God’s Pupil, God’s Preacher: An Autobiography
“O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.” — Psalm lxxi. 17.
You notice how much David is at home with God. He talks about him; he does better, he talks to him. He hears God speaking to him, and he keeps up a dialogue with God. Whence came this holy familiarity? It sprang from long acquaintance; David as a boy had known God. He knew him when he was old and grey-headed; and, you know, old friends use language to one another which would not be tolerated in occasional acquaintances. There are certain things which they who have long known the Lord, and who abide in him, may say to God, and of God, which might not be said by others; it might even verge on blasphemy if others were to say the same things. When you read books like Rutherford’s Letters, or Madame Guyon’s Sonnets, or George Herbert’s Poems, you must not think that everybody may speak so. These were the Johns and the Marys, the favourites of heaven; they had dwelt so long with the King that he permitted to them, nay, he fostered in them, things that would be impertinences in strangers, and might not even be seemly to beginners in the things of God. Oh, may you and I live long enough and well enough to be on very intimate terms with God! May we walk with him till, one of these days, we walk away with him, and they say of us, “He was not, for God took him”!
David here tells us, nay, he tells God rather than us, that he had been God's pupil all his life: “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth,” and then he says that he had been God's pupil-teacher: “and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.” When we have listened to David on these two points, the preacher will venture, with some hesitancy, but still under a sort of compulsion, to use the words himself, and say, “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works,” the preacher using the psalmist’s language in the hope that many here will make hold to come into the same lot, and take a share in the same heritage, that many here, especially many young people may say in after days, “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.”
I. First, then, let us think of DAVID AS A PUPIL. God was his Teacher. “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth.”
This shows that David had a teachable spirit; and if you had asked him where it came from, he would have said that God gave him a teachable spirit. God is not only the Teacher of our spirit, but he gives us a teachable spirit. Have we all received that precious gift? The “genius of the age” is against a teachable spirit. You would suppose now, to hear some men preach, that Christ said, “Go ye into all the world, and make critics of every creature, and they shall be saved thereby;” but that is not the gospel. I do not so much blame the age for its errors, as for the fundamental error of not being willing to be taught. Men have cast off authority; and wherein authority in religious things is not of God, it is well cast off; but I fear that, in casting off the evil, many have gone far towards casting off even divine authority. No, you are not to think what you like; you are not to believe as you please. No man may control you, but God has never given liberty to your thought or to your understanding to be free from his government. What he reveals, you are to accept; to take it as infallibly true, to bow the knee of your intellect before it, to believe that “He teacheth to profit,” and to expect the fulfilment of the promise, “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord.”
A teachable spirit, although it is despised by many, is a happy spirit; it is a growing spirit; it is a restful spirit; it is a heavenly spirit; and whoever has it, must ascribe the possession of it to the Spirit of God, who leads us into all truth, and makes us willing to be led therein. Oh, that we may have such a spirit, that we shall count it an honour to say, “O God, thou hast taught me”! Some would count that as a dishonour; they would say, “O God, even thou canst not teach us. There is more in our honest doubt than in all the faith thou canst give us,” which, being interpreted, is a lie. No, dear brethren, let us seek and covet earnestly a teachable spirit, that, like David, we may be taught of God.
In David’s acknowledgment, we learn that God took him very early into his school. “Thou hast taught me from my youth.” What a mercy it is to begin to know God before we begin to know anything else! The first words of the Bible are very significant: “In the beginning, God.” The first words of this Book should be the first words of every life-book: “In the beginning, God.” Happy shalt thou be if thy first intelligible thoughts shall be of thy Maker, thy Benefactor, thy Friend. Happy shalt thou be, for, as thou shalt grow in understanding, thou shalt grow also in acquaintance with thy God, and every ripening faculty shall be sanctified as it opens, so that thy first morning shall have no dew but the dew of holiness and of divine life resting upon it.
