We Begin Our Twenty-Fifth Year
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-6-68 10:50 a.m.
This morning I have a wonderful text, the first verse of the one hundred twenty-second Psalm. And if you would like to turn and look at it, I am going to read the entire Psalm, and the text is the first verse. You are sharing the services on radio and on television with us who are in the First Baptist Church auditorium meeting house in Dallas. And the title of the sermon is We Begin Our Twenty-Fifth Year, or We Turn Our Faces to God’s House. The one hundred twenty-second Psalm. “I was miserable when they said, ‘Let’s go to church.’” Now wouldn’t that be something?
I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is builded as a city compact together:
Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord.
There are set thrones of judgment the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.
For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.
Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good.
You will notice, it is labeled, “a song of degrees of David.” There are [fifteen] of them, from Psalm 120 to Psalm 134, there are these songs of degrees. Now, you could just read almost endlessly what these Hebrew and antiquarian scholars say that means, “a song of degrees.” Some of them will translate it, “a song of steps.” And they say there were [fifteen] steps up to the main entrance into the sanctuary, and on each step the Levites assembled and sang a psalm—the first step, that first song of degrees, the second step, and the third step, as they went up into the house of the Lord. Well, that’s fine.
Others will say this song of degrees, which some of them translate “a song of steps,” can also be translated “a song of ascent.” And they say that these are the songs that the pilgrims sang as they went up to Jerusalem at the great, stated, national festivals. As they went to Canterbury on a pilgrimage—and Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales—as they spoke, all those different pilgrims, so in Israel as they went up to Jerusalem and into the house of the Lord, they sang these songs, the psalms as they went up together. I like that, and it certainly fits the Psalms. “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord [Psalm122:1]. For my brethren and my companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be in Jerusalem” [Psalm 122:8].
So, this anniversary Sunday, as we begin this twenty-fifth year, I have chosen for my subject, turning to God’s house, coming to the Lord’s house, meeting together in God’s holy sanctuary. And I have several things to say about our coming and about what I pray we shall find and share here. One, preaching; two, praise; three, prophecy, proclamation; and at last, prayer.
Now, preaching: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go in the house of the Lord” [Psalm 122:1]. In that sacred place, Isaiah, Hezekiah’s court preacher, stood up to deliver God’s message [Isaiah 6:1]. In those sacred precincts, the prophet Jeremiah delivered his messages from heaven [Jeremiah 19:14]. And in that temple, the Lord Jesus preached and taught and waited upon the needs of the people [Matthew 21:23]. In the sanctuary stood God’s preachers, prophets, delivering God’s Word. And this is as it should be. A church, God’s house ought to be a place for the proclamation of the message. And in this sacred pulpit, the great pastor, Dr. Truett, stood for forty-seven years behind this very desk, proclaiming God’s message. And this is now the beginning of the twenty-fifth year that I have stood in this same place with God’s Book in my hand, proclaiming God’s message from this place.
I, of all people in the earth, I am most cognizant of the responsibility and the opportunity it carries with it. On radio, on television, on these Tapes for Christ that are sent around the earth literally, and to the great throngs that come all three services on the Lord’s Day; there’s no finer, better, greater place in the earth to stand to preach than here in the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord” [Psalm 122:1]. Here God’s message is proclaimed.
The second: it is a convocation, a gathering of praise, and thanksgiving, and gratitude, and adoration to the name of the Lord our God. Praising the Lord. Oh, I wish—oh, how much I wish I could have attended one of the great festival services when David and Solomon and the kings of Judah gathered the saints together for the singing of the praises of God. You have in the 1 Chronicles throughout the chapters, but especially in chapter 23 and in chapter 25, you have a description, a depiction of that kind of worship and praise under David and then under Solomon in the sanctuary. There was only one art that Israel cultivated, just one. Just one, and that was music. Israel loved to sing, and from the beginning of their story to this consummation when we sang the song of Moses and the Lamb [Revelation 15:3-4], you will find God’s people singing. And when a fellow sits out there in the congregation and doesn’t sing, I don’t know what’s the matter with him. So you go to him and say, “Why don’t you sing?” Well, he says, “I can’t sing.” And then you say, “Well, it says in God’s Book, ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’” [Psalm 100:1]. And then growl, or rub your foot, or pat your hand, or read the words, but all of us ought to praise the Lord singing. Israel loved to do it, and God’s people love to do it, and that’s what you’re going to do in heaven. And that’s what we ought to do here. The one art that Israel loved and taught and cultivated was singing, playing on instruments, music, glorifying God.
