God's Word Our Help in Distress

August 21, 2011 Series: Psalm 119 Scripture: Psalm 119:153-160 by Chris Strevel

153    RESH. Consider mine affliction, and deliver me: for I do not forget thy law. 
154    Plead my cause, and deliver me: quicken me according to thy word. 
155    Salvation is far from the wicked: for they seek not thy statutes. 
156    Great are thy tender mercies, O LORD: quicken me according to thy judgments.
157     Many are my persecutors and mine enemies; yet do I not decline from thy testimonies. 
158    I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved; because they kept not thy word. 
159    Consider how I love thy precepts: quicken me, O LORD, according to thy lovingkindness. 
160    Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.

In the Midst of Affliction and Oppression (vv. 153-154)

Our Father will test our faith, proving his power in our weakness and faithfulness in our instability (Ps. 7:9; 11:5; Prov. 17:3; 1 Thess. 2:4). Whether the world’s hatred, chastening for our sins, the “body of this death” in which we groan, or Satan’s malice, not one of us is exempt from the trial of our faith. When to these are added all the personal, family, and domestic hardships we face by virtue of living in a fallen world, to which misery we have contributed in no small measure by our own sins, our burden can feel heavy indeed. Yet, it is through these very things that our Father causes the power of his Son to rest upon us. Feeling our weakness, we run to him for help; seeing our need of him in our distresses, we learn better that his word is our only support in all our distresses. We should never think even fiery trials a “strange thing” (1 Pet. 4:12), for what was true in our Head will be true in us, his body. Affliction can be so severe, so lasting, that it seems as if the Lord has turned his friendly face away from us. In such times, what else can we do but what David does here: plead with the Lord to “consider his affliction.” He begs the Lord to look upon him. It assumes that our hearts cannot rest quietly, that we cannot persevere in the midst of our hardships unless we are assured of his kindly regard for us. Indeed, for him to “know our soul in adversities” is the greatest comfort of all (Ps. 31:7). And how can we be assured of this unless we know he is reconciled to us: that we are forgiven of our sins; that all the afflictions we experience are ordained by him for our good, indeed, that he is working in and through them? This confidence belongs only to God’s redeemed sons who look to Jesus Christ as all our righteousness and cleansing before his holy throne. Then, we may call upon our God, as David does here, urging him to look upon us in our affliction and deliver us. He sent his Son to die for our sins to “open a new and living way for us through his flesh” so that we “come boldly to the throne of grace for mercy and help in time of need” (Heb. 10:20; 4:16). Because he loves us more than we can ever know, we are also encouraged to cry to him because he pities us in all our afflictions. He knows our weakness, that we are but dust (Ps. 103:13). Joined to us in an unbreakable covenant, in “all our affliction, he is afflicted” (Isa. 63:9; Ex. 3:7). Our Savior took upon himself our flesh so that he might be “in all points tempted like as we are,” thus being for us a “merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 4:15; 2:17). He was “compassed with infirmity” so that he might have compassion upon us in our ignorance and waywardness (Heb. 5:2). Are we not encouraged by this to cry to him in our trials – not with a bitter, complaining spirit but for help to overcome, patience to endure, and wisdom to guide us in the right way?

David makes the basis of his plea that he “has not forgotten God’s law.” Now this should be carefully observed. The very reason David was reduced to crying to the Lord for deliverance is that afflictions had done their work. In their bitterness, there was a beautiful silver lining, outlined by the Spirit of God himself. Though sorely afflicted, David continued to cling to God’s word. Emptied of all other comforts, he believed God’s promises. They gave him hope and strength, revived his languishing spirit, and encouraged him to continue seeking the Lord in the midst of his trials. This is exactly what afflictions are designed to accomplish in us. We trust our strength, means, and wisdom. We trust other men, governments, and experts. The Lord will empty us of all these false trusts, which are so many idols, distractions from his word, obstacles to our joy and peace. But when we have learned to have joy in our trials because we see God’s hand and love in them (James 1:2), when “patience has had its perfect work” (James 1:4), we may bring before God that we have stuck to his word (Ps. 119:31). He did this work in us; we can take no credit for it. Knowing that our steadfastness in trials has been accomplished only by emptying our prideful hearts of all the loves and dreams we formerly adored, we have confidence that he will deliver us, for we have been led by his hand to trust in him alone. Thus, in our afflictions, if we would have him look upon us with favor, his word must be settled in our hearts. It must be our only help and hope. Then, we may be sure of his assistance, for the living God is where his living Word is; if his word is in our hearts, his help is close at hand.

