God's Word Will Bring Us Home

September 4, 2011 Series: Psalm 119 Scripture: Psalm 119:169-176 by Chris Strevel

169    TAU. Let my cry come near before thee, O LORD: give me understanding according to thy word. 
170    Let my supplication come before thee: deliver me according to thy word. 
171    My lips shall utter praise, when thou hast taught me thy statutes. 
172    My tongue shall speak of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteousness. 
173    Let thine hand help me; for I have chosen thy precepts. 
174    I have longed for thy salvation, O LORD; and thy law is my delight. 
175    Let my soul live, and it shall praise thee; and let thy judgments help me. 
176    I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.

The Cry of Life (vv. 169-170)

Whatever our trouble, we cannot be told too often that we must cry to God. And if we prayed more fervently when we were not in trouble, undoubtedly we would require fewer afflictions to teach us how needy we are. Scarcely one in a million feels his need so acutely, and thus, virtually all of us require strong adversity to drive us to our knees with the sort of whole-hearted crying to God that we find here. Yet, even when driven to prayer by the storms of life and the attacks of sin and wicked men, do we cry with the sense of urgency that shows we are seriously displeased with ourselves, feel our weakness, and cling to God alone? Thus, the Lord knows that we need this lesson again and again, for our security, peace, and very life in this world depend upon earnestly crying to the Lord – in every season. Whether or not we feel ourselves pressed is beside the point. If we are afflicted, of course, the Lord certainly invites us to turn to him, even if we suffer due to our own foolishness (Matt. 14:30-31). Yet, even if we seem to be at peace, do we not have abundant reason to thank the Lord for his mercy in giving us a period of rest and to seek grace from him so that we do not grow fat and sassy? How we must be awakened to our need of our Father’s assistance, even in the small things, for in these we often learn the self-dependence that brings so much weakness to us and makes us easy prey for temptation. The Lord must teach us our neediness, for we run from facing our true condition as if it were a plague. Even in learning to cry to him, then, he must take us in hand and be our teacher. Taught by him, we shall be struck to the quick by the vain delusions we nourish in our hearts: that we are strong and only need God in the really bad times.

To seek the Lord as we ought, not only must we be taught our true need by the Holy Spirit, we must also be persuaded that our Father’s ear is open to us. Not without reason does David twice say: “Before your face.” Unless we are sure of his favor, how would any sinner dare call upon the Lord? The guilt of our hearts makes God’s presence loathsome to us, dreaded, an encounter to be avoided at all costs. If we are to have the “confidence of sons,” if we are to “come boldly to the throne of grace,” we must know assuredly that the way to heaven is open to us, that our prayers are not simply the mutterings of fools and outcasts. This assurance we may have only in Jesus Christ. And it is really love for him that draws our faith to heaven and to prayer. He has gone there for us, “through the new and living way that he has consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Heb. 10:20). He suffered and died not only to make full atonement for our sins but also to be our “faithful and merciful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). Thus, knowing that through him we are reconciled to God, we “draw near with true hearts in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). We need for him to pray for us, as he did Peter, that our “faith fail not” (Luke 22:32), and the Spirit witnesses in our hearts that he truly intercedes for us, watches over us, and invites us to come to the Father at all times through him. Prayerlessness is really a form of Christlessness: not only in that we have no hope of God hearing our prayers except through him but also in that we do not truly love him unless we avail ourselves of such an unspeakably wonderful blessing of being invited to draw near to God through him and of having confidence that our prayers will indeed “come before his very face.” If we find our hearts cold in prayer, we may be sure that they are cold toward our Savior. Yet, if we will humble ourselves before him, confessing our sin and weakness, he will rekindle our love for him, and thus our prayers, by his compassion joined with power. His rising from the dead teaches us that however much sin and death may seem to have us in their grip, he reigns over them both, indeed, over the whole universe. All the malicious scheming of Satan, our own sin and weakness, and the hordes of wicked men cannot overcome his victory. He will never lose us if we continue crying to him and believing his promises.