Now I say, here in the twenty-third and in the twenty-fifth chapters of the Book of 1 Chronicles, you have a presentation of that music praise program. So it says here that in the days of David, the Levites, and David was the one who instituted the service of music in the sanctuary. And David invented, the Bible says, instruments of music for the people, for the Levites to use [1 Chronicles 23:5]. Now in the days of David, the Book says the Levites were numbered and David employed them, brought them into the choir and into the music program and into the service of the temple, he brought them at thirty years of age through fifty years of age [Numbers 4:3, 23, 30]. “And their number by their polls,” the Hebrew is “by their skulls,” and no man would have two skulls, so that’d mean one by one, wouldn’t it? “So their number by their skulls was thirty-eight thousand men” [1 Chronicles 23:3]. There were thirty-eight thousand Levites.
Now, he divided them into separate ministries there in the temple. Twenty-four thousand of them were to help the priests [1 Chronicles 23:4], were to help the preacher. And six thousand of them were set out, deployed over the nation for judges to help the people. And four thousand of them were doorkeepers, porters [1 Chronicles 23:5]. They took care of all of the sanctuary. They were posted on four sides: twenty-four posts, six to a side [1 Chronicles 9:24]. And four thousand were singers, and “four thousand praised the Lord with the instruments which I made,” saith David, “to praise therewith” [1 Chronicles 23:5]. There were four thousand Levites who were trained to sing and to play musical instruments. Then the Book says that they were to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord and likewise at evening [1 Chronicles 23:30]. Every day in God’s sanctuary, those Levites were to stand singing, playing, thanking, adoring, worshiping, praising the Lord [1 Chronicles 23:30]. Oh, I wish I could have been there! Think of it!
And not only that, but it says here in that same chapter, “Now by the last words of David the Levites were numbered from twenty years old and above” [1 Chronicles 23:27]. Now you look at that. When the poll was taken—when the heads were counted—those Levites numbered thirty-eight thousand, of which four thousand of them were in the choir [1 Chronicles 23:3, 5]. Now that was when they were counted thirty years up through fifty [Numbers 4:3, 23, 30]. If David in his last days just before he died lowered that number to twenty [1 Chronicles 23:27], then it must have been that the Levitical choir numbered something like six thousand, four to six thousand, singing and playing.
In the twenty-fifth chapter, you have a presentation of the musical instruments that they used. It says here that David and the captains of the hosts separated to the service for this music program Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries—lutes, little stringed instruments—and with cymbals [1 Chronicles 25:1]. Look at that! Under the direction of the conductors Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, they prophesied with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals [1 Chronicles 25:1]. Did you know that is in the Bible? Now, the word “prophecy” there is used in the same kind of way that you use it when you say, “a man is inspired.” And I think that’s all right to say it. A man is inspired, he sang as one inspired, he played as one inspired, just like these glorious soloists like Bev, and these instrumentalists do, and the choir does, inspired! Now that’s the way that this word is used here in this twenty-fifth chapter [1 Chronicles 25:1]. It refers to the inspiration, the overflowing, abounding in oblations, that they use when they sang and when they played on those instruments.
“Now, all of these,” the book says:
were under the hands of the conductors Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun for song in the house of the Lord with cymbals, psalteries, and harps. So the number of them, so the number of them, all that were cunning were two hundred fourscore and eight.