By “affliction,” David thinks of adversities far higher than the commonplace annoyances that make us fretful and stressed. There are many of these in our lives, with most coming from the false expectations, covetousness, and love of convenience that so plague secular man. While the Lord also uses these in our lives, we must guard against watering down “affliction” to consist of nothing more than the morning traffic jam, high electric bills, and the self-inflicted distress of overly filled schedules, procrastination, misplaced priorities, and the associated, haunting feelings of wasted lives, misspent time, and wasted resources. These are feelings of guilt more than affliction. “Plead my cause” shows us that David was facing opposition for his service to God. His life is filled with examples of hostility from wicked men; it is unnecessary to discover to which he refers in this context. It is enough for us to know that David believed God’s word, sought to live in terms of biblical faith, and endeavored to stand for God’s honor and glory. For this, he was opposed and persecuted by ungodly men, at home and abroad. Indeed, it should never surprise us if the world hate us, even if we try to do it good (1 John 3:13). Though sinful ourselves, the faith, meekness, and righteousness the Lord produces in us by his Spirit are a constant, goading testimony against the world, and the world is angered by this unwelcome light. Unable to assault God, it assaults his people; this is Satan’s tactic and at his instigation, for he is the head of the city of man (Rev. 12:17; Eph. 2:2). Thus, if we would have the Lord plead our cause and deliver us, we had better be sure we are living for his cause, abiding in his truth, and suffering not for our faults but for his gospel. Then, we may be sure that he will deliver us. Here, the word “deliver” is associated with the “kinsman-redeemer” who under the old covenant was the defender of the family honor, property, and life. That the Holy Spirit uses it in here must be intended to remind us that God’s deliverance is very personal. Indeed, it has ultimate reference to our Lord Jesus Christ, who is joined to us as our elder brother, takes upon himself the penalty for our sins, and pledges to fight for us against the whole world of evil. Having destroyed the devil and his works (1 John 3:8), being clothed with glory, honor, and power, he has taken upon himself the full responsibility for our salvation, both by bearing our curse upon his own back and by defending us from all who would harm us. What amazing love and hope are ours in Jesus Christ!

In the light of this, do we not require great quickening, to be made alive and sustained in life by our Almighty Deliverer, Jesus Christ? If we are abiding in his word, he will assuredly undertake our protection and plead our cause – for it is his cause. But are we not often so sluggish in the most important things, even while we hustle in pursuit of the fleeting and vain? We require quickening here as well. We must be more motivated than we are to make sure our “causes” are righteous: supported by God’s word, at the heart of his purposes of redemption and salvation, flowing from the cross of our Savior, which is our only boast. Our cause is not a bland conservatism, a return to the “good ‘ol days,” or silly resistance to the world on more trivial points simply because we are obtuse or cranky. No, our cause is righteousness in the world: the righteousness of God revealed in the sufferings and death of our Savior (Rom. 3:19-22). Our cause is the upholding of God’s honor and truth in the world. Our cause is the souls of men, to whom we bear humble witness that “the Lord has had compassion upon us.” We can defend this cause, and thus be sure of God’s help, only by walking closely with our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. We must be daily in meditation upon his word, for herein alone can we find fresh life and strength to fight against so many ferocious enemies, with Satan at their hand. Ah, how often we forget that our conflict is not with one or two enemies, but with a great hosts of evil spirits dedicated to the overthrow of God’s righteousness and Christ’s kingdom. We must be quickened. We must profit from our afflictions, learning humility, meekness, and patience in our trials, so that we may wait upon God in prayer, seek him ardently, and depend upon his protection. Even if it appears that God’s enemies have the upper hand, that he has hidden his face from his church, that deliverance is far from us, we must see Jesus (Heb. 2:9). All our confidence must be in him and his word, that as he has healed us by his stripes so he will watch over us with vigilance and pity armed with authority and power so that his church is built over history, his enemies made fools of and defeated, and his poor, cross-bearing sheep seen to be the vessels of his mercy.

Abundant Salvation and Mercy (vv. 155-156)

