Making the most of the Bible
Experiencing God: Psalm 119
- Chris Wright is International Director of the Langham Partnership, which seeks to equip Majority World churches for mission through raising standards of preaching. He was President of All Nations Christian College, and has authored several books. Chris also serves as Chair of the Lausanne Committee’s Theological Education Commission and as honorary president of Tearfund. View all resources by Chris Wright
NOTE: This booklet is based on five bible readings given at the Keswick Convention.
1. Personal Sin and the Word of God's Grace, Psalm 119:9-16
Around about the middle of the eighteenth century, about the time of John and Charles Wesley, there was a Puritan minister called William Grimshaw in the parish of Howarth, which is not far from Keswick but is more famous for the Bronte sisters. Grimshaw was disturbed by the number of people who stayed in the village pubs instead of coming to church on Sunday. So while the choir was singing or chanting a psalm, he would go outside the church with a large stick and beat people in from the pubs. And if there were a particularly large number of people missing he would set the choir to sing Psalm 119, which gave him a little more time to get them in.
Everybody knows that Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Bible, and most people know that almost every verse refers to the Word of God, the law of God, or some similar phrase. For that reason some people don’t pay it the attention that they should. They feel, ‘It keeps repeating the same thing; and where is it leading?’ But that’s rather like looking at a tapestry and saying, ‘I keep seeing the colour red again and again, so this doesn't mean very much’. The thread will keep coming through, but I hope the picture becomes a little clearer as you look at the whole thing.
Psalm 119 is actually a very cleverly constructed piece of work. You may know that some of the psalms are ‘acrostics’, spelling out the Hebrew alphabet just as we would be doing if we started the first line of a poem with ‘A’, the next with ‘B’, and so on. The psalmist in Psalm 119 chose to create a grand acrostic to finish all acrostics; he set eight lines to each letter of the alphabet, so each of the sections of the psalm which you can see laid out there in the NIV begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
On top of that, he chose to use eight different words or expressions to describe the word of God. The first seven of them come in the opening verses, so it's quite easy to see what they are. In verse 1 he talks about ‘the law of the Lord’, the whole law. In verse 2 he talks about ‘the statutes’, or the testimonies, or witnesses, that God has given. In verse 4 he talks about the ‘precepts’ that God has set, the detailed instructions. In verse 5 he talks about ‘decrees’ that have been inscribed and are binding upon us. Then in verse 6 he talks about ‘commands’, the orders that God gives. In verse 7 the NIV has ‘laws’ – a better translation would be his ‘judgements’. In verse 9 he talks about the ‘word’ of God, plain and simple. And the next one comes a little later in verse 38, where he talks about God's ‘promise’, the promises of God. The eight expressions are woven together quite beautifully, coming again and again and again to impart a rhythm and a beat to the music of this psalm.
It’s often called a psalm in honour of God’s law. But I think that’s a mistake, because it’s not actually about the law at all. The law is always in the third person. In this psalm, God is being prayed to. In fact, apart from the first three verses the whole of the other 173 verses are directly addressed to God – ‘You, O Lord’ … ‘Your word’ … ‘Your promises’ … ‘Your law’ – and concern our response to these things, so it's a deeply personal psalm as well.
The question then with which I want to begin is this: How will spending five whole mornings at Keswick, this week in 1998, be helpful to you and to me? I suggest that this psalm, with which I have lived over these last months, will probably mirror a common experience for many of you. Most of you have come with a strong love for God. You are here because you want to be, because you know God and you want to know more about him. And you have a strong love for God’s word, otherwise you probably would not come to Keswick. It is the same with the psalmist: he loves God and he loves God’s word.
We find here, too, a person with a deep desire to live his life in a way that will please God, that will give joy to the Lord and blessing to himself. And I imagine that’s probably true for most of us here also.
But as you read this psalm you also discover that here is a person living with a real experience of stress, difficulty, exhaustion, failure and very great need. In fact, in the very last verse of the psalm he's still saying, ‘Lord, I’m going astray like a lost sheep here and I need you to seek me and find me and help me out’. There’s no triumphalism in the psalm whatsoever. It comes out of a person who has a deep longing that God will renew him and give him fresh strength, new energy, renewal of life, and zeal for God and for God’s work.
If those things find any kind of echo in your life today, I think you’ll find that this psalmist will make a very good travelling companion for this week.
We’re going to be looking at five themes in the course of the week. Let me tell you what they are now so that you can begin to think about it and come prepared. This morning, we will think about personal sin and the word of God's grace. Tomorrow, personal struggle and the word of lament.
On Wednesday, personal guidance and the word of light. On Thursday, personal commitment and the word of love. And finally on Friday, personal renewal and the word of life. So I think we have plenty to discover in the psalm as we go through it together.
Each morning as we study this psalm I shall give you a recommended section to read before we begin, though our exposition will range through the whole psalm and beyond it. So please read now verses 9 to 16, the section of the psalm in which all the verses begin with the Hebrew letter ‘B’, beth.
Psalm 119 is not a confession psalm as such, unlike Psalms 32 or 51, for example, where the psalmist is speaking of deep and profound conviction of sin. Those are psalms that emerge out of a specific sin. Psalm 51 is associated with David’s adultery, and the deep, terrible contrition and conviction of wrongdoing that leads to a person being flat on their face before God saying, ‘God, I’ve sinned and I need specific forgiveness for what I have done’. Such times, of course, are deeply painful. Yet by God’s grace they can also be sobering and restoring.
But the psalmist of Psalm 119 is not desperately sorry because he has sinned. Rather, here is someone who is desperately anxious not to sin. Perhaps the one arises out of the other. Here is a person who has known exactly what it feels like to stand under God’s conviction, to be prostrate before the wrath of God in fear and trembling and in shame. Perhaps out of that experience he has known God’s forgiveness and God’s grace in healing, and here he is determined with all his heart not to go that way again. So it’s not so much a confession of sin as a consciousness of sin that emerges through this psalm.
I want us to look at three expressions that I think will help us to summarise this.
First of all,
The awareness of sin
What is this person’s experience and assessment of sin? What does it do to you, that makes him so anxious to avoid it?
First of all, he says,
Sin can lead to shame and disgrace
Those are words that come several times. Let me give you a few examples, as I shall often be doing in these Bible Readings. Look at verse 6: ‘Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. Verse 31: ‘I hold fast to your statutes O Lord; do not let me be put to shame’. And verse 39: ‘Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good’.
Sin produces shame and disgrace, as it did in the Garden of Eden. In the original description of how sin came into human life, we find that Adam and Eve immediately wanted to cover themselves in the God’s presence, because sin produces shame – that urgent desire to be hidden. The last thing you want to do is show your face, when you are conscious of sin in your life. You want it to be covered; there is a terrible fear of being found out, of being put to shame. Some of the psalms express that very profoundly indeed. Since childhood one of my favourite psalms has been Psalm 25, which speaks about trusting in the Lord and the Lord’s blessing on our lives. But some of the verses that are more meaningful to us as we grow older are like those in Psalm 119. ‘Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me’ (25:2). ‘Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you’ (25:20). It’s that same fear of being found out and disgraced.
And it’s an absolutely right and proper reaction. Sin should produce shame in us. When it doesn’t, we have a very advanced case of hardness of heart. Sin is that which ought to be covered, which should produce blushes of shame. One of the most awful things that the prophets – especially Jeremiah – said about the sin of their people was, ‘Are they ashamed of their sin? Not a bit of it, they don’t even know how to blush, because they’ve lost the sense of shame’. When we know something of shame and disgrace within us because of what we have done or have failed to do, then, I would suggest, the cross of Christ also takes an even deeper meaning; when we begin to recognise that not only did Jesus bear my sin, but he also bore my shame. All that Jesus went through – the public humiliation, being treated as if he were a criminal which he wasn't, being treated as though he were under the wrath of God which he was, but not because of his own sin but for ours; the shame, the spitting, the disgrace, the mockery, the contempt that he bore – it was our shame, my shame, that put him there. That’s what sin does. And the psalmist says, ‘That's why I want to avoid it’.
Secondly, he acknowledges,
Sin will lead you astray
One of the most frequent metaphors in this psalm is the metaphor of the pathway – the path itself or a way of walking. The psalmist wants above all to avoid taking a wrong path, and he knows that’s what sin will do to him. Verse 67: ‘Before I was afflicted I when astray’ – he took the wrong path – ‘but now I obey your word’. Or verse 101: ‘I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word’. Verse 101: ‘I hate every wrong path’. And verse 128: ‘I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path’.
You see, when you sin and do deliberately what you know to be displeasing to God, you are taking the first of many steps that will, before you know where you are going, lead you to walk carelessly and shamelessly down a road that you knew, and know, displeases God. It is a wrong path, it’s dangerous and it ultimately leads to judgement. And when you are on a wrong path, there’s only one thing to do: to turn round and get back to where you first went wrong. The further you go, the harder it gets and the best thing is not to take the first step at all. Sin leads you down a wrong path. Thirdly the psalmist is aware that,
Sin eventually will rule you and dominate you
In verse 133 staying with the picture of the footpath, he says, ‘Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me’. Which of course is what God said it would do. At the very beginning, he warned Cain: ‘Sin ... desires to have you’ (Gen. 4:7). Sin will want you serve the sinful purpose rather than serve God. Bob Dylan wrote a song in which he pointed out that you have to serve somebody. He is right: we serve somebody in life, and if God is not our master then sin will be. And you will end up enslaved by it and the chains will have to be broken before you can be free.
That is a theological truth – it’s told us by the Bible – and also a truth that is confirmed by personal experience. Sin will dominate you if you let it.
That is just about all that this Psalm says about sin. But of course it’s not all the Bible has to say about sin, and I’m quite sure it’s not all that this psalmist could have said about sin if he’d wanted to. From our own reflections we could add many more examples of what sin does to us. The world always promises us more than it can ever deliver. It promises us fun and excitement and it delivers pain and tragedy. It promises us freedom and delivers slavery and bondage. It promises us life and fulfilment and all the things we think are great, and it ends up in emptiness and death. It tells us there is something else you can have, something you can add to your life, something from which you can gain. And in the end it brings loss and takes away even the good things you thought you had. It tells you that you can get away with it. The fact is, you can’t.
So the psalmist tells us, ‘Let’s be aware of sin. Let’s acknowledge it, let’s know our enemy For what it is and fate up to it. Let’s be real, and be aware of the reality of sin. That’s my starting point in this psalm’.
The avoidance of sin
And so we need to avoid sin. The psalmist dearly fears it; you could say that he fears God more than sin, which is how it should be. Verse 120:
‘My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws’. This is a man (or woman) who knows God, who loves God, who knows something of the grace and forgiveness and the mercy of God! But still he says, ‘Lord, when I think of your law I think of my sin; I shudder and I tremble’. And if we’ve lost something of that reality then let’s get back to where we should be. Here is a person who says, ‘Lord my flesh shudders, my hair stands on end’ – that’s the language being used here – ‘I actually tremble when I think of the reality of my sin and the wrath of God’. And so he is absolutely determined to avoid sin.
How is he going to do it? Well, perhaps because he remembers Genesis 6:5 (where it tells us that every inclination of the thoughts of man’s heart was ‘only evil all the time’; in other words every aspect of our human life and person is infected in some way by sin), and because he is determined to avoid sin and to fight it with every aspect of his being, he’s going to use his mind, his will and his emotions in the fight against sin. This is a man who is serious about what he’s in conflict with.
The exercise of the mind
In verse 9 he asks, ‘How can a young man keep his way pure?’ How do you actually avoid sin? He supplies the answer: ‘By living according to your word’. Perhaps the NIV does not give us the best translation here. The Authorised Version reads, ‘By taking heed thereto according to thy word’; by watching it, paying attention, constantly bringing your life under the spotlight of the word of God and asking yourself, ‘What does the Scripture say, what does the law say, what does the Bible say about this course of action that I’m thinking of?’ He’s using his mind.
Verse 11: ‘I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you: He is talking about careful memorising of the Scriptures. He is going to have the word of God stored away, building up a rich resource from which he can fight against sin. Verse 13: ‘With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth’. Here he’s talking about the physical, literal, speaking learning the word of God. There’s a lot still to be said for careful reading and speaking and knowing the Scriptures – out loud, in our prayer times, in our times of temptation. And verse 15: ‘I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways’. That describes inner reflection, deep pondering, thinking, wrestling with the word of God.
There are many, many more verses which say exactly the same thing all through this psalm. Here was a man (or a woman) who very clearly wanted to exercise his or her mind upon the word of God, and to do so not in order to obtain a degree in theology but as a prophylactic against sin. ‘I have hidden your word in my heart’, not so that I win the Bible competition (which was some of my motivation when I was in a Crusader class in my teens), and not so that I can pass exams and become a theological expert. ‘I have hidden your word in my heart – so that I won’t sin against you’.
How does the Bible do that? How does studying the Bible with our minds and becoming familiar with it effectively prevent us from sin? First of all, by keeping us in touch with the mind of God. If God has poured his mind and his word into Scripture and we fill up our hearts with the Scripture, then we’re going to have a much more sensitive understanding of what sin actually is. We will be aware of what is and is not sin: what God likes and what God does not like. And our minds and our thoughts will be beating with the heart and mind of God himself.
Secondly by giving us a rich store of examples of both success and failure in relation to sin. Some of us, I am sure, were brought up on the Scripture Union method of reading our Bibles, where you read the passage and then were asked all sorts of questions about it. Among the questions was, ‘Is there an example to follow or an error to avoid?’ Good questions – examples of those who resisted sin and examples of those who tragically fell into sin and in some cases were rescued by God’s grace. So there’s plenty of stories there to fill our hearts and minds.
Thirdly, by building up our moral muscles to resist temptation. How did Jesus resist the temptations of the evil one, in the wilderness? Wasn’t it through his knowledge of the Scripture? ‘It is written,’ he said, every time he was tempted. On each occasion he quoted from the book of Deuteronomy upon which he was probably meditating. It is a book that claims the people of God for obedience. He quotes that at the devil. The Scriptures give us ammunition. To use Paul’s word, it is the ‘sword of the Spirit’ that enables us to fight back against temptation (Eph. 6:17).
And fourthly, by helping to counteract that tendency within us to rationalise and to excuse our sin. What clever people we are! And there’s a sense in which the more intelligent you are the more vulnerable you are to rationalising your sin. We want always to do what is wrong but to have good reasons for it. It goes back to the Garden of Eden. And the Bible unmasks us. It takes away our pretence and our sham. We say, ‘Well I can get away with it, it’ll be all right’. The word of God says, ‘Be sure your sin will find you out’. We think to ourselves, ‘Well God doesn’t mind too much, I’m a child of God, He’s forgiven me anyway’. The word of God says, ‘Don’t be deceived, God is not mocked’.
There is something about the Bible that as the writer to the Hebrews said, is sharper than a double-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). It cuts into those corners of our lives where we do exactly that; where we will find any and every reason why it doesn’t apply to us and we are above it and it won’t matter anyway. Again and again the word comes back to us and says, ‘Don’t be daft, that’s not how it is’. God sees, God knows, and God is not fooled. So the more our minds are filled with the Scriptures, the more there will be that which will enable us to avoid sin, or, when we fall into sin, to find our way back to the right path and to the grace of God and the healing of his forgiveness.
The exercise of the will
Psalm 119 is full of deliberate, purposeful, determined choosing of what is good, choosing not to sin and choosing to avoid evil. The language of determination breathes through the tapestry of this psalm again and again. Look for example at verse 30, a positive choice: ‘I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws’. In verse 101 there is a negative choice: ‘I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word’. The choice in verse 101 is deadly serious, because he takes an oath: ‘I have taken an oath and confirmed it that I will follow your righteous laws’. In Old Testament terms that’s a serious matter. It wasn’t just ‘Oh yes, Lord, I’ll do it, I promise’. This is a man who puts his life upon the line: ‘Lord, you hear what I’m saying; and may I, one way or another, obey You’. And he is determined to make it a life-long choice: verse 112, ‘My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end’.
So it’s a matter of the will, of commitment. I think it’s very important these days for us to be reminded that sin is a matter of choice and of the will. Of course it is also a matter of temptation. Of course we are moved by the wicked one, there is a satanic demonic element dragging us down. But temptation is not compulsion, and we need to remember that the very first sin that is recorded in the Bible, in Genesis 3, was an act of deliberate choice that is echoed in us all every time we sin. Yes, the devil came into the Garden of Eden and tempted Eve: ‘Has God really said this? You don’t really want to believe it, do you? He didn’t really mean it’. But then, as it were, he slides off and he plays no further role in the story until God comes to declare his punishment. Eve stood before that tree, and we read that she saw and she thought and she decided and she took and she ate and she gave; and he ate and they both ate. These are acts of choice. We choose to sin. Let’s not minimise that. We could do otherwise; you don’t have to sin.
Let me be very careful to explain that. I’m not saying that it’s possible to be perfect, that any of us could live without sin and be morally perfect in that sense. We do sin. As John tells us, ‘If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar’ (1 John 1:10). But let’s remember, that never removes our responsibility for our choices and our intentions. Yes, we do sin. But we sin because we choose to. The very essence of sin is that we choose it – if we had no choice in the matter, it wouldn’t really be sin. It is sin because we have moral choice, and standing in the presence of God in God’s world, knowing God’s will and knowing God’s righteousness, we choose to do what we know is wrong and not do what we know is right. That is a matter of our choice and our wills, brothers and sisters. Let us never go back to the Garden of Eden, and take up Adam’s attitude when he said to the Lord, ‘Oh, it’s all this woman’s Fault – you put her here with me!’ Or the woman’s attitude, ‘Oh, it’s all this snake’s fault, that you put in the creation’. Shifting the blame elsewhere is almost the archetypal sin of our culture. The last thing anybody will do is accept blame or responsibility.
That is why we have so little repentance and so little forgiveness. When you reduce a person’s responsibility, you remove the very first opportunity they have to step back towards repentance and forgiveness and grace. Remember, it is our wills that lead us to sin. And that is why this psalmist is so determined to strengthen his will against sin. He wants to think, to decide, to take steps, to determine what he will or will not do.
He would, I’m sure, have been the first to confess – as I will and you will too – that no matter how determined we are, we still fail. Of course we do. But that doesn’t mean that we stop trying, that we turn round to God and say, ‘Oh God, it doesn’t matter. I can’t help it, I’m just going to go on sinning anyway’. That is a very dangerous condition to be in.