[1 Chronicles 25:6-7]
There were two hundred eighty-eight of those men who played the psaltery and the harp and all of that. Frances, all that piano is is a harp laid down. You look at the thing, it’s shaped exactly like a harp, only in a harp it stands up, and you pluck it with your fingers. In a piano, the harp is horizontal, they lay it down, and you pluck the strings by hitting it with a little hammer. Did you know I knew that? It’s a harp. And these who were in that choir, were cunning—that is the word can be translated “skillful” just as well—they were skillful with all of those instruments. Two hundred eighty-eight of them were skillful in it [1 Chronicles 25:6-7].
Well, I don’t know how many they had who were unskillful, but David did something that I think was really inspired. We don’t have time to go into all of this, but when David built that glorious music service in the sanctuary, in the house of God, he was very careful, the book says, to place the neophyte—the novice—by the side of the cunning, the skillful singer and player. Now, that’s what you ought to do. Do you do that? You did? Wherever you have good ones, you know, why, take those neophytes and put them by their side, and then the good one will help the novice, you know, come along, and he’ll learn. And that’s the way to train a great choir. That’s what the Book says, that’s what the Bible, that’s the way David did it. And ah, it just works. Take your novice, the one who is just coming, and put them by the side of those who are gifted and skilled and cunning, and then all of them learn, and especially the younger ones by the example by those who are already trained.
Then they had those glorious public services, and the last psalm, the one hundred fiftieth Psalm is kind of a benediction, it’s kind of a summary of what it was like to go to church in the days of the Levites. Then it starts off, “Praise ye the Lord” [Psalm 150:1]. And there’s not a choir member but that knows the Hebrew word for that. What is it? That’s right. That’s the smartest boy. The psalm starts off with, “Hallelujah!” Oh, that’s a great word. And you can translate it if you want to, “Praise ye the Lord.” “Hallelujah!” it starts off. “Praise God in His sanctuary, amen: Praise God in His sanctuary. Praise Him in the firmament of His power” [Psalm 150:1]. Praise Him outside under the chalice of the blue sky. “Praise Him for His mighty works: praise Him according to His excellent greatness. Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet.” Blow it, brother. Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet. “Praise Him with the psaltery and harp. Praise Him with the timbrel and dance” [Psalm 150:1-4]. Now, that word “dance” there doesn’t refer to a hoochie-coochie, hula–hula walk, all that funny stuff. The word “dance” there, you’d say with shouts of glory and hallelujah. David danced before the Lord when they brought the ark into Jerusalem [2 Samuel 6:14-16]; that’s what it means. You’re just so happy you can’t contain yourself, and it just overflows.
“Praise Him with stringed instruments and organs” [Psalm 150:4]. Plural. Well, I found out something at the first service, and Mel whispered to me and said, “Now, pastor, look up there, and you can see those shudders open and close with that organ.” We have two organs in this church. You’ve got an organ here, and that thing is as big as a five room house back there. You have a great organ there, and then you have another organ up yonder. I didn’t know they played that up there, so at the first service I said, “I want to do what it says in the Book. Play the organs!” [Psalm 150:4]. And they said to me, “Why, pastor, we play them every Sunday.” Keep it up, Ms. Forester. Play that organ up there, and play this one up here. It’s in the Book, it’s in the Book. “Praise Him with stringed instruments and organs,” plural [Psalm 150:4]. “Praise Him upon the loud cymbals” [Psalm 150:5]. Now, I don’t want anybody coming up to me anymore and saying, “Those cymbals that we have here, they don’t belong in God’s house.” Well, first you tear it out of the Bible and come and tell me that. “Praise the Lord with the loud cymbals, and praise Him upon the high-sounding cymbals” [Psalm 150:5]. Oh, brother! Well, I tried to find out the difference. What is the difference between a loud cymbal and a high-sounding cymbal? Well, the best I could find out is a loud cymbal was a great big one; you know, where you just bang it and make them jump out of their skins. Now, that’s a big one. And then these high-sounding cymbals were the little ones, you know, that you put together and it had a higher pitch, a higher noise. Praise Him with the loud cymbals, and praise Him up on the high sounding cymbals [Psalm 150:5]. Then he concluded, “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” [Psalm 150:6]. Then you have it translated, “Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah” [Psalm 150:6] Now, that’s the way to go to church. So we’re going to do something around here. We’re getting ready.
