He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children.—Psalm 78.5.
The Church of God is the depository of divine revelation. The Bible contains her charter, defines her position in the world, and authenticates her history. No other corporate body is commensurate with time. The history of empires and of nations gathers importance and becomes interesting and instructive, as these bear relation to the city of the Lord. They prosper and endure when they befriend her. They are swept with the broom of destruction when they oppress her.
In this psalm, as often elsewhere in Scripture, Jacob and Israel are appellatives for the Church. In the Church, God has lodged or deposited a testimony and a law. This plurality seems to have been overlooked in the authorized metrical version of the 5th verse in the psalm. This is to be regretted, as the mind of the Spirit is thereby rendered obscure to the cursory or unlearned reader. The word it supplies the place which ought to be occupied by the word them, as appears obvious in prose.
Two things, distinct but inseparable, were deposited in the Church. This is a historical fact announced in the verse which we have placed at the head of this article. We will inquire—
When the event took place, as announced in the verse;
Why the testimony takes precedence of the law;
Deduce some practical inferences.
I. Successive dispensations of the covenant of grace mark special epochs in the history of the world. “The dispensation of the fulness of times” (Eph. 1:10), is a phrase pregnant with significance. God is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness. He said to Abram,—Thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs,—but in the fourth generation they shall come hither again (Gen. 15:13,16). Moses was commissioned and qualified to be eminently instrumental in delivering the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The angel of the Lord appeared to him at Horeb in a burning bush. The glorious Angel of the covenant, the Lord Jesus, authorized and honoured him to negotiate both with his brethren and the haughty monarch of Egypt. He was ultimately successful, as the Lord had promised. “Certainly I will be with thee: and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee; when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain” (Exod. 3:12). In the 7th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we have a clear and lengthy commentary on this historical transaction by the proto-martyr Stephen. Having noticed the period of oppression, and the judgment of God on the oppressors, he adds,—“and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place” (7:7). “The time of the promise drew nigh,” and all things were in process of preparation for its accomplishment. Accordingly, “it came to pass, the self-same day, that the Lord did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their armies (Exod. 12:51). Thus did the Lord fulfil His promise, made to Abraham and his seed hundreds of years before, keeping time to a day!
The tribes of Israel, thus recently emancipated, were summoned to appear at the foot of Sinai, to be educated and enfranchised. They needed instruction preparatory to entering into covenant with God and with each other, as a society in visible organization. God intended to exemplify social order among His people, to enhance their enjoyment, and to maintain His own sovereign rights and authority, by the erection of the two great ordinances of Church and State. For this purpose, and to this end, he established a testimony in Jacob, &c. This was done at Horeb. Then and there “Judah was (became) his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion” (Psalm 114:2).
II. The testimony takes precedence of the law, First, because the law furnishes no motives which will effectually influence fallen man to obey its precepts or dread its penalty. The law is here viewed as contained in the ten (words) commandments, written on tables of stone. Such is its restricted and specific import in the sacred text under present consideration. That the law, thus viewed, contains motives or reasons enforcing obedience to itself, is not questioned: but these are adapted to a sinless, or at least a regenerated, subject of the law. In the conscience of every child of fallen Adam, “the law worketh wrath:” and this is as true of the moral as of the ceremonial law. But what the law could not do is accomplished by the testimony—not of itself, but as the appointed means employed by the Holy Spirit. For, Second, The testimony consists formally of matters of fact. The great facts contemplated in the text are embodied in the solemn declaration—“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:1). These words have been long designated “The Preface to the Ten Commandments.” [cf. Larger catechism, Q.101; Shorter catechism, Q.44] They go before the law in the order of announcement, and not less in the order of operation and experience. “Moses was mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22). By the miracles which he wrought, the Egyptians were constrained to acknowledge the presence and power of the God of the Hebrews. “The magicians said unto Pharoah, This is the finger of God.” Thus the testimony convinced the enemies of God of his supremacy over themselves, and over all idols. At the Red Sea the testimony wrought another distinct conviction among the Egyptians,—that God was a friend to the Israelites and an enemy to them:—“Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians” (Exod. 14:25). Such divine interpositions on behalf of those who are in covenant with God constitute the matter or substance of the testimony. Several and successive results flow from these miraculous or special providences. In the case of the children of Israel we may observe:—1, “I am the Lord,” a self-existent and eternal Being, as contrasted with “gods that came newly up;” [Deut. 32:17]. 2, “I am your God,” your almighty friend in special covenant relation; and 3, both these important and consolatory facts proved to demonstration by delivering them from bondage. Hence—
III. From the foregoing views we infer:
1. That a knowledge and recognition of the testimony and the law of God lie at the foundation of social organisation. Thus only can the rights of God and the rights of man be secured. And for these ends, as supreme, ought we to enter into the social state. As to the manner or form of recognising the testimony and law of God, this is done, this can be done only by taking hold of His covenant (Deut. 29:10-13).
2. That our covenant fathers aimed at exemplifying this Divinely prescribed order in Scotland, when they successfully resisted antichristian Popery in the First, and prelacy in the Second Reformation. They were confident that they were engaged in the “work of God,” who gave testimony to the word of His grace, as defended and propagated by them. And we have grounds to believe that there were more for them than all that could be against them. They encouraged themselves and each other, in the Lord their God. They have left us a noble example to follow in contending for all Divine truth, and in testifying against all corruptions embodied in the constitutions of civil and ecclesiastical societies.
3. As in visible fellowship in organised society, so in personal relation to God, the Christian is to draw the motives of obedience to the law, from the testimony of God. Delivered by the Angel of the covenant from the curse of the law, and redeemed from the bondage of sin, he views the law in Christ’s hand as “the perfect law of liberty,” delights in the law of God after the inward man, and renders the obedience of faith, embracing in his heart the testimony and the law of God, which with His mouth he avouches to the world in the day of his solemn covenanting with Him and with His people.
January 12th, 1866.