“When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me.” Psalm 142:3
It is often a deep relief in trouble to have someone with whom the grief may be shared. There is a certain pride natural to us all which prompts us to hide what we may have to bear. There are trials, too, of such a peculiar character that we can never hope to find an understanding heart. Nevertheless, speaking in general terms, it is a mighty solace to be able in our dark and bitter hour to pour our story into another’s ear. Now that comfort, you notice, was denied this psalmist. “No man careth for my soul,” he said. Crushed as he was into the very depths, men passed him by in selfish disregard. There was no one to whom he could go for a word of cheer, no one who would be patient while he spoke, no one he could trust with the story of his sorrow.
It was in such an hour this singer did what is always wise in such hours. “I cried unto the Lord with my voice, with my voice unto the Lord did I make my supplications.” Denied the privilege of human sympathy and with a heart that was likely to break for grief, “I poured out,” he said, “my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble.” Now, that this was a step of profound wisdom is abundantly manifest by its results. God answers his prayer by breathing a new hope into the cheerless gloom of His petitioner until at last this brokenhearted suppliant is set so surely on the rock again that he cries, “The righteous shall compass me about, for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.”
We have all seen, amid our Highland hills, a day that opened in utter desolation. There was the rolling mist, the drenching rain, the forlorn sighing of the cheerless wind. All nature seemed to brood in hopelessness as if she had forgotten to be glad. Heavy sorrow seemed to lie upon her bosom and to struggle in despair in all her voices. But as the day wore on, the aspect changed. First there was a dull and watery sun and then the heavy mists went rolling upward; the light shone and birds began to sing. So in the afternoon came warmth and beauty, and in the beauty a softness and mystery that never would have fallen upon the land but for the dreary vapors of the morning.
Brethren, have you ever noticed in the Psalms a progress like that of our hills? Have you ever noticed how often they begin cheerless and tearful and with a shrouded sun? And then have you noticed how, as they proceed, they break into the light of joy and trust, a light that is made more beautiful and tender by its trailing and misty fringes of the morning. Such is the little Psalm before us here. It begins with a cry out of the very depths. It ends with the sunshine of the glad assurance, “Thou shalt deal bountifully with me.”
Times of Desolation
First, then, let us examine some of the times in which our spirit is overwhelmed within us. And may I ask you to note the word the psalmist uses? “My spirit,” he says, “was overwhelmed within me.” Now, in the Old Testament whenever that word spirit is used, it carries the suggestion of activity. There is another passage in which the psalmist says, “When my heart is overwhelmed within me, lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” But the overwhelming of the heart is a little different from the overwhelming of the spirit. The heart is the inward nature of the man viewed passively as the groundwork of his character. The heart is the soil from which the actions spring, white as the lily or black as the night. But the spirit is the action and the energy, the manhood rising up to face its duty, the treasury of life, if I may put it so, out of which all our conduct draws supply. And when the spirit is overwhelmed within us, there will always be one sign of that dejection. It is the sapping of the springs of energy, the heaviness and the weariness of duty. The hands grow weak, the knees become feeble; power and hope die down. The spirit hears the call but cannot rise to it–as the psalmist puts it, it is overwhelmed.
Now one of the seasons when this is likely to happen is the season when troubles are multiplied. A single problem we can generally handle; it is when problems are multiplied that we fail. Now you may always be certain that where you find a proverb, it voices a pretty general experience. If a proverb is not generally true, men have no use for it and it dies. And one of the proverbs that has survived the years and grown familiar to every one of us is that troubles never come singly. Why, think of Job when a messenger came running to tell him that his oxen and asses had been stolen; and while he was yet speaking came another to tell him that his camels were gone. And while he was yet speaking another hotfooted in with more trouble, and I say that that is the experience which humanity corroborates. Had Job been written by some hermit scholar, he would have put an orderly space between the messengers. But whoever wrote that book knew human life well when he hurried the messengers on one after the other. Isn’t that how troubles often come, thronging together, following one another, blow after blow in shattering succession? Now it is just that relentlessness that is so prone to overwhelm the spirit. “Innumerable evils have compassed me about; therefore my heart faileth me,” says David. If a single wave were to dash against us, we would have power to resist the shock. It is when “all thy billows are gone over me” that the spirit is so near to being overwhelmed.