Did you know most of these churches on Sunday night look like mausoleums? They look like sepulchers. You could be buried in one of them, and it would just be as dead and as still as if you were out in the cemetery. The things are dark at night. Most of our churches have no services at night, and our Baptist churches are increasingly getting that way. Now what does it say in the good Book? To stand every morning, to thank and praise the Lord and likewise at night, in the morning, and in the evening; now they did it every day, every day [1 Chronicles 23:30]. And if they did it every day, I think at least we can do it once a week. And when we come down here Sunday morning, we’re going to have a service of praise. We do it already; we’re just going to do it even more so. And this is the first morning that the president of the choir punched me in the back and said, “Pastor, look. This is the first morning that we’ve had our sanctuary choir sit over there.” That’s not so? Well, to me, then it’s so! Oh, that’s just wonderful, you blessed, beautiful, damsels up there. Now we’re going to fill that whole thing up there. Yes, we’re going to fill it up there in the morning.
Then Sunday night, Lee Roy, let’s pull out all the stops. My soul, let’s do it. And let’s have the greatest praise service here the world ever saw or heard. Aw, let’s have these—did you notice in that list there they have wind instruments [Psalm 150:3-5], and they have stringed instruments, and they have percussion instruments. We can blow on some of them, we can saw on some of them, and we can clap with some of them, and beat on some of them. Now, I don’t see why every Sunday night, Lee Roy, we shouldn’t have a choir here of a thousand, a thousand in the choir every Sunday night. Yes sir. A thousand. There are a thousand seats in that horseshoe balcony round. Now you’ve already got it up that side and up that side. All we’ve got to do is close it in the middle. A thousand in the choir, and how many instruments shall I expect? There they had two hundred eighty-eight cunning ones, skilled ones [1 Chronicles 25:6-7]. Well, let’s make it say he says one hundred eighty-nine, two eighty-nine. Ah, wouldn’t it be glorious? And every Sunday night, every Sunday night, a marvelous, incomparable, inspired—that word “prophesy” [1 Chronicles 25:1]—inspired service of praise, one that just moves your heart to heaven. That’s what you’re going to do when you get to glory. They’re going to play all these instruments. Haven’t you heard me preach through the Revelation, and the blowing of the trumpets, and the playing of the harps, and the singing of the redeemed on Mount Zion? [Revelation 14:3]. Well, this is just a little preview, a little earnest, a little harbinger of what God’s going to do in glory. And every Sunday night, let’s just have the most marvelous, inspiring, moving praise service that the world could ever think for, standing here, praising the Lord. Bless His name. Hallelujah. And I’ve already told you, every Sunday night I’ll preach a sermon about Jesus. This morning, however, we may preach about anything, as you may well know. But every Sunday night, there’ll be a sermon from the life of our Lord.
Ah, now, Lee Roy. I got something I want you to do. I want you to hire you an architect. We’ll get the money. Dean’s going to help us here. We’re going to get the money. I want you to hire an architect, and I want you to make this thing all the way around, all the way around, I want those balconies to go all the way around, and zip down here, and zip back up, and I want all of this up here filled with Levites and with orchestration. We’re going to come down here, and shout, and sing, and praise, and bless God, and be happy in the Lord. What is my text? “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord” [Psalm 122:1]. Amen.
