I want to begin by telling you of a wonderful love-story. It concerns John Newton, the writer of the hymn Amazing Grace, and his childhood sweetheart, Mary (Polly) Catlett.
John and Polly’s mothers had been best-friends, and they had often delighted at the thought of the John and Polly eventually getting married. However, John’s mother died when he was only seven, and the families grew apart.
John first set his eyes on Polly when he was seventeen and she was fourteen. Apparently she was not a spectacular beauty, but John fell head over heels in love. She was shy but very kind. He was tongue-twisted when he was around her, and restless when he was away from her.
John was supposed to stay with the Catletts for three days, but his passion for Polly kept him longer, and so he missed the boat he was supposed to crew on (much to the annoyance of his father).
The next few years of John’s life were very dark. He worked on the slave-trade, and his heart grew very hard to the God his mother had taught him to love. His blasphemies and cursing shocked even hardened sailors. He did things that he later felt would be inappropriate to even mention in his autobiography. But he never stopped loving Polly. Indeed, he felt that he would have taken his life were it not for his hope that he might marry her one day.
It was in the middle of a storm that John became a true Christian. He feared he was going to die and surprised himself by calling out to the God he said he didn’t believe in. His life was forever changed.
He visited Polly again, and convinced her to marry him. He eventually became a most effective and caring Church of England pastor. He is remembered for his hymns, and also the many letters that he wrote. Near the end of his life he exclaimed that he had learned two things: ‘I am a great sinner and I serve a great Saviour.’
John and Polly enjoyed a wonderfully happy marriage. He never lost his passion for her. However, it was not a marriage devoid of pain. Polly struggled with ill-health and died seventeen years before John. They were unable to have children, although they adopted two nieces who had been separately orphaned.
John had one strange worry about his marriage: he worried that he had made an idol out of Polly! How might someone make an idol out of a spouse? Perhaps he feared that he could never be content without her. Maybe he left that God alone was not enough for him and that he needed Polly to complete his life.
How might we make an idol of marriage? Well, if we say ‘you complete me’ to anyone other than God, we are making an idol of them. If the church patronises those who are single, as if their goal in life is to meet a life partner, we are teaching people to idolise marriage. If you expect that your husband or wife can fully understand you, even though you don’t fully understand yourself, then you are expecting them to be as God to you. When we constantly demand that people make us feel secure and at peace, we are placing an unbearable burden on them.
The truth is that there is only one marriage that we need and only one marriage that can make us whole. It is the marriage that is spoken of in this psalm, and it is a marriage that is open to all of us. Understanding this marriage may help you feel more content in your singleness or give you strength if your marriage feels like a battle-ground.
A title of grace
The title of this psalm tells us that it was written by the sons of Korah. You might remember the story of Korah. He led a rebellion again Moses and Aaron, in the book of Numbers. The ground literally swallowed those rebels up. However, God is full of amazing grace. Korah’s sons were sparred, and God had a plan for Korah’s descendants. After several generations the great Samuel was born to the line of Korah. Later the Korahites were made doorkeepers and custodians of the tabernacle (1 Chronicles 9:19-21). However, perhaps the most amazing privilege given to the descendants of Korah is that David made them leaders in music and praise at the tabernacle, and they were inspired to write a number of the Psalms. Our merciful God takes a wicked rebel like Korah and blesses his descendants wonderfully.
The title also tells us that this is a love song. It’s really a hymn celebrating a royal wedding. It is impossible to be sure which king from David’s line is being celebrated, and it does not matter. Ultimately this is a song about King Jesus!
We have the most amazing groom (1-9)
We can see that this psalm reaches beyond any earthly king. After all to what king could we say, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever’ (see Hebrews 1:8-9)? This is a wonderful praise song to God the Son!
So what is King Jesus like? He is the most excellent of all men and his lips sing words full of grace. But he is also full of splendour and majesty. We know that in heaven he is seated on a throne. He will return in victory and we will celebrate his justice. One day all those who have made themselves his enemies will fall beneath his feet. He loves righteousness and hates wickedness. While he is mighty, he is also humble.
The English Standard Version translated verse two saying, ‘you are the most handsome of the sons of men.’ That is interesting given that Isaiah had prophesied that the Saviour would have no beauty or majesty to attract us to him (Isaiah 53). I think that the outer-beauty of the original king this Psalm was composed for looks forward to the unparalleled inner-beauty of King Jesus!
Our amazing groom delights over us (10-16)
In the second half of the psalm the bride is led to her groom. If Jesus is the king, then his people are his bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). While the bride may be used as a reference to the whole of God’s people, the church, don’t forget that this church is made us of individuals. He sings over you! This psalm says that Jesus sees you as honourable and beautiful. He leads you with joy and gladness.
If Jesus had no outer beauty to attract us to him, we had no inner beauty to attract him to us. He set his love on us when we were still rebels against his grace and were covered head to toe in the stench of sin. Yet for reasons that go beyond understanding he loved us and gave his life for us (Galatians 2:20). Tim Keller writes, ‘he doesn’t love us because we are lovely but in order to make us so, by grace.’
The moment Christ came into your life he removed the stain of all your guilt and presented you to his Father as white as snow. His Spirit is now at work changing you. Many of you are very good at telling me how awful you are—I don’t disagree with you, our hearts are more inclined to evil than we imagine—but don’t forget to see what God is doing in you. His grace is changing you, and that delights Jesus.
I know that everything that we do for God is compromised by what John Newton called Mr. Self. We never do anything for entirely pure motives. Even our repentance is polluted with mixed motives. But Jesus takes the weeds that we offer to God, breathes his breath of grace over them and they are presented in heaven as the most beautiful roses.
We are not what we ought to be. We are not what we want to be. We are not what we will be, when we see Christ face to face. But by the grace of God we are not what we used to be (adapted from Newton). Our heavenly groom, King Jesus, rejoices in who he is making us and what we are becoming in Him.
Marriage can become an idol. It becomes an idol when we are more concerned about meeting an earthly groom (or bride) than enjoying our heavenly groom. It becomes an idol when we expect an earthly spouse to minister to us in a way that only our heavenly spouse can. Only one spouse can make us complete, his name is Jesus. When we feel complete in him we will stop idolizing other relationships and demanding more than people can ever deliver.
George Matheson learned the hard way that Jesus was more to him than any spouse can be. He was engaged to be married, but he was told that he was going blind. When his fiancé realised that he was losing his sight she broke off the engagement. He was devastated. Yet during that time of severe emotional loss he leaned upon his heavenly bride and wrote one of the most moving hymns of the nineteenth-century:
O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.