Rejoice With Trembling: Psalm 2:11
An extract from Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987) pp. 198-200.
(The ordination of J. Gresham Machen took place on June 23, 1914, at Plainsboro, NJ, just outside Princeton. Although few details have been preserved of the occasion, as Stonehouse reveals, the re is a manuscript of the sermon Machen preached on that day. We take up the story and Stonehouse’s summary of the manuscript.)
Incidentally one discovers that the sermon was on the text, ‘Rejoice with trembling’, taken from Psalm 2:11, and a manuscript of that sermon is still extant. In it he began with the observation that rejoicing is power, that joy is the prime requisite for high achievement, that religion without enthusiasm is a dead thing. The religious life is indeed not a mere matter of inclination.
It must be diligently and consciously fostered—by attendance upon religious exercises, even when they are a weariness to the flesh, by maintaining the form of prayer even when the spirit of it seems gone for the time without recall, by reading the Bible even when you are far more interested in something else. Duty is therefore necessary to religion. But religion that is only duty is but a dead thing. If the world is to be conquered for Christ, duty must be supplemented by mighty enthusiasm.
Modern religion, with its emphasis upon good citizenship and social well-being, he went on to observe, is not really joyful. The happiness of the world is superficial and at best precarious. The thought of the real underlying problems of life cannot always be avoided. Browning’s Bishop Blougram’s Apology was quoted to make this point.
Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature’s self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again,
The grand Perhaps!
The question was then raised, ‘May we find in religion something deeper than the pleasures of this world, some peculiar, basal joy, which will substantiate all the rest? There is the problem. How is religion to be made a joyful thing?’
The answer, he averred, is not to be found merely by cheering up religion. ‘Noble churches, good music, brilliant preaching—these things, in themselves, are none the less worldly because enjoyed within consecrated walls.
Sometimes they are not religion, but a diversion from religion.’ If it is recalled that religion is communion with God, men are ready with the answer that joy may be found by emphasizing the comforting attributes of God. But this approach, when examined, breaks down. In view of the reality of sin, men refuse to break forth into ecstasies of joy when they hear such a message. Moreover, such a message is shown to be false whether one appeals to nature or to the Bible as a whole or to Jesus only. How then may true joy be found?
The text gives the answer. ‘Rejoice with trembling.’ That looks like a paradox. Joy and fear are opposite. At any rate, surely the trembling must limit the joy. Rejoice although you have to tremble. Or, rejoice, but in your joy do not forget to tremble. Or, is the trembling positively necessary to the joy, intimately connected with it? Is the trembling the key to the joy? If we learn to tremble, will the way be open to the joy that we have sought so long in vain. Rejoice, says the modern preacher— but sadness somehow does not flee; Rejoice with trembling, says the psalmist—and the Lord put gladness in his heart.
Men no longer tremble before God because they have lost their sense of mystery and their sense of sin, Machen now argued at length. Their minds should faint before the overwhelming mystery of the creator as they contemplate the vastness of nature. If they kept close to the living stream of revelation in apostles and prophets, they would realize that they are dealing with unspeakable mysteries, and would not be too exact in charting the course of the Almighty, or too ready to say, Because God does this, therefore he must do that. Others attack the transcendence of God claiming that God does not exist apart from the world. Thus mystery has been eliminated from religion.
But at what a cost! Inconvenient interference by the ruler of the universe is no longer to be expected. But no more is help in time of trouble. God has no more thunderbolts, but neither has he gifts … He is no longer to be feared but neither is he worth seeking. Mystery is gone. But its place has been taken by despair.
The sense of guilt also produced the fear of God, he went on, but that too has been lost. Sin is now viewed as a necessary stage in the development of humanity and inevitably as necessary in the life of God too. The old view that sin is rebellion against the Creator’s will is called morbid or even over-wrought, but that settles nothing. Paul too was thought to be mad. Give up such madness and you sink to the level of the beasts. With it comes a terrible revelation of the righteous God. The search for joy in religion has seemed to end in disaster. God enveloped in impenetrable mystery and in awful righteousness. Man confined in the prison of the world, trying to make the best of the situation, beautifying the prison with tinsel, yet secretly dissatisfied with his bondage. No hope; God separate from sinners. No room for joy. Only a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation.
Yet such a God has at least one advantage over the comforting God of modern preaching. He is alive. He is sovereign. He is not bound by his creation or by his creatures. He can perform wonders. Could he even save us if he would? He has saved us. It could not have been foretold; still less could the manner of it have been foretold. ‘That Birth, that Life, that Death!’—why was it done just thus and then and there? It all seems so local, so very particular, so very unphilosophical, very unlike what might have been expected. ‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?’ Yet, what if it were true? So, the All-Great were the All-Loving too.
God’s own Son delivered up for us all. Freedom from the world, sought by philosophers of all the ages offered now to every simple soul. Things hidden from the wise and prudent revealed unto babes. The long striving over. The impossible accomplished. Sin conquered by mysterious grace. Communion at length with the holy God. Our Father which art in heaven!
Surely this and this alone is joy. But a joy that is akin to fear. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Were it not safer with a God of our own devising? Love and only love? A father and nothing else? One before whom we could stand in our own merit without fear? Let him who will be satisfied with such a God. But we, God help us, sinful as we are, we would see Jehovah. Despairing, hoping, trembling, half-doubting, half-believing, staking all upon Jesus, we venture into the presence of the very God. And in his presence live.
Thus concludes this sermon that even stylistically bears the marks of its early origin. Later Machen came to feel, on the background of criticism of loved ones, that he had been extreme in his use of brief and incomplete sentences. The sermon also no doubt expressed much of the religious temper of his mind and heart just at that time. What text could serve as well—as it had served Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress—to voice his restrained and trembling sense of exultation? Yet the sermon theme was one that continued to appeal to Machen, for he often dwelt upon the majesty and transcendence of God, and continued to preach on this particular text for many years.