The Lord’s Day Evening
Hymns of the Faith - (2)
(Based on Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalm 55:22, 56:11)
“If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. Please be seated. The ushers should have made available to you a handout on this hymn. If you don’t have it, I imagine that you could probably still get copies. I don’t know whether there are any at the entrances. I see a few ushers peeking in the doors…yes, they have more. So if you need a copy, why don’t you just hold your hand up right now, and I’ll wait for a few moments.
What I tried to do on the outline is simply give you the text of the hymn as it exists in The Trinity Hymnal, and then give you an explanation of each line – or an amplified prose rendering of each line. The poetry is nineteenth century in style and a little King James-ish, and it might throw you off as to its meaning. And so the outline is designed to give you a rendering of it that would be more readily understandable in our current English language.
Tonight we’re going to continue our new and a little unusual Sunday evening sermon series that will run sporadically through the fall when Derek is away. It’s based on “Hymns of the Faith.” What we’re going to do is look at Bible texts on which some of the great hymns of the church are based, and then we’ll study the way the hymn itself illumines some of those Bible texts and helps us to apply those Bible truths to our lives, even while we’re singing them in public worship. And along the way we’ll get to sing some of the best hymns ever written in the history of the church, and learn more about what we’re singing when we sing them.
Tonight our hymn is If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee. The moving words of this great hymn are glorious and realistic, and emphatically Christian in their meditation on God’s providence. This is a hymn well worth memorizing. It was composed in 1641, by George Neumark, in a context in which he himself had experienced a life threatening situation in which he lost all of his goods and his capacity to support himself. And when the Lord provided for him, he tells us that he composed this song in 1641 with the heading, “A Song of Comfort. God will care for and help everyone in His own time,” under the text of Psalm 5:22. The great theme of this song is trust in God’s loving and sovereign providence. Even when things don’t make sense, even when we’re in the midst of severe trial, we can trust in God’s loving and sovereign providence.
The hymn also offers very wise counsel to believers who are hard pressed in their trials and thus tempted to think unbiblically and unhelpfully about the predicaments that they find themselves in. The song reads like the combination of a testimonial – a believer saying this is what the Lord did for me – and an exhortation where the believer is saying to other believers, ‘Look, this is what the Lord did for me. Let me give you this biblical counsel about how to approach your trials in this life.’
But even though it’s a testimonial and an exhortation, it is utterly God-centered throughout. The text which George Neumark attached to the hymn is Psalm 55:22. Let me ask you to go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Psalm 55:22. And like the hymn, the great theme of that verse is trust in God’s providence, and especially trust in God’s providence in the midst of great trials. Trust in God’s providence, no matter what. And there’s a real sense in which the song If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee simply expounds and applies that particular truth.
A number of years ago, Rob Hill was an intern here. Many of you may remember Rob…and Rob is now an area pastor, at the St. Paul Presbyterian Church. When Rob was here, Rob preached on this Psalm for us. I was looking at his sermon in the last few days, and his words are just excellent on verse 22, so I want to read them to you. Here’s what Rob said about Psalm 55:22:
“In this verse, verse 22, David comes to what could be called the final resting point of his Psalm when he says, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you. He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.” Do you see? That’s the point that David came to. That’s the resolution to all this. It’s “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you.” Now the word for burden here is really very broad. What David is saying is this: “Cast your appointed lot on the Lord. Cast all of your situation, all of your anguish, all of your cares, all of your grief upon the Lord, and He will sustain you.” David has come to see the right response for the godly man: Give it all to God.
Now note the words that are used very carefully in this beautiful statement by David. It is not ‘Cast your burden upon the Lord, and you will not have any more burdens.’ It is not ‘Cast your burden upon the Lord, and you will never again feel anguish or grief.’ It is not ‘Cast your burden upon the Lord, and your heart will never feel weighed down again.’ But it is “Cast your burden upon the Lord, and He will sustain you.” And you can take confidence in that. This is a promise given to you in the word of God that when your heart is in the type of anguish that David’s heart was in, cast your burden upon the Lord, and He will sustain you, because He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.”
Those are wise words and good exposition of this great verse.
Well, let’s give attention to Psalm 55:22, and then I want to draw your attention to Psalm 56:11, and then Proverbs 3:5, 6…all of which press this truth of trusting God and His providence even when we don’t understand what’s going on.
Let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Our heavenly Father, this word is so important because it’s a word we need in almost every situation in life, but especially when we find ourselves in hard places. Heavenly Father, only You know all of those places as they are occurring in the lives of all those who are gathered here tonight. But You’re the only one who needs to know, and You’re the only one that we can turn to for help. So as we consider Your word and as we consider the wise biblical application of the truth of Your word that we meet in this hymn, help us to believe Your word. Because, O God, we need this word. And we pray this prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God from Psalm 55:22:
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you.
He will never permit the righteous to be moved.”
Thus far, God’s word.
