the only One who can keep the city. “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” It would be foolish on our part to say we are in no danger. We have the truth of God’s Word; we have the gospel of His grace yet; we still have the people of God. Surely there is no danger for us. There is danger! There is danger on every hand, and there is no safety or security but in Him who is the preserver of Israel, who slumbers not nor sleeps. It is foolish for us to think that in our own strength we can preserve a witness for the generations following. If the gospel is to be proclaimed in times to come, then the Lord must preserve His church. The Lord must build His house, and build it with living stones; stones hewn by Himself; stones polished by Himself and placed in that glorious edifice that He is yet building, and will continue to build. The Lord will build a glorious church in this world, the church of the latter-day glory.
And what a glorious church will be the redeemed church of God when at last it will be presented to the Father, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. What a wonderful picture is given to us, in the 21st chapter of The Revelation, of the church of God, the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. What a glorious church that is which has light which is “like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal”. This is the city which has no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God lightens it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. “And the nations of them that are saved shall walk in the light of it, and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.”
The Lord is doing a work of building, and the Lord is to finish that work. He is to do it in Scotland, and He is to do it in other lands also. He is to gather to Himself a people who shall be to the praise and glory of His great name throughout eternal ages. Therefore in this dark day, in this day when there are assaults from every quarter against the church of God, let us ever look to the One who is almighty, for “except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain”.