14. Sacrifice unto God praise,1 and pay thy vows2 unto the Most High. 15. And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.
These verses cast light upon the preceding context. Had it been stated in unqualified terms that sacrifices were of no value, we might have been perplexed to know why in that case they were instituted by God; but the difficulty disappears when we perceive that they are spoken of only in comparison with the true worship of God. From this we infer, that when properly observed, they were far from incurring divine condemnation. There is in all men by nature a strong and ineffaceable conviction that they ought to worship God. Indisposed to worship him in a pure and spiritual manner, it becomes necessary that they should invent some specious appearance as a substitute; and however clearly they may be persuaded of the vanity of such conduct, they persist in it to the last, because they shrink from a total renunciation of the service of God. Men have always, accordingly, been found addicted to ceremonies until they have been brought to the knowledge of that which constitutes true and acceptable religion. Praise and prayer are here to be considered as representing the whole of the worship of God, according to the figure synecdoche. The Psalmist specifies only one part of divine worship, when he enjoins us to acknowledge God as the Author of all our mercies, and to ascribe to him the praise which is justly due unto his name: and adds, that we should betake ourselves to his goodness, cast all our cares into his bosom, and seek by prayer that deliverance which he alone can give, and thanks for which must afterwards be rendered to him. Faith, self-denial, a holy life, and patient endurance of the cross, are all sacrifices which please God. But as prayer is the offspring of faith, and uniformly accompanied with patience and mortification of sin, while praise, where it is genuine, indicates holiness of heart, we need not wonder that these two points of worship should here be employed to represent the whole. Praise and prayer are set in opposition to ceremonies and mere external observances of religion, to teach us, that the worship of God is spiritual. Praise is first mentioned, and this might seem an inversion of natural order. But in reality it may be ranked first without any violation of propriety. An ascription to God of the honor due unto his name lies at the foundation of all prayer, and application to him as the fountain of goodness is the most elementary exercise of faith. Testimonies of his goodness await us ere yet we are born into the world, and we may therefore be said to owe the debt of gratitude before we are called to the necessity of supplication. Could we suppose men to come into the world in the full exercise of reason and judgment, their first act of spiritual sacrifice should be that of thanksgiving. There is no necessity, however, for exercising our ingenuity in defense of the order here adopted by the Psalmist, it being quite sufficient to hold that he here, in a general and popular manner, describes the spiritual worship of God as consisting in praise, prayer, and thanksgiving. In the injunction here given, to pay our vows, there is an allusion to what was in use under the ancient dispensation,
"What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord." Psalm 116:12, 13
What the words inculcate upon the Lord's people is, in short, gratitude, which they were then in the habit of testifying by solemn sacrifices. But we shall now direct our attention more particularly to the important point of the doctrine which is set before us in this passage. And the first thing deserving our notice is, that the Jews, as well as ourselves, were enjoined to yield a spiritual worship to God. Our Lord, when he taught that this was the only acceptable species of worship, rested his proof upon the one argument, that "God is a spirit," (John 4:24.) He was no less a spirit, however, under the period of the legal ceremonies than after they were abolished; and must, therefore, have demanded then the same mode of worship which he now enjoins. It is true that he subjected the Jews to the ceremonial yoke, but in this he had a respect to the age of the Church; as afterwards, in the abrogation of it, he had an eye to our advantage. In every essential respect the worship was the same. The distinction was one entirely of outward form, God accommodating himself to their weaker and unripe apprehensions by the rudiments of ceremony, while he has extended a simple form of worship to us who have attained a maturer age since the coming of Christ. In himself there is no alteration. The idea entertained by the Manicheans, that the change of dispensation necessarily inferred a change in God himself, was as absurd as it would be to arrive at a similar conclusion from the periodical alterations of the seasons. These outward rites are, therefore, in themselves of no importance, and acquire it only in so far as they are useful in confirming our faith, so that we may call upon the name of the Lord with a pure heart. The Psalmist, therefore, justly denounces the hypocrites who gloried in their ostentatious services, and declares that they observed them in vain. It may occur to some, that as sacrifices sustained a necessary place under the Law, they could not be warrantably neglected by the Jewish worshipper; but by attending to the scope of the Psalmist, we may easily discover that he does not propose to abrogate them so far as they were helps to piety, but to correct that erroneous view of them, which was fraught with the deepest injury to religion.
In the fifteenth verse we have first an injunction to prayer, then a promise of its being answered, and afterwards a call to thanksgiving. We are enjoined to pray in the day of trouble, but not with the understanding that we are to pray only then, for prayer is a duty incumbent upon us every day, and every moment of our lives. Be our situation ever so comfortable and exempt from disquietude, we must never cease to engage in the exercise of supplication, remembering that, if God should withdraw his favor for a moment, we would be undone. In affliction, however our faith is more severely tried, and there is a propriety in specifying it as the season of prayer; the prophet pointing us to God as the only resort and means of safety in the day of our urgent necessity. A promise is subjoined to animate us in the duty, disposed as we are to be overwhelmed by a sense of the majesty of God, or of our own unworthiness. Gratitude is next enjoined, in consideration of God's answer to our prayers. Invocation of the name of God being represented in this passage as constituting a principal part of divine worship, all who make pretensions to piety will feel how necessary it is to preserve the pure and uncorrupted form of it. We are forcibly taught the detestable nature of the error upon this point entertained by the Papists, who transfer to angels and to men an honor which belongs exclusively to God. They may pretend to view these in no other light than as patrons, who pray for them to God. But it is evident that these patrons are impiously substituted by them in the room of Christ, whose mediation they reject. It is apparent, besides, from the form of their prayers, that they recognize no distinction between God and the very least of their saints. They ask the same things from Saint Claudius which they ask from the Almighty, and offer the prayer of our Lord to the image of Catherine. I am aware that the Papists justify their invocation of the dead, by denying that their prayers to them amount to divine worship. They talk so much about the kind of worship which they call latria, that is, the worship which they give to God alone, as to make it appear, that in the invocation of angels and saints they give none of it to them.3 But it is impossible to read the words of the Psalmist, now under our consideration, without perceiving that all true religion is gone unless God alone is called upon. Were the Papists asked whether it were lawful to offer sacrifices to the dead, they would immediately reply in the negative. They grant to this day that sacrifice could not lawfully be offered to Peter or to Paul, for the common sense of mankind would dictate the profanity of such an act. And when we here see God preferring the invocation of his name to all sacrifices, is it not plain to demonstration, that those who call upon the dead are chargeable with the grossest impiety? From this it follows, that the Papists, let them abound as they may in their genuflections before God, rob him of the chief part of his glory when they direct their supplications to the saints.4 The express mention which is made in these verses of affliction is fitted to comfort the weak and the fearful believer. When God has withdrawn the outward marks of his favor, a doubt is apt to steal into our minds whether he really cares for our salvation. So far is this from being well founded, that adversity is sent to us by God, just to stir us up to seek him and to call upon his name. Nor should we overlook the fact, that our prayers are only acceptable when we offer them in compliance with the commandment of God, and are animated to them by a consideration of the promise which he has extended. The argument which the Papists have drawn from the passage, in support of their multiplied vows, is idle and unwarrantable. The Psalmist, as we have already hinted, when he enjoins the payment of their vows, refers only to solemn thanksgiving, whereas they trust in their vows as meriting salvation. They contract vows, beside, which have no divine warrant, but, on the contrary, are explicitly condemned by the word of God.