Synod Sermon: Rev K D Macleod, Retiring Moderator
Psalm 115:12. The Lord hath been mindful of us: He will bless us; He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron.
Here the Psalmist is looking back to the blessings the Lord had given in the past and, in the light of that, he is looking on to the blessings that he fully believed the Lord would give in the future. In the following verse, he speaks of how the Lord would bless those who fear Him, both small and great. But we are here as the Supreme Court of this branch of the Church and will therefore confine ourselves to verse 12, which views Israel as a whole – in other words, the Church of God as a whole – and those, the house of Aaron, who had a particular office within the Church of God, as distinct from others who feared God. Just as the Lord has been mindful of His Church in the past, so He will bless His Church in the future.
As the Lord may be pleased to help us we may see how
1. The Lord has remembered His Church in the past.
2. The Lord is to bless His Church in the future.
1. The Lord has been mindful of the Church of God. We are here this evening at a time in the history of the Church when things are low. But if we go back to the time of Noah – whatever might have been true when he started building the ark – by the time he was finished, things were, one might say, as low as they could possibly be. Only Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives were spared from the flood. Things were low indeed if the Church of God was no bigger than that. No doubt, people have often been tempted to say, “The Church of God will just die out; there is no hope!” One must bear in mind that in particular localities the Church of God has died out. Where are God’s people to be found today in many of Scotland’s towns where, at one time, there were many who feared God?
But in Noah’s time the entire Church of God was down to a handful. Not only were the numbers small, but iniquity was rampant; “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). But the Lord remembered His Church; He did not cast it away; He did not leave it to pass out of existence. What is more, He did not leave the world without a witness for truth. We should notice the solemnity of the deliverance that was afforded to the Church: the rest of the world was destroyed. Only Noah and his family, who believed God’s testimony, were delivered – and that was the visible Church at the time, confined within the ark.
We pass on to look at another time in the history of the Church of God in this world when things were very low indeed. When Jacob and his family went down into Egypt, Joseph was there before him and had the favour of the king. This was, of course, part of God’s provision for the Church to be kept alive. But, some generations later, another Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph. Then the Israelites, thinking of them as the Church of God outwardly, were in danger of being swept out of existence; the males were all to be put to death as soon as they were born. If that scheme had been put into effect, the Church of God would have been wiped out completely within about 100 years. We should note the hand of Satan behind it all, as we should notice his hand behind every scheme to weaken the Church of God.
But the Lord remembered His Church. Going out of Egypt, the Israelites could sing, “The Lord hath been mindful of us”, as the Church of God was to sing of that event in another generation, “Who remembered us in our low estate: for His mercy endureth for ever” (Ps 136:23). They were indeed in a low state as slaves to a heathen power. And obviously their situation was having its effect on their spiritual life. But that was not to continue. The Lord remembered His people and delivered them; He brought them out from Egypt. The great matter is not that He brought them out with gold and silver, though it indicated that they had the Lord’s blessing. What was important was that He brought them out of bondage into a land which He had prepared for them. It was a land flowing with milk and honey, where they could in freedom enjoy the Lord’s benefits, where the public worship of God would be set up as never before. In that land there would be, not just a house of Israel, but a house of Aaron – a God-ordained line of priests to last until the great High Priest Himself would come, not after the order of Aaron but after the order of Melchisedec.
We should see here how the Lord was mindful of His Church; He brought them out into a land where they could have the ordinances of God. How favourable their circumstances were after He established them in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua! In particular, the Lord remembered them in giving them priests, judges and kings. Certainly the kings and the others were not always of the same quality, but what a provision it was when they did have godly priests, godly prophets and godly kings!
We may take David as an example of God’s provision for His Church. That was set before us in the first verses we sang: “He chose David also His servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: from following the ewes great with young He brought him to feed Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands” (Ps 78:70-72). How often God has been mindful of His people in giving them leaders – giving them, if we step out of the historical sequence and glance at the Church of God in our time, ministers to feed His people. But as generation has followed generation, the Lord has remembered His people by giving them, more or less, those who would feed them, direct them, rule over them. We have also to remember the provision that the Lord makes for His Church by giving them elders and deacons – and those who do not have any office in the Church. There will be nursing mothers as well as nursing fathers.