Where was David taught in his youth? I suppose in the pastures of Palestine. When he was keeping his father’s flock, he sat down, he thought, he meditated, he prayed. Beneath the stars, that looked down on him like so many eyes of divine love, he sat at night, and spoke with God, and God talked with him; and among the sheep he learned to sing, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” There he learnt of God so well that, when a lion and a bear came against his flock, and took away a lamb, he fell upon the monstrous beasts, and, in the strength of God, tore them asunder; and he remembered to ascribe the glory of his deeds to God, and to praise his holy name. He spent his school-days well; he passed the highest standards; and he carried the certificates in the skin of the lion and the paw of the bear. Oh, blessed young man, so to be taught of God as to be equal to the duties of his station, and able to find God his strength in carrying them out!
David’s words also mean that God kept him in his school as a youth. Generally, boys go to Sunday-school till they begin to feel themselves young men. You half insulted one just now when you called him a lad; he is “a young man”, and his companion is not a girl, she is “a young woman.” She could not go with girls now that she is a young woman; and these young people think they are too big for the Sunday-school; and very often here is the point where the Church of God loses touch of them. It was not so with David; he could say, “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth.” He kept on being taught as he grew up to be a young man. He still walked with God; and so well did he use his early lessons that, going to the army to meet his brothers, he saw the giant Goliath defying the armies of the living God, and he came forward, and said to Saul, “Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them;” and he puts in practice, as a young man, the lessons of his boyish days. Glorifying God, he slings his stone, and lays the giant low. How well did God teach him, by his many struggles, educating his faith, and increasing his graces! When he was at the court of Saul, he continued as a young man still to learn by the songs of those who said, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands,” and by the sneers of envious courtiers, ay, and even by the javelin of the jealous king, he kept on learning, and being taught of God, so that he behaved himself in a simple way in the sight of Israel, being instructed of the Most High.
When he became a man, even when he became a king, he still continued to be taught of God. With a crown on his head, he was still a scholar and disciple of the great God. Swaying a sceptre, he was still nothing but a child before a father when he thought of God. It is beautiful to notice, in David’s life, how often he says, “Bring hither the ephod.” He would know the will of God; he would listen to Nathan the prophet, he would enquire of the Lord’s servants, that he might learn more of God. David, as a man, was taught of God, in his trials, in his crosses, in his comforts, by his friends, and by his enemies; he was always being taught of God. Sometimes, alas! he forgot his lesson, or he blotted his book; but he never left the school. He was chastened, but he was never cast out; he still continued as God’s pupil. We find him, as a grey-headed man, still penning his Psalms, and being taught of God, perhaps in his last days learning most, learning most sorrowfully, staining his book with tears, discovering more of himself and more of the mercy of God, more of the power of temptation and more of the power of the sacrifice that puts away sin, more of the wanderings of his heart and more of that free Spirit who upholds us, and makes us walk in the ways of God. He was always being educated. A Christian man has never finished his education till he stands before the golden throne of God.
There are many aged men who can say with David, “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth.” They find themselves learners yet, for they are “Unstable, weak, and apt to slide.” O young people, you who are just beginning life, I do pray that you will begin learning soon enough to be able to say afterwards, “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth”! There are some here who can never say that. Whatever becomes of them, however much God may bless them, they can never say it now, for they have reached the middle of life, and yet they have not gone to school to the great Teacher. Well, if you cannot say all that you could wish to say, may the Lord take you into his school now, though you are a ten o’clock scholar, and yet teach you, so that you shall learn enough music to sing among the angels to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he has made you to be accepted in the Beloved! Surely, dear friends, we are so foolish that we need to be taught, and we cannot have a better teacher than the omniscient God. Let us, therefore, pray to-night, that if we are at God’s school, we may keep there; and that if we are not there, we may go there at once. May all our names be put down in the roll of scholars of the College of Christ, the university of grace, this very night, and God shall have the praise!
II. But now I want you, for a minute or two, to notice DAVID AS A PUPIL-TEACHER. While he was a pupil, he was also teaching. He says, “Hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.”