In the midst of this same context in his own life, David did not forget God’s word. See here the way he prays for the Lord to “give me understanding according to thy word.” God’s word is our sure confidence, however weak we may feel and however much we are hounded by sin and tormented by the wicked. Moreover, we learn by this that our prayers, as well as all the answers we hope to receive from the Lord by praying, must be guided solely by God’s word. We cannot understand anything unless God himself teaches us. Our dependence upon his teaching us shows us what the posture of our lives must be: humbled by our frailty and sensing that waywardness is certain unless God leads us, we seek in prayer for the Lord to illumine us by his word. This pertains also, as we see in the next verse, to those times in which we seek deliverance from him from some specific enemy or temptation: “Deliver me according to thy word.” With respect to temptations, he has promised either that he shall preserve us from falling into them, as our Savior taught us to pray, or, if he knows we need some temptation to awaken us, humble us, or test our faith, that he will “deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). Whichever path he deems most fitting for us at a particular time, we have his promise that neither sin nor Satan shall finally get the best of us but that he will make a way of escape for us so that we shall taste of his victory (1 Cor. 10:13). When we are besieged, then, we are not to think that the Lord has forgotten us or his promises, or intends for us to be so overwhelmed by distress that we shall fail to obtain the victory. We must plead the promises of his word. In fact, so constantly do we sometimes find ourselves attacked by wicked men – for our Savior will have us share in his conflict so that we may taste also of the same sweet supports that upheld him, thus learning better of his power in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9) – that we have need to lay by as many promises of God’s word as we possibly can, for confidence in his unfailing faithfulness is our best defense against all of Satan’s fiery missiles. Such confidence is ours if we build our lives and all our hope upon his word. Then, let Satan roar and maraud as he may, and let the storms of life batter us almost senseless. God’s word will have the final say; he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13).

Praise and Confession (vv. 171-172)

Not only does the Lord bring adversity into our lives to teach us to depend upon his word alone, but he also brings us very low so that when we taste of his goodness, we might praise him. He will prove us to see what is in our heart (Deut. 8:2). Thus empting us of all the vanities upon which we rely, we are then able to praise him truly. But notice: we are usually led to praise the Lord with our whole hearts only after he has taught us his statutes. Nothing is more common when it comes to worshipping God than the vain belief that each believer knows best how to praise God. This has led to the very evil idea that worship is seeker-specific, that worship, in its content and tone, form and style, is a matter of personal taste. What counts is that the individual feels close to God and finds that particular way whereby he is most fulfilled in praising God. This is pure rubbish and highly offensive to the Lord. He must teach us to praise him, and he does so by his word alone. While each one of us has specific reasons to praise the Lord and unique instances of deliverances received and mercy shown, the way we praise him is learned solely from his word. We cannot trust our emotions, experiences, or reason. And it is often only the hard school of affliction that teaches us that our whole lives must be regulated by God’s word. Just as we have neither understanding nor hope of deliverance unless God fulfills his promises to us, so we have absolutely no idea how to praise God in a way that pleases him without that same dependence upon the word. He afflicts us so that we may depend upon his word; he delivers us so that we might praise him according to his word. The point could not be made more clearly: our hearts and lives must be so framed that whatever we think and feel, whatever praise and worship we offer him, is guided by his word alone.

Even as believers, so much of our conversation is wasted words and idle talk. There is very little of God’s faithfulness, of our Savior, or of praising him for the light he has given us and the deliverances he has accomplished on our behalf. But why has he heard our cried and delivered us? Is it not so that we might confess to others that “the Lord has had compassion on us” (Mark 5:19)? If we habitually bring our weaknesses and sins before the Lord, asking him to show mercy to us, then we shall speak of him. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). If we are conscious of having received mercy from the Lord, our words will reflect this. If the Lord has truly taught us from his word, we shall speak of his word. This sounds very simplistic, but such true, natural, and heart-felt religion has fallen upon hard times in the church. We roam the world looking for the key to extend Christian influence. We try this and that. Nothing, however, will substitute for having God himself teach our hearts. Nothing will replace having “tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and rich in mercy unto all that call upon him.” If we are touched by these blessings, we shall talk of God’s word. How must more sanctified our families would be if we spoke of God’s word at all times. “And these word, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:6-7). Yet, television, movies, and gadgets seem to speak more frequently in our homes than a father or mother whose hearts are struck deeply by the goodness and mercy of God. The same is true in our relationships with men in the world and businesses. What a different place our own nation would be if believers simply talked of God’s word! But we cannot talk about what is not in our hearts. We cannot speak of mercy if we have tasted it slightly or are self-consumed, as if mercies received from the hand of the Lord were deserved, expected, or blessings he gives for our private benefit. No; he teaches us so that we might teach others. He shows mercy to us so that we might speak of his mercy to the needy and afflicted. He hears our prayers so that we might praise him as the ever-faithful God who hears the cry of the humble.