Well, as I say, that’s just one of the points in this sermon. Now, about our prophecy: using the word as it is usually used in the Bible, our proclaiming, our pro-speaking, our speaking out, our confrontation with the world, telling them about the Lord, inviting them to Jesus, all of us. There is one thing that I found no exception to in my visiting our churches in the world. I mean everywhere in the world. Whether I’m visiting a Baptist church in India or in Indonesia, in Japan or in China, or in England, or in Scandinavia, or in Chile, or in Brazil, or Argentina; it’s all the same. The churches are small; they’re very small. And when one is built, they’ll build it in the middle of a block, pressed in on every side by the buildings around it, and all they’ll have is just a meeting place where the preacher stands up by himself, and he never does any other thing. The preacher stands up there by himself, and he’ll read the Scripture, and he’ll deliver the message, and he’ll make the announcements, and he’ll lead the singing, and he’ll pray all the prayers and then give the benediction. And the people come to church just in the same kind of a way that you’d go to a show or go to a vaudeville. You go to church and you just sit there, and the preacher does it all. There’s no great outreach, there’s no visitation, there’s no ministry of teaching, there’s no sharing. It’s just the preacher and that little box of a church, and that’s all. And it’s been that way from the beginning, and it’s that way right now. And I don’t know how you can change it. I tried with some of those preachers, and I’ve never succeeded yet. And they’ll always be small; they’ll always be small! You’ll never reach people by just going and looking at a preacher just as you would as you’d go to a picture show or a vaudeville, just sit there and watch. This thing is a shared devotion and commitment.
Now if you want to know what an early church service was like, read the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians [1 Corinthians 14:1-40]. You have a fine and meticulous description there of what happened in the first primitive churches. Everybody shared in it, everybody did. Some of them sang songs, some of them sang psalms, and some of them had doctrines, and some of them had interpretations, and some of them had prophecies, and some of them had visions, and some of them had experiences to relate, but all of the people shared in it! [1 Corinthians 14:26-40]. Now that’s what we must do in this church, if we’d have a New Testament church. We’d all are in it, all of us. “Well, preacher, what in the world can I do?” Well, you could stand at the door and smile and shake somebody’s hand, or you could lower a window, or you could sweep a floor. My, Roy Ramsour over here would love to see you. There’s something all of us can do, all of us can do. And we are to share in this great ministry. It isn’t just the preacher, or just these who are on our staff, but all of us are in it. And what happens when all of us share in that program?
Thursday night of last week, I delivered an address before one of the great churches of our Southern Baptist Convention. They had a leadership banquet, and they had about eight hundred there. It was a magnificent occasion. And they did something that night that overwhelmed me! The educational director, got a lantern—one of those things that puts pictures on a screen in front—and he showed on the screen a graph of the Sunday school attendance for ten years. He started in 1958 and went through 1968, and he graphed the Sunday school attendance, year by year, up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down, like that. Then the most amazing thing I ever saw: superimposed upon that black line—the graph of the Sunday school attendance—he superimposed a red line of the number of visits that the people have made. And to my astonishment, that red line followed exactly the graph of the attendance! When the people visited, the attendance went up just like that. When the people leveled off in their visitation, the attendance leveled off. And when the people quit visiting, the attendance rocketed precipitously just like that. Do you know the lesson of that? We can have just as many people as we want. If you don’t want them, then don’t invite them. Don’t go after them. But if you want them, invite them! Go after them, and they’ll be here. Isn’t that an amazing thing? It’s not because people are hard to reach, it’s because God’s saints don’t try to reach them. Now that ministry, all of us ought to share in. All of us. We’re all out inviting to the Lord. This is my church, and this is God’s house, and “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go to church. Let us go up into the house of the Lord” [Psalm 122:1].
