The late Rev. James A. Tallach1
This sermon, now slightly edited, was preached by Mr Tallach when he was pastor of the Free Presbyterian Congregation in Kames, and was later published in The Free Presbyterian Magazine in 1943. It addresses the important question, Should I be at the Lord’s Table?
Text: O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely. Song 2:14
IN the fifth chapter of Mark we have just read of the woman who came behind the Saviour and touched the hem of His garment. Having received the virtue which healed her, she disappeared in the crowd until sought out by the Saviour’s question: “Who touched me?” That question seems to have much in common with the words of our text. The evident intention of the woman was to slip away unseen. That this action on her part did not accord with the mind of Jesus is evident, for He recalls her by His question, “Who touched me?” His word reaches out into the crowd that thronged Him, searches the woman out and arrests her. She cannot get away with continuing to hide; the question lays a burden of responsibility upon her; it indicates a distinct line of duty to her. Impelled by it, she returns, trembling, humbled and penitent, and openly confesses. Jesus is not to lose His reward.
This woman is typical of many. When we commemorate the Lord’s death, an opportunity is given to all who believe in His name to the saving of their souls, to make a public profession of their faith. But perhaps there are some who are hiding in the crowd, failing in their duty and, maybe unwittingly, denying to Christ what is His due. To all such, this is His call: “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.”
We shall notice first, that Christ, in speaking to the Church, gives her the title, “My Dove”; secondly, He addresses to her the call: “Let me see thy countenance”; and thirdly, He gives her the encouragement: “For sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.”
First, we notice the title given by Christ to the Church: “My dove”.
Thus Christ addresses His people who are in the clefts of the Rock – who have fled for refuge to Himself, the Rock of salvation. They are all well known to Him and He calls them, claiming them as His own. In Scripture language the dove is an emblem of not only the Holy Spirit, but also of those in whom He dwells. In this passage the title indicates those dove-like graces which are characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in every regenerated soul. Those who are born again are distinguished, in their fellowship, habits and outlook, from the world “that lieth in wickedness”. Of the world, the raven is the fit type. When sent out of the ark by Noah it found a home, congenial to its own nature and tastes, in the corruption of a dead world; not so the dove. There was not space enough in the wide world on which to rest the sole of her foot, so back to the ark she must fly. The bosom of Christ is the true home of His dove; nowhere else will the dove-like graces of faith, repentance and holy affections permit the regenerated soul to rest. Christ knows this well; and He has occasion from time to time to call His dove back into His own bosom, “O my dove, let me see thy countenance.” The whole expression is one of the utmost tenderness and affection. Christ’s dove is greatly beloved by Him.
We see that Christ’s dove is hidden “in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs”. The wounds of a crucified Saviour are especially the clefts of the rock. “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” For a spiritually enlightened sinner there is no message of good news in a Christless gospel; a Saviour apart from the Cross is powerless to save. To Christ’s dove the modern type of bloodless gospel presents a cliff-face of bare and smooth rock it may look very grand and imposing but it is altogether devoid of foot-hold. Birds trying to perch on such rock slip and slide down, down, till finally compelled once more to take to their wings. On some parts of our coast, however, where the cliff rises to great heights from the sea, it is a common sight to see thousands of birds build their nests and rear their young in perfect safety; there are ledges and clefts in plenty, providing secure foot-hold. Thus it is with Christ and His doves. He says to them, “Behold my hands and my feet that it is I myself, be not faithless but believing.” They rest upon Him and cleave to Him as the crucified One.
Again, the whole Word of God is a rock of salvation, and it too has many a precious cleft. If it were not so, we, poor sinners, could never get into it so as to make use of it and find salvation in it. The well known invitations of the gospel, especially, extend their arms, inviting sinners in from the storm, into their inmost depths for security. “Look unto me, all ye ends of the earth.” To the utmost ends of the earth the arms of this great gospel cleft are invitingly opened, and in its bosom there is salvation: “and be ye saved”.
How does your heart react to these gospel calls? Is there a willing and wholehearted closing in with them? Is this your spiritual experience:
but none to know me were;
All refuge failed me, no man
did for my soul take care.