Do you remember, in Daniel 1, how Daniel and his three friends resolved not to eat the food from the king’s table? They made it a matter of will and determination, which then enabled them to stand up to the king and to his politicians. That choice that they made in chapter 1 was what sustained them in chapter 3 in the context of a burning fiery furnace, and in chapter 6 in the context of the lion’s den. Possibly a whole lifetime later, Daniel has gone through life resolving, determining that he is not going to bow down to idols. He is going to serve God.
‘I have kept my feet from the place of temptation I have refused to stand in the way of sinners,’ says the psalmist. Be ruthless on yourself Remember Jesus said, ‘If your eye causes you to sin pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin cut it off’ (cf Mark 9). Be ruthless, be determined in your will. The choices that we make are so utterly vital. Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘I set before you blessing and cursing, obedience and disobedience life and death; now you chose,’ he says. And for God’s sake, choose life’ (cf Deut. 30:19).
The exercise of the emotions
The psalmist is not just a cold intellectual whose head is full of the Bible and who has all the right verses and all the right doctrines. Nor is he a cold disciplinarian with a stern, unyielding, iron will. He is a person who feels very deeply. (Tomorrow we are going to look at some of his depths of feeling and emotion.) And among the deepest and most frequently expressed of his emotions are his reactions against sin, wickedness and evil in the world that he sees round him and indeed in himself. Listen to some of the verses that express these emotions, rather than merely the mind and the will.
Verse 53: ‘Indignation grips me because of the wicked, who have forsaken your law’. Verse 104: ‘I hate every wrong path’. Verse 128, the same thing:
‘I hate every wrong path’. Verse 158 he says, ‘I look on the faithless with loathing, for they do not obey your word’. Verse 163, ‘I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law’
We may not like those emotions. ‘Hatred, loathing, indignation – isn’t that what’s causing all the problems today in the world?’ Well, yes – when we hate the wrong thing. But here is a person so saturated with the word of God that what he’s actually doing is reflecting or echoing the emotions of God himself, because God is a God who hates sin, who is indignant because of the way the world is going against him. Indeed I find in Psalm 119 some of the language of the prophets. You know how the prophets reflect all the dealings of God as they come out in their words against the wickedness and sin of Israel? God’s anger, God’s grief, God’s tears, God’s sense of betrayal by the people he loved – God’s sheer disbelief. ‘How can you be like that?’; his disgust at the dirt and the filth of sin, and his utter and total rejection of it. That’s how God feels, and that’s how the prophets felt. And I think that is part of what is welling up within the psalmist.
It challenges us, therefore, to ask the question: ‘Isn’t that how we ought to feel about sin?’ When we can sin without being bothered, then, I suggest, we’ve lost touch with the heart of God. When we can witness sin and see it in the lives of others, or watch it on the television or in the world around us without a sense of pain or grief – then we have lost touch with the heart of God.
Perhaps the most poignant verse is verse 136: ‘Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed’. Not because he was hurting, though that was true; not just because people were against him, though that was also true (as we’ll see tomorrow). He is grieved and hurt because of the sin of society around him. If we were as filled with the word of God as this person is, then surely our emotions need to be touched also by the heart of God against sin.
So that is what the psalmist wants to tell us about avoiding sin. How can a young man keep his way pure? How can an old man keep his way pure – or a young man, or woman for that matter? The psalmist responds, ‘By using your mind and filling it with the word of God; by using your will and watching your choices; and also by the exercise of your emotional feelings, to make sure they are in tune with God himself.
The answer to sin
Psalm 119 speaks not only of the awareness and the avoidance of sin but of the answer to sin. You see, the psalmist is not saying, ‘Look, here are the rules. Just keep them and you’ll have no problem with sin’. There are some books and some preachers around today that teach that all you need is forty quick steps to leading a victorious life and there you are. I don’t think that our psalmist is saying that. He’s not just saying, ‘Just read your Bible every day, make your mind up, think positive, keep in touch with your inner feelings and all will be well’. He is not that naive. The idea that rules or techniques alone can solve the problem of sin is in fact the essence of legalism. Legalism is something of which Psalm 119 is often accused of, but in fact it’s a million miles from legalism. In fact it’s altogether a very false idea that the Old Testament is all about legalism.
Do you remember that I said at the outset, Psalm 119 is not primarily about the law at all but about God? Verse 11, at the very beginning. ‘I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you’. The psalmist does not say, ‘I have memorised all the rules so that I won’t break any of them,’ as if that were all that matters. He says, ‘No Lord it’s your word in my heart and I don’t want to sin against you’. This is relational language. So the only answer to the problem of sin that this psalmist is going to come up with is actually God himself.
But then we might be tempted to say, ‘Well, in that case can there be any real answer for him? Because isn’t the God of the Old Testament the God of wrath, the God of judgement, the God of whom you should be afraid – as, indeed, we saw in verse 120? I mean, this poor fellow’s going to have to wait till the New Testament, he’s not going to find any answer to his sin until he’s able to read the gospels and hear the word of grace and salvation that will come through the cross of Calvary and the blood of Christ’. What a lie, what a travesty! What a mistaken view of Scripture is this idea that somehow in the Old Testament there’s nothing but law and wrath, and there’s no grace until you get to the New Testament. If I can do anything this week, I hope I can correct that impression.
But let the psalmist speak for himself. If this is a psalm about the law of God, then listen to what he has to say. Verse 29: ‘Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law’. Verse 41: ‘May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise’. Verse 58: ‘I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise’. Verses 76 and 77, ‘May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant. Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight’. Verse 132: ‘Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to chose who love your name’. And finally, verse 156: ‘Your compassion is great, O Lord; renew my life according to your laws’.
Did you hear those words? Grace, love, kindness, salvation, comfort, compassion, mercy – and this is the Old Testament! Oh, let’s get hold of this, because this is what made this psalmist come to life. He wants to praise and love God for his law, but he says, ‘Lord, I find in your word that you are this God – grace, love, compassion and mercy; and that’s the answer to my sin. I can do all that I can do with my mind, my heart, my will, my emotions, to keep my feet away from sin; but I know that at the end of the day I’ve got to come back to you Lord, because you are the God of compassion and love and mercy’. This is the charter of God that this psalmist knew and loved.
And we have to ask the question: How did he know? Here’s a man who lived before Calvary, before the cross, before all the things that we celebrate at Keswick. How did he know that God was this kind of God? ‘You ask me that?’ he says. ‘I’m telling you all the way through this psalm! “Be gracious to me according to your law”’. We say, ‘But that doesn’t make sense. How can you have grace and law in the same sentence?’ Well, that just exposes how silly is some of our systematic theology. We write books of systematic theology with all the law in one chapter and all the grace in another chapter as if they are somehow totally different. And yet here, in the Old Testament, this person is so filled with his gratitude for what he finds in God’s law that he says, ‘Lord, I know you can be gracious to me because I’ve read it in your law’.
Where did he read that? Where does the law talk about the grace, love and mercy of God? Of course we need to remember that when he was talking about ‘the law’ he meant the whole of the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It’s there that we read about God’s mercy when he saved Noah and his family from judgement. It’s there, in the law of the Lord, that we read this story of the Exodus, that great act of God’s redemption and salvation; such that when a son says to his father, ‘Hey dad, what’s this law about? Why should I keep it?’ (cf Deut. 6:20), the father is to answer with the story of the gospel: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt; that’s why we keep the law’. He tells his son, ‘You ask me why we keep the law? I’ll tell you the old, old story of Yahweh and his love, and I’ll tell you the story of grace and salvation and temptation; that’s where law comes from’. In the law we read the very definition of God.
In Exodus 34:6, God, speaking to Moses says, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’. That verse bounces its way all the way through the Old Testament. You’ll find it in the book of Numbers, in the Psalms, in Nehemiah, in Daniel, in the Prophets; ‘the gracious, the compassionate God’.
So if you ask the psalmist, ‘How do you know that God is gracious?’, he will say, ‘Let me take you to the law let me tell you these stories. Let me fill you with the knowledge of this God, of love and grace and mercy and forgiveness’.
Of course you and I today know of the righteous mercy of God ultimately from the cross. Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want to minimise that. But it’s the Old Testament believers, inducing psalmists like this, who would have said, had they stood at the cross – and indeed, as some of their successors did say – ‘Yes, it’s as we expected. That’s our God: the God of love, patience, grace and mercy whom we knew in our Scriptures, in our history’.
And they would also say to us, if they were here to tell us today, ‘Look, it is we who gave you all the words you need to express this – words like grace, love, forgiveness and mercy, which flow through the Scriptures of the Old Testament and flood on into the New’. You won’t find any better way of expressing the forgiveness of God’s answer to sin than Psalm 103:9: ‘he [the Lord] will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger for ever he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities’. Thank God for that. That’s the gospel, and it’s the gospel in the Psalms.
Or look at the very similar Isaiah 57:16–17 – ‘I will not accuse for ever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me – the breath of man that I have created. I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his wilful ways’. That’s the wilful choice of sin. And yet, God says, ‘I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him’ (57:18). That’s the word of grace, the pure grace of the Lord himself.
The answer to sin is not to be found in the rules, but in the Lord.
I’m told that it’s quite traditional at Keswick that we begin with a reminder of our sin and of the need of God’s cleansing, and that is a good way to start. And as go through this week with this psalmist, let us begin in the same way as he did, by acknowledging the reality of sin. I don’t know what that will mean for you. I know what it means in my own heart, my own life, standing before you as a sinner saved by grace, like any of the rest of us. You know before God what it means to you.
It will be good if we start this week either literally or spiritually on our knees before God, saying, ‘God, I know the sins I’ve committed. I know where I’m coming from, I know my problem. And Lord, I’m here because I want to avoid it. I want to use my mind and my heart and my emotions to avoid sin. But Lord, I know that at the end of the day I have to come to you because you alone have the words of eternal life, you alone have the words of grace’. And then as this psalmist did, to cast ourselves upon his mercy and his forgiveness, and plead again the old, old story of Jesus and his love – just as for the psalmist it was the old, old story that he knew, from the stories that he’d heard from his father, of the God who was the Saviour and the healer and the restorer of Israel, and his God too.
May the Lord enable us to do that this week.
2. Personal Struggle and the Word of Lament, Psalm 119:81-88
Today we move on to our second theme, and the word following through here is the word of lament. I want us to take as a focus for our reflection this morning the section from verse 81 to verse 88 – the part of psalm 119 in which all the lines begin with the Hebrew letter kaph, ‘K’. Please read these verses as we begin our study.
One of the ironies of the book of Psalms is that although its Hebrew title is actually ‘The Praises’, the largest single group of psalms are actually laments. The characteristic form of these laments is that in effect they are saying, ‘God, I am hurting; and God, everyone else is laughing. And God, you are not helping very much either; and how long is it going to go on?’ That is the essential form of the laments of the book of Psalms.
And Psalm 119 has got a lot of it. Clearly the psalmist is a believer who is having a very tough time. He is struggling with a lot of ‘stuff’ in his life.
I use the word ‘stuff’, because at college we have a visiting lecturer called Bill Taylor (he is chairman of the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Mission Commission), and he told us about a WEF study of why a considerable number of mission partners return to their home countries earlier than planned. It’s a phenomenon called ‘missionary attrition’. He says that sometimes, all you can say is ‘Stuff happens’.
Stuff happens. Things go wrong in life. And for this person, a lot of stuff was happening. In fact it begins near the beginning of the psalm in verse 19. ‘Lord’, he says, ‘I feel like a stranger on the earth, I don’t belong here, I’m like an alien’. In the very last verse, when you would have thought he might have reached some sort of resolution to his problems, he says, ‘I have strayed like a lost sheep', verse 17 – ’I’m still astray I still need God to come and find me and help me’. So, from being like a stranger to being like a lost sheep, this is clearly a person with a far from happy state of mind.
Perhaps that rings some bells for some of us; we have come to Keswick not just to sing God’s praises but also with that song of lament in our hearts that has a minor key: ‘Lord, how long have I got to go on like this? How long are these problems going to be with me? When are you going to act?’
I want in this Bible Reading to begin by looking at some of the dreadful experiences this psalmist went through, and we still look at a number of things that he has to say. As I’ve said, it is summed up in the opening section, verse 19: ‘Lord, I am a stranger here. So often I feel that I just don’t belong. It feels like I’m not at home. I’m out of place, I’m uncomfortable’. Many Christians feel like that in their workplace, or as they live in a non-Christian family. ‘Lord, I’m so different’.
The psalmist may well have been a young person, if verse 9 is at all autobiographical. He may be talking there about himself, feeling inexperienced, and vulnerable, possibly having been thrust while young into the public arena. It seems that may have been the case, because occasionally he talks about his involvement with kings, princes and leaders. So perhaps he’s in a rather vulnerable state of anxiety and self-doubt, wondering if he will really make it and yet somehow confident that God will help him through.
Verse 99 again suggests that he’s a younger person: ‘I have more insight than all my teachers’. So he’s still at school, as it were, perhaps a student. And in verse 100, ‘I have more understanding than the elders: So it is very probable that this is a person who speaks, yes, from experience, but from an early experience of life, though of course that doesn’t make it irrelevant to those of us who are older.
Contempt and scorn
There are at least two elements in his suffering. The first is the pain of contempt and scorn. In verse 22 he says, ‘Remove from me scorn and contempt’. In verse 42 he says, ‘Then I will [be able to] answer the one who taunts me’. And in verse 141 he says, ‘Though I am lowly and despised’. Scorned taunted and despised. That’s the language that this person uses of himself.
Now it is a terribly hard thing in life to be treated as a butt of other people’s mockery or humour. Some of us may have experienced that in great measure, others of us are fortunate enough only perhaps ever to have experienced it very occasionally and have gone through life generally speaking, with people’s respect and encouragement. But there are those who suffer greatly because of other people’s mockery. It is hard enough in life not to be treated with respect. It’s doubly hard to be laughed at, to be treated with contempt and arrogance. That is deeply painful. And yet how common it is and how early it starts. How our hearts go out when we witness children being bullied or laughed at in school. How utterly cruel children can be to one another, even before they can really understand what it is they are doing to each other! They are laughing, mocking, abusing one another; and we see it in schools and in playgrounds in families and between families. It starts early. Sometimes, tragically, it can go on through childhood, even from the hands of those who should be honouring and respecting them; that is from their parents. And people sometimes enter adult life with all the pain of having being mocked and laughed at, by parents saying, ‘You weren’t any good at this, you couldn’t do that’, and so on. And then there are those who suffer abuse at work, perhaps racist humour which can be so cruel, or abuse of all kinds because we are Christians.
Well here in this psalm we have a person who’s been through that. And as we can tell, he was still going through it.
Slander and conspiracy
The other side of his suffering was more violent. Some people can live with scorn and contempt though it’s very damaging. But he also experiences the pain of slander and conspiracy and what we have here is an even longer catalogue of abuse. Let me take you through some of the verses that express this.
Verse 23: ‘Though rulers sit together and slander me…’ – people are telling lies about him in high places. Verse 69: ‘Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies…’ – that’s the language of the mud-heap or the manure-heap. He’s getting plastered with dirt and muck and lies. That’s the language he uses. Verse 78: ‘May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause’ – an unjustified attack. Verses 84 to 87: beginning, ‘When will you punish my persecutors? The arrogant dig pitfalls for me … Help me, for men persecute me without cause. They almost wiped me from the earth’. Verse 95: ‘The wicked are waiting to destroy me. Verse 110: ‘The wicked have set a snare for me’ – traps, snares, holes dug in the ground to trip him up. Verse 121: ‘Do not leave me to my oppressors’. Verse 122: ‘let not the arrogant oppress me’. Verse 134: ‘Redeem me from the oppression of men’. Verse 157: ‘Many are the foes that persecute me’. And finally verse 161: ‘Rulers persecute me without cause’.
Now either this psalmist was paranoid – in other words, he just, thought everybody was against him – or, if there was remotely any truth in what he is saying, then he was having a very tough time at the highest level. It seems to suggest that he was in political leadership, young for his age but put into a position of authority. Many of us know that any position of leadership will expose you to the jealousies of others, to misinterpretation or to attacks and slander campaigns. And the Christian world, sadly, is no different. In fact sometimes it’s even worse.
Remember Daniel’s political enemies in Daniel 6? We read that because Daniel was a man of such integrity and hard work his enemies said, ‘We’ll never find anything against this man! We’ll never be able to label him with any corruption, nothing will stick to him. We can’t find any weaknesses. So we’ll pull him down by his strength’. And they attacked him on grounds so blatantly racist and discriminatory in religion that they were quite unconstitutional.
That was Daniel’s experience. I wonder whether it reflects any of yours? Perhaps you are a Christian minister; I’m sure you have gone through that experience of struggling with opposition criticism, of never being able to do anything right and never seeming to be able to please. You know that experience of being in a position of wanting to lead people who do not want to be led and of having a vision that you believe is from the Lord. You want to move people forward into that vision, and they can’t see it and they won’t share it. You feel sometimes like the leading mountain climber with all the others tethered to the rope; and it’s not so much that you are moving at the speed of the slowest climber (which is of course what you should do) – but there is somebody at the bottom end of the rope who has tied it to a tree and doesn’t want to go up that particular mountain at all. So every obstacle and every rock is not a fresh challenge that you can overcome together with joy, but a reason why you shouldn’t be climbing that mountain anyway.
Some of you are missionaries and suffer and struggle in positions of literally physical danger, and in some cases religious and political opposition. You have to endure that, and in a sense that would be all right; but what you also experience sometimes is misunderstanding and misinterpretation of your motives by those with whom you want to share and live and serve. That too can be a desperately painful thing. As the psalmist sometimes also pointed out, he could have borne it if his suffering was coming from his enemies, but when it was coming from those who he thought were his friends it was even worse. To be in Christian service and in Christian mission is no recipe for an easy life.
My wife tells me that the first time she ever saw me really angry was when we were in India together serving God in a theological college. After several years there we came up against a situation in which I became aware that things were being said about me and about my family. We were being accused, we were being misinterpreted, our motives were being called into question, and our actions were being twisted. I became desperately angry, and for some time I became quite depressed as well. It was a Christian institution, I told myself here were people I was wanting to work with and to serve; why else did I think I was there?