When We Feel Unequal to Our Duties
Another time when we are likely to faint is when we feel ourselves unequal to our difficulties. When the tasks of our appointed calling overwhelm us, then often our spirit is overwhelmed too. There comes times to every one of us when our courage melts, when tasks appall us, and doubts and fears rush in like the tide. It may be all a matter of our health, for body and spirit are in close union. It may be that our work becomes more difficult through competition or altering conditions. Or it may be that there is trouble somewhere that cannot be eradicated so that a person is unable to give himself to a task that calls for quiet or concentration. It is in such a time that even the most valiant are in danger of an overwhelmed spirit. The knees become weak; the hands hang down; strong men bow themselves and the keepers tremble. One cannot look upon the golden bowl but he shudders lest it be broken at the fountain.
The Mysteries of Providence
Such mysteries do not only crush the heart, they do far more; they overwhelm the spirit. You know how hard it is to be a faithful servant if you are serving an unreasonable master. Nothing so crushes the spirit out of service as to be at the sport of whim and of caprice. But, on the other hand, nothing is more effectual in making our service one of joy and steadfastness than just to know that the master whom we serve is a perfectly just and reasonable man.
You can crush the spirit of a child by cruelty and by terrorizing its imagination. But remember, there is another way that may be quite as fatal in the after-years. It is bringing the child up under the growing sense that in the conduct of the home there is no justice, that there is nothing over it from day to day but the foolish whim of affection or of temper.
Brethren, we are all children in this world, and we know that in heaven is our Almighty Father. And it isn’t His chastisements that try our spirit, although His chastisements are often hard to bear. It isn’t even what we cannot fathom–for who are we to comprehend the Infinite? It isn’t what we cannot comprehend, but what we cannot reconcile. We do believe that God is perfect wisdom and perfect justice and all love. And it is when we meet with mysteries that we cannot reconcile with justice or love or wisdom that our spirit–our power for reasonable action–is likely to be crushed into the very dust. Why should one who would not harm a creature be bowed for years in acute pain? Why should a mother lose her one and only child? Why should the reprobate live for many years and be useless to all and a misery to many; and some precious life be terminated in the morning when its influence was so needed in the world?
By and by it will all be plain to us, for now we know in part and see in part. Blessed are they that having not seen, yet believed. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Yet compassed as we are by clouds and darkness and confronted by the mysteries of providence, have we not all had times like the psalmist’s when our spirit was overwhelmed within us?
The Consolations of the Psalmist
Isn’t it a mark of our overwhelming hours that our pathway seems to stop or disappear? Like the children of Israel on the banks of the Jordan, we are confronted by a swollen river. Our path seems to suddenly reach some chasm or ravine, and on the edge it disappears. How often we have taken a path across the fields that seemed to lead in the way we wished to go. For a little while it was plain beneath our feet, and then it grew fainter and became divided, until at last, perhaps when the sun was setting and the shadows of evening were falling on the valleys, the path we followed just disappeared. It is always so in overwhelming hours. We lose our peace because we lose our path. Our plans are crushed; our prospects are destroyed. We seem like helpless wanderers in the twilight. And it was then that David comforted his soul with the assurance that was given him from God, that all the time, although he couldn’t see it, there was a pathway for his weary feet. He was not an aimless wanderer in the dark, the result of an accident or chance. His feet were moving on a prepared path through light and shade to a prepared end. Let him go forward trusting Jehovah–that was his duty if the path were there, and by and by it would lead him from the valley and bring him to the waters of repose.
And then the psalmist had this other comfort: not only was there a pathway, but God knew it. As he reviewed his overwhelming hours, he saw it clearly–“then thou knewest my path.” The Thou is emphatic–the accent is on Thou. I did not know my path–but Thou didst. Of that the psalmist could never be in doubt when he surveyed the way he had been led.
Brethren, where the Scripture says “God knows,” it means far more than bare words convey. Our knowledge is often useless and inoperative, but the knowledge of God is always full of action. He knows us, and therefore He will help us. He knows our path, and therefore He will guide us. When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, the Lord was my shepherd and I did not want. Let us hold to that confidence whenever, like the psalmist, we are crushed in spirit. Clouds and darkness are around His throne, and yet He knows and is very merciful. And then at last, when the dayspring has arisen and the mystery has passed away forever; when the book is opened in which He keeps our wanderings, then we shall look back upon it all with all its happiness and all its heartbreak and say, “When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path.”