DELIVERANCE FROM PRISON
(From the Gospel Standard Magazine, 1838)
"Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your name" (Psalm 142.7). It is not certain that David composed this Psalm in the Cave of Adullam, when he had fled from Achish king of Gath, or in the cave of Engedi, when he had taken refuge from the wrath of Saul (1 Sam. 22:1, 2 and 24:1-3). But this is a matter of very little consequence to us; as it is the state of his soul we want to come at, in order to render the subject profitable to the Lord's tempted, tried, and harassed people, whose souls are often in such a state of captivity as obliges them to cry with the Psalmist "Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your name." Let us, then, notice the threefold state of imprisonment of a spiritual nature which the Scriptures speak of, and with which all God's elected, redeemed, and regenerated people, are, more or less acquainted.
First, our attention is directed to that condition of thralldom we are all in by nature; namely, "the pit wherein is no water" (Zech. 9:11), under sin's dark dominion (Romans 3:9), under the law and subject to its curse; as the Apostle observes, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them" (Gal. 3:10). And, "what things soever the law says, it says to those who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God" (Romans 3:19). Thus men are shut up under the law, in unbelief, led captive by the Devil at his will, are wholly under the power and dominion of sin and Satan; for he is the strong man armed, that has the possession of the heart, and keeps his house in peace.
And yet men fancy they are at liberty; or, if bound at all, that it is so slightly, they can at any time break their chains, open the prison doors, and let themselves out. Awful delusion! But the child of God made sensible of his imprisoned state, does not think and speak thus, but, with the Psalmist, he confesses his bondage, sighs and groans under it, and cries unto the Lord, who alone can set his soul at liberty, and redeem his life from destruction.
We now come to notice the second state of imprisonment; which is, the condition of soul of a sinner, made sensible of his undone, wretched, and miserable state, arising from the law having come with power to his heart in the hand of its Divine Author by which he has knowledge of sin, and the wrath and curse of God due to him as a vile offender; his soul, which was previously dead in sins, and lay unconsciously imprisoned, is now quickened by the eternal Spirit, and feels sin a burden; the hand of God lies upon him, pressing him sore; he is shut up under the law, and cannot come forth, has no soundness in his flesh, because of a sense of God's anger; neither is there any rest in his bones, because of his iniquities, for they are gone over his head as a heavy burden, too heavy for him to bear; he is troubled and bowed down greatly, seeing others walk at large, and, mourning his own lonely state, longs for deliverance.
But he can no more come out of this low dungeon, this horrible pit, this mire and clay, of himself, by his own strength or exertions, than he can create a world; and the more he struggles to break off his chains, and open the prison doors, and come out by his legal works, the more he gets entangled, and the deeper he sinks in the pit, for he finds that the law demands perfect and perpetual obedience, is inflexible, and will not abate the least mite. Therefore, the Lord alone can bring a soul out of prison and set it at liberty; hence we read that "God sets the solitary in families: He brings out those who are bound with chains: but the rebellious dwells in a dry land" (Psalm 68:6). This is alone of His free favor, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, by means of the Gospel of His grace, which "is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).
And the man who has thus been imprisoned and delivered, knows when, by whom, and by what means he was brought out. He knows that it is owing to the love of God the Father, as the moving cause; and to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the sinner's Surety, in His obedience, death and resurrection, as the procuring cause, by whose doing and dying the law is magnified and made honorable, and the justice of God completely satisfied: therefore the poor prisoner is sent out of the pit wherein is no water, by virtue of the blood of the covenant: the lawful captive is delivered, and the prey taken from the terrible one; he is ransomed from Hell, and delivered from going down into the pit of endless misery.
He knows, too, that it is owing to the power and grace of God the Spirit as the efficient cause, who has shed abroad the love of God in his heart, brought near the blood, righteousness, and salvation of Christ, and testified of the validity and efficacy of His blood to pardon, His righteousness to justify, and of His power to save to the uttermost, all who come unto God by Him; having wrought faith in his heart to look to, and confide in the merits of Christ. Nor can he ever forget the mercy of God to him, a lost and helpless sinner, who was just ready to perish, when the great trumpet of love, pardon, and salvation was blown in his heart by the almighty Spirit, and his soul set at sweet and happy liberty thereby from the yoke of bondage, freed from Satan's heavy chain, and brought out of the prison house into the glorious liberty of the children of God, to hold converse and communion with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ by an unction from the Holy One.