Now we do not need to be surprised in any generation if we find the Church going astray – it is a sinful world! The Lord has His own purposes in permitting these things; we may not understand them at the time – we may scarcely understand them as we look back – but we can be sure that the Lord is mindful of His people even when we see them in a low state. He was mindful of his people during the awful declension that occurred in the time of Noah, and during the declension among the Children of Israel in Egypt, and again during the declensions in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah until they were swept into captivity. He did not forget them. But every time we look at the deliverance that followed these declensions, do we not see all the more clearly that the Lord was mindful of His people?
We can certainly say that the Lord was mindful of His people when one godly king followed another. Could they not say, when David gave the throne over to Solomon, “O how mindful the Lord has been of His people when He has raised up a godly successor to David – one who is so wise, who gives such clear evidence of fearing the Lord?” Yes indeed! But, after the Church of God has been allowed to fall into a condition of declension – when God raises up the Church again – with what emphasis the people of God can sing, “The Lord hath been mindful of us”.
So it was when the Lord brought His people back from Babylon and raised up leaders for them – men like Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel; and Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. It was a generation on which, it would seem, the blessing of God was poured out on a large scale. The Lord was indeed mindful of them when the spiritual blessings were granted which were described in Ezekiel’s prophecy: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you” (Ezek 36:25-26). It was no doubt significant for Israel to be brought back from Babylon – for the visible Church to be restored to its own place in the world geographically. But here is a far greater matter: that the Lord remembered His Church by pouring out the Holy Spirit. Signs and wonders were done among them; many hard-hearted sinners were given new hearts and came to trust in the mercy of God revealed in the sacrifices.
How wonderfully the Lord was mindful of His Church in fulfilling these words: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder” (Is 9:6). How clear it was that the Lord had been mindful of His Church when the angels sang over Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). All the kindnesses shown by the Lord to His Church in the past were leading up to this. And now that the Saviour had appeared within His Church, they could say indeed, “The Lord hath been mindful of us. The Lord has appeared among us Himself. He has not left us to ourselves. The prophecies given in His kindness are being fulfilled.” Now the one sacrifice that can take away sin was to be offered. Christ appeared once in the end of the world to take away sin by that sacrifice of Himself.
How mindful of His people the Lord was when He gave the Holy Spirit! What rich words the Saviour spoke before He went to Calvary, referring to that great blessing to be purchased for them! He must leave them, He must ascend to heaven so that the Comforter would come; “and when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgement” (John 16:8). Follow the disciples to the day of Pentecost. Look at them, and all those gathered with them, when the cloven tongues of fire came down. What Psalm might they choose to sing? Well, who knows? But how appropriate these words: “The Lord hath been mindful of us”.
There is no mention now of what was said on the way to Emmaeus: “We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel”. They were now fully assured that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. The Lord had been mindful of them, and this was confirmed when the Holy Spirit came in the cloven tongues of fire, and blessed the disciples’ preaching to 3000 sinners. What an increase to the Church of God! And so it was to go on as the Spirit convinced others of sin, of righteousness and of judgement. The Lord was adding to the Church daily such as should be saved. The Lord was remembering them, building up His Church – and not only in Jerusalem. The Word was to go forth to Turkey and Greece and beyond, as we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, and it was to reach this country itself.
As we follow the history of the Church somewhat further, we remember how low the Church of God became in the Middle Ages, when so few feared the Lord, when Romanism flourished throughout most of Europe, and when immorality was rampant among the priests. But the Lord did not forget His Church; He worked a Reformation. There are two aspects to that event. First there is the aspect that the name itself particularly points us to: the Church formed all over again, as it were. When those who feared the Lord separated themselves from Rome and Protestantism became established, the worship and government of the Church became, in varying degrees, God-honouring. But the other aspect is spiritual reviving. Not only was there a Luther, a Calvin, a Knox and many more – men given as gifts to the Church as surely as Aaron, Moses, David and Isaiah – but the Holy Spirit was poured out in saving mercy. Many in this country, and in other parts of Europe, were brought out of the kingdom of darkness to fall at the feet of Immanuel.