It is hard sometimes to experience the slander, the conspiracy of other people who you count as your brothers and sisters. But it can happen even in a Christian environment.
But of worse many of us have had the experience of being the only Christian in a secular context, just as indeed Daniel and other believers were in the Old Testament. You’ve suffered at work something of the mockery or discrimination against you as a Christian, because on principled grounds you are not prepared to do certain things. You won’t go along with corruption or bribery or the getting around the rules that is so common. Or you want to take a stand on something, like, for example, working on Sunday; and you discover that your contract will not be renewed, or that you aren’t appointed to the post. Threat is there. Or you work in a place where to be a Christian is a constant cause of abuse and of mockery and of pin-pricks and discrimination against you.
It may be that you are a Christian in a non-Christian family, and in the West that can be hard enough because of misunderstanding. Certainly at All Nations we often agonise with students who come to us believing that God has called them into mission and who are moving forward with God in mission, but who face the keenest opposition and misunderstanding from parents, family and people who accuse them of all sorts of things because they want to follow the Lord. Of course Jesus warned us against that. But if it’s tough for us in the Western world, think of those who are Christians in countries where to be a Christian can lead you into total rejection by your family by being cut off and excluded, treated as if you had died, and in some cases actually being put to death because of your faith in Christ.
Maybe you are a young person at school or at college. It can be difficult to be a Christian at university. I was fortunate in that I didn’t have a lot of opposition, but I was a member of the boat club. As the regatta approached, the issue arose of rowing and training on Sunday. I believed I should not, and I didn’t, which meant they had to find a substitute and I was not at all popular for taking that stand. People today suffer much worse kinds of abuse and misunderstanding and are laughed at, because they have chosen to follow Christ. If you choose to follow biblical standards of behaviour and sexual morality you will become the butt of jokes and ridicule. ‘How can you be like that? Why are you so old-fashioned?’ There is all the pain of scorn, contempt, slander and conspiracy that comes from human opponents. And that is what this author is talking about.
Perhaps some of us don’t experience those things from human enemies but can translate some of the language of this psalm into those words of mockery and taunting, depression and sneering, that come from the pit. They come from the spiritual reality of the satanic assault upon us. Many of us know what it is to read through psalms like this one, and as we read, ‘Lord deliver me from my enemies, they have risen up against me’, to think not so much of human enemies but of those demonic, satanic forces which impinge upon us, drive us down and create within us emotions and feelings that we know do not come from the Lord and from the Holy Spirit. And yet they well up within our hearts, until we recognise where they are coming from.
Things like fear can be terrible enemies and terribly debilitating. The fear that may perhaps come through physical illness: the devil says, ‘You’re never going to get any better, you’re never going to recover, and what’s life going to be like?’ Or the fear that comes from sin: ‘You’re going to be found out some day and you’re going to be disgraced; and then what?’ There’s the fear that comes from guilt, from self accusation – sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
The enemies are not external but internal. Satan plays on that fact and accuses us. ‘What kind of Christian are you? What sort of a believer are you?’ He will exploit any avenue he can, and intensify every shaft of guilt that we ought to turn into repentance; and he will turn it the other way. Even when we have confessed and been forgiven, he will still come back and drive us with those shafts of enmity. No wonder Paul says we should take the whole armour of God upon us, to defend ourselves against such attacks! All these things will come.
And here is this psalmist telling us: ‘I know all of this. These are the things I’ve been through, all this mockery, contempt, accusation – human and physical, spiritual, satanic, wherever it comes from – I’ve been there, I’ve known that, I’ve walked where you walk, I’ve sat where you sit, I’ve wept, I’ve struggled as you do’.
The great thing is that this psalmist is not the only one in the Bible. We could have been doing these Bible Readings in the Book of Job and found the same thing. We could have been studying the book of Jeremiah and found it there. Both Jeremiah and Job said to the Lord, ‘Lord, I wish I’d never been born if I was going to suffer like this’. Jeremiah said to the Lord, ‘Lord, you’ve cheated me’. Not a terribly evangelical thing to say! But it’s the words of a prophet: ‘Lord when I turn to you, you are like a deceitful brook. Is that what you are going to be to me?’ He wished he’d never been born. He went through these experiences of scorn and contempt.
And of course Jesus himself has been there. He has been there with these psalms on his lips, and he went through mockery, contempt, rejection, oppression accusation, lies, false trial and death; and he did it for you and for me,
Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned he stood.
That’s the gospel, you see. And it’s because Jesus went there that Jesus also knows what it’s like to be there, as this psalmist did.
So that’s the experiences he’s been through. I’m quite sure that some, perhaps most, of us here are saying, ‘God, it’s good that this is in the Scriptures. It’s good that somebody knows what, I’m feeling, and actually puts it into words, and that those words are in the Bible, the word of God’.
One thing about this psalmist is that you always know what he is thinking. He doesn’t hide anything he lets us see his reactions very explicitly indeed. And again he does it in two ways. We see his reaction to the external wickedness that he sees around him, but he also gives us a window on the internal emotional cost of this experience.
The external reaction
This person is no passive observer. He’s not an armchair critic of society, a television commentator just sitting back mocking and throwing the hand grenades of attack and cynicism at the wickedness and foibles of others. Still less is he a gutter-press journalist with a knowing wink and a false righteousness, pointing out wickedness and flaws in others. This is a person who cares deeply about God and his law. He is deeply distressed about the blatant evil and corruption and violence and wickedness that he sees in the society around him.
Let’s do another thread-tracing exercise through Psalm 119. We can begin with verse 53: ‘Indignation grips me because of the wicked’. Here he is feeling that rising tide; it is red-faced indignation, there is fury in his heart because of what he sees. Verse 113: ‘I hate double-minded men’ – that is, people who say one thing and do another, whom you can never trust. In verse 115 he addresses them directly: ‘Away from me, you evildoers’. He is repulsed by them and he rejects them. But it’s not just anger, fury and rejection. There is also deep grief. Verse 136: ‘Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed’. How much do we weep over what we see in the news? Verse 139 talks of zeal for the law: ‘My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words’ – not just because they are attacking him but because they are ignoring the word of God. And finally, in verse 158, he says, ‘I look on the faithless with loathing for they do not obey your word’.
They are strong words: indignation, hatred repulse, grief; zeal and loathing. Nor are they pleasant words. And yet as I was saying yesterday, they reflect God’s own reaction to evil. Yesterday we saw it in relation to our own sin. Here the psalmist speaks as he does because he knows God’s feelings and God’s reactions to wickedness and to sin in society. He knows the way God is going to act towards those who are unrepentantly, persistently and arrogantly wicked. He’s not just talking about what we might call ‘everyday ordinary sinners’, for of course we are all sinners on whom the love and the compassion and the grief of the Lord is poured out. He’s talking rather about people who knowingly, willingly, deliberately, persistently and unrepentantly do wrong. He tells us that with such people the Lord will deal first of all: verse 21, ‘You rebuke the arrogant, who are cursed’. Verse 118: ‘You reject all who stray from your decrees for their deceitfulness is in vain’. And verse 119: ‘All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross’.
So here is a psalmist who looks at the wickedness of the world and who sees and feels it with the response of the Lord himself. For me that prompts questions. What is my reaction to the sin and the evil and the wickedness in the world? Does my moral sensitivity in any way match up to the words of this psalm, let alone the rest of the Scriptures, in the prophets, Jesus and so on?
‘What makes you angry?’ is probably a good question if we want to check ourselves on this kind of righteousness table. Is it your own selfish interests when your pride is hurt? Or do we become angry at what we see happening in our country, because it offends our political preferences and loyalties so that we shout at the television screen, at people the colour of whose politics we dislike? Is it our social prejudices that make us angry – are we coloured by certain views of society? It is so easy to be selective and one-sided in our moral righteousness. I think as evangelical Christians we are very good at having a mixture of moral heat spots and moral blind spots. What we need to ask is: What makes God angry; and how do we know what makes him angry?
The answer is that we know because of the clarity and the emphases of the Scriptures themselves. Look at what God says in his word about what he is most concerned about. Sometimes, that can be a very healthy corrective to the things that we might be most concerned about.
For example, the word ‘abomination’ is used in Scripture. We hear it also used and lightly quoted in contemporary discussion. But it is a very strong word. It literally means ‘that which stinks in God’s nostrils, that which he hates with all his being’. Now yes we know from the Scriptures that sexual immorality and sexual perversion are described as abominations to the Lord. Yes we also know that the Scriptures describe as ‘abominations’ such horrors as child sacrifice. But did you know that Proverbs 11:1 also says that dishonest scales are an abomination to the Lord? Cheating in business and dishonesty in the workplace are also an abomination to the Lord. Where does that cut?
And yes, we know too that Deuteronomy 27:15 tells us that ‘Cursed is the man who carves an image of casts an idol’ – who worships other gods.
And yes, in the same chapter we read that cursed is the one who commits a whole range of sexually perverted acts. Yes, that’s all there. But also verse 19 says, ‘Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow’. Are we as aware of the anger and the wrath of God on those issues of social justice and compassion, as we are in those other areas?
Yes, we know that Paul tells us in Romans 1:29–32 that the wrath of God is revealed against such things – sexual immorality and murder; but he also says that envy greed and gossip are among the things that bring the anger and the wrath of God.
Let’s be wholly biblical in the things that make us angry. Let’s look at the wickedness of the world through the eyes of the Lord himself. It is possible for evangelical moral anger to be rightly expressed at some of the things that are such burning issues in our day. Yet we are also to ask ourselves: How disturbed are we, how angry do we get, how willing are we to march in campaigns on behalf of refugees asylum-seekers, the homeless, the elderly, the poor? – They are those about whom the Scriptures are absolutely clear. God’s anger is revealed against those who mistreat such people, and deprive them of justice and compassion.
Remember the words of Jesus in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Remember what it was that the rich man went to hell for. He neglected what he should have done for the poor man at his gate. And remember how he said to Abraham, in that parable of Jesus, ‘Why don’t you please send somebody back from the dead to warn my brothers so that they don’t come to this place of torment?’ And that awful reply came: ‘Even if somebody comes back from the dead, they won’t believe. Because if they didn’t listen to the law and the prophets, they won’t listen even if somebody comes back from the dead’.
The Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament Scriptures tell us what we should be angry about. They tell us what we should be concerned about in our world, and they tell us about purity, morality, righteousness, integrity, compassion and justice. So let’s have our hearts touched by that which touches the heart of God in our moral campaigns, in a deep reaction, like this psalmist’s, to the external wickedness of our society.
The internal cost
But what was it all doing to him? That’s a very modern question that would be asked from many a counselling chair. What is all this doing to you? How does it make you feel? It’s not a question perhaps that we often ask, but this psalmist is perfectly happy to tell us. In fact I would be willing to suggest that had he been living in the twentieth century, he would have been in a counsellor’s office every week.
Just look at how he expresses himself. Verse 25: ‘I am laid low in the dust’. Isn’t that one of the best descriptions of depression you could ever get? He says, ‘It’s like living on the floor eating dust; that’s my experience. I’m laid low on the ground, absolutely flat’. Verse 28: ‘My soul is weary with sorrows – ‘I can’t go on any longer’. Verse 50: ‘My comfort in my suffering is this: But he is going through pain and suffering. And then in verses 81 to 83 he says, ‘My soul faints with longing’ – he’s passing out, this man. ‘My eyes fail, looking for your promise’. In verse 83 there’s the wonderful image, ‘Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke …’ A wineskin would have been a leather bag used for carrying wine. Leave leather above a fire for any length of time and it will become dried out, and hard and cracked, instead of being flexible as it has to be to hold the wine. He says, ‘I’m like a dried up sack’.
In verse 92 he says, ‘I would have perished in my affliction’. In verse 107 he talks about suffering again, and in verse 139 about being worn out again: ‘My zeal wears me out’.
Depression, exhaustion, weariness, suffering, fainting, being dried up, perishing: the language is incredible. And once again, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many of us can identify with this language and often come before the Lord saying exactly the same thing: ‘Lord, I’ve had enough, I’m worn out’. And even before we look for the answer to this, is there not at least the precious comfort of knowing that the Bible includes that kind of expression in the word of God? – that which is not the words of God himself, but the words of a man or woman who says, ‘Lord, this is what I want to say to you’. Much of the Psalms, Jeremiah, Job and other parts of Scripture is the outpouring of a human heart and human words saying, ‘Lord, I can’t go on’. God is willing to take that word from our lips, and to turn it around and actually include it as part of the worshipping word of Scripture so that it is included in the word of God to us. There is at least an encouragement in that.
And I want to point out too that this is a word of desperate emotional cost, longing and suffering on the lips of somebody who was faithful to the Lord, who was trusting and obeying God, who was desperately anxious to be faithful, to be loyal, to love God, and to serve God. This is not the language of somebody experiencing suffering, depression and fear because he’s being disobedient or is walking away from God in disbelief. This is the language of a person who is suffering in the midst of faithfulness and obedience.
That in turn leads me to say that if that is so, then what a lie, what a travesty of the truth, is the so-called prosperity gospel! It wants to distort and twist all the Scriptures about the blessing of God and obedience and turn them upside down. ‘If you are obedient and if you trust God, you are never going have pain and suffering, you are never going to be sick, you are never going to be poor, you ought to always be healthy, wealthy and successful’ … even if not very wise. Prosperity? Rubbish …
I sometimes wonder what New Testament some people read. In what Bible do they come across that kind of thing? Here, and elsewhere through the Scriptures, we find people struggling to be faithful, who were trusting and being obedient, and yet they went through suffering, scandal, slander, pain, poverty, everything else. It just isn’t true to say that if only you have faith and turn to God, everything’s going to be all right. We do need to turn to God. But let’s not be naive. Let’s not feel that somehow all the problems will then be solved, and we’ll be off to heaven there and then.
Our singing can sometimes be so trite. ‘Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before’. I wish that were true. In a sense it can be, but is it true for you? Can you say literally that every day your Christian life has been better than the day before? Some might say so and I wouldn’t want to question it, but I know that probably for every one who might say that, there are another ten who would say, ‘That’s not true for me. I know what this psalmist is talking about and I’ve been through that emotional cost. I’ve been depressed, I’ve been eating the dust of life and I don’t want to deny it’.
So here is a man who’s had some dreadful experiences and some very deep reactions to them, about which he is perfectly honest and open. He doesn’t conceal it. He doesn’t put on a smile and say, ‘Isn’t it great to be a believer?’
He says, ‘Lord, it’s tough; and just at the moment you are not helping very much’.
How did the psalmist cope with such experiences and with such crushing reactions to it? Again, his is a double response.
He cried out
First of all, he cries to God, as any of us would if we’d been where he was, and as many of us still do, frequently and regularly. Verses 81 to 88, the section called kaph, is almost one prolonged ‘How long, O Lord? How long? When will you comfort me, how long must I wait? It’s nearly wiped me out’. It’s a desperate, seemingly endless waiting for God; it’s the cry of endurance. It fits with what the psalmist said in Psalm 40, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord my God’. And some of us know that we don’t wait patiently. ‘When, Lord, when, when, when will you do something about this problem?’ We sing that lovely song, ‘Faithful One so unchanging, you’re my rock of hope’. And yet it contains the line, ‘I call out to you again and again’. I’m sure that you’ve been there. I have. When it seems the Lord either isn’t there, or he’s gone away, or he’s far off: And you say,
‘Lord, when, when, when will you do something?’
That’s what this psalmist feels, and that’s what he says. It is plain in the Qoph section, verses 145 to 147: ‘I call with all my heart answer me, O Lord, and I will obey your decrees. I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word’. Verse 148: ‘My eyes stay open through the watches of the night’. Verse 149: ‘Hear my voice in accordance with your love’.
Sleepless nights, early mornings, the language of despair and anxiety and longing, calling out to God.
What reason has he got to hope that God will answer him? Well, he gives us some clues. First of all, he recognises when his mind clears that actually God is as near to him as his troubles are. Look at verses 150 to 151. ‘Those who devise wicked schemes are near’ – they are getting near, my enemies, those who are against me, they are close they are near. ‘Yet you are near, O Lord, and all your commands are true’. They are near – but then, so are you.
There is indeed a lovely little ironical paradox there. ‘[The wicked] are near’ – that is, ‘they are near me’, but they are actually ‘far from your law, far from you’. The troubles are near but God is nearer. The image is like that of a goalkeeper in the World Cup watching an attacker bearing down upon him. The attacker is near, but suddenly out of the blue comes a defender, the ball’s away off to the touch-line, and the defender is nearer than the attacker. That is the kind of thought the psalmist is expressing. I love that expression, only once or twice used in this psalm but so common in many of the others: verse 114, ‘You are my refuge and my shield’. The Lord God is a place to hide, a place to be sheltered where even the enemy can’t find you.
At All Nations we are aware, as a place training people for Christian mission, that we are bound to be if not at the front line, then certainly pretty close to it, for satanic attention. What else does the devil want to attack, but people who are seeking to go out and do something for the kingdom of God? So we recognise that constantly we are under that attack of the evil one. Recently we were very much aware of it, and in my own life I was also conscious of the attack of the evil one. A few of us were praying together, some of my group of those in college who help to advise, guide and support me. One of them prayed, ‘Lord, will you please hide Chris so that even the devil can’t find him and won’t know where he is’. That spoke to my heart! I lived on that for days. ‘Hey, Lord, thanks for the angels! I know that the devil can’t even find me. I know he’s looking. But while that protection is there I’m in the refuge, in the hiding place, hidden in the cave where no one can find me’. I wonder if this psalmist was perhaps echoing something of the experience of David, who sometimes literally did shelter in caves away from his enemies, and knew that the Lord was that refuge, that hiding place, where the enemies couldn’t reach him? And here is this psalmist saying, ‘Lord, I know that the attackers are there but you are closer still and in you I find shelter. I am safe’. It’s a tremendous feeling, to be safe with God.
That’s the first reason why he thinks it’s worth crying out to God, because God is actually there.
The second reason is that God is an exodus God. You may say there’s no exodus in this psalm; but the exodus imagery is there. Verses 153 and 154: ‘Look upon my suffering and deliver me’. Look and save; that is the language of exodus, because that is exactly what it says in Exodus 2. Do you remember how God said to Moses, ‘Moses, I have seen the suffering of my people’? In fact even in Exodus 1 it says that the Lord looked on his people and saw them and was concerned for them. And then he said to Moses, ‘I am coming down to deliver them’.