Such distinguishing goodness and mercy, known and felt in the soul, are sure to produce gratitude, praise, and thanksgiving unto the Eternal Three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: and in this consists the very essence of religion: for if we know nothing of bondage, we know nothing of spiritual liberty; if we have never felt our imprisoned state, we never knew what it was to be brought out of prison. Some, however, talk of the great joy they feel, but we never hear of the sorrow that they have had; of great liberty, but nothing do we hear of their imprisonment. They begin at the wrong end at first, who talk about their liberty before experiencing bondage; of the joy of God's salvation before their sorrow, from a sense of condemnation; of the pleasures of Heaven before they have felt the pains of Hell.
But here, lest any should be wounded whom God would not have wounded, we would observe that there are different degrees of imprisonment. While we maintain that all God's children know what it is to be in prison of soul, yet all are not alike in prison, some being more closely confined, feeling greater darkness and horror, and being more roughly treated, as it were; while others experience milder treatment, and are not so long confined. Because some are three months in prison, it does not follow that all should lie there so long; or that because the chain of some is peculiarly heavy, and their dungeon exceedingly dark and dismal, that the chain of all should be equally galling, and their misery alike great; for, as the poet expresses, "Some souls are fifty pieces deep, and some five hundred owe."
But as the Savior says, "But when they had nothing to pay, the creditor frankly forgave them both" (Luke 7:41, 42). God is a sovereign and has a right to do as he pleases in this matter, either to doom a sinner in sorrows sharp and long to lay, or speedily turn his gloomy night into bright sunshine; as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, who was three days in the prison of soul distress before the Lord brought him out into liberty; while those who were converted unto God on the day of Pentecost were not so long as that in soul distress; for we read, "then those who gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day were added unto the church" (Acts 2:41). And the Philippian jailer was not so long detained as this, before his captivity was turned; for we read that "he took them (Paul and Silas) the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, straightway. . .and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house" (Acts 16:33, 34).
But whether the time of a sinner's imprisonment be long or short, we know that it is according to the appointment of God; and when He sets the souls of His people at liberty, and continues to smile upon them, they have sweet peace of mind, "rejoicing in Christ Jesus, and having no confidence in the flesh; but when He hides His face, then they are cast down again; as the Psalmist says, "You have lifted me up, and cast me down."
This leads us to notice, more particularly, the third state of imprisonment; which happens when the soul that has been made clean, and brought out of prison into liberty, returns again into darkness of mind, despondency and dejection; having no access to God in prayer, no sensible enjoyment of His presence, no communion with his heavenly Father either in private supplication and reading of the Word, or in public ordinances; but he is shut up; the Word is a sealed book, yielding no consolation, but condemnation; and when he goes to the house of God it is the same, while others are blessed under the Word preached, feeling its power and sweetness and are praising God, he is cast down, goes mourning without the sun, feels nothing but the vile affections of his deceitful heart, and is fretful and rebellious when he hears others speak of the goodness of the Lord to them.
Thus as a prison is a place of confinement, he finds his soul "shut up and cannot come forth": for a soul in this state requires the same power which brought him out of his first imprisonment, to bring him out of this low dungeon. And as a prison is a place of darkness, so he walks in darkness and has no light, is solitary, sighs and groans, and concludes that the mercy of God is gone forever; but now and then hope springs up, and he prays, with some degree of confidence, "Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your name": and God will hear his prayer.
Although this imprisonment is long, and occasioned by his own folly, in departing from "the Fountain of living waters," and hewing out to himself "cisterns, broken cisterns, which can hold no water": for the Lord has said, that if His children forsake His law, He "will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless My loving kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor allow My faithfulness to fail" (Psalm 89:32, 33). "He hears the poor, and despises not His prisoners" (Psalm 69: 33). He "looked down from the height of His sanctuary, to hear the groans of His prisoners: to loose those who are appointed to death. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer" (Psalm 102:17-20). And the covenant promise of God the Father to Jesus Christ the Son, runs thus, "I the Lord have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand, and will keep You, and give You for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles: To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and those who sit in darkness out of the prison house" (Isaiah 42:6, 7). And Christ says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because the Lord has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Luke 4:18).
Now the Lord must come to the prisoner and set him free, and not wait until he has let himself out of prison, and then come and assist him. O no; Jehovah Himself must do the deed; for the poor prisoner can only groan, sigh, and pray for deliverance, but cannot effect it. If David could have obtained liberty by his own exertions, why does he pray, "Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your name"? Observe the object of the poor prisoner in prayer to be brought out of prison; it is not merely ease and comfort to himself, but the glory of God: "that I may praise Your name." Thus, praise to the name of the Lord is the consequence of His delivering mercy to our souls; praise to sovereign love, atoning blood, and Almighty power, combined together, in bringing a soul out of prison."