Observe, then, that David taught people what he saw. He saw God’s works all around him. Ah! me, that is a great sight. God is at work everywhere; and there are none so blind as those who will not see his works; but the mass of men do not see God. You see the working of machinery, you see the working of the laws of nature, you see the working of the laws of supply and demand; but many of you cannot see the working of God. The Lord open your eyes, poor blind bats, for if there is anything that stares in the face of the man who is willing to see it, it is God, and God at work in providence, in nature, in grace, and in all sorts of ways! I read of one, the other day, of whom somebody said that, when he stayed at his house, he noticed that he talked as if he saw God always before him; and truly that is how every Christian man should talk, for we should see God always before us. David said, “I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” We do not see God as we should, and we shall never teach aright for God, until we have a kind of instinctive feeling of the presence of God, till we are conscious that God is in us, and round about us, and at work for us.
God’s work that David saw was very much work in himself, and work for himself, and work in other men’s hearts. Being taken into the school of God, he was made to observe things; he had object lessons put before him, and he learned to read God’s work; and as he saw it, he wondered. “Hitherto,” said he, “have I declared thy wondrous works.” He who is a stranger to wonder is a stranger to God, for God is wonderful everyway, and everywhere, and everyhow. It is all wonders when you get near to God, and see what God does. And, you know, no man teaches a thing so well as when he is struck with it himself. When it astonishes him, he will then tell it to others with gusto and with emphasis. So David made a fine pupil-teacher, because, seeing God’s work, he wondered at it, and spoke of it as a wondrous thing.
We find that David took opportunity to declare God's wondrous work; sometimes, with his pen, writing his Psalms; sometimes, with his voice, singing those Psalms; sometimes talking to a few, sometimes speaking to many. Now, dear friends, what I want you all to do is, if you have seen God’s work, and have been struck with it, you should declare it, tell it to others. I know that some of you, at any rate, love God and fear him, but you never speak about him. Ah! me, have you a dumb devil, or are you possessed with a dumb spirit? The Lord cast it out of you! There is no way of learning so good as that of teaching. A young man, who was going to Cambridge, said, I think it was to Archbishop Whateley, that he was going to get a “coach”, that is, a tutor, to coach him through his studies. “Do not do that,” said the other, “Take a pupil; you will learn better that way;” and I believe that it is so. To teach, is a wonderful way of learning; that I know by experience. To read hard all day, and then, in the evening, to go and preach what you have read, will stamp it indelibly upon your memory, and lead you to a better knowledge of it than any other method that a philosopher could suggest. Therefore, first learn of God, and then teach to somebody else what you have learnt. You will keep it that way, you will never lose it. If you keep on only learning, and learning, and learning, and learning, your hoarding it up will breed mildew, and I know not what besides; but if you learn it, and then teach it, that will keep it sweet, and you will never forget it. This is David’s pupil-teachership; he is being taught of God, and he is teaching others.
And David had this felicity, that he could say, “Thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works;” that is, he kept on teaching, and he kept on teaching the same thing. What must the ministries of some of our ministers be like? The first five years are spent in teaching Evangelical doctrine, the next five years are spent in pulling that all to pieces, the next five years are spent in teaching some new philosophy; no, not five years; they are not so long as that over any one thing; I mean, the first five months are spent in teaching some new philosophy, then a month in pulling that to pieces, another month in making a new theory, and another month in pulling that to pieces. Oh, what kind of a life must it be? “I never saw,” said poor Richard, “an oft-removed tree, nor yet an oft-removed family, that throve.” Surely an oft-removed doctrine, when a man is perpetually shifting the soil around it, can never thrive, or do much good. Here the great-hearted veteran says, “Thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.” All this he ascribed to God; he gave God the glory of his learning and of his teaching also; may you and I do the same! So far about David.
III. Now for a few words about myself for the honour and glory of God. I could not help saying something to-night about what Hugh Miller calls, MY SCHOOLS AND SCHOOLMASTERS. “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.”
I went down, last week, to Maidstone in Kent. It is as near as possible to the day, forty years ago, when I left the school called a “College” there. I thought that I must go down and look at the spot, and specially at a tree which stands by the river Medway. Under that tree I spent many hours, and many days, and even many weeks, reading all day long. “In school-time?” say you. Yes, my master thought that I should do better under that tree than in the class; and he was a wise man. He gave me my book, and left me to myself; and as I stood last week under that tree, with the smoothly-flowing river at my feet, I could thank God for his mercy to me for all these forty years, and I could say, “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.” There may be some young people here to-night, just come back from school, some young people who are just finishing their school days. I would to God that they would spend some time in holy, quiet thought about their future, about whom they will serve, who shall be their Teacher, for whom they will become teachers, and how the life which has now become more public than before shall be spent.