The God who sees, and the God who knows, and the God who cares: that is the God that Israel worships. Other nations worshipped idols that had eyes but couldn’t see. Israel worshipped the God who had no literal eyes but could see the whole earth and could see those who were suffering. He looks and he sees, and he will defend and he will redeem. Verse 154: ‘Defend my cause and redeem me’ – save me, lift me up as you did for the people of Israel at the exodus.
And again we ask the question, ‘Where did the psalmist get all this?’ The answer, he tells us, is from the law, from the Torah, from the Scriptures. He personally had not been there at the exodus just as we sometimes sing, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ We have to say, ‘Well no, actually in the literal, physical sense we weren’t there at the cross. But yet in another sense yes I was there, because Jesus died for me. It was my sin put him there, and he rescued me from my sin’.
In the same way this psalmist is saying, ‘I wasn’t actually there at the exodus, but I am the child of the same God who is the exodus God, who sees, who knows and who delivers. And so I can cry out to God, “God, will you please look will you please see what is happening here and will you please do something about it.” That’s where this psalmist gets it. We call out to the God who is not deaf and the God who is not blind.
He is determined to press ahead
I said his was a double reaction. And I want us to notice that as well as that crying out to God, there is also a determination to press on, no matter what. This psalm resonates with the sound of gritted teeth. It repeats again and again a sense of determination that no matter what happens, no matter what doesn’t happen no matter how great the opposition, whatever the cost, whatever God does or doesn’t do, he is going to go on obeying God, trusting him, serving and loving him, and he will go on doing it and calling out at the same time.
Isn’t that a contradiction? How can you at the same time ask God for help and also say, ‘Right, now I’ve got to get on with it, I’ve got to struggle,
I’ve got to work, I’ve got to put my own effort into it? Isn’t that to confuse grace and works?
Not at all. If it were, it wouldn’t be in the Scriptures, would it?
Many of us will remember a song from, I think, the 1970s, which had the refrain, ‘Do not strive’. Let me have my way among you, do not strive, do not strive … we’ll not strive’. I know that it’s saying, in a way, that we have to allow God to be God and to do what he wants to do. But somehow that suggests that God does what God will do, and all we’ve got to do is sit back and watch and not put any effort or work into our Christian lives.
If that’s how we are thinking, I think the psalmist would not agree with us. This is a person who’s saying, ‘I will strive and I will strive jolly hard. I am determined and committed to walk in the ways of the Lord and to go on with God in faithfulness’. In fact, in verse 32 he says, ‘I run in the path of your commands’. He’s not just going to crawl, he’s not going to just struggle along in the dust, he’s going to pick himself up and he’s going to run on. In verse 81 we read, ‘My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word’. Verse 83: ‘Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees’. He says that some of this affliction and suffering that he’s been through has actually in God’s providence been good for him. That is never an easy lesson to learn, and certainly not one to use in our pastoral ministry – ’It’s wonderful that you are suffering so much, God will really bless you’. No, it’s not somebody else that the psalmist talks about, but he does say in verse 67, ‘Before I was affected I went astray, but now I obey your word’. And also in verse 71: ‘It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees’. And in verse 75: ‘… in faithfulness you have afflicted me’. He knows what it is to struggle on with God in a determined way.
Do you remember the three friends of Daniel who were threatened with being put in the burning fiery furnace? In that wonderful response to Nebuchadnezzar they combined both of these responses beautifully. ‘Nebuchadnezzar, you think you are some great king. But our God whom we serve is able to deliver us. Of course he is: He’s the God of all power, and he will and he can deliver us’. And then come these wonderful words: ‘Even if not – even if he doesn’t, we want you to know that we are not going to bow down and serve you; because we will serve the Living God even in the flames if necessary. We will not serve you’ (cf Dan. 3).
It’s the language of Job: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him’. (Job 13:15).
It’s the language of the disciples of Jesus, when he gave them the opportunity to go away. It was getting too tough for them, the pressure was building up; and they wanted to quit. But they said, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).
This is saying to God, ‘Lord, I call out to you, I want, I long for you to act, I want you to sort out this mess, I want you to put things right. But Lord, I want you to know that no matter what you do, or no matter what you don’t do, you are stuck with me. Because I am your servant, and I love you and I am going to go on serving you no matter what happens in this life. For quite frankly I don’t know what I could do, I don’t know where else to go or what to do except to love, to serve, the living God’.
Is that your double response to the suffering and pain and struggle that life throws at us? ‘Lord will you please do something … But Lord, while I’m waiting for you to do something, help me to walk on, to move forward, to be faithful in this struggle’.
And if the psalmist is not authority enough for us – don’t we see something of this even in the Garden of Gethsemane itself? The personal struggle of the Son of God – ‘Lord, please take this cup away from me – calling out to God in that moment for God to deliver him. ‘But nevertheless not what I want but what you want. Your will be done’. And then Jesus got up from his knees and walked forward to Calvary with God his Father.
That, I think, is the double response that God calls for from us. To hope in God, and to go on walking with him. May that be the strength that the Lord gives us with the psalmist that his experience, if it’s ours, will lead us not to quitting, not to despair, but to renewal of our hope and response to God and our determination to serve him.
3. Personal Guidance and the Word of Light, Psalm 119:97-105
There’s a song that we sing at All Nations Christian College, that comes from Africa. It begins, ‘We are marching in the light of God’. It’s the same wonderful picture that in the English cultural tradition is enshrined in the hymn ‘Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war’: a glorious army marching in step, in time, in a great organised, wonderful, beautiful procession.
Though it’s certainly a biblical picture and is used sometimes of the people of God, it is actually more often used of God himself, marching forth victorious. The Bible describes human life much more as a walk. Perhaps for some of us it’s more like a confused wander through a maze, or a crawl up a mountainside, but the metaphor of walking is certainly a very biblical one. We are going to look at it quite a lot this morning.
We do long for a walk in life that will be clearly guided. We want to know we’re going in the right direction. We long for understanding and insight, to know, ‘Yes, this is where I should be going and I know why’. We want to know God’s will, we want to know his plan for our lives – if indeed, we sometimes speculate, he has one.
As did this psalmist of Psalm 119. He didn’t just want to avoid sin–the negative aspect, which we saw in our first study. He didn’t just want to have help from God in his times of struggle, as we saw yesterday. He wanted, much more positively, that in everyday ordinary, life and decisions, he would be living well and wisely, that he would be behaving in a godly way in his life.
So in this psalm he repeatedly asks God for two things: first for light on his path and second, for learning as a pupil. So we will be looking at personal guidance, with the word of God very much as the word of light.
Light for the path
Walking in the way of the Lord
Psalm 119 begins, ‘Blessed are they whose ways are blameless [literally, ‘those who are upright in their way’], who walk according to the law of the Lord’.
I’ll give you a few further examples; there are many more. Verse 26: ‘I recounted my ways and you answered me’ – ‘I told you, Lord, the ways I’ve been walking, how I’ve been moving with you’. Verse 29: ‘Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law’. Verse 30: ‘I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws’. Verse 32: ‘I run’ – well it’s a bit faster than walking, but it’s still movement! – ‘in the path of your commands’. And verse 59, ‘I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes’.
So the vocabulary frequently used in this psalm is ‘the path … the feet … the steps’. Perhaps the most familiar verse, and one that could almost be the key verse for this part of our reflection is verse 105. Many of us knew it from our childhood. It is a key Scripture Union verse. ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path’.
Life then is a journey, a process. We still use that metaphor in everyday conversation, even in English. For example, we talk about somebody ‘leading a particular kind of life’. So let’s think about this, because the psalmist uses it as a picture or metaphor so often that it’s obviously something he’s familiar with from his Scriptures and from his faith tradition. But we need to reflect on some other parts of the Old Testament to establish exactly what he’s talking about. What does it mean, to be ‘walking in the way of the Lord’?
One of the earliest examples of this expression is in Genesis 18:19. The context is of God on his way to bring judgement to Sodom and Gomorrah, which happens in chapter 19. He comes on a kind of fact-finding mission with two angels to warn that he’s on his way. Verse 20: ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know’. This is the wonderful way the Bible has of speaking of God in human language; it pictures God up in heaven saying, ‘I’d better go down and see’ – as if he can’t see from heaven! But this is the human language of God. So he comes and on his way to Sodom he stops off and has a meal with Abraham and Sarah. Perhaps the reputation of Sarah as a good cook had even reached the angels; they say, ‘Come on Lord let’s have a meal with these two’. At first Abraham and Sarah think that they are just three men visiting; the fact that one of them is the Lord only becomes apparent as the story proceeds.
‘When the men got up to leave, they looked down towards Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?"‘ (16). The answer he gives to himself is obviously ‘No’, because he says, Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations on earth will be blessed through him’. (That’s God reminding himself of his great promise to bless the nations.) And then God says this about Abraham: ‘For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord [there’s that expression] by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him’ (19).
God says to himself ‘I can’t keep back from Abraham what I’m going to do, because he is somebody whom I chose. I have called him with a purpose. And that purpose is that he should be the fountain-head of a community of people, his own household and his descendants – all of those who will come from him as their head, who will be committed to keeping and walking in the way of the Lord’. As distinct, of course; from Sodom and Gomorrah who are walking in the way of the world – in the way of evil, oppression, callousness, perversion and everything else that is described in Genesis and other parts of the OT. So in contrast to the way of Sodom, where God was going to bring judgement, God says, ‘I want Abraham and his people to be committed to the way of the Lord’.
I think that is the clearest expression you will find of what is called ‘Old Testament ethics’. lf you were to ask an average Israelite (as I wish I could have done when I was doing my doctoral dissertation) ‘Excuse me, could you please tell me about Old Testament property ethics?’ he would probably have replied, ‘What are you talking about? “Ethics”?’ But if you had asked, ‘Excuse me, could you please explain to me about walking in the way of the Lord?’, he would have replied, Ah! Now I know what you’re talking about; because that is what we understand. That’s what we are to do: to behave as God behaves, to look at his footprints and in them plant our own, to be imitators of the Lord God, to walk in his ways, to be like Him’.
And, just in case the reader of Genesis might have missed it, we are told that God immediately added, ‘by doing righteousness and justice’. Those are two of the biggest words in the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures. It’s the whole charter of God in a nutshell. The Lord loves righteousness and justice; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne (cf Psalm 89:14).
So God says, ‘To walk in my way, to walk in the way of the Lord, means to do what is right and just ‘That’s why I called Abraham, so that he will be like that, and his people’. But then God says that there is another reason: ‘so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him’. Now, what had God promised to Abraham? He had promised that through him he would bless all the nations and all the families of the world. That’s God’s mission, his concern for all the world, and for all the nations – and that’s God’s agenda, vision and purpose.
So here in this little saying of the Lord himself, he is actually binding together (to resort to theological language) election, ethics and mission. ‘I have chosen him’, says God. That’s God’s election. ‘So that he will live in a certain kind of way, be a certain kind of community, behave with certain values … So that I can keep my promise to the nations’ – that’s God’s agenda. And in between, there is a way of life, there is a moral agenda of righteousness and justice. If God’s people will walk in God’s ways, then God can get on with blessing the nations. If God’s people do not walk in the ways of the Lord then his whole programme of blessing the nations is hindered, because the nations look at the people of God and say, ‘What’s the difference? They are no different from us. Why should we believe in any kind of God like that?’ Or they look at the people of God, and as Deuteronomy said, they will say, ‘Wow! What kind of God is this?
What kind of laws are these?’ (cf Deut. 4:32 ff).
Deuteronomy is one of my favourite books. In chapter 10 we have an example that the author of Psalm 119 would have had in mind when talking about ‘the way of the Lord’. The psalmist tells us repeatedly that he wants us to do so ‘according to God’s law’, so his mind would have been filled with texts like Deuteronomy 10:12.
Moses is approaching a climax in his sermon. Deuteronomy 10:12–13 has the flavour of a preacher coming to his main point. He says that the summary of the law is that all the Lord wants is for us to fear God, walk in his ways, love him, serve him and obey him. Five simple words.
Notice that in these verses we find the expression ‘to walk in all his ways’. Now, you might imagine the Israelites saying, ‘That’s wonderful, Moses; we want to do that. Can you please tell us what they are so that we can walk in them?’ Later in the same chapter, Moses talks about the Lord explicitly. Verse 14: ‘To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today’.
‘Yes, that is wonderful, Moses! We want to walk in the Lord’s ways. How do we do it?’
Verse 16: ‘Well, first of all you’ve got to circumcise your hearts and not be stiff-necked any longer. You’ve got to turn round from your rebellion and stubbornness and start walking in the right direction. ‘For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome’.
‘Yes, yes, Moses – but please, what does it mean to walk in the ways of this God?’
And Moses replies, ‘He is the God who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you want to walk in the ways of that God? Well then,’ says verse 19, ‘you are to love those who are aliens’ – and presumably feed them, clothe them, care for the widow and the orphan and all the other things that God does. ‘You want to walk in the ways of the Lord?’ demands Moses. ‘Then be like him’.
‘And you of all people’, he says in verse 19, ‘ought to know this, because when I tell you the Lord is the God who loves aliens, you know it’s true. Because that’s why he loves you. He loved you when you were aliens in Egypt, when you were strangers, foreigners, oppressed, refugees, and you sought asylum in Egypt. The Lord loved you, preserved you and redeemed you. So: to walk in the way of the Lord is to follow his charter of love that stoops down, of integrity, of impartiality, of incorruptibility. He accepts no bribes, he is not partial. He is the God of compassionate, loving justice.
That is the way of the Lord – and you’d better be walking in it. It’s the whole of life geared towards imitating the charter of God’.
Very characteristically, Deuteronomy 10 – on which the psalmist may well have been meditating – about walking in the way of the Lord, obeying his charter and being governed by his priorities in social and moral life, is followed in chapter 11 by the promise of blessing. There God says, ‘If you will obey these laws, if you will walk in this way and not turn aside from it, then you will go on experiencing the blessing of being God’s people, of being redeemed, of knowing the Lord as your God and being provided for by him’. It’s all there as you read through chapter 11.
That combination, of obediently walking in God’s ways and experiencing God’s continuing blessing as a result, is exactly the dynamic of Psalm 119. ‘Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord,’ reads verse 1, possibly echoing the familiar words of Psalm l. There are only two ways to walk in the Bible. You don’t stop at the sign-posts, you don’t sit down and have a cup of tea; you are walking. And you are either walking in the way of the righteous under God’s care and blessing, or you are walking in the way of the wicked, who, this psalm tells us, will ultimately perish.
Finding the way of the Lord
So how do we go about finding the way and staying in it?
The psalmist, as we have already seen, gives us the answer in verse 9: ‘How can a young man keep his way pure?’ The answer is, ‘by living [or, by watching it] according to your word’. So we move from the theme of walking in the way of the Lord to that of watching your way in the light of God’s word: the law of the Lord, the Scriptures.
This psalmist was possibly among the more fortunate generations of the human race. He lived before the great era of publications. He had the Scriptures and that’s probably about all. In our day we are advantaged (or disadvantaged) by any number of books full of hints, tips, rules and guidance for a successful Christian life. Some of them are very helpful, I wouldn’t want to deny that; and it’s a great privilege to have so much Christian literature. But I would urge you to remember that your greatest, your primary and your most fundamental resource for walking in the way of the Lord is the Bible itself that you have in your hand.
In his wonderful challenge to the people of Israel to be sure they are paying attention to the word of God, Moses wants to move them on from any notion that the word of God is for the specialist few, the very clever or the very educated. He says to them,
What I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach: it is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend to heaven to get it [this law] and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it? Deuteronomy 30:11–13.
He is saying, ‘Don’t think that God’s law and God’s word are so complicated or so academically remote that you are going to have to get the experts to climb the mountains or cross the sea for you, to find the answers that you can’t find out for yourself. It’s not like that. It’s not too difficult.
It’s not impossible.
There is a false idea about, that God made his law so hard and his demands so rigorous that there was never any possibility of our keeping it; and it is because we fail so often that we are driven to the gospel. Well, we do fail, and Paul clearly explains that part of the function of the law is to expose our failure. And it does drive us to the gospel. But the reason we fail is not because God’s law is so impossibly demanding that we could never have kept it in the first place. In fact a number of the psalmists, without arrogance or self righteousness, are able to say to the Lord, ‘Lord I have kept your law, I am seeking to live in obedience to you’. There is such a thing as a life lived in a way that is honouring and pleasing to God; a life of which God can say, ‘I am pleased with you; I approve of the way you are living’.
We do not get the impression in such psalms as Psalm 119 that their authors were constantly oppressed: ‘Oh, isn’t it terrible? All this law that we can’t keep – all these commands that we could never actually live up to, even if we tried!’
Moses cuts that argument off. ‘No it’s not like that. The word is not in your hand, it is in your mouth and in your heart, it is near you so that you can obey it. Not so that you can be convicted because you can’t keep it, but so that you can live it and obey it’ (cf Deut. 30:14). And I want to tell you, this is your key to your guidance. This is where it begins. The word of God in your heart in your mind, in your mouth, in your hands day by day as you read it.
How the Bible guides us
How do we use the Bible for guidance? Well, I hope we’re all way past the stage of sticking a pin in the Bible to see what it’s going to ‘tell’ us for today. We’re all familiar I expect, with the kind of absurd ‘answers’ that method can produce. I was told the probably apocryphal story of a young lady who was convinced that God had called her to South America. She had once prayed that God would show her, by the first thing she saw when she left home for the day, where he wanted her to serve him. And the first thing she had seen was a big bag of Brazil nuts. David Hardy, the last principal of All Nations College, told me that story, adding that he wondered what the outcome would have been had she seen a Mars Bar …
Another story is absolutely true. Shortly before I and my family went to India as missionaries, we were experiencing considerable anxiety about what it would mean and how our family would cope in a different country and its culture. I’m sure most missionaries have felt the same as they began. At a church house-party at Ashburnham we shared our fears in a morning prayer meeting. A dear brother gave my wife Liz a portion of Scripture as a word from the Lord especially for her. It was Genesis 46:3–4, where God says to Jacob, ‘Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for … I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again’. It was ‘a word of encouragement’. I waited until later in the weekend conference before I pointed out to Liz that the way Jacob came back from Egypt was in a coffin.