I cried to thee; I said, Thou art
my refuge, Lord, alone;
And in the land of those that live
thou art my portion.”? (Psalm 142:4,5, metrical).
Many a chilly blast of the devil catches the dove of Christ unawares from behind, ruffling the feathers and almost throwing her off her feet; but this only makes her cling all the more firmly to the Rock as she turns to face the blast. An Irish lad, converted during a revival in Ireland, replied to a clergyman who asked him if he was not afraid of returning to his old wicked ways: “Oh, sir, I do tremble on the Rock sometimes, but then I know that the Rock does not tremble under me.” These messengers of Satan are but blessings in disguise; for through them this sweet nesting-place has been made precious to many a storm-tossed soul: “My grace is sufficient for thee, my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
“In the secret places of the stairs.” Here, also, the dove of Christ is found. By means of stairs we ascend higher by easy stages. From earth to heaven is an incalculable ascent, but step by step, in the process of sanctification, the sinner saved by grace is prepared for glory. To be ascending steps is a slow and laborious business, but it is good to be found in these secret places of the stairs which lead up to God. Prayer is one of these secret places; the frequent resort of Christ’s doves. True prayer is always secret in that it is essentially an exercise of the soul, for “God is a Spirit, and they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” By prayer the soul ascends to God from the lowest depths: “Lord from the depths to thee I cried.” By prayer it waits, as those who “wait for the morning”. The secret places also of scriptural meditation, heavenly desire and holy affection are greatly frequented by Christ’s dove. What an unspeakable mercy it is to be found there when He calls, “O my dove,” and lays claim to one who is already His own.
Secondly, we shall notice the call addressed by Christ to the Church: “Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice.”
Jesus thus calls His doves today to a definite profession of faith. The woman whom He had healed hid herself in the crowd; but this was not to be allowed. “Who touched me?” Jesus knew who had touched Him. He could have called the woman by name, but wishing to draw her to willing and cordial confession, He lays the responsibility upon herself by His question: “Who touched me?” There was now something in the woman herself to which this question must make an unmistakable appeal – something which set her apart from all the people in the crowd around her. Unable to shake herself free from the voice which speaks within her, she comes, trembling but obedient.
The question not only lays a duty upon her but also, at the same time, makes that duty more easy to perform; the question creates for her the opportunity to obey, indeed it makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for her to disobey. If she returns and confesses, it is in no spirit of ignorant presumption or self-righteousness; she comes simply because Jesus requires this service of her. Knowing all that had already taken place she makes His question her warrant for coming – so the burden He lays upon her she puts back upon Him, and thus she finds His yoke easy, and His burden light.
In like manner Christ speaks here today: “O my dove, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice – thy countenance, hitherto hidden; thy voice, hitherto silent.” It may be that there is someone here, perhaps more than one, who knows and cannot but know, that the call lays an unmistakable responsibility upon him – someone whose heart secretly responds, and cannot but respond, under the urge of conscience as well as of affection. Perhaps there is someone who is separated from the crowd of the ungodly and the careless; and who is aware of a burden of responsibility laid upon him, which he can only discharge by the open confession of Christ’s name – perhaps there is someone who cannot deny that he owes Christ a debt of gratitude which it ill becomes him any longer to deny Him when He is saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Here, in this call of Christ, is the very opportunity created; also, in His call the very request is made which imposes the duty and at the same time lightens the burden and eases the yoke by providing the warrant. “O my dove, let me see thy countenance let me hear thy voice.” Can you find it in your heart to withhold any longer from Him what is so manifestly His due? Can you do but injury to your own soul by continuing in a course which is so clearly one of disobedience and disloyalty?
“Let me see thy countenance; let me hear thy voice.” The call is to a definite and cordial acknowledgment of Himself for what He has done. Virtue went out of Him and the woman was healed. There is something of His own in the woman to which He can justly and lovingly appeal. Her health and strength, comfort and joy, belonged to Him, came from Him. She had paid nothing for it. It was His gift to her – free and gracious. A gift, yes, but a precious gift, not to be lost, buried, wasted or abused. A gift to be laid at His feet in praise of the glory of His grace.