Now I want to refer to just one other stage in the history of the Church of God: the declension that took place in Scotland in the second half of the nineteenth century. In particular, we may look at the situation within the Free Church of the time, for our roots as a Church were there. Many who were given great prominence within the Free Church took up unbelieving views on the inspiration of Scripture. Men were departing from other doctrines, but this is a foundation doctrine; and if the foundations are destroyed, the whole building is unstable. All Scripture has been given by inspiration of God, and this Book we have in front of us is wholly dependable from beginning to end. As they wrote, holy men of God were carried along by the Holy Ghost, men such as Isaiah and Paul and the writer of this Psalm. Their minds were carried along in such a way that they wrote down exactly what it was the purpose of God to reveal in this lost world.
But, as the nineteenth century went on, the Church of God was falling into a low state. Little can be said about spiritual reviving during that period, or at any time since then, yet we can say that the Lord was mindful of His Church in that a witness to the truth was raised up in 1893, when this branch of the Church of God was established in its separate position. Yet though it is now as small as it is – and even in 1893 no one could say that it was large – what we must say before the Lord this evening, 108 years later, is this: the Lord has been mindful of this branch of His Church.
2. The Lord is to bless His Church in the future. When the world and the professing Church are where they are today, spiritually, is it not tempting to ask with the heathen: “Where is now their God?” (v 2). We can look back to the past and say, “The Lord has been mindful of us”. But have we any reason to look with confidence to the future when, as an unspiritual eye would see it, there is so much reason to ask, “Where is now their God?”
We have words of Scripture to direct us. We can follow verse 2 with verse 3: “But our God is in the heavens: He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased”. Does that not point to the fact that He is still ruling? But on what principles does He rule? I wish only to note the principle in this verse, remembering that this God is still the same. “The Lord hath been mindful of us: He will bless us”.
Who are we – certainly as far as any particular time in the future is concerned – to lay down the way in which God will bless His Church? But we can be sure of this: He will bless us. And every degree in which the Church of God is strengthened – in particular, every individual that is brought into the number of God’s people – is an evidence that God is blessing us and that He will bless us. As we look to the future, we are to say, first of all, that the Church will never be allowed to die out – no more than it was allowed to die out in the time of Noah, no more than it was allowed to die out in Egypt or in Babylon, no more than it was allowed to die out in the Middle Ages. We are told in Psalm 72: “They shall fear Thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations”.
What is the world coming to, we may ask, as unbelief becomes stronger and stronger within the Church of God? What is the world coming to when sin raises its head in pride, and sins that were once unmentionable are flaunting themselves before everyone? Well, whatever the future will bring, whatever God’s providence holds, this is the least that can be said: the Church of God will never die out. There will always be, as there have always been, those who fear God. The Lord will always sustain His Church as He has sustained it until now, even in times of persecution, even in times of rampant unbelief, even in times of prevailing ungodliness.
“The Lord hath been mindful of us; the Lord will bless us.” Just as surely as the one is true, the other is true also. In the past the Lord raised up as leaders in the Church of God, Aaron, David, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah and all the other prophets, the Apostles, and the preachers of the gospel right down to today. And will the Lord ever be without servants in His Church? No, the promises of God will always hold true; the Lord will bless His Church in the future as surely as in the past. “A seed shall serve Him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come, and shall declare His righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that He hath done this” (Ps 22:30,31). They shall come who shall declare all this great testimony of Psalm 22 concerning the One who came in God’s great name to save. Yes, just as surely as there was a David to write these words in his time, just as surely as there have been preachers to proclaim these truths down through the generations until now, so until the Saviour will come the second time without sin unto salvation, in every generation there will be a seed who will declare His righteousness unto another generation.
The Lord will always provide for His Church. He may not provide on the scale that we might think appropriate, but He is ruling. And we can be sure that He is ruling in wisdom. The Church has not come to its present state apart from the overruling providence of God but, whatever may happen in the future, we can be sure that the Church of God will not be left without leaders – preachers and other office-bearers. And the result of the preaching of the gospel, far and near, will be, as the Saviour said, “All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me” (John 6:37). In every generation, every one of the election of grace has been brought into the kingdom. In the century that has just closed, every one given to the Saviour was brought in. And all that the Father gave to the Son in the everlasting covenant will be brought in before the end of time.