I’m sure the brother meant very well, and it was encouraging. Of course the Lord was going with us to India. But the idea that that particular verse was exactly the word that the Lord needed to guide us at that time was perhaps … misguided.
What the Bible does do for us is, it gives us access to the mind and the values of the Lord himself. It is his living word. So the more that we soak ourselves in the Scriptures, the more our whole way of thinking will be moved to the kind of preferences and priorities that God himself has. The more you talk with someone and listen to them the more time you spend in their company, the more like each other you get and the more you know how the other is thinking. And if it is in the Scriptures that God has poured out to us his heart, his mind, his word, his emotions, his feelings, his sense of priorities and what he’s really interested in, the more our own thought processes and decision-making processes will be shaped by it.
Secondly the Bible will guide us because it is filled with stories and role models that work, almost at a sub-conscious level, to shape our own sense of moral values and choices. Most of us have a good idea what makes a good driver, parent, or teacher. We have those mental models because our lives have been shaped by experiences and by stories and examples in which we can see what good driving is. Similarly if our own parents or teachers weren’t particularly good ones, we are able to look to other parents and teachers whom we admire, to create our concept of good parenting. We are moulded a great deal by experience, by stories, by what happens in life.
And as we read the Bible’s stories, as we learn them and as they are taught to us, as we reflect on them as children and later as we grow into adulthood, then they begin to make our whole world-view biblical. Our thinking and our priorities are shaped by the word of God.
Thirdly it sharpens our sense of sin and gives us some very clear ‘government health warnings’: We recognise that if we don’t walk in God’s ways, there can be very serious consequences. So again, our decisions, our choices, the things that we are going to have to do, this way or that, are being governed by how Scripture has shaped our thinking.
Fourthly, it provides, within our lives and in our hearts, that good soil in which the Holy Spirit is able to plant his seeds – seeds of ideas, of thoughts, of decisions that are going to actually help us to bear the fruit that he wants. The Holy Spirit is going to guide us, but he will have much more scope to do so if his word is already in our hearts and we already know a lot of what he’s said before. So the Scriptures prepare the way for him. We are fed on the Scriptures and therefore the Scriptures are able to guide us.
I want to say this as strongly as possible: if you want light on your path in life, get to know your Bible. If you want guidance in life, get to know your Bible. Paul says in Colossians 3:16, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’. There is no substitute for that.
There is also no short cut to it. It is a matter of regular (daily if possible) reading, soaking up, learning, and enjoying the Scriptures that God has given us. We do not have time in this Bible Reading to go into all the details of how to read the Bible properly, to do more than just stick pins in its pages. Hugh Palmer will be covering that topic in his seminar later in the Convention. One of the results, I hope, will be that we won’t sit in a convention gathering like this, being taught from the front by experts about the Bible, and respond, ‘Isn’t it wonderful all the things that they can see in the Bible? I would never know how to get that out of the Bible’. Because it’s not true. Maybe it’s not God’s will for you to become a Keswick speaker, but there is nothing that I have done to prepare these Bible Readings that you could not do for yourself. I have read the Scriptures, I have thought about them, I have used commentaries, I have reflected, I have tried to analyse the passages, I have asked what they mean, I have looked them up. You can do that too, and the word of God can speak to you and teach and guide you in your life. Please don’t think that Bible study is for the experts. It’s far too important to be left to them! The Lord wants to teach you as well.
Staying with the theme of guidance and walking in the ways of the Lord, an interesting point in this psalm is that more often than not the psalmist refers to avoiding wrong paths rather than finding precisely the right one. In other words, he is quite often seeking ‘negative guidance’. He wants God to keep him away from mistakes, from going down a wrong path from falling into sin. He asks God to do that often: ‘I hate wrong paths, I don’t want to sin against you’. But nowhere in the psalm does he ask God for a detailed blueprint for every choice and decision he has to make. Yes, he’s going to walk in the Lord’s way; and it will be the way of the Lord that he wants to walk in. But he still talks about ‘my steps’, ‘my feet’, ‘my path’. In other words, knowing that the Lord has a way for him doesn’t take away the responsibility of his own choices and thought processes in deciding which way he’s going to walk. I think that’s significant, because we need to be careful in our theology of guidance. Sometimes we take more of our beliefs on the subject from popular Christian paperbacks and from various kinds of myths and traditions and stories that go around, than we actually do from the Scriptures.
A common notion in evangelical circles is, ‘God has an absolutely perfect blueprint for your life, which began at least from the moment you were converted, if not before. It’s all there in great detail. All you have to do is find it out each day’. It’s like a game of hide and seek with God. If you miss one point in the blueprint, you’re out of line forever, because a small alteration will have increasingly large repercussions in the whole diary or programme. Miss Plan ‘A’, and you have to settle for Plan ‘B’ for the rest of your life.
That – perhaps somewhat caricatured – is ‘blueprint theology’. At the other end of the scale is another view with which I disagree: ‘Well – it’s really up to you. God is there, he cares for you and he’ll look after you, but basically he lets you get on with your life. It’s up to you how you go and what you decide. God isn’t particularly interested in everyday, ordinary things, is he? He’s far too important for that’.
We need a biblical balance here. I would certainly want to affirm with the whole Scripture that yes, God is sovereign; yes, God does have a will and a purpose; and yes, that will and purpose includes you and me, sometimes in very specific, clear ways. God does lead, God does guide. The Scriptures promise us so. But I must say, I do find very little – if any – evidence for a perfect, detailed blueprint that exists somewhere, or that all we have to do is find it – especially if the result is a rather mechanistic view of guidance.
I remember George Verwer saying once, ‘I used to believe in “Plan B guidance” until I got to at least plan D or E or F and G; and then I began to praise God that we’ve got an alphabet with twenty-six letters, because I’m on to at least X, Y and Z by now’. (The Hebrew alphabet’s only got twenty-two letters, so maybe we’ve got even more chances of guidance than the psalmist!) ‘Plan B guidance’ reduces God almost to a horoscope; somehow it’s all fated, you’ve just got to find it. It often makes God a very mysterious God. He has a perfect plan hidden away that we never quite manage to find. The other problem is that it can seem to reduce the responsibility that the Bible clearly lays upon us: to think, to decide, to choose for ourselves.
‘In your thinking be adults,’ said Paul (1 Cor. 14:20). There is a time in our children’s life when almost all their actions are chosen by their parents. We choose where we are going on holiday, what they will wear, and so on, in some case for several years. But we know that it would be quite wrong if parents tried to do that through their children’s adult life. There comes a point when, although we have our opinions and preferences as to what our children ought to do, we nevertheless let them make their own choices. Mind you, it’s lovely when they discuss those choices with us! My son Tim has consulted me several times in the past few years when he’s had difficult decisions to make. We’ve talked each decision over together. But I won’t make the decision for him. I may well know what I want him to choose, but he has to think things through and choose for himself.
Now, the Scriptures tell us that God is our Father. He’s neither our horoscope, nor our tyrannical diary he isn’t like that. God is our Father, he is our light on the path, he shows us the direction in we are to move. But that doesn’t mean he predetermines every step that we should be determining for ourselves, albeit with his help and under his sovereignty; so that our weaving of the tapestry fits in with the pattern that he is weaving for the world, and the two work together so that we are co-workers with God in his will and his purpose.
There is a mystery; of course there is; a mystery of how to combine the sovereignty of God and his word and guidance with our own human responsibility. So we need not only light on our path. We also need discernment, understanding, wisdom and enabling to think and act wisely in the light of the Scriptures that God has given us.
Learning for the pupil
And now the psalmist changes his metaphor from that of taking a lamp on a dark night as you walk along the path, to that of sitting with a teacher learning, studying, absorbing, interacting, growing, memorising what the teacher says but also rejecting and applying it in everyday life; sitting under the teaching of God himself.
A television advertisement that was once used remarks that nobody forgets a good teacher. It’s quite true. Most of us can remember the names of our teachers, even from our childhood, and the psalmist remembers his. In verse 102 he says, ‘I have not departed from your laws for you yourself have taught me’. I like that; here is not just an academic theologian saying, ‘I’ve learned a lot from the Scripture’. He says, ‘The Lord himself, you were my teacher’. Yes, the Bible is our teacher – but it’s God himself who’s teaching us through it.
Isn’t that what Paul said to Timothy in that familiar verse 2 Timothy 3:14? ‘As for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it’. Yes, Timothy had been well taught, by his mother and his grandmother particularly. But Paul continues, ‘From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (3:15–17). Timothy was well taught by human parents, but it was God himself through the Scriptures who had been his real teacher.
Indeed this psalmist reckons that having God as his teacher and the Scriptures as his textbook means that he actually has greater understanding, and deeper insight, than his human teachers and elders. Verse 98: ‘Your commands make me wiser than my enemies’. Verses 99 to 100: ‘I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders’.
I don’t think he’s being boastful. I don’t think this is arrogance. I think it is a simple fact of life; a person who’s got the word of God in their heart may actually have deeper insight and knowledge than somebody who’s got all sorts of academic understanding that doesn’t include God’s word in the heart. A school child who knows the Lord and knows his or her Bible can actually understand God better than an R.E. teacher with a degree in religious studies.
It may sound rather arrogant, but some of us who were theological students thought that about our professors. In 1969 I was studying theology at Cambridge. I recently met again one of my fellow-students from those days, who told me that her abiding memory of me and our fellow-student Hugh Williamson is that we were constantly asking questions and challenging our professors. So often we thought they were talking rubbish; often they were. In our arrogance we thought we could put them right, because we knew the Scriptures and we knew that what was being taught was wrong. Maybe our approach was wrong – but that’s what we did. (Hugh is now Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, so perhaps he’s getting the same treatment there!)
The expression ‘Teach me your precepts’ or ‘your laws’, and the similar expression ‘Give me understanding in your word’, are just about the commonest expression that you will find this psalmist using. ‘Teach me your decrees’ occurs at least eight times, ‘Give me understanding’ or ‘Give me discernment’ seven times. To prepare for this Bible Reading I made a list of all the occurrences and the verses in which they occur, to see if there was any pattern, or parallels with other expressions. Both are certainly true, and I want to show you now some of the ways the psalmist uses these expressions.
First, let’s look at ‘Teach me your precepts’, which occurs in a number of contexts.
Teach Me Your Precepts
I found that the expression ‘Teach me your decrees’ in its first and its last occurrences in Psalm 119 relates to praise. Verse 12: ‘praise be to you, O lord; teach me your decrees’. Then at the very end, as if to match and balance that, verse 171: ‘May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees’.
Learning and Praise
Here obviously is a person who saw no dichotomy between his head and his heart, between his theology and his doxology, between what would be academic in the sense of something to be learned and thought about in his mind and his head as a matter of teaching and learning – and what was a spiritual response of his heart and his lips and his mouth in worship: ‘Teach me your precepts so that I can praise you’.
That is such an important balance. Unfortunately, and tragically, Christians sometimes set these two things against each other. They seem to feel that learning and the use of the mind, the intellect and our study faculties are somehow in opposition to that which is spiritual and devotional. It’s one of the battles that we constantly fight in the world of theological education. People sometimes accuse a Bible college like All Nations, ‘Oh, you’re becoming academic’ – as if somehow that is in itself a bad thing, as if asking someone to think might somehow do them some damage! But actually the Lord tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength. We make no apology for making people think. Teaching and studying exercises the mind, and that’s important, but it does not contradict wanting to be devoted to the Lord in our worship and our praise. The psalmist wants to be taught so that he can worship, and that is the balance he maintains.
In Nehemiah 8 we read that all the people gathered together to learn together, because the law of God was being read to them by Ezra, and some of the Levites were going out among the people teaching them, perhaps in languages with which they were more familiar, ‘Then all the people went away … to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them’ (Neh. 8:12). It was going into their minds, so they were rejoicing. And that of course is part of the wonderful dynamics of a conference like Keswick: we are here to learn and we are here to praise.
Learning and Practical Obedience
There are two places where the expression, ‘Teach me your precepts’ links up with practical life and obedience. Verse 26: ‘I recounted my ways and you answered me; teach me your decrees’. And verse 33: ‘Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end’.
So just as the psalmist sees no dichotomy between the intellectual and the devotional, neither does he see any dichotomy between the intellectual and the practical. ‘I want to learn to study, to be taught the precepts of God, so that I can go out and obey them’. His practical obedience is linked to his Bible study. And again, it is tragic if in our Christian communities, in churches, universities or colleges, the academic study of God’s word – the theology – should come to be divorced from its practical implications in terms of obedience of life, change of life, commitment to the Lord and so on. These things are necessary. At All Nations we have a slogan that describes what we are trying to do: ‘Heads, hearts and hands for the kingdom of God’. We want to learn with our heads, we want to be committed in our hearts and we want to obey with our hands and our lives.
Learning and God’s Character
In four occurrences, ‘Teach me your decrees’ refers to God’s character and God’s action.
Verse 64: ‘The earth is filled with your love, O Lord; teach me your decrees’. Again, the same thought in verse 124: ‘Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees’. Verse 68 links it to God’s goodness: ‘You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees’. And in verse 135 we read, ‘Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees’ (perhaps the psalmist had in mind the Aaronic blessing: ‘May the Lord be gracious to us and bless us and lift up the light of his countenance upon us’.) In each case God’s goodness, love, gracious presence and blessing are linked to the desire that God should teach us his laws, his decrees.
Again, what a shame it is that people so often imagine that God’s laws, precepts, statutes and all such concepts have nothing to do with God’s love and God’s grace. Here in this psalm, in these verses, they are paired together. ‘Lord, it’s because you are so good, it’s because you are so loving, it’s because you are so gracious that I want you to teach me your precepts; I want to know more about you, I want to know your law’. The Old Testament Israelites always thought of God’s law as a gift of God’s grace, embodying God’s love and, therefore, the best guide to human life.
Give me understanding
This phrase also occurs seven or eight times. ‘Understanding’ is a word used very frequently in the book of Proverbs, where it means insight, discernment, the ability to see beneath the surface of things to see behind what is being presented to you. It means practical wisdom that comes from experience and maturity but is something that can be learned. And it is the gift of God himself. Indeed the New Testament includes this amongst the gifts of the Spirit that we are to be given by God: the gifts of discernment, understanding and maturity of faith.
In Psalm 119:27 we read, ‘Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders’. The ‘wonders’ of God usually refers to his work in his creation. In verse 73 the creation idea comes through again: ‘your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands’. God is the creator of the wonders of creation, the world that we see around us, the beauty of Keswick. He is also our personal creator, who made our own individual body and mind and heart. It’s because God is that, that he knows all there is to know. So we can turn to him and ask for understanding from our creator.
In verse 34, the desire for understanding is again linked to obedience. ‘Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart’ – ‘I can only obey you, Lord, if I really know what it means to obey you, if I understand the laws that you are giving me’. There’s none of this business of blind faith – ‘you don’t need to understand it, just do it’. No. The psalmist says, ‘Lord, I want to understand, I want to know, what your law is, so that I can obey it and keep it and live by it’.
There are some other occurrences. Verse 125: ‘I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes’. Because I am your servant and you are my Master, says the psalmist, let me know what it is I have to do. Verse 144: ‘Your statutes are for ever right; give me understanding that I may live’. And verse 169: ‘May my cry come before you, O Lord; give me understanding according to your word’. In other words, God is my Master, God is my life-giver, God is my helper. Therefore I can turn to him in relationship and ask for understanding.
Desiring knowledge of God
So once more this psalmist asks for guidance, for wisdom, for learning, for understanding. Not because he wants a degree, not because he wants to be famous as a wise expert, but because he longs for God. He has a heartfelt desire to know God, and so he says, ‘Lord, teach me’.
Indeed if we combine the two emphases of light and of learning, he might well also have echoed the words of Psalm 27:1, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’. And if he had known them he would certainly have echoed the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:24 and also verse 30, where he says that Christ is our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness and our redemption. He has become that for us. The Lord is our light, the Lord is our understanding, and it’s knowledge of God that we want.
He may even have echoed – might even have known, depending on when he lived and wrote – the words of Jeremiah: ‘This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight”, declares the Lord’ (Jer. 9:23–24).
And the psalmist says, ‘Lord, I want to know you, I want to delight in you, even in the midst of all this learning and understanding; I want to be wise, but that’s not all I want. I want to be godly, I want to know you’.
I would say to any students here today, particularly if you are a student of theology or religious studies, ‘Stay humble! Make sure that all that theology and learning about the word of God is all directed towards a guidance of life based on the Lord himself’. When I was starting out on the road of theological understanding and thinking, one of the ways in which I kept my mind in that direction was frequently to remember my own father. For I would say to myself, ‘Maybe now I know more theology than he does. Maybe now because of all this academic study, I know more of the Bible than he does. But I would never claim that I know the Lord more than he does. I would never claim to have that relationship with God in prayer, obedience and commitment than he has’. No matter what your head gets filled with, make sure that your heart is still in love with the Lord and is being guided by him, so that, to quote that lovely Celtic prayer God will be in your head and in your understanding.Not just the word of God, but God himself, in his guiding of our lives – may that be so for us, for his name’s sake.
4. Personal Commitment and the Word of Love, Psalm 119:57-64
It’s very obvious that the person who wrote this psalm is totally committed, heart and soul, body mind and spirit, to God and to the ways of God. He loves the Lord. In fact it was that word ‘love – ‘How I love your law!’ – which gave me the due to the subject for today when I was trying to divide the psalm up into themes.
The reason for his commitment is not hard to see. He has his entire world-view and understanding of reality shaped by the conviction that God’s word is true and trustworthy and that he can build his life safely on this foundation. Even when his lift is tough, uncomfortable, depressing and dangerous he knows that he is basing it on something that will last. In other words, his commitment is based upon his core belief about God and about God’s word.
One of the joys and constant challenges of training Christian people for mission is that you are dealing year after year (as people come, train and depart, and from time to time come back to visit) with people whose lives are filled with this commitment to serve God. And I’ve observed again and again that commitment flows out of ultimate beliefs, core values, reality as the centre of life in which those people passionately believe. That’s why they go and do the things that they do.
There are all sorts of examples. You could visit people in Portugal, Kenya, France, Lebanon and elsewhere who are busy caring for God’s non-human creation, caring for birds and plants because they have a core belief that that is a biblical thing to do; that we were commanded to care for the earth, and that a love and care for God’s whole creation is a part of biblical Christian commitment; their particular behaviour and commitment proceeds from that core belief. And if Jesus says that not even a bird falls without our Heavenly Father knowing it and caring for it, then how much more should we do the same.
