Clouds and darkness are round about him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne. (Psalm 97:2)
Faithful and unchanging Father, we walk often with thy face hidden from our view. Our limitation of understanding often veils thy face from us; our weakness and wickedness often distort the clarity with which we would see thee. Forgive us our failure to see thee in our days as thou wouldst have us look upon thee. In the midst of our failures, our God, grant that we may have moments when the veil does lift and the clouds do scatter, and we see thee in the beauty of thy holiness and the holiness of thy beauty. Though our path leads through the night, in remembered light may we walk until the morning comes again; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There is in most of us an insatiable desire to want to know the make-up and disposition of those about us. We never stop looking for clues that will indicate to us the nature of the personality of our colleagues in daily work. We probe and search for signs of the emotional equipment of our children. Biographies and autobiographies are read with great interest because we are curious to know what the subject of the biography or the writer of the autobiography is like. When one of our friends meets a figure of celebrated reputation, the persisting question we want to ask about the well-known person is “Well, what is he like?” “Describe her for me,” someone asks. We ask this question about God.
The whole burden of the churches in our communities, therefore, is to lead people toward a better understanding of the God with whom we are dealing. For, make no mistake, we are not in this thing alone. There is someone else who is at work in this world. When Albert Schweitzer began his work in Africa, he went to a certain village and was seeking to convert the chief of that village to the Christian faith. During the course of his conversation, Schweitzer tried to describe the Christian God to the leader of the tribe. After a while the chief cut in on Schweitzer and said, “Yes, we know that at evening when the sky lamps come out there is someone who passes on the edge of the forest, but we never call his name.” Many of us never call his name, but there is a God who passes over and over again the places where our lives are cast.
The psalmist says that one of the first things we need to recognize is that this God we serve is not easily understood, and indeed, some ways of his we will never find out about in this life. The psalmist says, “Clouds and darkness are round about him.” This singer in Israel is not alone in this conclusion about God. Over and over the seers and prophets of Israel declare unto us that we shall not comprehend the infinity of God in our finite minds. Nor shall we grasp the God of heaven and earth in our little earthbound senses. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” saith the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” That’s the way the Bible puts it.
The sheer greatness of God reflected in the works of his hands is too much for us to understand. J. D. M. Rourke complained that a fault in the Hebrew biblical genius is the fault of what he called “the tendency to the giantesque.” He meant, of course, that the Hebrews spoke in the Bible in such huge terms about God and religious faith that they might be thought to have exaggerated. Such critique must never have sensed the greatness of the God with whom these Hebrew prophets and singers were sure they were dealing. No person could accuse the Hebrews of exaggerating about God if, like them, he had sensed that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the earth showeth forth his handiwork.” We can think great thoughts about God while still recognizing our inability to comprehend him fully, if we ponder carefully that passage, for instance, which speaks of God as the one who has “measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance.” This is tremendous language. The sheer hugeness of God’s reflection in nature is mysterious. Clouds and darkness are round about him.
We find it difficult and sometimes impossible to understand the ways of God in the affairs of humanity. There is so much evil in the world that seems to go for so long unpunished. We cry out for an understanding that does not come when we go through the almost endless wards of our hospitals and see great numbers of people there. Many of them are those with whom we have worked, helpless now or enduring great pain. Our souls then cry out for some explanation of why God lets these things happen. I, for one, am impatient with the fact that evil is so often in the saddle. I preached to a Jewish congregation during its Friday evening service not long ago. As we went through the ancient, ennobling pageantry of Israel’s faith, I thought of their long years of sorrow and slavery. The mind ran to that unspeakably horrible time when a supposedly civilized people suddenly fell back mysteriously and incredibly to a state worse than primitivism and six million Jews were destroyed in Germany. How could this happen in the same world where there is a God? I confess that I do not follow clearly the reason why God allows great numbers of people to be exploited and preyed upon. What have they done that they should go on generation after generation suffering inequities? Their children getting less education, their job status the poorest and most insecure. One cries like the martyrs beneath the altar, “O Lord, how long?”
Sometimes a deeper despair rises like a foggy mist in our swampland of bewilderment and hurt. We wonder if there is a God anywhere. Looking at the sorrow, the pain, the evil, the exploitation, we are sometimes tempted to take the position of a young man in one of Hugh Walpole’s novels who says, “You know, you know there can’t be a God, Vanessa. In your heart, you must know it. You are a wise woman, you read and think. Well, then, ask yourself, how can there be a God and life be as it is? If there is one, he ought to be ashamed of himself. That’s all I can say.” And sometimes, we feel like that. How long before liberty’s morning will fully come? How long before the brotherhood of man will be a living truth? How long before truth will stand conqueror over prostrate lie? How far the Promised Land?
Yes, darkness and clouds are around about him. But the psalmist does not stop there. Midst the darkness there is some light. “Clouds and darkness around about thee,” but he goes on, “righteousness and judgment are the habitations of thy throne.” Hold on now, here is something new. Justice and righteousness dwell around God’s throne. The veil of the sanctuary half lifts. The clouds are rolled back now and then. And in the swift rush of events, we can see righteousness and justice sitting as if at home around God’s throne. That’s a figure of speech to give you pause.
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “If I from my spy hole looking upon a fraction of the universe yet perceive some broken evidences of a plan, shall I be so mad as to complain that all cannot be deciphered?” I think all of us have seen some broken evidences of a plan. Truth seems so weak against lies. It has not maneuverability, can’t sidestep and backtrack and change course and shift strategy to suit the expediency of moment. But every lie at last slips, stumbles, and falls down. Truth, on the other hand, crushed to earth rises again. I think I see some broken evidences of a plan. One sees great and cruel nations in history strutting their way to what, according to their swaggering power, seems like a permanence that no accident or design can change. And yet, one looks again for such a nation as, for instance, Hitler’s Germany, and it has disappeared. The nations who seemed weaker, surely less dedicated to destructive power, live on. And such a nation, apparently invulnerable, goes down. Righteousness and justice are the habitations of his throne.
I think I see some evidences of a plan. Our lives are blessed in the good earthly things that are beyond our merit. Each time we sit to eat a meal sober reflection will say to us that we are really guests at the table of the Host who could make and grow the grain of the earth and the meat of the forest. That Host would have to be God. There is evidence of a plan, though often broken evidence. I think I see evidence of a plan. Let heaven be thanked for those who feel a mysterious compulsion to enlist on the side of right against all that is unjust and unfair, never mind the odds. It is as if someone nudges us, won’t take excuses, and thrusts us forward into the fray. That would have to be God, you see, who has so high a stake in how the struggle issues. We cannot perceive him clearly. Clouds and darkness are around about him. But now and again the mist parts. Now and then the clouds lift. Now and then we see a light piercing the darkness. And in that moment when we behold the ways and works of God, we know all is well, for righteousness and justice are the habitation of his throne. You and I live our days in that confidence.