(An Analysis and Summary of a Sermon by James Denney)
THE EXILE’S PRAYER
“I am a stranger in the earth: hide not Thy commandments from me.”
The text contains two elements: first the strangeness of being present in this world (“I am a stranger in the earth”), and a second element, the commandments of God.
In the first section of the sermon, Denney works through the matter of being present in the world and yet not being a home in the world. He introduces his topic:
The text expresses with great simplicity man’s position in the world, and the prayer which rises in his heart as the position is realized. He is a stranger here, a resident alien in a land which is not his home; and when he feels the strangeness of the place, he feels at the same time the need of God’s guidance if he is to pass through it with safety and honour. “I am a sojourner in the earth: hide not Thy commandments from me.” (38)
Yet, being a stranger is not our first thought. We are born feeling at home. As we advance, “We naturalize ourselves, so to speak, in the earth.” Now we cannot think this per se a bad thing. We were created to live on the earth.
It is impossible to doubt that this is God’s will. It is He who has given man the earth to dwell in. It is He who has made nature and man’s mind on the same model, so that we can understand our dwelling place. (39)
The trouble comes that as we continue to obtain more of the world, we find ourselves discontent with the world, “The more life is found to contain, the more the desires or rather the necessities of the soul expand.” If one is aware, discontentment is bound to follow.
There is a holy discontentment which develops (Augustine speaks of this well in the first book of his Confessions):
Deeper than everything is the feeling of dependence, not on nature or society, but on God—the sense of the infinite, of the transitoriness of all that lies around, of the Divine kinship and immortality of the soul. When this wakes up in its strength, man cannot but feel, This is not my rest. (40)
Here is the basis for moving to the law of God. As one realizes himself to be a stranger in the world, he comes to need a way to resolve that trouble: How am I to live in such a condition:
Let us consider what this means. It implies that there is a Divine law for this peculiar situation. The man of God is not to suppress that sense of being a stranger, and to conform to the world’s ways. He is not to try to smother the intimations which remind him that he is made for more than the world yields, and to do at Rome as the Romans do.(41-42)
Here is the crux of the matter: To be a stranger in the world, and yet the need to live in the world requires a means to fulfill both: To this only the law of God answers. It is a law first for strangers in this world.
This law puts one a different axis than merely conforming to the world about or rebelling against the world about. Rather it is a means of independence from the world about by shifting one’s dependence to God.
Here is the irony: Those who seek independence typically do so by the greatest possible dependence upon and desire for the world. It is an indulgence in the world which marks the greatest lack of independence from the world. We tend to think of what was recently moral transgression as a form of independence, when it can be nothing of the sort.
Independence from the world can only be had by dependence upon God’s law for strangers:
The man who is a stranger in the earth and who knows it, though he does not distinguish himself by loud rebellion against the ways of the land he lives in, lives nevertheless a life of his own, inspired by higher laws, and knows without violence how to maintain his independence. (42)
In the act of knowing and doing the commandments — in the act of obeying we come to know something of God: this is obedience to know. Although Denney does not draw out the point in this language, this is obedience of love; it is covenantal obedience, not slavish obedience:
The Psalmist’s prayer: “Hide not thy commandments from me,” gives a peculiar turn to this truth. It shows us that the contact with the element for which our hearts cry out, the hold upon the thread of life which is a matter of death of life to us, is granted in the shape of obedience to the revealed will of God. We know God when we know we know what God would have us to do, and the Psalmist had been taught of God when he prayed, “Hide not thy commandments from me.” The knowledge of God that we need is the knowledge for action and obedience….It is as we work at this task—as we do the commandment of God—that the sense of insecurity and unreality passes away.If earth does not become our hoe, at all events god is our home even while we are on earth (44).
Thus as we live on this earth, we should be gaining in the sense that we are not at home and thus we should become more acutely aware of our need for another’s direction. “It is not in us who walk to direct our own steps in this foreign land.” (46).
What Must One Do?
Therefore, we need prayer:
The first is this: our situation, as strangers on the earth, requires us to seek communication with God. It deans and necessitates prayer. When it is realized and weighs upon us, it inspires prayer. The presupposition of all prayer is that there is such a thing as a will of God applicable to my situation, a Divine commandment bearing on the very circumstances in which I act, and by obeying which my exiled uncertain life is united to the eternal life of God. Prayer is not always the presenting of defined requests to God: we may not even know what we need or even what we want—expect that it is God. Prayer may be the effort of the soul, oppressed by the sense of its isolation, its impotence, or its exile in the world, to connect itself again effectively to Him. (47)
We must also meditate:
A second consideration is this: our situation as strangers on earth, requires us to think about the law of God….I am not speaking at random when I say that even in the Christian Church and in Christian homes there is an extraordinary lack of appreciation for the Bible as a means of initiation into the wisdom of God, and of true union and communion with Him….If a man will only read his Bible for the sake of God’s commandments, he will never encounter any difficulty in it but the difficulty of keeping them. to bring the mind, the conscience, the heart, into harmony with the mind of God, so that even in a world which largely ignores God a man may be able to live in practical union with Him, the habitual use of the Bible is indispensable. Let us read it more steadily than we have done, with more reflection, with more purpose. Let us think out, as best we can, its bearing on our life and calling. (47-48)
Finally, we must act:
Finally, our situation as strangers on earth calls us to the imitation of Jesus. As we are, so was He in the world; and as He was, so ought we to be in it. (48-49)