I can think of one student who came to college after having been in Central Asia. When he was asking us to pray for him he pulled out of his pocket a handful of bullets. ‘If anyone wants to pray for me, take one of these bullets and it will remind you. I picked them’, he said quite casually ‘out of the lampshade of my bedside lamp, the curtains and the walls’. What keeps a person living in a war zone? Only a core belief that the people who are there are worth serving, and that their lives are worth helping and healing and restoring.
I recently read a book by another former student, a midwife who has given her life to working in some of the toughest parts of the world, in African famine areas, in war areas, among refugees and in other parts of that continent, simply seeking to deliver life, to help mothers. Out of her book flows the core belief that every single human life matters to God because it is made in the image of God, no matter what colour, religion or anything else. If it is a human life, God loves it and cares for it. That’s a core belief of the Christian faith, a biblical affirmation not found in other religions. And it’s because she is building her life on that core faith that she goes and does that.
One could ask, similarly why people of my father’s generation went to the Amazonian jungles in the days before people cared about rain forests, to care about the people who lived in those forests? Christians who lived in Brazil told my father, ‘You don’t need to go to the Indians, they haven’t got souls, there’re not even human. So why are you going to live among them and evangelise them?’ Well – why did he? Because he did believe they had souls, he did believe that they were human, and because he believed that they were lost without Christ. Out of that core belief flowed half an adult lifetime committed to seeking to bring Christ to them and bring them into the kingdom of God.
Commitment and behaviour flow from what you actually believe about life, the universe and everything. And I want us this morning to look at some of the ways in which this psalmist articulated his view of the word of God, the law of God, intellectually, emotionally, and behaviourally (or, if you want a longer word, ‘volitionally’) – how he actually put his choices into action.
And so we have three foci for our thinking this morning. First,
God’s word as the focus of trust
My key verse for this section is verse 66, which begins with the same phrase we looked at in our last study: ‘Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I believe in your commands’.
‘Believe is quite a strong word in the Hebrew. It’s the word from which we get Amen’, and it means, ‘I put my trust in, and give my whole mental assent, to what you have said’. It’s the language of total commitment and faith – ‘I understand and agree with your word, I am committed to it. It’s true and valid and I can depend upon it’. He says the same in verse 86: ‘All your commands are trustworthy’. Why does he say this? He doesn’t just affirm it once, he goes on to a whole chain of verses threaded through this psalm that make this kind of affirmation. There are at last three distinct kind of affirmations that this psalmist makes about God’s word that we can pull out and see.
First of all, there are a group of sayings that affirm,
The universality of God’s word
They affirm that it is eternal; it is for ever it covers the whole earth, and the heavens and the earth and all that there is; they affirm its eternal, universal nature. Listen to some of these words. Verses 89 to 9I: ‘Your word, O lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues trough all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. Your laws endure to this day for all things serve you’. Isaiah said, ‘The heavens and the earth may pass away but your word endures for ever’ (cf Is. 40:8, 51:6), and I don’t think this psalmist would disagree.
Verse 96: ‘To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless’. In other words, even the best we humans can do and offer will always be limited. Even the most wonderful things we can achieve will come to an end or will wear out. ‘But your word is limitless, boundless, not flawed by contingency or partially. It is infinite.’
And finally in this section, verse 152: ‘Long ago I learned from your statues that you established them to last for ever’. The word, the law of God, he says, is eternal. There is something universal about this word.
That does not mean that God simply stood up in heaven and spouted forth great timeless, meaningless abstractions, irrelevant to local and specific situations. The paradox is that God’s word did come to the human race, to us, as the book of Hebrews tells us, in ‘many and varied ways’ (cf Heb. 1:1), through many different people, in many different historical periods, using different authors, different speakers, in order that that word of God could be – terrifyingly sometimes – sharp and specific and personal in detail, all the way through the Bible.
Yet the remarkable truth is that through all of that, God has created a word that has an enduring quality that enables it to transcend particular times and places. We can read what God said in Jerusalem or Judea in the ninth or eighth century BC and it can cut right into our hearts today. We can read what comes in the law or the Gospels or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in the first century AD and it speaks to us because it comes from God. So it is his eternal word because it shares in his charter of ultimacy and finality. It is God’s word, God’s law, God’s promise. That’s very relevant to our contemporary culture, as we shall see.
A second group of sayings about this focus of faith in God’s word affirm,
The moral righteous quality of God’s word
The law not only shares in God’s eternal transcendent universal nature; it reflects his moral charter of righteousness and justice. We see that especially in the second half of this psalm. Verse 128: ‘Because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path’. Verses 137 and 138: ‘Righteous are you, O Lord, and your laws are right. The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy’. Verse 144: ‘Your statutes are for ever right’. And verse 172: ‘May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous’ – he is speaking of the righteousness of God’s law.
‘Righteousness’ is a word which in Hebrew has the basic idea of something that is straight, like a straight-edge or a measuring tape; something that is exactly what it should be, and against which everything else is measured. You don’t ask the standard metre whether it is a metre. You ask whether everything else is a metre in comparison with it. It’s a standard; it defines the norm. And that is what is meant here in terms of God’s law; it provides the moral standard by which our behaviour and opinions are to be measured and judged.
The psalmist says again and again that the words that he is reading, the written law, have this quality of moral righteousness because they reflect God himself. As verse 137 says: it’s because you are righteous, O Lord, that all your laws are right. Just as the law is eternal because God is, so it is righteous because God is.
Just as we saw earlier, the paradox is that that righteousness of God’s word and law is revealed not in terms of some grand, universal, abstract assertion of religious philosophy but in terms of the very specific particulars of the instructions, laws and guidance that God gave to Israel. He dealt with them as a particular people, living in that time of history, in that particular land, with that particular kind of culture, language, social structure and everything else. By dealing with that particular society God has given to us a light for the nations, a paradigm of righteousness that shows us what he wants and what his priorities and values are. In some of the key sections of the law (as we saw in Deuteronomy 10, or in the Ten Commandments), we find these values of God reflected. So the law gives an objective nature to morality and righteousness.
The third little group of verses that make the law a focus of faith and affirmation speak about,
The reality and truthfulness of God’s word
The psalmist says that God’s word and law is not just eternal and not just righteous; it’s also true, verse 142: ‘Your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true’; verse 151: ‘Yet you are near, O lord, and all your commands are true’; verse 160: ‘All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal’. In fact verse 160 literally says, ‘The totality of your word is true’. It’s not just speaking about every individual word but about the whole package. God’s word is truth.
Now, what is truth? – as Pilate famously asked. Truth is what corresponds to reality. If a statement is to be true there has to be something that makes it true. There has to be some existing reality that makes it true or false, a faithful reflection of what is or what isn’t there. A statement can only be true if it relates to something real. So, for example, if I say to you, ‘Daffodils are yellow’ you can say, ‘that’s true’. There is a biological reality, a plant that we happen to call a daffodil, and when you see it in daylight there are certain realities of the properties of light in the spectrum that make us see it as yellow. It is an objective reality of biology and physics that makes the statement ‘daffodils are yellow’ a true statement.
But if I say to you, ‘Tooth-fairies have wings,’ and ask you if that’s true or false, you will respond that it’s not so much true or false as ultimately meaningless. It doesn’t matter really because it’s a figment of the imagination. There is no reality to which it refers. Thus when the psalmist says that the word of God is true, what he means is that there is something to which it refers that is real, that is there. God is there, a world is there, there is a universe that it describes which is really and truthfully described. So when the word of God talks about God it is true; when is talks about human life made in the image of God it is true; when it says that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, that is a truthful description of the way the world is; when it talks about righteousness, justice and judgement at the end of the world, that is truth because there’s a reality to which it refers.
We need to get hold of this: that when we talk about truth and falsehood, that’s what we mean. It’s nor just a matter of accuracy, it’s a matter of reality, of what is actually there. And because it is true, it is also trustworthy and you can rely on it.
So then, putting these three things together: when the psalmist looks at the word of God, reads it and meditates on it, he focuses on it as something solid, objective, dependable and real. It is universal in its scope, because it is eternal and shares in God’s transcendence. It is normative in its moral demands; it is the word of God that decides whether a thing is good or evil, right or wrong. It is totally reliable in its truth-claims; it is ultimate in what it refers to. For the benefit of any philosophers present: the psalmist is making the word of God the foundation of his metaphysics, his ethics and his epistemology.
These are pretty vast claims. I really want us to get hold of how this psalm really cuts across, and is actually in stark conflict with, the culture and the ethos within which we happen to live. The world in which the psalmist lived was also a world of surrounding idolatry and pluralism, in which there were certainly other nations with other gods and all sorts of other truth-claims. He knew, I am sure, that to stand up and say, ‘The earth belongs to Yahweh; the earth is the Lord’s,’ or ‘The word, or law, of Yahweh is the truth,’ would be to invite debate, at least in Babylon or in Egypt where a different world-view was held. But certainly he conflicts with any easy pluralism or relativism that says, ‘It doesn’t really matter what you believe, nothing is true anyway’.
That is very much the culture of post-modernity in which we live today. Let me give a brief definition. Modernity, which we’ve lived with for about 250 years now is the view that through the application of science and technology and rational thought we can not only understand the world, but can manage and improve it. We can develop it, and we can control our environment and make our human lives better. Progress through science and technology is the whole heart of the modern world.
Post-modernity arises out of disillusionment with modernity. It says: ‘Actually, things don’t look like that. We haven’t made the world any better. Science hasn’t got all the answers. It looks as if the world is more mysterious than we thought; and in any case, we now live in a pluralist world, in which any culture has just as much right to claim to be “true” as any other.’ So in the end, what the post-modern view says is that there is really no such thing as a transcendent reality, no such thing as a universal reality, no such thing as an absolute truth. There is no Truth with a capital ‘T’, there is nothing that is final or ultimate. If you try searching for such certainties in religion or in science, you are misguided. It’s pointless. No culture or religion has any universal standing place, or any absolute truth, either in its narratives and the way it understands the world or in its morality: everything is relative.
Life, according to this view, is a carnival. The floats go by, and you can observe all the wonderful spectacles. Look at this culture, that culture, this viewpoint, that viewpoint; they all pass you by and you can enjoy them all, you can even set up one of your own if you want. But basically it doesn’t have any point, it’s just a merry-go-round. So enjoy the plurality, enjoy the variety, but don’t look for any depth or reality. Don’t ask, ‘Is it really true? Where is its heart and core?’
That sort of viewpoint even applies to personal identity in a post-modern world-view. Who is the real you? In post-modernism you don’t have to bother to ask. You can be whatever you like to be. You can decide what you want to be, you can accept anything, you are what you eat, you are what you wear, you can change your mind and be what you want. But don’t ever look for some kind of core reality, the real you. That’s like looking for a real truth or a real religion.
I found a good illustration in the Daily Mail, where Ginger Spice, who had just left the pop group the Spice Girls, gave an interview. She said ‘Every day I can be somebody else. I can wear a slinky little number, or I can be chic, or I can be pretty and girlie. The future is all about my imagination’. In other words, ‘It doesn’t really matter who I am; I can change every day, depending on what I wear. I can just make myself up, reinvent myself as I go along’. Now, I never had the opportunity of meeting Ginger Spice, and I haven’t lost a lot of sleep over that. But the question came to my mind when I read that: Who are you, when you come to the end of your wardrobe? When there are no clothes left to wear? It’s a tragi-comic comment on life. Yet it is so real for us. Everything is just what you wear.
Of course what we wear has some importance. My wife and I do have discussions about whether my socks match my shirt and tie. But when I get sent upstairs to change my socks, I don’t change my personality, it doesn’t affect who I am as me. That’s dependent upon something a bit deeper – ultimately, on the fact that I am a human being made in the image of God, loved by my Creator and redeemed by my Saviour. That’s who I am. And that will be there, whatever I wear.
My point is that this is all part of a world-view that says there is really no reality, only image. There’s no morality only opinion; no eternity only the circus of the present. That affects education politics, philosophy – it is everywhere. Against that kind of thinking and world-view this psalm says: ‘There is an eternal transcendent reality: God, our creator. And we have access to him through his word. He’s not the great Unknowable, He’s the God who’s revealed himself to us. There is a universally relevant moral standard with claims on all human beings, in every age and every culture.’
God realises that every age and culture will be different. But there are core fundamental realities of what it means to live as a human being in God’s world, accountable to our creator. That reality goes back to the Garden of Eden and will be there in the new creation also. It is eternal and fundamental. The Scriptures give it to us; and we have access to it through the word of God. ‘Your word is righteous.’
There is an objective truth; an account, an explanation, a world-view that actually fits the way things are, says this psalm. To it we have access and much of it we can grasp by the word of God and by the exercise of our reason and our thought-processes under the authority of God and his word. That authority was certainly the origin of Western science: seeing the world as God’s creation.
So all of this human knowledge, morality and understanding, says this psalm, is to be related to the biblical world-view of life the universe and everything. The psalmist says that is a matter of faith and trust – not in a blind sense, but in the sense of a reasonable, rational, sensible understanding of the world based on a commitment: ‘I believe in a God who made this world. I believe in those things, they are sensible, they make sense to me and God’s word tells me so.’
That is the kind of faith that you can stand on, the kind of faith you can defend. Is that your conviction? To those of the younger generation that may perhaps be more infected by the post-modernism, scepticism and relativism in our society, I would ask ‘Can you base your life on it? Can you live on a moving staircase? Or are you going to build on the rock of the word of God?’
Let’s move on to some other points that need, I think, less comment.
God’s word as the focus of love
We really can’t ignore this, because the psalmist’s response to the word of God and the law of God is not some kind of cold intellectual, metaphysical assent. He’s not a philosopher or a professor writing the kind of books such people write. Here is somebody who just revels in the word of God.
Once again, this is quite a shock to people who think of the Old Testament as all mere cold legalism.
First of all:
The law – a matter of joy and delight
Verse 14: ‘I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches’. He says it’s like winning the lottery. ‘Wow! – that’s what I think about the law of God,’ he says. Verse 162: ‘I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil’. The word ‘delight is used too; I wont read all the references, but look for examples, then read them through for yourself: verse 16: ‘I delight in your decrees’; verse 24: ‘Your statutes are my delight; they are my counsellors’; verse 35: ‘Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight’. And so it goes on, about another ten times.
Do I need to comment on that? Here is someone who says, ‘Lord your word is a pleasure to me, I love it’. What do you use ‘delight for in life? It’s a common expression. You might say, that was delightful, that piece of music was a delight, that scenery overlooking the lake is delightful, it gives you such pleasure. Or you have a lovely meal tasty, delicious, and you say, ‘Wasn’t that delightful!?’ That’s the kind of language that this person is using about God’s law. Delight and joy.
The law – an object of love
Now the language becomes even more emotional and expressive. In fact, and I don’t think I need apologise for saying this for it is so elsewhere in the Bible, he is using almost erotic language of emotional, affectionate love. Verse 47: ‘I delight in your commands because I love them’; verse 48: ‘I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love.’ I’ve got outstretched arms, he says. Give me, give me, gimme the law of God! I want it, I love it.
Not the way most people treat the law of God, I think!
Verse 97: ‘Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long’. Verse 131: ‘I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands’. He’s gasping for it, wanting the love of God. If you love someone or something, it’s constantly in your mind and you don’t forget them. And, he says, even when he’s far from home, even in the night he still remembers the law of God. Verse 54: ‘Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge’; verse 55: ‘In the night I remember your name, O Lord, and I will keep your law’. You don’t forget what you love.
Just before coming here my wife spent a fortnight in Canada at a family wedding and I was on my own at home. It’s quite unusual for her to be the one travelling, and a bit of an experience for me! Did we forget each other? Of course not. Last thing at night and first thing in the morning I was conscious of her pillow there beside mine and I put my head on it remembered her and prayed for her. You don’t forget the one you love – though I can’t say with the psalmist that I arose at midnight to give her thanks (verse 62)!
Delight, joy, love, remembering – this is the language of an emotional, affectionate relationship. So where is all this legalism stuff? Where is all this bondage to the law? In fact quite contrary to the idea of bondage, this person finds that obedience to God’s law is a perfect recipe for real freedom. There is a lovely paradox in verse 32: ‘I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free’; and verse 45: ‘I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.’ You see, far from obedience producing bondage, obedience (he says) actually produces freedom.
He also says that the law is superbly precious to him. It is so valuable, so endearing that the only way he can describe it is in superlatives. What’s the richest thing you can think of, gold, silver, lots of it? Verse 72: ‘The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.’ What’s the sweetest thing you can think of, honey, perhaps? Verse 103: ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’ There’s nothing more valuable than faithful obedience to God, nothing more satisfying than living for him. God’s word then is the focus of love, as well as of faith.
God’s word as the focus of commitment
‘Of course,’ this psalmist would say ‘the word of God is for my intellectual assent. Yes, the word of God is for my emotional appreciation. But this word of God is also to be for my behavioural commitment. I am going to live it.’
Two expressions that seem to express this struck me particularly as I read through Psalm 119.
A total commitment
‘With all my heart’, or ‘my heart is set on …’, occur eight or nine times. Here are some examples: verse 2: ‘Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart’; verse 10: ‘I seek you with all my heart’; verse 30: ‘I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws’; verse 34: ‘Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart’; verse 36: ‘Turn my heart towards your statutes’; verse 58: ‘I have sought your face with all my heart’; verse 112: ‘My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end’; verse 145: ‘I call [to you] with all my heart’.
There’s an echo here surely of that fundamental prayer and commitment in Deuteronomy 6:4–5, sometimes called the Shema, that great credal prayer of the Israelites and of the Jewish faith ever since: ‘Hear, O Israel: the lord our God, the lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’. You might ask why I didn’t include this in the last section, when I was talking about emotional commitment to God. Isn’t that where love should be?
Actually it’s not quite so, because in Hebrew the heart is the seat of the mind and of the will, much more than of the emotions. If you want to express emotions in Hebrew, you go a little bit lower down the body; you talk about your bowels or your kidneys or your stomach. That’s what you emotionally love with. The heart is where you think. Remember the verse in Proverbs that the Authorised Version renders, ‘as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’ (cf Prov. 23:7, av). And Jesus, you remember said that it’s out of the heart come evil thoughts: anger, lust, pride and eventually murder and all the rest (cf Matt. 15:19).