When we read next that “salvation is far from the wicked,” our hearts should be awestruck by the comparison. Here we are, God’s poor ones, seemingly destitute of all help and brought low by affliction, yet safely upheld by God. On the other hand, the wicked – who refuse to have God in all their thoughts, have their portion in this life, without any care for their immortal soul, puffing at the whole world in their pride (Ps. 10:4,5; 17:14; 73:5-9) – have no deliverer, no upholder, no advocate.  This is so horrific that we ought to tremble afresh before God’s goodness, for apart from his grace, we would be just as unprotected, just as blind, just as arrogant. Now, let this thought melt our hearts. Though we are poor and needy, yet the Lord thinks upon us, loves us, and pledges himself to be our defender (Ps. 40:17). He has delivered us from the curse of sin. He promises to be our Shepherd throughout life, the fiery pillar who protects us from our enemies. Wondrously, even our sufferings for his sake turn out for our good, for in crying after him, we find through prayer that which we need most: God himself. That last and greatest enemy, death, our Savior has already swallowed it alive by his life, thus pulling its sting. The wicked has no such hope. He pushes God away from him by “not seeking his statutes.” Against the backdrop of divine sovereignty, it is his fault for the moral choices he makes, the life he pursues, and the vanities he worships. Then, at his death, where then shall be his hope? He has no expectation of salvation, no hope of deliverance from death and judgment. We see this horribly portrayed in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, sometimes called “Dives” after the Latin word for riches. The rich man made all his hope and home in this life. He spurned God, rejected pity, scorned mercy. In hell, no drop of water shall quench his misery; no hope of deliverance shall alleviate his torments (Luke 16:22-24). Is this not yet further motivation for us to make God’s word our only help and hope in distress? If we embrace not his gospel in this life, if we flee not to the cross of the Son of God, all that awaits us is a hopeless existence of misery in hell forever. Why does David bring forward this thought? It seems like the wicked have all their own way on earth; the faith of God’s poor ones is mocked. In ages of great sin and license, nothing is more ludicrous than the God-fearing man who is “plagued all day long and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:14). With so many shiny gadgets, supposedly easy money, and enticing entertainments, it seems worthless to “wash my heart in vain and cleanse my heart in innocency” (Ps. 73:13). Yet, the hope of the wicked shall perish (Prov. 11:7). If we believe God’s word and long for his salvation, though we must wait patiently and suffer affliction before obtaining the promise, we may be sure that salvation is near to us, for God will never disappoint or fail those who look to him in faith (Ps. 31:1; Joel 2:26-27). Such hope is found only if we seek God’s word day and night: hiding it in our hearts, hoping in it in all our difficulties, and clinging to every blessed morsel from his mouth as manna from heaven.

Lest we draw too bleak a picture – for due to our afflictions and circumstances, historical and personal, we may deprive ourselves of the “joy unspeakable and full of glory” that is the inheritance of all God’s children and the fruit of loving and believing in Jesus Christ (John 14:27; 15:9-11; 1 Pet. 1:8-9) – we are drawn immediately to consider the greatness of God’s tender mercies toward us. Here, “tender mercies” are our Father’s compassion and tender love. David remembers that our lives are overflowing with his love and mercy (Ps. 119:64): from the daily blessings of food and drink, clothing and housing, health and strength, calling and family, to his saving love by which he has blotted out and forgiven the debt of our transgressions through Jesus Christ, given us continued, free access to the throne of grace through his Son’s intercession, and lavished upon us the plethora of hopes and privileges we have as God’s children, all sealed to us through his greatest gift, the abiding presence of his Holy Spirit. Is not his goodness utterly overwhelming? Even in the darkest dispensations of his providence, is there not abundant cause to sing and rejoice? Paul found it so (Phil. 3:1; 4:4). Our Savior sang on the way to the Garden of his agony (Matt. 26:30). Some of David’s deepest laments of woe close with the heights of adoration and gladness. Should not this tell us something vital about the Christian life? Though we are not insensible to our trials, for affliction weighs so heavily upon us that we “groan for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies,” our Father gives us ample reason to shout for joy, many tastes of his goodness, abounding consolation and comfort, refreshing hope and peace. We need to look up and behold our salvation! His tender regard and loving affection must be constantly on our minds, the subject of our most exuberant songs, the food and drink of our soul. Humbled and abundantly satisfied by such goodness, we may then undergo our afflictions and trials refreshed with that comfortable sense of his presence and love that he gives all his children, even the most hounded by sin and distressed by hardship. He will have to quicken us, however, if we are to rejoice in his mercy with the warmth and zeal that we should. We can be surrounded with a banquet table of his mercies and yet be so deadened by care that we miss out on the joys he affords to us as his pilgrim-sons. This is the food for our journey, the encouragement toward heaven, the source of boldness and perseverance in serving him in the midst of adversity. Regularly and warmly pray for the heart to “look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith?” Do we not see in him our Father’s love and pity? He has laid upon him the curse of our transgressions and the whole burden of our sins, the whole misery of our souls. Can any greater compassion be shown toward us? From our Savior’s cross, standing as a tree of life in the midst of the garden of the paradise of God, flows all the mercy and love we need to stay our course, rejoice in tribulation, and give ourselves to God’s word. O, may our Father quicken us afresh to “taste, and see, and know that he is good” (Ps. 34:8).