In spite of all the unbelief of today, in spite of the cause of Christ being as low as it is, in spite of so many people assuming that they have every reason to say, “Where is now their God?”, all that the Father gave to Christ are coming to Him at exactly the time He appointed. So it ever will be, for Christ is still with His Church; the Holy Spirit is still in the Church and always will be. Here is a great matter indeed: the promise of Christ is being fulfilled: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt 28:20). Everything else hinges on that. If it were possible to imagine that the Mediator would withdraw from His Church, everything would collapse. But Scripture forbids us to suppose that the Mediator will ever withdraw, for the Lord . . . will bless us.
The explicit promise just quoted was given to the disciples, the representatives of His Church at that time, in connection with the direction: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matt 28:19). The duty is: “Preach the gospel to every creature”. But how? In dependence on Christ Himself, who assures His Church: “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth” (Matt 28:18). Accordingly, the disciples went out on the day of Pentecost with that assurance; they preached again and again with God’s blessing. At the Reformation, for instance, there was much of God’s blessing also. And what can be said every time an arrow of conviction goes into the heart of a sinner, every time a sinner is born again under the preaching of the gospel, and every time a child of grace is a little strengthened or edified? It is because all power is given to Christ in heaven and in earth, and that power is exercised when the Holy Spirit takes of the things that are Christ’s and reveals them to sinners – convincing them of sin, of righteousness and of judgement, and building up His own people in their most holy faith.
And so the Lord will go on blessing His Church. Christ must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. He who could say, “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth”, is King. He rules over His Church, and will rule over the whole world until all His enemies are subdued. What a blessing it will be for the Church of God when Antichrist is destroyed, when it will be said, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen”. It is a blessing also for the Church of God when any current of unbelieving thought is weakened. But the Church of God is strengthened as each individual sinner given to Christ by the Father is brought out of Satan’s dark kingdom into Christ’s marvellous light.
We have noticed the blessing afforded to Europe at the Reformation. And what a blessing there has been at every time of revival! Yes, and what a mercy when the Church of God will experience these days of spiritual blessing described by the prophet Isaiah: “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9). The Lord will indeed bless us, and let the Church of God, even in its low estate today, take hold of such promises!
We may be anxious to see God’s blessing on a large scale in the near future, and most certainly the Lord is able to revive His work very quickly. But what we can be sure of is that the promises of the Word of God will be fulfilled, whatever time it may please the Lord to do so. And we can be sure that He will bless the world to the extent indicated by the promises of Scripture. There is no area of the ocean floor but is completely covered by the sea – that is the extent to which the knowledge of the Lord is to cover the earth. Is the promise too great for us to believe? Well, it has been given in the revelation of Scripture. That is to be our guide, and therefore we are to go on patiently in the meantime. Let us then be exercised in prayer.
We have the direction in the verses preceding our text: “O Israel, trust thou in the Lord: He is their help and their shield” (v 9). The Lord is directing His Church collectively to trust in Him on the basis of what He has revealed of Himself. Again: “O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord: He is their help and their shield” (v 10); those who hold office in the Church of God are to trust in the Lord. And then the individuals: “Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord: He is their help and their shield” (v 11). Now, of course, these are overlapping categories, but collectively and individually, each and all are to trust in the Lord as the One who will help and protect.
In trusting, they are all to pray – to pray, as in Psalm 122, for the peace of Jerusalem, the Church of God. Pray, in other words, for the well-being of Jerusalem, for its spiritual prosperity, believing that the Lord is able to do exceedingly abundantly above what we ask or think. Whatever our idea of spiritual prosperity for the Church is, the Lord is able to do exceedingly above that; whatever degree of understanding we have of the promises of God, He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above that. And we are to go on with the acknowledgement with which the Psalm begins: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory, for Thy mercy, and for Thy truth’s sake”.