But before there can be honest acknowledgment in public there must first be sincere acknowledgment in the spirit. “Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice,” calls to a meeting face to face, as it were, and a deliberate and definite confession of faith, as in the presence of Christ alone. You may feel much which closes your lips in silence and covers your face with shame as you look upon your sin and unworthiness. You are black – black as the tents of Kedar; yes, you feel all that and much more. It is well certainly, to know ourselves, and, for our humbling, to look often on our nothingness; but as Samuel Rutherford says, for every once we look at ourselves let us look seven times to Christ.’ Is there not something of Christ within you? That Cross which has brought healing to your soul, whose is it? That gospel which has been as balm to your wounded conscience, whose Gospel is it? That Word which was as the binding up of your broken heart, whose Word was it? That Power which brought comfort, peace and hope into your desolate soul, whence came it? Christ is all and in all. So your spiritual health, comfort, peace, and hope are all His – they came from Him, and so “ye are not your own, ye are bought with a price, therefore, glorify God with your body and with your spirit which are His.” Jesus calls His redeemed ones to self-effacement, self-forgetfulness, a life so swallowed up in Him as to obliterate self. Hear the testimony of one whocalled himself the chief of sinners, and who who had learned well this lesson: “The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them, and rose again.” Oh! that the Holy Spirit would so reveal Christ to us, and in us, that all selfish considerations, and all false humility, were utterly destroyed, and our lips never tired of singing forth the praise of His name.
But the call asks for more than the secret heart acknowledgment of the Redeemer. No true-hearted dove of Christ would be content with that alone. The profession of His name must be a public one. “Men do not light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but in a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper provides the opportunity for such public profession, and the occasion ought to receive the most serious consideration from all those whose duty it is to bear witness to the saving power of the Redeemer.
The Communion Service, as we are in the habit of observing it, is a peculiarly solemn occasion. It is a kind of fan in the hand of Christ, by means of which He purges His floor, in a public way. The congregation becomes divided, some remain in their seats, while others, in obedience to the loving command of their Redeemer, rise up, separate themselves, and gather together around His Table. In a spiritual way He is as surely present there as He was in the upper room. He holds communion with those who, partaking of bread and wine, remember His death till He come. He desires to see their countenance and to hear their voice, for He delights in their fellowship – “sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely”. How beautiful and appropriate are the lines of the 116th and the 103rd Psalms in expressing the heartfelt praise of the sinner saved by grace for all the Lord’s gracious benefits bestowed upon him. In singing these lines, what a host of precious memories do they recall in many a weary pilgrim’s breast? But, oh! can that song be so sweet to any as it is in the ears of the Lord Himself? No doubt, to any seriously thinking person, the taking of this step for the first time will be no light burden; and he will have many temptations, doubts, fears, and apprehensive questions. “How dare I separate myself from many who appear better than I am? Can I give an honest and satisfactory reason for the hope that is in me? Am I not deceived? Is there not a danger of my bringing a blot on the fair name of Christ?” And many a similar question may arise. Ah, my friend, you are by no means alone in your apprehension. These very questions, honestly and sincerely asked, betray the spirit that is in you. These are some of the very marks peculiar to the flock of doves to which you belong. To such the promise is given:
like doves ye shall appear,
Whose wings with silver, and with gold
whose feathers covered are” (Metrical Psalm 68:13).
and all that in me is
Be stirred up his holy name
to magnify and bless” (Metrical Psalm 103:1).
Thirdly, we note the encouragement which Christ gives to the Church: “For sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.”
What wonderful praise is this which He gives, and what encouragement too! Does Jesus here speak of man in a state of innocence and perfect holiness, walking in the beauty of his original righteousness, and showing forth the praises of his God? It might not be wonderful if He did. But no, it is not of the beauty of unfallen man He speaks. Does He speak of the beauty of angels, then; those creatures clothed in light, surrounding the throne of God and ceaselessly singing His praise? No, the glory of seraphim and cherubim is not His theme. It is of sinners saved by grace He speaks. Oh, what a wonder is here! This is no flattering compliment intended for pride and vanity; but praise from the very lips of Truth Himself. To Him, the King’s daughter is, in very truth, all glorious within, her clothing is of wrought gold. To Him, the mourning of a broken-hearted penitent is sweetest music, and the tears wrung from a contrite spirit are jewels of peerless beauty, for He seeth not as man seeth.