When Surrounded by Enemies and Grieved by Sin (vv. 157-158)

The path to heaven is no easy course, for we must take up our cross and follow our Savior in all meekness and lowliness. We hope for what we cannot yet see. One test of our faith is whether we shall be “overcome by evil, or overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). David was hounded by numerous enemies and persecutors, whether Saul in his madness or God’s enemies in their rebellion against his kingdom, of which David, as the anointed of God, was the leading soldier and type of the Messiah. Though our enemies are more deceptive, there is no less, and possibly a greater, temptation for us to “decline from God’s testimonies.” Since Satan was cast out of heaven, he still walks about as a roaring lion, but we face him more often in the garb of clever deception. He masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). His darts are none the less fiery for his cloaking of them. He is often found within the precincts of the church, encouraging a little more compromise here, a little less fidelity there. He encourages this through suggesting ostensibly noble goals: more relevance, saving the lost, greater friendliness toward the world. And yet, how is this consistent with the warfare to which we are called, the call to have no “fellowship with darkness,” and the saving men with fear, not giddiness, “pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 23)? No, we shall make no gains by weakening the Bible’s insistence upon “fighting the good fight,” donning the “whole armor of God,” and persuading men “knowing the terror of the Lord.” But this conflict is long; it extends the whole time between our Savior’s accession to universal dominion and his return to his consummate and perfect his kingdom. It will last our whole life. In the heat of war, the weariness of conflict, the insinuations of Satan, we shall be tempted to slip toward declension: gradually, often imperceptibly, claiming good and noble reasons for the slide. How hard it is to maintain apostolic doctrine and worship, good faith and lively hope, in the midst of our warfare. Others seem to be doing just fine by blurring the lines between righteousness and sin, truth and falsehood, true and false worship, sound and corrupt doctrine. Yet even in the heat of battle, our only help lies in God’s word. We must not decline from it even a step. This does not mean that our current understanding is perfect; the consequences of Christ’s great battle demand ever increasing and deepening understanding and practice of sacred truth. Yet, we must hold fast until he comes (Rev. 2:25). Our only security lies in the eternal truth of God’s word. It is our impenetrable shield and strong tower, our guide and compass, our food and strength. God’s people have a duty to “choose the way of truth and stick unto his testimonies” (Ps. 119:30-31); eras of sharp conflict between light and darkness, seasons of encroaching deception and satanic wiles, demand even greater fidelity to the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This type of warfare can only be sustained by constant, fervent searching of the holy Scriptures.

The slide into spiritual declension begins in the heart, when we lose any sense of God’s holiness and the honor due to him as our God and Savior. Proximity to sin can breed indifference, tolerance to evil, as can indiscriminating association with unbelievers and neglect of Christian fellowship, in which we “provoke one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). The grief of which David speaks is a holy loathing of all that is opposed to the authority of God’s word, the purity of his worship, and the kingdom of his Son. We must be careful here. Our very real warfare must not make us hardhearted, callous toward the souls of men, mean-spirited, or censorious. At the same time, there must be no lessening of hatred for sin. We are grieved enough when men trample our rights and threaten our way of life. Yet, we are often desensitized to blasphemy, ignorance and misuse of God’s holy word, and the litany of crimes against him that are perpetrated every day, most notably the breaking of his Sabbath, the trampling of his sanctuary through “will worship,” the immoralities, hatred, and rebellion that characterize the world in our day, and, perhaps the most fundamental of all, the gross, culpable neglect of his word. Are we grieved by this, or have we become so accustomed to it that we hardly bat an eye? In all true soldiers of the cross, there is deep loathing of sin and its miserable consequences. We see the curse sin brought upon the Son of God. Each time we contemplate our Savior’s sacrifice, we witness afresh the evil of sin: that the only way for us to be made right with God was through his bearing the full judgment for our transgressions. Does this not forever set our souls on edge against the evil for which he poured out his soul unto death? There is only one way to have this spiritual hatred for sin. We must not practice sin, for all sin is warfare against God, against conscience, against the image of God in man, and against the cross of Jesus Christ. All sin pollutes the conscience, weakens the will, enflames the flesh, and corrupts the mind. Then, we must love holiness. How can we do this if we are playing fast and loose with sin. Yes, we are sometimes deceived into thinking that a little indulgence in this or that sin will not materially harm us, but this is sheer folly. Hating sin requires a holy separation, a practice of holiness, in the fear of God, a self-conscious, spiritual departure from the world: worldly men and worldly thinking. Continued interaction is necessary, but for our part, it must be “pulling the brand from the fire” rather than seeking spiritual common ground in the graveyard of unbelief. There is none.