O, how much we need true religion, for God’s word to sink deeply in our hearts and minds, to shape the way we think and the words we say. Pray for this work of God’s renewing, transforming grace and power, believer. We cannot win our families, influence our world, or be used of God to extend the stakes of Zion unless we have known the refreshing, delivering mercy of God and the power of his truth in our hearts. Words of praise and confession flow only from hearts humbled by God’s goodness. Is this not what our own families and men in the world need to hear again: sincere, selfless mention made constantly of God’s word? Humble confession of God’s faithfulness and goodness? It is no wonder that the church in this nation exerts so little true kingdom influence. Religion has become something we have consumed to make us feel better, satisfy our curiosity, or puff us up with pride. It exerts very little controlling influence upon our lives. We need for the Lord to fill our hearts with a sincere love of the truth that we might be saved (2 Thess. 2:10). Then, we shall talk of his word again, and our words will bear witness that we have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). Our words shall be irresistible for they will come from hearts held captive by the word of God.

Our Confidence in Trouble (v. 173)

If we want the Lord to help us, even in this matter of praising him and speaking of his word, we shall have to cast ourselves upon his help alone. Many pressures and temptations thrust themselves into our lives, and we are wholly unable to help ourselves or overcome them. But we shall never pray as David does here – and truly this Psalm is nothing but one precious prayer to our Father – unless we feel our weakness as we should. A sense of dependence upon God is the fountain of consistent prayer. It humbles us under his hand and fills us with energy in seeking him. Seeing that we are surrounded by so many enemies and our own hearts teem with corruption, should we not be touched every minute by our need for our Father to uphold us and his word to guide us? Sadly, we do not often feel this way, and thus we need constant reminders. His throne is open to us; he has pledged himself for to come to our aid. Whatever the need, however ferociously Satan attacks God’s truth, whenever we are brought low by afflictions and sins, our Father has taken upon himself the total responsibility for our salvation. He will never fail us. Clothed in our flesh to give us even more encouragement to come to God, our Savior promises “never to leave or forsake us” (Heb. 13:5). He is our “ever present help in time of need” (Ps. 46:1).This must be all our confidence in the world. If we depend upon ourselves, the smallest feather of temptation, the lightest gust of affliction will topple us.
Expectation of his help is inseparable from “having chosen thy precepts.” This is not because we merit his help by our obedience, for it is graciously offered from the Lord who owes us nothing and received by us who are at best “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10). Our confidence of his assistance, however, depends upon our being humbled by his mercy and longing for his guidance. This choosing is the mark of all true sons. Upon his conversion, Paul’s first expressed desire was: “Lord, what will thou have me to do” (Acts 9:6). Our Savior expressed this definitively by his anguished but resolute prayer: “Not my will, but thine be done.” You see, we must truly desire for God’s will to be done in our lives if we are to expect his assistance. This does not mean we are perfect but that we are humbled. And those who honor the Lord in this way, who forsaking the world and the flesh, desire to serve God alone, he will honor them by his timely, infinitely wise assistance (1 Sam. 2:30). Is this not what the word has done in every true servant of God – brought them to the point that they would rather die a hundred times than sin against God, choose contrary to his will, displease or dishonor him? Being humbled before his majesty, he has then shown himself ever faithful to defend and deliver them. Think of Noah building the ark for a century: who helped him when he must have suffered the most horrible ridicule and been tempted beyond measure to give up the task? Who sustained Abraham during his severe tests of faith? Joseph in Egypt? The three Hebrew children standing on the first commandment by faith when all they beheld with their eyes was the fury of Nebuchadnezzar? The list is endless. Those who choose God’s precepts, to be governed and led by him, may not only anticipate but also expect his help. It will come in ways we least expect: like the ram caught in the thicket; Gideon’s three hundred defeating an entire army; David over Goliath. It may come in quieter ways not evident or lauded by men: Joshua’s visit from the “Captain of the Lord of hosts (Josh. 5:14), Elijah’s ravens, Paul’s comforting visitation from the Lord Jesus (Acts 18:9-10). Or, it may be the check from a family member when all your resources are exhausted; the encouraging word from a fellow-believer when you were ready to give up; the promise of Scripture you have read a hundred times but suddenly comes in your hour of need with invigorating freshness and power. Whatever our need and trouble, the Lord promises to meet it, to sustain us, to come to us by his Spirit with power and strength – if we make him and his word our choice, our refuge, our hope.