So the psalmist here is not talking about emotional affectionate commitment, he’s talking about deliberate, conscious, thought-out, intelligent commitment to the word of God; where a person has thought it through and said, ‘I know what I’m doing, I’ve thought about it, and with the totality of my mind and intellect I want to obey God. I want to do it.’ It’s whole-hearted commitment to God.
He uses the words ‘fully’ and ‘for ever’ quite often. For example, verse 5: ‘Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!’; verse 20: ‘My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times.’ It’s virtually the same in verse 40: ‘How I long for your precepts!’; and in verse 44: ‘I will always obey your law for ever and ever,’ So here is a person who says, ‘Yes, I want to be committed, but I’m not making a shallow or transient commitment. It’s not just for this tent, this meeting or this week. It’s something that I want to be, with the totality of what I am, and I want it to be for the whole of my life for ever’.
A present commitment
Also, he says, it should also be for now, verse 60: ‘I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands’. It’s no good professing total commitment, if it is only going to start tomorrow or when you leave university or when something else happens. It’s no good either having a kind of ‘forever-ness’ attitude –’I’ll love you for ever and ever and ever, but I’m not prepared to do anything today’. The psalmist is aware that this commitment he is making is with all his heart, fully, for ever, and for now.
A personal commitment
In conclusion, I want to challenge us about our personal commitment to the word of God as it impacts upon our lives, for that’s what this psalm is leading to.
I trust that other generations represented here won’t object if I address myself particularly to the younger generation. I certainly don’t want you to miss out, because I am well aware that Joshua, for example, well into his eighties and forty years after the conquest, was still saying to his contemporaries, ‘Choose you this day whom you will serve’. Commitment, choice and all of these things are lifelong challenges, so I am not excusing anybody from this.
I want to ask: What is the direction of the commitment that you make in life? And what is the world-view that underlies it? What is the basic core belief that you found your life upon, out of which flow your choices, your direction, your decisions, whether or not you are going to do this or that in life, and how you are going to follow God?
Here in this psalm we have somebody who was intellectually convinced about God’s Word, that it was transcendent, that it had moral value, and that it gave him ultimate access to truth and reality. Now that is a fundamental world-view issue. Is the Bible at the core of your view of reality? Is it the word of the creator God for you – not just for you but for the whole world, the whole universe? When the Bible says ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’, do you say: ‘Yes I believe that the earth belongs to God, the whole universe. He is God in heaven above and in the earth beneath. Everything comes from you, and of your own do we give you’? The Bible gives us absolute statements about God and about the universe. Are we intellectually committed to them, so that our world-view, our philosophy, and our whole life are based upon an assent to that truth?
Here in this psalm we have a person who is emotionally excited about that truth. He loves it, he is delighted with it, he finds it beautiful. They tell me that one of the motivations for people to continue in the field of mathematics is that it is such a beautiful discipline. I have to take their word for that, but I can understand how they feel. I know professional mathematicians, and they say it gives them great pleasure and a great joy and thrill, a great delight to see how things work out – to see the mathematical beauties of the world. Here is someone who has that same feeling towards God’s word: emotional delight, pleasure. There’s something precious about it. Do you have that feeling when you open your Bible? When people say, ‘Let’s turn to such-and-such a passage,’ do you respond, ‘Right! Let’s turn to it, let’s see what’s there! It’s got to be something that’s going to thrill me, because I’m emotionally committed to it’.
Thirdly in this psalm we have somebody who is whole-heartedly, totally committed to this way of living. I want to say that all three of these characteristics are absolutely necessary, if we are going to get involved in any real, radical, committed discipleship and obedience to the Lord. Core commitment flows out of core beliefs and core affections in life. There has to be a combination of the head and the heart and the will, because if any of them are missing things will go wrong. If you only have intellectual commitment without the heart and without the will, then you will end up in academic sterility, dryness. If you only have emotional commitment without the assent of your mind and commitment of understanding, then you will end up with the froth of emotionalism, excitement and the spectacular without a depth of understanding and the balance that comes from the Scriptures.
And if you only have zeal – ‘Yes, I’ll go for it! I’ll be there!’ – that sort of zeal and commitment that Peter had, bless him, in the days of the gospel, then zeal without knowledge will become action without wisdom, and can end up being self-destructive.
So the question is: Will you respond, as the psalmist did, to God with obedience, because you are able to say to him, ‘Lord, I believe with all my heart that your word is true, righteous and eternal; and because I love it and I want to run in the path of your commands, with enthusiasm, with energy with all that you have given to me in my personality and my temperament and my emotions and my affections and everything else’? And will you say, ‘Lord, I set my heart to do this’?
Today is a day when this kind of challenge will be coming from this platform, I am sure, time and again. It is certainly a day when the Lord will, I am sure, be speaking to people about the issue of personal commitment to God in mission or ministry, or in any way that obedience is going to call them. Where is God calling you? What is God calling you to do? Where does God’s mission impinge upon your agenda? Where does your life-choice fit, in God’s vision for the universe and the new creation? Where do you fit, in all of that?
The answer will only come to you as you bow your head under the word of God with this psalmist and say, ‘Lord, this is your word, and you are the Lord of the universe’. It’s not that I’m wanting to say ‘Jesus is my Lord’, but ‘Jesus is Lord’; and because he is Lord, he is my Lord, and therefore I will obey him because there is nobody else to obey. Therefore I am committed to the truth of his word and to obedience to the Master of the universe.There is no other sensible thing to do, no other satisfying thing to do; and there is no other safe thing to do, but to be in that position, with this psalmist. May God give us grace to be so.
5. Personal Renewal and the Word of Life, Psalm 119:153-160
Now we come to the last of our sessions, and I would like you to read Psalm 119:153–160, the section in which each line begins with the Hebrew letter resh, ‘R’. You will notice an expression or prayer that occurs three times and will be the focus of our thinking in this Bible reading.
I expect that if I were to ask you, ‘Why did you come to Keswick?’, many of you would answer, ‘Well, I came for refreshment, I came for renewal, I came to try and get my life together again because I wanted God to renew and restore and refresh my life’. That same desire for life is a very prominent longing of this psalmist. In fact, it was the first thing that struck me when I was reading this psalm again and again, deciding how to divide it for these Bible Readings. I discovered that at least fourteen times he prays this prayer: ‘Renew … restore … preserve my life … give me life … let me live’, or similar expressions.
In fact, all those English phrases are translations trying to capture one single Hebrew word that the NIV translates in different ways. It is hayah, which means ‘to make alive, to cause to live’. ‘The psalmist uses the emphatic, causative form of the verb: ‘to live, to have life’. He prays again and again, ‘Lord, make me live, get me life, let me live’.
Once more I am going to read from a whole chain of these verses, because I feel that doing so gives something of their cumulative effect:
The first is verse 17: ‘Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word’; then verse 25: ‘I am laid low in the dust; renew my life according to your word’, verse 37: ‘Turn my eyes away from worthless things; renew my life according to your word’; verse 40: ‘How I long for your precepts! Renew my life in your righteousness’; verse 50: ‘My comfort in my suffering is this: your promise renews my life’; verse 77: ‘Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight’; verse 107: ‘I have suffered much; renew my life O Lord, according to your word’; verse 116: ‘Sustain me according to your promise, and I shall live; do not let my hopes be dashed’; verse 144: ‘Your statutes are for ever right; give me understanding that I may live’; verse 149: ‘Hear my voice in accordance with your love; renew my life, O Lord, according to your laws’; verse 154: ‘Defend my cause and redeem me; renew my life according to your promise’; verse 156: ‘Your compassion is great, O Lord preserve my life according to your laws’; verse 159: ‘See how I love your precepts; preserve my life, O Lord, according to your love’; And finally, the very last but one verse: verse 175: ‘Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me’.
It seems to me that some of these verses do seem to arise out of a situation of threat or difficulty that was impinging upon his life and led him to say, ‘Lord, please renew (or preserve) my life’. Secondly, almost all of them have the expression ‘according to’ in them – ‘according to your word … your law …’ and so on, and seem to be suggesting to God, ‘Lord, here’s a reason why I want you to restore my life and a suggestion as to how you might go about doing it’. Thirdly, some of them supply a motivation – why God should renew his life; because something else will happen.
So I want to use that as a way of approaching our subject.
Threats to life
You may remember an old song with the refrain, ‘Every time I say goodbye, I die a little’. It was Paul’s testimony that every day we are dying a little. Many things in life are deadly; they spoil life, they pull life away, they are anti-life. And, of course, the great ultimate ‘anti-life’ is sin itself, as we know from the Garden of Eden: ‘The day you eat, you will die’, is the warning, and death enters and impinges upon human life from then on.
Some of the verses we have just read describe situations that we looked at mainly in our second study in this series, when we saw the struggles and difficulty that the psalmist is going trough in life. It’s remarkable how often he asks for life: ‘Lord please give me life, let me live, because something is threatening it; something is stopping me having the life that I know you want me to have’.
At least three things, I think, come into that category. First of all there is:
Depression and exhaustion
Look at verses 25 and 28 in the section beginning with daleth, ‘D’. verse 25: ‘I am laid low in the dust; renew my life according to your word’; and verse 28: ‘My soul is weary [or exhausted, shattered] with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word’. Even the word ‘dust’ in verse 25 suggests death. ‘Dust you are and to dust you will return’, says God in Genesis 3:19. In the book of Ecclesiastes, dust is often associated with death. So here is somebody who feels that already in life, because of depression and suffering and sorrow death is invading.
Depression is a terrible thing, as I am quite sure some of you know either through personal experience or that of someone you love deeply. Depression can be very mild and just spoil life for a few days because you feel tired and things are going badly; or it can be much more serious. It can be a clinical illness, caused by physical factors, mental stress, emotional pressures, bereavement – all sorts of factors can cause it. But one of the things that seem to be most frequently expressed by those going through it is that life doesn’t seem worth living any longer. All the point has gone out of it, there doesn’t seem to be any hope, any joy; you no longer do the things that used to give you pleasure, everything seems dark and pointless. Is life worth living at all? In that sense depression is life-destroying. You don’t have to be physically dead to feel dead, to feel that death has somehow impinged upon life.
Many of the other psalms give voice to such feelings, whether the depression is the result of sickness, opposition, or sin. You get it flowing through Psalm 102, for example, which is headed ‘A prayer of an afflicted man, when he is faint and pours out his lament before the Lord’. Read verses 1 to 11. The psalmist speaks of loss of appetite (4), weight loss (5), sleeplessness (7), and oppression by human and spiritual enemies (8). It’s about depression, sickness, weariness – life-threatening matters. The psalmist says: ‘That’s why I have to ask God to give me life’.
The temptation of selfishness and obsession with worthless things
This is the second, death-impinging, life-threatening element. It is interesting that in verse 36 and verse 37 they are put together. ‘Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain’. Then, immediately: ‘Turn my eyes away from worthless things; renew my life according to your word’ – as if the psalmist were saying, ‘Lord, I know that when I get all turned in on myself and become obsessed by greed, selfishness or the things I want for myself, it ends up wasting my life. I feel that despite all I’ve managed to get for myself, at the end of the day I’m not living at all. Life has lost its meaning even though I’m gaining so much.
As Jesus said, what’s the point, if you gain the whole world and lose your own soul (cf Matt. 16:26)? If you haven’t got a life worth living, it doesn’t matter how much you own. I think the psalmist is aware of that temptation, so he says to the Lord, ‘Lord don’t let me be obsessed with myself and with selfish gain and worthless things because that’s deathly, it’s a waste of life. I want you to renew and restore my life, and not let me become obsessed’.
Perhaps the sharpest example of this in the Bible is the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 10:25). He wanted to be among those who on the last day would be among the redeemed people of God and would be with him, inheriting the life of the age to come and that new life in the kingdom of God, about which Jesus was talking and about which all believing Jews knew. Jesus didn’t give him a tract. He pointed to what was actually dealing in death in his life – his obsession with wealth and his refusal to let it go, and his covetousness. And having been pointed to the way of life he walked away sad and returned to the ways of death, because he was not going to allow Jesus to turn his heart away from selfish gain and worthless things in order to renew his life according to the word of the Lord.
So depression and exhaustion will be death dealing, and so will the temptation to selfishness and worthlessness.
Hostility and opposition
So too will suffering under the opposition and attack of others. Three verses give a hint of that; verse 50: ‘My comfort in my suffering is this: your promise renews my life’; verse 107: ‘I have suffered much; renew my life, O Lord, according to your word’; and verse 154: ‘Defend my cause and redeem me; renew my life according to your promise’. He means, ‘Redeem me, save me, deliver me from those who are attacking me’. He needed to be delivered from hostility, from all that would enter his heart and soul and produce bitterness, vengeance, and negativity. They too can be life-destroying.
It’s a terrible thing to live with constant criticism or opposition, or the attacks of people who, whether or not they should know better, are always making life a misery for you. It can crush the spirit and squeeze all the life and energy and enthusiasm out of you. It can squeeze God’s vision out of you, because you feel, ‘It’s not worth it, if that’s what they think all the time’. Life can be threatened by that kind of suffering and oppression whether the source is human, satanic or a combination of both.
Our psalmist was not the only psalmist to think of these things.
Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea;
hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
at the voice of the enemy,
at the stares of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering upon me
and revile me in their anger.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death assail me ...
I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest –
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert (Ps. 55:1–4, 6–7).
He wants to be away from them all with the Lord. That’s the feeling of somebody who knows this oppression of his enemies. Psalm 56 says the same kind of thing; verses 2–4: ‘My slanderers pursue me all day long; many are attacking me in their pride. When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?’
That kind of language comes from people who are experiencing what is almost putting them to death. They are being killed by criticism and opposition. Maybe you experience that; maybe, God help you, you deal some of it out. Can I urge you to be careful about how you oppose those who are in spiritual leadership? Maybe you do it out of good motives. Make sure that you do it before the Lord and in the Lord’s sight, and that it is constructive and not destructive, life-giving and not death-giving, if you are called upon to speak words to those who are in Christian leadership.
What then is eating away at your life? It could be any of those things: depression, exhaustion, selfishness, opposition. It could be unconfessed sin, as the psalmists also discover – remember Psalm 32. When the psalmist didn’t confess his sin, his bones were withering away, he groaned, his strength was sapped. A pretty deathly experience.
It could be your stubbornness and pride. It could be your disobedience. It could be anything, but whatever it is, recognise it as a threat to your life and say the prayers of this psalmist: ‘Lord, renew my life, restore my life, let me live, let me come back to you’.
Sources of Life
Out of his weakness, out of all those things, the psalmist turns to God and says, ‘Make me live’. But how and why should God do that?
Let’s look at a number of verses in this psalm that speak about, first, the character of God as the source of life, and second, the words of God as the source of life.
The character of God
Verse 40: ‘How I long for your precepts! Renew my life in your righteousness’. The righteousness of God here ‘as seen by the psalmist as the source of life, not the cause of judgement and death, wrath and punishment. That may be something of a surprise, because in the Bible, and certainly in the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is much more frequently associated with salvation and deliverance than it is with judgement. Of course it is associated with judgement; it is because God is righteous that also he will punish the wicked. He is the righteous judge and he will do what is right. But it’s much more common, as you will find if you follow this up with a concordance, for the righteousness of God to be associated with the fact that God is the God who vindicates, who delivers, who saves and who rescues people. As Isaiah 45:21 says, he is ‘a righteous God and a Saviour’ – not ‘a righteous God but on a good day a Saviour too’. He is a righteous God and therefore a Saviour.
Some of the psalmists are particularly keen on reminding God of his righteousness as a reason for his salvation. For example, Psalm 35:24: ‘Vindicate me’ – that is, ‘show me to be innocent when accused’ –’in your righteousness, O Lord my God; do not let them gloat over me’; or Psalm 36:5–7: ‘Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep … How priceless is your unfailing love!’ God’s righteousness is paired with love and faithfulness, and the idea of God as a refuge and a deliverer.
Or Psalm 40:9–10: ‘I proclaim’; says this psalmist after some experience of great deliverance, ‘righteousness in the great assembly’. That doesn’t mean he’s become a preacher of the hellfire and judgement. ‘I do not seal my lips, as you know O Lord. I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation ... your love and your truth.’ It is the righteousness of God as a source of salvation.
Now why is that? Well, because fundamentally, in the Old Testament, ‘God’s righteousness’ means ‘God putting things right’.
That’s why, when the psalmist in Psalms 96 and 98 looks forward to that great day when God will put everything right, the whole of creation is called to rejoice. The mountains clap their hands, the trees are rejoicing, the whole world is rejoicing before the Lord, for he comes – to do what? – ‘to judge the world in righteousness’. That is a matter of joy, because when God comes to judge he will put things right, not only by punishing the wicked, but also by vindicating, restoring and renewing the faithful.
So the psalmist says, ‘Will you please make me live? Because you are righteous – not because I deserve it and can claim to have earned it, but because Lord, you are the God whose righteousness is a matter of good news’. That, of course, is why the apostle Paul could say those famous words, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel [the good news], because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last’ (Rom. 1:16–17).
It took Martin Luther quite a few months lecturing on the Psalms before he came to recognise that what Paul meant in Romans 1 was that the righteousness of God in the gospel was salvation, not judgement. It was the beginning of Luther’s great turn around in his understanding of the meaning of justification by grace through faith. In fact, it was while he was lecturing on the Psalms that he began to discover it.
The compassion of God
Verse 77: ‘Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight’. These are beautiful words in Hebrew, that speak of the tender emotion that you feel in your bowels deep down inside you – that tender, compassionate pity felt for something that is lost and needy, when you are moved to love out of mercy and compassion.
That, as we have been discovering all week, is part of the Old Testament’s definition of God. It was first heard by Moses at Mount Sinai of all places, when he was confronted with the reality of the presence of God. Passing in front of him, God proclaimed, ‘The Lord. the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Exod. 34:6). ‘Compassionate’ is the same Hebrew word used here in Psalm 119. It was the revelation of God that the Israelites needed at that particular point, because they had just committed that awful apostasy, the sin of the golden calf, and it was only by God’s compassion and mercy that they were able to move forward from that place at all.