Now we’re going to have a great expansion of our church. As soon as these men can get those plans together, we’re going to build an enormous parking building, the largest one in the city of Dallas by far. We’re going to build a great parking building on the other side of our present parking building and integrate the present one into it, a self-parking building—and then all of these other expansions. I went out to a Junior Leadership dinner at Bob Thompson’s home Friday night, and they had their work written out on a card. And I looked at it, and they need seventeen new departments right now in that one division. And up and down this whole church, this whole ministry of teaching, you’ll find these staff members saying, “If I just had the room to organize new departments.” Well, when we built this great program and bought that Burt building—an eleven story educational building, eleven story office building we turned into an educational building—when we did that, we did it by faith that God would help us fill it up. And God honored that commitment. And this is the largest Sunday school I know of, it is the one right down here, and carries with it the largest Training Union in the world, and carries with it the largest Vacation Bible School in the world. God honored it! Now, we’re going to do it again. We’re going to build these buildings, and we’re going to take our cadre that we now have and trust God to fill it up. Twice as many juniors. Twice as many teenagers. Twice as many Young Marrieds. Twice as many babies. Teaching them the Word of God, bringing them to the blessed Jesus. “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord” [Psalm 122:1].
Now, I must close. It’s a place of prayer, God’s house. From Isaiah, Jesus quoted, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” [Matthew 21:13, Isaiah 56:7]. We can’t do without God. We lean on His kind arm. “Without Me,” Jesus said, “you can do nothing” [John 15:5]. All of our plans, and all of our effort, all of our program, all of it, is dust and ashes without Him. A place of prayer, of intercession, of appeal to heaven. God remember, and bless, and help, and work with us Lord. An appeal to God.
I came here twenty-four years ago today. Next time, next anniversary, we’re going to live through that day. When I walked off the platform, back through that door—the choir’s been changed now—Bob Coleman put his arms around me, and he said, “I never saw such a service in my life.” Nor have I seen people weep so profusely as they did that day twenty-four years ago. And he said, “This is your anniversary date, this day,” first day I preached here as the pastor of this church.
Well, when time came for the Palace Theater services, I went down to the Palace Theater to preach. And, this will be twenty-fifth time I’ve conducted those services when Easter comes. I went down to the Palace Theater to preach. Usually, when I get through, to stay out of the cool air—because I’m very hot when I get through preaching—I go out the side door where Dave has a car for me and has had for twenty-four years. Well, this day, and I don’t know why, I walked through the foyer, up to the front of the theater and left through that foyer. When I walked through the foyer, a little, old-fashioned lady stopped me. She was dressed in black, in an old, old-fashioned dress. She was mostly bent, and my remembrance is she had a cane, a little, old-fashioned lady. She stopped me and told me her name, and she said, “I am too old and too crippled and have no way to go to church.” She said, “A neighbor came, and because it’s such a beautiful day, she said she would bring me down here to the Palace Theater for me to see her new pastor.” And she said, “I so wanted to come, just to see what you looked like, to see my new pastor.” Then she continued, “I have no money; I cannot give anything. I have no way to go; I cannot come. And I’m too old and crippled to be there, but I can pray for you. That is all I can do. I can pray for you.” I put my arms around that little, old-fashioned lady, and I said, “Dear, you say all you can do is just pray for me, as though, my dear, that were a small thing. The greatest thing you can do is to pray for me.” For it is God in it that makes it powerful unto salvation. It is God in it that moves the soul. It is God in it that makes it possible for us to do His work effectively, gloriously, triumphantly; to pray, to pray.
Isn’t it strange how I’d remember some little old thing like that? And every time I review God’s incomparable blessings upon this ministry, my mind always goes back to that little, old-fashioned lady in the foyer of the theater who said, “All I can do is pray.” That’s enough. God will give us the rest. God will do the rest. We’ll have the money, all we need. We’ll have the room, all we need. We’ll have the people; we will have power; we’ll have everything, if we will remember that it’s from heaven that these blessings come. God does it. It is His work. We are His people, the sheep of His pasture. And when we come to God’s house, it’s the moving presence of God we want to feel, the Lord here, amen.
Now we must sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, one somebody you, while we sing our song, come and stand by me. “Pastor, today, we’re taking the Lord as our Savior.” Or, “Today, pastor, I’m coming into the fellowship of the church. This is my wife, our children, all of us coming.” Or just you, as God shall press the appeal to your heart. come. Make the decision now. And in a moment when we stand up, stand up coming. Do it now. Make it now. While all of us stand and sing together.