As I stood there, last week, I could not help praising God that, not long after I left that school, he led me to faith in Christ, and to rest in him, and find eternal life; and I could not but thank God that I went to that school for twelve months. It was a Church of England school. I had never seen anything of Church of Englandism till that time; but there was a turning in my life, through being there, to which I owe my being here. The Church of England catechism has in it, as some of you may remember, this question, “What is required of persons to be baptized?” and the answer I was taught to give, and did give, was, “Repentance, whereby they forsake sin; and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that sacrament.” I looked that answer up in the Bible, and I found it to be strictly correct as far as repentance and faith are concerned; and, of course, when I afterwards became a Christian, I also became a Baptist; and here I am, and it is due to the Church of England catechism that I am a Baptist. Having been brought up amongst Congregationalists, I had never looked at the matter in my life. I had thought myself to have been baptized as an infant; and so, when I was confronted with the question, “What is required of persons to be baptized?” and I found that repentance and faith were required, I said to myself, “Then I have not been baptized; that infant sprinkling of mine was a mistake; and please God that I ever have repentance and faith, I will be properly baptized.” I did not know that there was one other person in the world who held the same opinion; for so little do Baptists make any show, or so little did they do so then, that I did not know of their existence. So I feel grateful to the Church school, and grateful to the Church catechism, for what I learnt at Maidstone. I do not know that I have any vivid gratitude for any other question in the catechism; but I am very thankful for that particular one, for it led me where it was never intended to lead me by those who wrote it. It led me, however, as I believe, to follow the Scriptural teaching that repentance and faith are required before there can be any true baptism.
Well now, what shall be your schools and schoolmasters? Dear young people, I long that each of you may be able to say, “O Lord, thou hast taught me from my youth.” You must, first of all, be taught by the Holy Spirit. He is willing and able to come into your mind, and to influence it in a very extraordinary but very effectual way. He can teach your reason, reason; and cause your understanding to understand aright. He can take away from you the bent of prejudice, he can remove from you the depraving influence of sin, and he can give you to understand those things which are essential to your peace, and eternal salvation. Seek the Spirit of God, then, to begin with.
Then your next school will be the inspired Word of God. Believe in this Bible from the first word of Genesis to the last line of Revelation. It will never mislead you; it has never misled anybody. It will tell you the truth as to your conduct, as to your condition before God, as to what you are to believe, and what you are to do. If you search well the Scriptures, if the law of God instructs you, and if the gospel of God teaches you, then God will be teaching you, for this is the school-book of the family of love; and they who will accept it, and believe it, shall be taught of the Spirit of God who indited it.
Have not all of us, who are in the school of Christ, learnt much, in the next place, from the means of grace? “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.” I have to bear my willing witness to the benefit received in the congregation of God’s people. “What!” say you, “Why, you do not hear any sermons!” No, I hear very few except my own, and they are not the best; but preaching them is probably of more service to me than hearing them is to you, for there is a care of the Word of God that is necessary, and the searching of it in the preparation of the sermon, and the waiting upon God for help in the service; all these have been to me a means of grace. Paul so regarded it when he said, “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” He found that it was a means of grace to him to be permitted to preach. Certainly, you young people must take care that you do not neglect the public services of God’s house. They will teach you from your youth.
Another method of teaching is that of observation of others. If we would be taught of God, we must keep our eyes open, to see how he deals with others. “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright.” Watch the hypocrite. Keep your eye on the prosperous sinner. If you do, you will soon find God teaching you wondrous things.
You will also be taught by conversing with the people of God. Young Christian, get much with old Christians; I do not mean with all of them. Some of them will not help you much; but I mean those who live near to God, and are real and genuine saints. Get to speak with them; tell them your difficulties, and ask them how they have got through the same trials. Compare the footsteps of the flock with your own footsteps. Many an old child of God will be a precious mine of instruction to you. The first lessons I ever had in theology were from an old cook in the school where I was an usher. She was a good old soul, and used to read The Gospel Standard. She liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine; but she lived strongly as well as fed strongly. Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant; and I do believe that I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays. There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their own souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them, though they should search all their days. Get with such people of God, the experienced people, the tried people, and you will be able to say, “O God, thou has taught me from my youth.”