Or, back in the book of Psalms, the wonderful words of Psalm 103: ‘The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love ... He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities’ (Ps.103:8, 10). How I thank God for that! And also for those wonderful words, ‘If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?’ (Ps. 130:3). If he were to pay attention, to count our iniquities, who could stand before him? Not one of us; there would be nobody in the meeting or reading this book, let alone on this platform. ‘But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared’ (Ps. 130:4).
So it is out of the compassion of God that this psalmist can say, ‘Lord, restore my life; I can live, I can be restored, not just because you are righteous, but also because you are compassionate’.
Verse 159: ‘See how I love your precepts; preserve my life, O Lord, according to your love’. It’s a lovely balance, isn’t it. ‘My love for your law ... therefore give me life’. The word is hesed which means covenant, promise-keeping love; the defining charter of God again. He is the God who consistently, faithfully fulfils that love for us.
Graham, Kendrick’s well-known song says:
springs from eternity,
streaming through history,
fountain of life to me.
Love is life-giving, as we know from our human relationships. When you know somebody loves you, it makes life better. People have been loved back to life and wholeness. Love supports people, gives life to people, lifts people up out of depression, out of illness, out of whatever it is; love lifts us and gives us life.
Ultimately it is the love of God that does it. Psalm 63:3: ‘Because your love’ – your loving kindness, it’s the same word – ‘is better than life, my lips will glorify you’. And it’s the very essence of the gospel: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Love gives life.
So when the psalmist wants God to give him life, he doesn’t just say, ‘O Lord, pity me, isn’t it awful the way I am?’. He says, ‘I want you to give me life because of who you are. You are righteous and you are compassionate, and you are love. Therefore please renew and restore my life’. But he doesn’t only think of God’s character, he thinks of God’s words. At least eight times the psalmist links his cry for life with the phrase ‘according to your …’ Several times, ‘according to your word; twice, ‘according to your promise, and three times, ‘according to your law’.
If I had been this psalmist, how would I have expected the word of God, the promise of God and the law of God to be life-restoring to me? I know that as a Christian I can go to the cross, I can think of the resurrection, I can think of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, I can think of all chose wonderful New Testament promises. But this psalmist is living before all of that. What was it that he would have turned to?
ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD
First of all let’s just look at where the word occurs: verse 25: I am laid low in the dust; renew my lift according to your word; verse 37: Turn my eyes away from worthless things; renew my life according to your word; and verse 107: I have suffered much; renew my life, O Lord, according to your word.
I wish I could have asked him what the word of God meant to him. I would love to hear an Old Testament believer expounding ‘the word of the Lord’, because they loved it. They could say that all lift in the universe comes from the word of God, so how much more does my little life? Psalm 33:4–7 says, ‘For the word of the Lord is right and true ... By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars’; verse 9: ‘For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm’. Wow! Why don’t we say those words? We read them in Genesis 1:3: ‘and God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light’. It’s great – and we just pass over it.
We’ve got a wonderful picture on the wall of our library at All Nations. At the top is written, ‘And God said – ‘. Below that, are all the equations of electro-magnetism, very complicated equations of wave energy and particle energy and so on, which is what light is. And then at the bottom it says, ‘and there was light’. But actually the key to the picture is not the equations but the words ‘God said’. It’s taken the human race a few thousand years to discover the workings of light and we think we are wonderfully clever. But God didn’t say, ‘It did occur to me some time ago that that’s what I needed to get light going’. He said it, and it was there. By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made. All the galaxies, stars, light, energy, matter, anti-matter, everything that’s there, is there because God put into it all the information, all the parameters, all the equations, all that was needed for it to happen in the first place, and for it to expand to the point where it is now.
We have eyes to see it and lips to talk about it. God said it, it is his word that did it. There is only life because God speaks the word of life. There is only the energy of the universe, there is only the biological life of this planet, there is only animal life, there is only human life, there is only spiritual life – because of the word of God. So when this psalmist says, renew my life according to your word, he is saying something pretty big. So can you, if you say it: ‘according to your word’.
ACCORDING TO YOUR PROMISES
But he goes on to say, Renew my life according to your promises; verse 50: My comfort in my suffering is this: your promise renews my life; verse 116: Sustain me according to your promise, and I shall live; verse 154 Renew my life according to your promise.
The Hebrew word means literally ‘your sayings’. But just as we say, ‘I give you my word’, it has come to mean ‘promise’ also. A person’s word is what they have promised to do. This Hebrew expression has the same flavour ‘Lord, because you’ve said it and promised it, you are going to renew my life’.
So again: ask an Old Testament believer, ‘What do you mean, "according to your promises"? What promises have you got in your Scriptures?’ He would list them. Isaiah 43:1–2: ‘Fear not ... When you pass through the waters I will be with you;’ – promising deliverance, protection – ‘and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you’ – promises of blessing, of life itself. Like the promise that Moses heard, when at Mount Sinai he was appealing to the Lord to rescue his people and the people had done everything they could to deserve destruction (cf Exod. 32). God said to him, ‘Get out of my way, I’m going to destroy these people because of their sin’. And Moses replied, ‘Excuse me God, you can’t do that, I’m sorry; because these are your people, it was you who brought them out of Egypt and you have promised to be their God. And Lord, would you please remember Abraham and how you promised to Abraham that you would make this a great and mighty nation through these people? You are going to bless all the nations of the world – so Lord, if you wipe them all out now what’s going to happen to your promise, to your word, to your oath? What’s going to happen to you, Lord, if you go back on your promise?
And so Moses is saying effectively, ‘Lord, restore, preserve the life of these people according to your promise, as you are a promise-keeping God, and that is your very nature’.
ACCORDING TO YOUR LAWS
Verses 149 and 156 may seem paradoxical. Those who are in the unlikely situation of having been brought up solely on Paul’s theology in Romans, Galatians and elsewhere, may have thought that the only thing to know about the law is that it’s an agent of death. Of course in the context in which Paul was writing, and in the context of people seeking some kind of righteousness according to the obedience of the law, not based on a faithful and grateful response to God as their Saviour, then yes, in that sense the law became an agent for the exposure of sin and the recognition of death that sin brings. Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want to have an argument with the apostle Paul at this point.
But here in the Scriptures that Paul knew and loved is a psalmist praying for life ‘according to God’s laws’ and we have to stop and think, ‘What does he mean by wanting life in, and according to, the laws of God?’
As so often in Hebrew poetry, verses 149 and 156 use the device of parallel construction. Hebrew poetry is a kind of stereo it always gives you something through both ears, there’s a three-dimensional sound. In both of these verses something is put parallel to the law: in verse 149 it is love, and in verse 156 it is compassion.
We’ve had those words already. The psalmist has already told us that he wants God to renew his life out of love and compassion. But we have to ask again, ‘Where did he learn about God’s love and God’s compassion?’ The answer is, ‘In the law’. It was in the laws of God, back there – in those books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy including some bits of the Bible that we hardly ever read – that the Israelites were confronted with the compassion and love of God that they were to imitate and live out in their own social relationships; to give life and restore life to one another, through social compassion and social love in reality and in practice.
Here are a few examples.
In Deuteronomy 23:15–16, God’s law gives instructions on what to do if a slave runs away and takes refuge with you. In every other society in the world that has condoned slavery (including our own until not so very long ago), a runaway slave is in danger of being put to death and anyone who harbours one is going to end up with a severe penalty. But in contrast to all other slavery legislation, this law says that if a slave runs away, you are to let him live among you wherever he chooses. Don’t send him back! You are to give him life in your community out of compassion, compassion in which his human need is to take priority over the slave-owner’s legal rights. (It is an interesting feature of Old Testament law that it quite often elevates needs above rights. Jesus did the same in the Gospels.)
Deuteronomy 24:6 says that if you are taking security for a loan, ‘Do not take a pair of millstones … for a debt’. That is, the grinder that you use to grind your daily bread. ‘Don’t take that away from your debtor, because that would be stealing a life. If somebody’s going to live they’ve got to eat, so your behaviour must be compassionate towards them’. The jubilee law, by which people were to be released and restored to their land after fifty years, was laid down ‘so that your countryman may continue to live among you’ (Lev. 25:36). The laws of the tithes and the debt release in Deuteronomy 14 and 15 talk about how ‘the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied’ (Deut. 14:29). The Israelites learned from God’s law that they were to live with compassion and with love towards one another, because that’s what God is like. And quite frequently, the example is God himself.
So this psalmist can say, ‘Lord, I want you to restore my life just as I have learned from your laws that that’s what you want to happen. You want life restored. I am poor, I am needy, I feel like an alien on the earth, but your law tells me that you are the God who cares for the alien and the needy and who wants to restore the poor and the suffering. So, Lord, will you please renew my life, just as you say in your law?’ That’s why he founded the law. It’s the Scriptures that teach the psalmist about the God he worships, and therefore enable him to cry out to him.
So I would ask us all: Where will your renewal of life come from? I trust that as you come to Keswick (and to other conventions, services, revival meetings or whatever it might be), as you look to leaders and speakers, and to the books that we read – please cake from this psalm the knowledge that the renewal of life comes ultimately from the Lord himself. ‘Lord, it’s your righteousness, your compassion, your love, your word, your promise, your law. That’s where I will find my refreshment, in the Lord himself.’
We don’t know who wrote this psalm. It may have been David. In any case, David is a particularly good example of this. There are two lovely passages in 1 Samuel that came to our attention at All Nations recently when we were going through the life of David in our Wednesday morning worship times. One is 1 Samuel 23:16. David is on his own in the desert of Ziph and he has just learned that Saul has come out to cake his life. So here is a man like the psalmist: under threat, death staring him in the face (he’s already been dodging Saul’s javelins). And now, he’s on his own and he is really in for it. Saul is coming to get him. And then we read, ‘and Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him to find strength in God’.
What a friend Jonathan was! We all know about Jonathan and David’s friendship. This was its quality. He helped David find strength, refreshment, life in God. And David was a good learner, because just a few chapters later, in 1 Samuel 30:6, David is up against it again. This time he’s not on his own. He probably wishes he were; it’s after the defeat at Ziklag, and with a great crowd of people who wanted to kill him. ‘David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit’, because their sons and daughters had been captured and carried off. Then come these lovely words: ‘But David found strength in the Lord his God’. Or, as the RSV translates it, ‘David refreshed himself in the Lord his God’. He didn’t have time to go up to Keswick or go off on a retreat, or go anywhere in fact. He was in the midst of a crowd of people who were after his blood. And somehow or other he was able in his heart and his mind to say, ‘Lord I need you here, I need your strength, I need to be refreshed, I need your life’ – in God, not anywhere else.
You can be a Jonathan for somebody else or you can be a David for yourself, or both as the case might be. You don’t have to be a trained counsellor in order to be able to direct other people to God, to God’s character and to his word so that they can find renewal in that. Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not in any way minimising the role of counsellors, of skills and caring people. It’s a very important ministry. But all of us, if we have the Scriptures, can minister life to people through God’s word.
Not very long ago I went through a crisis in my own life and feelings. It was actually a friend on the phone who spoke to me a word of Scripture that gave me back hope and made me feel there was life again. Just one word of Scripture; I then went and found many more. But that friend was a Jonathan to me at that moment, helped me to find strength in the Lord.
The effects of renewal
Something is going to happen if he is renewed, either for himself, or for God. For himself, he hopes that as he prays, as God renews his life, he will find that there will be sustaining strength and energy to carry on.
Strength, comfort and hope
Verse 28: ‘My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word’. How weak we sometimes feel, don’t we? We just can’t go on. And at that moment, we need that strengthening life of God within us. Look at verse 116: ‘Sustain me according to your promise, and I shall live’ – ‘Sustain me, hold me, lift me; I can’t hold on any longer, but you can hold on to me’; verse 175: ‘Let me live that I might praise you, and may your laws sustain me’. I hope that one of the effects of walking through this psalm will at the very least be a strengthening experience for us; that it will refresh us, will nourish us, will be like that moment when we are on a long walk in the hills and you get to the point where you can’t go any further. So you sit down with your flask of tea and some food and you are strengthened; you are given energy to carry on. That’s what he says: ‘Lord, give me strength, give me energy to keep going’.
Also, he expects to find comfort and hope. I know there are many here for whom that is deeply personal. Verse 50: ‘My comfort in my suffering is this: your promise renews my life’; verse 49 immediately before it: ‘You have given me hope’; and verse 116 again: ‘Sustain me ... and I shall live; do not let my hopes be dashed’. You can’t live without hope. When people have totally lost any sense of a future, of a life that is there to be lived, they are in a dangerous condition. But there is hope, because God is a God of hope, who renews life.
Renewed obedience and amplified praise
If God answers his prayer and restores his life, then – to put it bluntly – what’s in it for God? The psalmists are not averse to thinking that way. They sometimes say ‘Well, Lord, you’ve got to restore me because there’s something in it for you as well’. Two things are going to be in this for God, if God will hear this prayer.
The first is obedience. Actually this is the substance of the psalmist’s first prayer for restoration: ‘Do good to your servant and I will live; I will obey your word’ (verse 17). I don’t think he is trying to strike a bargain. It isn’t some sort of wrong attitude to God. He is saying, ‘Lord, how can I obey you if I’m not alive? You’d better keep me alive, and then, if I’m spared to live at all, then I want to live for you and I want to obey you’.
There’s a wonderful cycle in the Old Testament: God has blessed us, therefore we want to obey him, out of gratitude. But when we obey him, God gives us life and gives us blessing. So because God has restored our life, we’ll go on obeying him. It’s not that you earn God’s blessing by obeying him. God blesses you and you want to obey him. But as you obey him he goes on blessing you … it’s a constant cycle of blessing and obedience. And this is what this psalmist says first of alt: ‘Lord, let me live, restore my life, so that I can go out and obey you’.
Secondly – and it’s virtually the last thing he says – in verse 175 he says, ‘Let me live that I may praise you’. Obedience and praise! It’s a wonderful way to begin this psalm and a wonderful way to end it. He prays for life so that he can praise God.
Again I think there is a wonderful earthiness in this Old Testament, pre-resurrection context; when people weren’t obsessed with what would come after death, or getting to heaven, or all those things we now know concerning the Lord Jesus Christ and his resurrection. There’s a lovely ‘down-to-earthiness’ about these sayings in the Psalms. What they say (and in fact one of them says explicitly, Ps. 30:9), is, ‘Lord, if I die if I go down to the grave, then who’s going to praise you? Will the dust praise you, will the worms praise you? Of course not. There’s not going to be much praise coming up from my grave, Lord. So please let me live, because if I’m alive I’ll praise you, and while I’ve got breath in my body I’ll praise you’.
Praise doesn’t mean just happy-clappy cheerfulness. This psalmist has still got struggles and needs. In fact the very last verse, 176, reminds us that he still feels like a lost sheep. So praise doesn’t rule out lament. In fact, in the Old Testament psalms it’s part of praise; praise means that you acknowledge the reality of God in every aspect of life, saying that ‘No matter what happens down here, Lord, you are still God, and I will praise you because you are God, no matter what’s happening to me’. So praise is even more praise-y, in Old Testament terms, when you bring God into your troubles.
One of the things that sometimes annoys me in worship (it hasn’t happened at Keswick, I’m glad to say) is when people say, ‘Well now; let’s leave behind all our troubles, let’s forget everything that we’re worried about, and let’s just all come into the presence of God and forget all that’s bothering us’. But what happens then? All that happens is that you praise God and then you go back to your troubles. They are waiting for you at the door as you go out, but you haven’t brought them into the presence of God. No, praise with the psalmist is when you come into the presence of God and you say, ‘God I am hurting and life is tough. But I’m still going to praise you, because you are still God and you are still on the throne’.
So this psalmist is not saying ‘Restore my life and I’ll be happy ever after’. It’s not a fairy story. He says, ‘Restore my life and I will praise you, even when I feel like a lost sheep’.
Renewal of life
‘Renewal’ is a mis-used word today. It’s a bit twisted and distorted. People talk about ‘renewal meetings’, ‘renewed churches’ about ‘getting renewal’ this way and that. And sometimes, you know it means little more than spiritual narcissism: ‘Look at me, look at how I got blessed’.
People want blessing. They want renewal. But they are not often so willing to obey and to praise God who gives it to them. That’s why, sometimes, meetings that tell you how to be renewed and be filled in the Holy Spirit are packed to the doors, while meetings that tell you how to go out in mission, obedient to the word of God, to disciple the nations, get a handful attending. It’s a reality, isn’t it? We want the blessing, but we don’t want the obedience.
But renewal without obedience to God is a fake, no matter how spectacular it is. Remember Simon the sorcerer? He wanted all the spectacular signs of the Holy Spirit, but his heart was not committed to obedience. Renewal without obedience is a fake, and renewal without praise – well, I would say it’s frankly impossible. But if it were to happen it would be nothing more than self focused idolatry.
I expect, I hope, I trust, that many of us will go back from Keswick this year and say, ‘ Wasn’t that a wonderful time of renewal of life, of refreshments?’ But if that’s what it has been, then do make sure that it leads to obedience, to whatever it is that God has been saying to you that He wants you to be doing. And make sure that it leads also to a primary expression of praise, to the God who has brought you here.
So we have walked a long way with this psalmist. Let me finish reading again the closing words of this psalm. May this be our prayer, as we close our sessions together.
May my cry come before you, O lord;
give me understanding according to your word.
May my supplication come before you;
deliver me according to your promise’.
May my lips overflow with praise,
for you teach me your decrees.
May my tongue sing of your word,
for all your commands are righteous.
May your hand be ready to help me,
for I have chosen your precepts.
I long for your salvation, O Lord,
and your law is my delight.
Let me live that I may praise you,
and may your laws sustain me.
I have strayed like a lost sheep
Seek your servant,
for I have not forgotten your commands.
Isn’t it a comfort that at the end of the day, as at the end of this psalm, it is the responsibility of the shepherd to seek and find his stray sheep, and not the responsibility of the sheep to find the shepherd? God is looking for you, as much as, and more than, you are looking for him.
So may God bless you and may God find you as you seek him with all your heart. For his name’s sake. Amen.
 The Rev J.C. Wright was a missionary with Unevangelised Fields Mission in the Amazaonian region of Brazil from 1926–1946.
 Some version of the niv read ‘preserve’ instead of ‘renew’ in several of the following verses. This is because some minor changes were made to the text in revisions during the 1980s. The Hebrew word allows both translations. Where my Bible quotations are different to those in you Bible, it is because I sometimes prefer the earlier niv text’s reading.