Now turn forward one chapter to the fifty-sixth Psalm…Psalm 56, verse 11:
“In God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me?”
And then once again forward, to Proverbs 3:5, 6. Many of you have this memorized and could say it for me right now, before you get there. Here it is:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
You see what David is saying there. David is saying that we can trust God’s care of us. David is saying that God’s providence is trustworthy, and therefore we can cast our burdens on Him and know that we will never be forsaken, that we will never be ultimately shaken, that we will never be cast off, that He will never lose His grip on us. We’re to cast our burdens upon the Lord, and He will sustain us. The reason that David is able to say that emphatically and universally – and I want you to understand that David is saying that this is a promise that is universal to believers…that there is no circumstance in life that the believer can go through in which this promise is not true – He will sustain you. And you say to me, ‘But I’ve known believers who have died.’ Yes. The reason that David can say this is because the believer finds his greatest (her greatest) treasure in God. And if you have cast your burden upon the Lord, nothing can separate you from Him. Nothing. Neither life nor death, the Apostle Paul says.
Have you noticed, by the way, how many hymns there are that celebrate that truth? I think that there are at least two reasons why there are so many hymns that celebrate that truth. One is because it’s so comforting. The other is because it sometimes takes a long, long time to really believe that truth, and so we need to sing it a lot and pray it a lot, and read it a lot, and work it deep down into our hearts and bones. And that’s what this hymn helps us do.
Take out your hymn sheet and look…or take out your hymnal and look at the hymn. There are seven stanzas to this hymn in the original. The two that are left out are really juicy! They’re really, really good! But I’m going to restrain myself and restrict myself to just the stanzas that are in the hymnbook in front of you, and I want to walk through and I want to show you what each stanza is about, and just elaborate a little bit about how each stanza applies the truth of Psalm 55:22.
The first stanza is an assertion and a word of assurance. It’s an assurance and it’s a word of assurance, and here’s the main thrust of it: Trust in God, and He’ll get you through. It starts this way: If you will but trust God to guide you, and hope in Him in every circumstance in life, then He will give you strength no matter what happens to you, and He’ll carry you even through bad times. Now here’s the assertion: The person who trusts in God’s unchanging love, builds on the one rock that no one can move. And the assertion is designed to do what? Give you assurance in your trial.
Then, Neumark gives you some counsel regarding the kind of self-pity and bitterness that we can struggle with in dark providences in our lives, and it’s really, really wise counsel. Here’s how it goes. Look at the second stanza: What good can your anxiety and worry do? [That’s sort of the plain prose of that more flowery ‘What can these anxious cares avail thee?’] What good can your anxiety or worry do? Does that remind you of somebody else talking? Do you remember what Jesus said? Can you add a hair to your head by worrying? Can you add a day to your life by worrying? Can you add an inch to your height by worrying? Can you do anything positive by worrying about it? No. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. What good can your anxiety and worry do? What good is constant moaning and sighing – these never-ceasing moans and sighs? What help is it if your only response to your situation is regret? What help is it if the only response to hard things that come along is just to lament them?
And then here comes the counsel, and it’s so good and so helpful. Our crosses and our trials only get heavier if our only response to them is bitterness. Now my friends, understand that that is counsel that could only come from someone who has struggled with that, so be encouraged. If you are struggling with that right now, if you’re struggling with that kind of bitterness and self-pity in your trial, as you continue to trust in God and God brings you through that trial, you will be in a better position to sympathetically but wisely encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ as they go through life’s trials. This is another example of how God blesses not only you, but His people through trials.
Here’s another word of counsel. And the word of counsel is basically this: Be patient; be hopeful; and seek contentment. When you find yourself in the middle of a hard trial, start preaching to yourself: “Self, be patient. Self, be hopeful. Self, seek contentment even though you are where you are right now.” And then he says remember three things. This is your Father’s will. Whatever you’re going through right now, it’s all under the hand of your sovereign Father. It’s your Father’s will. Two, it is His wise love that sent it to you. And, three, He knows your deepest needs.
So here’s how it goes. Be patient and await His timing in cheerful hope, with a contented heart to accept whatever your heavenly Father’s will is, to accept whatever His wise love has sent you, and not to doubt that your deepest needs are known to the God who chose you for His own. So those three words of encouragement are given. Remember these three things: Your Father’s will; His wise love; and, His knowledge of your deepest needs.
Then the two stanzas that are left out come right after that third stanza, but I will restrain myself! And let’s go to the fourth stanza.
Here’s the fourth stanza. Now this again is a word of counsel in the midst of your trial, and here’s the counsel: No one is so high that God can’t bring him down, and no one is so low that God can’t raise him up.