The Longing of our Hearts (v. 174)

Longing for God and his salvation are the beating heart of true religion. David has spoken of his troubles, of his need for God to help him. Though these pressed upon him severely, he never ceased looking heavenward, desiring God, and longing to taste more of salvation. This is very big word. We tend to reduce it to “personal salvation from hell,” but in its broadest extent, it means “total deliverance from all evil.” It includes the evils of his life: all the trials, troubles, and toils we face as friends and children of the living God. It encompasses bodily and spiritual evils, mental and emotional. If you have ever experienced a fierce temptation or horrid illness, you know that your whole self is affected. Yes, you want physical healing, but your mind and spirits also suffer. We are a psycho-somatic unity; salvation is likewise one. There is only one who can save us: “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Isa. 33:22). “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee” (Ps. 73:25). When this is the longing of our hearts, we may be sure that God himself put it there, for “salvation is far from the wicked” (Ps. 119:155). And this longing is sincere and will be granted when joined with this fruit: “And thy law is my delight.” That is, the reason we desire for the Lord to show his saving grace and power to us is because we delight in his word and promises. We desire to be delivered from all our distresses so that our delight may be realized in more heartfelt obedience and praise to him. Since our full enjoyment of salvation is yet future, David, an Old Testament saint, shows us that we must “look for the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). We should not be overly surprised if we have constant need on earth to long for heaven. We shall partake of the sufferings of Christ; in some measure, every believer will come to feel his cross, though in different ways and degrees (1 Pet. 4:13). And what is our great hope? That God will give us heaven on earth? Make our way easier? Remove all obstacles now? No, the glory is “after” (1 Pet. 1:11). On earth, longing is our path. But we cannot long unless we are quickened with a true and earnest faith in God’s promises, unless he himself is the desire of our hearts. If we are consumed with earthly loves and desires, weighed down by many cares, little energy will be left to set our face toward God’s eternal city, even to pray more meaningful in the present to taste of our Father’s promised salvation. Longing, then, requires for us to have times of quietness and stillness before God: to take inventory of our true needs, to face our sinfulness honestly, to reckon with the great enemy that opposes us, and to lay hold upon God’s promises. Longing is the fruit of brokenness before God, honesty with self, and, above all, frequent partaking of the word. Notice – that we have seen this so many times shows how important the Holy Spirit knows this lesson is – David’s equating “longing with salvation” and “delight in the law.” These are aspects of the same thing. To hope for salvation is to delight in God’s word: to obey it, for all men everywhere to honor God and his word so that they do not think or speak of him without the highest veneration and honor, as Calvin once wrote; to want more than anything else to enjoy the full liberty of the sons of God so that the desire of our heart may be granted: to know and obey, love and serve, glorify and enjoy God forever. His word shows us the path. Al our delight must be in it.

Living to Praise God (v. 175)

Why do we live? To live as we please, have what we want, be left alone to pursue our own interests? Against such miserable blindness, here we find the secret of life. The reason we live is to praise God, to live for his pleasure, to offer our bodies a living sacrifice to him (Rom. 12:1). We do not cry to the Lord or plead for deliverance except to magnify his name. We seek his help so that upheld by his power alone, he may lift us up to sing and rejoice in his mercy and faithfulness. Why do we delight in his law? It is not so that we can master doctrinal and ethical systems, argue down the stubborn, or feel satisfied with our superiority. When God subdues our hearts to teachableness, we love his love because it teaches us to the way to live – so that we may praise and please him. We were redeemed for this privilege and purpose: “that we might show forth the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Now, there are many things in this life that dampen praise: afflictions, sin and temptation, the vexing audacity of the wicked, the weakness of the body, the dishonor done to God’s name. These things truly weigh us down, so much so that at times we can barely cry to God, much less sincerely praise him. Ah, but the roots of living faith are sunk down deeply into the word of God. Here we learn of his love and purposes, his sovereign power, and his unshakable faithfulness. As we seek help from his judgments, which is nothing else but to be led by his word alone, faith overcomes all these obstacles and rejoices in the darkest trials (Acts 16:25). Faith sees God’s hand in them, his loving purposes in them, his wisdom and glory in them. This singing is no creation of our will or affections. Like faith, it is the work of divine omnipotence. Desiring help from God, to live by his word, we praise him sincerely. Finding that he has heard our cries and delivered us, we sing again. It is our delight to do so: “The righteous man sings and rejoices” (Prov. 29:6). Do we not have so many reasons to sing that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” should be on our lips constantly? Is our praising God not the echo of his own grace and mercy in our hearts? Let us seek God, seek to live, seek his word for one reason only: to praise God while we live with all our being (Ps. 104:33). Thus praising God, even in times of great testing and weariness, we shall find our burdens lightened and our souls refreshed. Is not heaven rejoicing in God’s saving power, his worthy Lamb, his faithful word? Why do you live? Is your life heavenly? Does it show heaven’s grip upon your soul? If you live to praise God, you are in harmony with him, with his purposes for the whole universe, and with the Son of God, our Savior, who sings his Father’s praises in the midst of his brethren (Heb. 2:12).