Another schoolmaster is self-examination. A very sour, crabbed schoolmaster is this one. Very few like him; especially if you take a lesson every night before you go to sleep, and look through the actions of the day. It is not a very pleasant exercise; there are so many faults to find, so many mistakes made, so many good things omitted. But, if you cannot have self-examination every day, at any rate have it sometimes. You will learn better by your mistakes than if you had never made a blunder. Sometimes even a grave fault may save you from ten grave faults, if it be well observed, and avoided in the future, and God teaches you thereby. You learn nothing by self-examination unless the Lord be your Master; but, if he be with you, then your acquaintance with yourself will help you to an acquaintance with him. There are two prayers always worth praying, “Lord, show me myself,” and “Lord, show me thyself.” May both be heard, and you will be well taught of God!
But there is a school-house to which I have gone, and to which I expect to go again. I cannot commend it to you for its pleasant situation, or for the beauty of its architecture; it is called the schoolhouse of sore affliction. Whoever does not go to that school, every minister whom God blesses to the salvation of souls will have to go there. It is an absolute necessity of a true shepherd of God’s tried people that he should be tried. There may be exceptions, but I do not think that there are; and, dear friends, you, each one of you, if you are to be taught of God, will have to be afflicted. There are some truths that are never learned, I suppose they may be learned, but they never are, except in the dark. To-day, in the middle of the day, we could not see the stars; but if we had gone down a well, we might have seen them; and often the dark well-hole of affliction reveals stars of promise, and glittering truths, which else we never could have seen. I will appeal to my experienced brothers and sisters here. Have you not learned more in trial than anywhere else? Do you not owe more to the hammer, the file, the anvil, and the forge than to all the comforts that you ever received? Here it is that God does really fashion us. Till he gets us into the fire, and the hammer begins to ring upon us, there seems to be no shaping us after the method of divine working.
And, dear friends, once more I come to a place on which I stood in the middle of the sermon, God has taught me, and he has taught many of us, by setting us to work to bless others. If any Christians cannot learn quickly, let them get to work for Christ, and they will soon learn. “Oh!” says one, “I am so full of doubts and fears.” Get to work for the Lord. “Oh!” says another, “I never have much joy and peace.” Get to work for the Lord. Another cries, “I am afraid that I am not saved; I am often afraid that I am not; and yet I do believe in Jesus Christ.” Tell somebody else about Jesus Christ; do not think so much about yourself. That dog-hole of selfishness can never afford you any comfort. While the first and last concern of a man is simply his own feelings, or his own enjoyment, he cannot get any good feelings, or any enjoyment either. Recollect what the farmer does down in the country on a cold winter’s day. There stand the boys, with chilblains on their hands, and they want to get at the fire. They cry out, “Oh, father, it is so cold!” He says, “You go and do a bit of ploughing, Johnny. You go and do a little hedging and ditching, William.” And they come in with rosy cheeks, and they say, “The weather is beautiful, it is quite bracing, and we are all in a glow.” And yet it may be that the thermometer has gone down while they have been out, but they have been warmed by their work. I wish I could turn some Christian people out of their pews, and get them at this time of night out into the lodging-houses, or in some corner preaching, or going to some sick persons, in the hospital to read and pray with them. You may depend upon it, being taught of God is best done, all other things being equal, when, with a teachable mind towards God, we have a teaching mind towards others. When thou wiliest to bless thy fellow-man, thou shalt get a blessing. “The Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed”— for himself? No, I have purposely made a mistake there; it is not so, just look it up: “The Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his”— well, it says, “friends”; but, you know, they were a curious kind of friends. Job called them “miserable comforters”, and so they had been; but when he took to praying for them, then the Lord turned his captivity. Begin to pray for your disagreeable neighbours; begin to pray for your unconverted friends; and the Lord will turn your own captivity while you are doing that. By blessing others, you shall be blessed yourself. God grant that it may be so, for Jesus’ sake! Amen.