Now let me just say – since I’m not going be able to expound the two stanzas that are not in the hymnal – the reason that that thought is there in the fourth stanza is because of what he’s been meditating on in those two missing stanzas. What he points out is that very often when we are in trials we start looking at other people who seem to be getting everything they hope for, all their prayers answered, and we start lifting up our hands and saying, “Why me? Lord, do you love him more than you love me? Lord, do you love her more than You love me?” In other words, you start judging God’s love of you by your circumstances, and by your circumstances negatively compared to someone else’s circumstances rather than judging God’s love for you by His salvation of you in the giving of His most precious Son. And so the whole counsel of these three stanzas – the two missing stanzas and this one – is designed to get our eyes off of other people and to get our eyes off of immediate circumstances and to look to God. And I don’t know better counsel for a person in a hard place than that. Because when you’re in a hard place anyway, what happens? You’re preoccupied with the hard place. And if the hard place is six feet over your head, it feels like it’s six thousand feet over your head. And the more you think about it, the worse it is. And the more you see somebody else not experiencing that, the worse it is.
And so what’s Neumark doing? He’s saying don’t look at that. Look at something else. Here’s what he says: Everyone is alike before the Most High God, and we know that it is easy for our God to raise up those who lie low, and it is easy for our God to bring down the rich man to poverty and lowliness. God still works wonders. He sets up, and He brings to nothing. Now it’s very interesting that that is exactly the language that Hannah in the book of I Samuel and Mary in response to the angel’s message to her about being the mother of the Lord Jesus…that is exactly the response that they have to what? To God’s providence in their lives. They acknowledge that God sets up and brings down. So what does that do? Instead of comparing themselves to other people, they see the solution to their predicament in God’s power.
And that leads to the final stanza, which we haven’t sung yet. And again it’s a stanza of counsel. It gives you counsel on how to respond to hard places in God’s providence. First of all, notice what it does. It gives you five quick words of counsel. When you’re in hard places, do these five things, Neumark says.
*First, sing. Isn’t that interesting? The last thing you want to do…the last thing that you want to do when you are in a pit is sing! It’s really wise counsel. Start singing of God’s providence even when you’re wrestling with God’s providence.
*Then, pray. That’s always good counsel, isn’t it? Prayer is the one urge that should never be resisted. And even when we don’t have the urge we ought to pray. Pray, Paul says, at all times (Ephesians 6). Sing…pray.
*Then keep God’s ways steadfastly. Stay in God’s ways without wavering. What often happens to people when they’re under the pressure of trial is they feel far from God. And when they feel far from God, what do they do? They think, ‘It doesn’t matter whether I stay in God’s way. It doesn’t matter whether I gather with His people. It doesn’t matter whether I stay in His word, because I already feel far from Him.’ And you know what that results in? You feel even further from Him. You have even less comfort. And so he says even though you’re in a hard place, stay in God’s way. Stay in His word. Stay in prayer. Stay with His people in worship. This is when you need Him the most.
*Fourth, do your duty. Just keep doing your Christian duty. Do you remember? Not long after the first George Bush left office, Barbara Bush did an interview in which she admitted that she had actually gone through a long period of depression while she was the First Lady. And she said to the interviewer that she had not been able to shake the depression. She had been to her doctors, she had been to counselors, but she had not been able to shake the depression. And so she decided that she was going to do her best to focus on serving other people and trying not to think about herself. And she said gradually over that time in focusing herself on serving other people, she found herself getting better. She continued to take the counsel of her doctors and her counselors, but in giving herself away she found that she got better. Well, my friends, five hundred years before our time, the Puritans said, “Walk by rule.” Stay in your duties. It will help you in times of trial.
And then finally, trust God’s word. Here’s how he says it:
“Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,
Perform thy duties faithfully,
And trust His word…”
Neumark is saying if you’ll trust God’s word, you’ll find that His promises are true, even if you don’t deserve them:
“Trust His word: though undeserving,
Thou yet shall find it true for you.”
He’s promising that God’s word will not fail you.
*And then here comes the great declaration right out of Psalm 55:22:
God has never ever forsaken a believer in time of need. God has never ever forsaken anyone who truly trusted in Him. God will never ever forsake the righteous.
And here’s the reason why. It’s not in the hymn, and it’s not in the Psalm, but it’s written all over the New Testament. The reason God will never ever forsake those who trust in Him is because He has already forsaken His Son for them. So that you will never ever know what it is to be forsaken. He was forsaken in your place. For you. And that’s why we can sing this song in hope.
Heavenly Father, by Your Spirit work the truth of God’s providence so deep into our hearts that it manifests itself in our lives and serves as a witness to the world, so that we can more faithfully and powerfully share the gospel of Your dear Son, and so that You will get all the glory. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Stand and receive God’s benediction, and then we’ll sing the final stanza together.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away.
“Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,
So do thine own part faithfully, and trust His Word –
Though undeserving, thou yet shalt find it true for thee;
God never yet forsook at need the soul that trusted Him indeed.”]
© First Presbyterian Church, 1390 North State St, Jackson, MS (601) 924-0575 www.fpcjackson.org
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