Mary A. Lathbury wrote the lyrics to the hymn, “Break Thou the Bread of Life.” Her desire for God is a reminder of the Psalmist’s yearning who wrote, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary” (Ps. 63:1, 2).
In the sanctuary David had seen something of the divine presence. What was it?
There were sacrifices in the sanctuary. There were psalms and hymns. There was the reading of the Word of God. But as Solomon later noted, “the heaven of heavens” cannot contain God. He is not confined to a sanctuary. But in a way, because of the truth David had learned in the congregation, he was strangely drawn to go back.
David was not interested in mysticism or even miracles. There are other faiths which sometimes produce amazing things. Consider that when God sent the plagues on Egypt, Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated some of the first plagues. Their staffs had also turned to serpents. They also turned water into blood. In the world of cults, there are strange happenings. That is not to be confused with God’s presence.
In 1983, while working in campus evangelism at Penn State University, I was able to help the student group The Penn State Overcomers sponsor a speaker from Bangalore, India. J. P. Thomas spoke on the topic, “Miracles in India.” Several students from that nation attended. When Thomas credited the God of the Bible with the power to do the miraculous, some of them were noticeably upset. They claimed to have witnessed miracles through other gods. I wrote down Thomas’s answer. “Miracles where a life is changed, where guilt is gone, where there is peace that passes understanding, and joy unspeakable and full of glory, and love fills the heart, this kind of miracle I’ve only seen through Jesus Christ.”
David was addicted to the sense of God’s reality. He thirsted for it. He longed for it. “My heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God” (Ps. 84:2b). The writer of Hebrews tells us that in times past God spoke to the fathers by the prophets. David was in a unique position because he had himself been anointed by the Holy Ghost as he wrote many of the psalms. In them he captured the universal desire of earnest people who also seek God. We identify with the psalms because they reflect our own yearnings for the great God who created us in His image. That is reflected in Mary Lathbury’s hymn.
“Beyond the sacred page, I seek Thee, Lord,
My spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word.”
This is somewhat of a conundrum, because without the sacred page we would not know that Jesus was who He claimed to be. It is the Word that declares that God can be known. It is the Word that reveals God to us. Lathbury’s own words reflect as much.
“Oh, send Thy Spirit, Lord, now unto me,
That He may touch my eyes, and make me see:
Show me the truth concealed within Thy Word,
And in Thy Book revealed I see the Lord.”
It is the Word that gives us the good news that God is no longer speaking to the fathers by the prophets. He has now in these last days spoken directly through His Son. Jesus said, “The words that I speak unto thee, they are spirit, and they are life”(John 6:63). It is through the foolishness of preaching that God has chosen to save them that believe (1 Cor. 1:21). Therefore, Paul the Apostle admonished any who would speak for God to “preach the word.” We find God through the Word.
But do we really find Him “beyond the sacred page”? A more contemporary song says, “When answers aren’t enough, there is Jesus.” But how do we experience Jesus? It is through the sacred page. Whether it is turned into a psalm, or hymn, or spiritual song, it is a reflection of what is on the sacred page that can bring great blessing. A personal testimony, an impassioned exhortation, joining at the table of holy communion, praying at an altar (in church, at home, anywhere) the truth of the sacred page is reflected and can occasion what David was longing for; what Mary Lathbury desired. It is a recognition of the Divine Presence. It is learning to hear Him. It is learning to love Him.
Religious experience can be very rewarding. But it can also be deceiving. There are numerous experiences people have in different religions. People can have a sense of ecstasy and mistakenly attribute it to God. Or some can seldom have that kind of feeling and wonder about their faith, causing them great doubt. The truth is that the Holy Spirit honors Jesus and glorifies Him. When that is the basis for the experience, then it is true. Which brings us back to the sacred page. We must have the Bible, rightly divided, to keep us from fanaticism. It will also keep us from mere form. That is why the psalms contain so much passion. And that passion for knowing God is what keeps us seeking Him “beyond the sacred page.” We need Him. But He is revealed though the scriptures.
I can look back over my lengthening life and remember times when the sweet presence of our Lord made a great impression on my heart. As a boy praying with some godly men at a late night meeting; as a young man at home being overcome with a spirit of prayer with “groanings that cannot be uttered;” as a campus missionary praying in the midnight hour on the floor of the barn; at a youth camp when the area I was in seemed steeped with the divine aura.
Yet I cannot live on those memories, though they are precious. What helps me today is to continue in the sacred page, to see again and again the story of the Christ, the promised One, the Messiah of Israel, and the Light of the Gentiles. As I read more about Him, His life, His death, His burial, and His resurrection, I am drawn back to my Savior. Then the sacred songs keep their meaning. The witness of the gospel retains its freshness. The Lord Himself draws me with His love.
“Thou art the bread of life, O Lord, to me,
Thy holy Word the truth that saveth me;
Give me to eat and live with Thee above;
Teach me to love Thy truth, for Thou art love.”
-Mary A. Lathbury