Is His Mercy Clean Gone?
At the College of Preachers maybe twenty-five years ago, Fred Craddock was opening our eyes to the power of the language of the Bible. He mentioned a friend who was now a pastor somewhere in the South, who told him she was coming to love an antique Bible translation. Why? Not out of preciousness, nor any phony pretense of living in a past that no longer exists. Rather, she said she found that her people—rural southern people—spoke with expressions that one finds in the King James Version.
It happened to me last Sunday. I was reading the Psalms for the morning of the fifteenth day in the 1928 Prayer Book (which is modified from something even older than the KJV, namely the Coverdale Bible of 1535). In Psalm 77, the Psalmist is in a place of trouble and he is crying to the Lord. But the Lord has not replied! So in obvious agony he says:
Will the Lord absent himself for ever? * and will he be no more intreated?
Is his mercy clean gone for ever? * and is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore?
There it was: “clean gone.” If that ain’t southern speech, I don’t know what is.
It’s a strange use of “clean.” It suggests absence or emptiness, a tidiness perhaps, but only in the sense of a tidiness which has taken stuff away. It’s not a positive condition, a cleanness that is a presence. It’s not the cleanliness that is said to be next to godliness.
It’s clean gone. It ain’t here.
But is the Lord clean gone? The Psalmist entertains the possibility that he is: that his absence will extend into the future, that it will not be possible to intreat him, that his promises have come to an end. Nonetheless, he says, even if it were the case that the Lord’s mercy is clean gone for ever, still he will think upon the Lord, remember the years of the right hand of the Most Highest (the many things the Lord has done over years); I will remember the words of the Lord, and call to mind thy wonders of old time. He will think also of all thy works and he will speak of thy doings.
And when the Psalmist stops trying to understand the present silence of the Lord, but turns his thoughts and his speech to the things the Lord has already done, the good things, the blessings, the wonders and works and doings over a long time: then the Psalmist remembers that God is the God that doest wonders, whose power has been declared among the peoples.
He remembers finally the Exodus: the power of God that led them from slavery to freedom.
If you feel God is far away, that his mercy is clean gone from your life, think of his past mercies. And most particularly, call to remembrance the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We cannot see the future, but we can remember the past. And the past gives us ground to hope that his mercies are not clean gone for ever.
Out & About. I am to preach at the traditional morning services at Incarnation in Dallas on Sunday, August 5.