A Straying Sheep Seeking Rescue (v. 176)

We come to the conclusion of the ABC’s of true religion, and what a compelling ending it is! Perhaps written toward the close of his life, we do not find David congratulating himself on completing his lessons, as if he had already arrived in heaven, or boasting of having written such a magnificent song. Still less do we find any thought of retirement: as if he had learned everything and had no further need of God’s help. He speaks of himself as a lost sheep. Imagine: this holy man, devoted to God’s word, hoping in God’s salvation, still thinks of himself as “poor and needy” (Ps. 40:17; 86:1). He feels many wandering tendencies in his heart. In this life, this is the place to which God’s word constantly brings us back. It is also the reason we sometimes steer clear of God’s word, for we do not like to be reminded of our true condition. Yet here it is from God’s own mouth. All progress in holiness, all walking with God, all clinging to his word begins and ends with confessing our weakness to the Lord. Now we might think this is mainly true for those who are just starting out, but David confesses it as one who has made it a long way down the road. The more we walk with the Lord, the more humbled we are over our sinfulness, for the more clearly we see it. The more we stand for his righteousness, the more we do so in honest confession of our weakness, “watching ourselves lest we also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Young and old, strong and weak – all sheep, all in need of our Father’s guidance and governance: this is our true condition before the Lord. We have nothing that we have not received from him (1 Cor. 4:7), having nothing in which to boast except our weakness. Then and only then will our Savior’s power rest upon us (2 Cor. 12:9).

But it is not enough to confess our weakness to the Lord. We must pray: “Lord, seek me, for I am thy servant.” To ask the Lord to seek us is nothing but to state that unless he rescues us, we cannot find our way back to his fold. He must lead us home to himself. Thinking of his waywardness, David does not fall into despair – like Esau and Judas. He holds on to God’s commandments. In fact, he pleads his remembrance of God’s word as a reason for God to seek him. David has not forgotten grace; he is actually commending God’s grace back to him, for the only reason our troubles do not completely overturn God’s word in our hearts is because the seed of faith remains in us, even in the dark valley of temptation. There is always the remembrance of home: of our Father who loves us. Since we shall be sorely tested in this life, should not this motivate us to give ourselves to God’s word? When testing comes, to what shall we cling? When we find ourselves slipping on the narrow path, what will sustain our hope? God’s word hidden in our hearts is the inwardly written map that will show us the way back to God (Ps. 119:11). It will preserve us from sin; it will restore us when we sin. Thus, we have made some progress in God’s school if we have learned something of our true self from this Psalm. We are not strong but weak. We cannot save ourselves. Faith cries to the Lord; faith remembers his commandments. Faith struggles; faith overcomes because it is fed by God’s own word. Has not each one of us gone astray, like a wayward sheep, from the secure fold of God’s word and covenant (Isa. 53:6)? Can we not say: “Lord, please come and get me.” If we remember his commandments, his voice, if we desire him and delight in his word even while we struggle against the world, flesh, and the devil, he will seek us. He will never lose us. This does not breed careless presumption but calm, steady, grateful attention to God’s word. How will he never lose us? He has given us his word. When he gives us his word, he gives us himself. He has bound himself to us, sealing his eternal decree by the death and resurrection of his beloved Son. He will test and sift us. He will show us our true weakness. Otherwise, we shall never learn the first, which is also the last lesson of true piety. God alone is our strength. His word alone is our guide. All our blessedness and safety, praise and obedience, lies in sticking to his testimonies. Though we often wander, his word will bring us home, returning us to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25).