Loving God’s Word and Hoping in Mercy (v. 159)

By calling upon the Lord to “consider how I have love thy precepts, David is not trumpeting his own goodness. Like Paul, he recognizes the effectual working of God’s grace in his life (Col. 1:29). What a blessing to be able to make this claim sincerely in the midst of so many distresses, enemies, and afflictions! Yet, before they come, if we have pushed God’s word away from us, we can have no legitimate confidence that he will deliver us in our afflictions. The horror of lacking this confidence is seen in Solomon’s words: “But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as a desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they shall call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1:25-29). If we would have God to hear our voice and help us in our distress, we must receive and love his word at all times. We must treasure it up in our hearts against the day of temptation and evil. And such days will come; they always have. It may be a particularly fierce or crafty temptation, giving into which will define your life for years to come. It may be “the sudden fear and desolation of the wicked” (Prov. 3:25), as when all their hope in armies, monies, and strength is overturned, ushering in societal turmoil and revolution. The Lord tries the hearts of men. The storms of life come upon both the wicked and the righteous (Matt. 7:25,27). It may seems like life is trudging along, each man doing what is right in his own eyes, forging his own reality, thinking that his life and goods are secured by his own efforts and ingenuity. The desolation of the wicked is coming; it comes throughout history; it comes unexpectedly; it comes progressively. Our only security lies in loving God’s word. Then, whatever comes, our hearts, being inclined toward God’s commands and promises, precepts and warnings, are stirred to pray, assured of his love and protection, and ready to suffer, if necessary, for the honor of his name. Since none of us loves God’s precepts as he should, we must pray to be “quickened according to his lovingkindness.” Our hope of his favor lies not in how much we love him but in how greatly he loves us. It lies not in our love for his word, for we are as unstable as water, but in how much he loves to show himself faithful to his promises. And see how loving God’s word and quickening by his mercy go hand in hand. Our Father puts the love of his truth in our hearts (2 Thess. 2:10). His treasured word permeates and transforms, working effectually in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight. Then, let troubles come, and our first thought will be not escape, fear, or self; it will be to seek more light from God’s word, more hope and courage, wisdom and stability. Then, as fiercely as the winds of affliction may blow, we have God for our help, for we have set our love upon him and look to him alone as our life and strength (Ps. 91:14).
The Utterly Reliable and Eternal Word (v. 160)

Listening to pundits and politicians, one would think that God’s word is the last thing of any relevance or assistance in distress. They never mention it, think of it, or suggest our troubles might be related to our departure from it. When anyone in the lower echelons of leadership, especially a rogue pastor here or there, brings forward God’s word, he is subject to ire and mockery. The West fears and loathes God’s word; this is the ultimate explanation for its demise and dissolution. There is only one truth in the universe: God’s word. It has been true from the beginning. Before the worlds existed, God existed; his truth existed with him. God brought the world into existence by his word. All its parts and laws operate by his word. God’s word is also the law of the human soul. Obey God’s word: joy and peace. Disobey God: judgment and misery. This is true at every level of created life. We find it personally true when, like God’s word itself, we are tried in the furnace of affliction. All our impurities rise to the surface. If we have received the love of the truth, we have a firm foundation for whatever comes. In certain seasons, some, like our Savior, have found very pressingly that it is truly and solely that by which we live (Matt. 4:4). And his righteous judgments endure forever. We shall never find a trial or hardship, a temptation or contest, in which God’s word will prove insufficient. His word existed before the world; it will exist when the world as we know it is no more. The Holy Spirit never tires of reminding us to build our lives upon this immovable foundation. No great acumen is required to see what is happening to the people of this land because they have chosen another foundation. They believe and love a lie. “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their own means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof” (Jer. 5:31)? When men turn from God’s word, devastation and judgment follow, and much more so now that the Lord Jesus Christ rules the nations with a rod of iron and smites the nation with the breath of his lips, which is his word. When the hope of the wicked perishes, when all their dreams and schemes crash upon the ultimate reality of God’s eternal word, there will be nothing they can do but blame others, rage against what they fear but will not confess, and try to hide from the wrath of God. Without a life built upon God’s word, you are utterly defenseless against evil and hopeless in calamity. But if we truly love God’s precepts and desire to be governed by him, afflictions and troubles will still come, but they will not overturn our faith and hope. Our Lord will reveal his power in our weakness. He will illumine our path by eternal truth. He will preserve us from temptation, encourage us in suffering, and use us to build his church. God’s word alone lasts, endures, strengthens, sustains, and stabilizes. How we must love it, give ourselves to it, and earnestly pray that he will quicken us by his Spirit so that we may live by his eternal word!