Paul testifies that it was by the grace of God he was what he was; to Christ there is something of divine glory in every evidence of the grace which makes His dove what she is. Oh, what a miracle of divine power and love is every sinner saved by grace! The voice of the gracious sinner which falls on our ears as sighs and groans and disjointed words of confession, and penitential sorrow, reaches His ears as sweetest melody. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart; O God, thou wilt not despise.” “Sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely.” Such language indicates the delight Jesus takes in the communion of His people. His heart yearns for their fellowship.
He is well aware, however, of the many difficulties and discouragements which meet His timid and trembling dove in this path of duty – an evil heart of unbelief, the scorn of a godless world, the suggestions of the great adversary, all contribute their share in an effort to discredit any action which has the glory of Christ as its aim. In order to give the weak and tried among His people every encouragement to meet and overcome these obstacles He assures them here of the high estimate He puts upon every sincere effort to seek Him and serve Him in this world. The delight of Jesus in His people when they follow Him, and witness to the grace that saved them, has no doubt some relation to His own sorrows and sufferings, It is, in its own measure, part of the ineffable satisfaction arising from His soul travail on the Cross.
The farmer looks with intense delight and satisfaction upon his ingathered harvest. As he remembers the plough and harrow; the sowing and the reaping; the frost, the wind and the floods; the sweat, the weariness and the anxiety, he considers himself thoroughly justified in his joy, and who would deny it to him? But did ever a farmer sweat in the interest of his harvest as the Man of Sorrows did in the interest of those whom He gathers to Himself? What likeness shall be compared unto Him? In this, as in all else, Jesus stands alone; alone in His sorrow, alone in His joy. Remembering Gethsemane, remembering the Cross, He now looks upon the fruit of His soul-travail: a dove plucked from the snare of the fowler, a soul rescued from endless woe; and as He looks upon her countenance, as He listens to her voice, who can find it in his heart to deny Him the ineffable satisfaction expressed in these words: “Sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely.”
But sinners saved by grace are also trophies of a mighty conquest; and when such saved ones witness to the name of Christ in a public way, their witness becomes an open display of the conquering power of Him who ascended up on high, leading captivity captive. Earthly conquerors, returning home from the field of battle, are loaded with the favours of a grateful community. Every citizen recognises that the honours lavished upon them are but small enough return for the services rendered and the dangers braved in the interests of the whole country. But what earthly conqueror can compare with Him who trod the winepress alone; who took the prey from the mighty and delivered the lawful captive, who took the sting out of the very jaws of death and robbed the grave of its victory; who trampled upon sin, death and hell, and crushed their mighty power beneath His heel?
Among the honours of victory, the divine conquering One counts the souls of men and women; a great host which no man can number, gathered out of every nation under heaven. His victory is their salvation, and their salvation is His crown of glory. By His Word and Spirit He gathers them. Who among them would deny to Him the honour which is surely not more than His due. Surely it were base ingratitude, unworthy of any gracious soul, to withhold from Him the public acknowledgment from which He derives this sweet satisfaction: “Sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely.” Was there ever conqueror more worthy of honour, glory and praise than is Christ? Oh! that the day were hastened when the earth shall be filled with His glory and all nations shall call Him blessed. Amen.
1. The Rev. James Andrew Tallach was born at Dornoch on 3rd January, 1896, and served in France and India during the First World War. He was licensed to preach the gospel and ordained as a missionary to the Church’s Canadian Mission by the Southern Presbytery in October, 1926. On his return, and after labouring for a time in some of the Church’s mission stations, he was inducted as minister of the Kames Congregation on 4th May, 1931. He was translated to the Stornoway Congregation in September 1952 and remained there until his death on 11th January, 1960.