Psalm 119

Remembering God's Word

March 27, 2011 Series: Scripture: Psalm 119:49-56 by Chris Strevel

49   ZAIN. Remember the word unto thy servant, upon which thou hast caused me to hope.
50   This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.
51   The proud have had me greatly in derision: yet have I not declined from thy law.
52   I remembered thy judgments of old, O LORD; and have comforted myself.
53   Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law.
54   Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.
55   I have remembered thy name, O LORD, in the night, and have kept thy law. 56   This I had, because I kept thy precepts.

As Our Hope and Comfort in Affliction (vv. 49-50)
We often seem to be stretched to the breaking point. Admittedly, our sufferings are nothing in comparison to those of godly souls who in past times sealed their confession of faith with blood, and our burdens are certainly light when we think of the “eternal weight of glory” reserved for us in heaven by the power of God. Nonetheless, the Lord is always testing the righteousness, and we are sure to feel his hand sifting us in various ways, testing our loyalties and commitments, exposing our weakness, and breaking the world’s hold upon our souls. What are we to do when we find ourselves attacked by sin and temptation, when the “good we want to do” is left undone and the evil done in its place, or simply when we live in an age that has such low views of God and his word that anyone still believing the old doctrines and trying to walk in the old paths is dismissed out of hand as a lunatic, an ignoramus, or a blind bigot? Secularism, we must understand, is even worse than paganism, for at least pagans often manifested some fear of God and preserved religious, social, and family traditions, however blinded they were by sin and superstition. Secularism, on the other hand, is concerned only with man, money, and machines. There is no room for a soul, place for guilt, the fear of God, or any better goal than the enjoyment of one’s own possessions, pleasures, and preferences. Secularism, while epistemologically and ethically bankrupt, has proven to be a temptation too great for many churches in the west. This is evident by the movement away from truth to feeling, doctrine to experience, and authority to relativism. In some respects, it is more difficult to maintain biblical truth, hope, and ardor in our very tolerant environment than it was in former ages in which state persecutors hunted down and tormented believers. This is not an expression of longing for those days; it is to recognize the particular dangers of our own. When no claim about anything is taken too seriously, each man is a law unto himself. Then, to add to the horrible specter of this utter irrationalism, global statism rushes in to fill the void and offers a new Babel to preserve unbelieving societies from total chaos. In such times, the man who walks with God sincerely, with integrity, and quietly in holiness and truth becomes exceedingly rare. The foolish virgins become the norm: weary of watching and waiting, easily drawn into the world, uncertain, seeking security over principle.

Thus, we have as much reason as did David to plead God’s promises. We see here that our Father lovingly invites us to himself, for when he gives us his word, along with the faith to believe it, he binds himself to us forever. It is not enough, however, to know that God has said something somewhere that may help us. We must receive his word personally, for while he gave it through his Spirit to the entire church of all ages, he also extends to each one individually the pledge of his goodness and support. Even more, he says to “give him no rest” (Isa. 52:6). That is, having received his promises from his own mouth and knowing that they are sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ, we must hold them up before him constantly. Like Augustine once wrote, we must “bring before God his own handwriting.” Has he promised to help us when we are weak? We must depend upon this promise, bring it before him, and wait there until he gives what he has promised. Has he promised to provide for us, guide us, and protect us? What else is this but an invitation from his own mouth to call upon him in the day of trouble, for he will surely hear us (Ps. 50:15)? Do we require fresh invigoration with his mercies, renewed hope in the gospel, and clearer views of his beloved Son so that we may “know the height, width, breadth, and depth of his love, and thus be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19)? Since he has encouraged us to ask these things of him, and promised to give them to us, we have great need to be aroused to pray to him ardently and believingly. As we lay God’s own word, which he loves above all else (Ps. 138:2), before him, the word of his promise that he extends to all those who are in Christ, we possess an infallible hope that he will surely fulfill his word to us, for he is able to do for us and in us far beyond our understanding or expectation (Eph. 3:20).

By “hope,” however, David reminds us that we must depend upon God alone. As long as we put any confidence in the creature – whether ourselves, man’s schemes and promises, or human governments – we are not yet in the position of being able to put God in remembrance of his promises. The trust we are to have in him is exclusive. It is not as if we may trust ourselves somewhat, then fall upon God when we get into a scrape of our own making, and certainly not that we say, as many do, “Well, Lord, I am going to move ahead with this or that; stop me if it is not your will.” This is nothing but putting of God to the test, one that we have devised for no other reason than to do what we want to do while at the same time bringing God into it as a security measure or to alleviate our feelings of guilt about doing something we are by no means certain is pleasing to him. Hope is confident expectation that God will do what he has promised. Hope implies waiting upon the Lord, seeking him, not moving an inch without being persuaded by his Word, providences, confirmatory counsel on the part of godly men, that what we contemplate is indeed in agreement with his word and will therefore be blessed by him. Moreover, David seems to speak from experience: “upon which thou hast caused me to hope.” He had seen God’s faithfulness to his word in the past. Whatever his present difficulty, he was confident that God would do for him as he had always done: show himself faithful as we hope in his word. Thus, he put him in remembrance of his word and sought nothing but to enjoy fresh outpourings of his faithfulness and goodness. It will not do, however, to put God in remembrance of his word if this is not the course of our lives: to live as we wish most of the time, only to call upon God when life becomes bleak. No, we are to hope only in his word at all times, especially times of affliction. And we may have confidence that these latter will be glorious occasions for the Lord to show his power and love for us if they flow from a course of life in which we are seeking the Lord, calling upon him in prayer, and seeking no other good, life, or blessing but those which he has promised to us in his word. To walk in such a way, each one of us must put away our vain self-confidence and worldly delusions. All the help, wisdom, and promises of men are nothing but a puff of smoke. We must remember his word, respond to his personal invitation to call upon him familiarly, and ask him to keep his promises for us as we are his servants and devoted to his fear, hoping only in him and watching for him to glorify his name by coming to our aid in fulfillment of his promise.

And to this David professes to the Lord that his only comfort in affliction is the hope that his word will “quicken” him once again (v. 50). In other words, David tells the Lord frankly that the only thing that is sustaining him during his troubles is hope in God’s life-giving word. He speaks from past experience; he speaks from a sense of present need; he speaks with a fervor that is difficult for us to understand until we ourselves are so emptied of dependence upon our own wisdom that we are led by God’s Spirit to rest in God’s word and faithfulness alone. If our prayers are to have an “edge,” if we are to overcome that kind of drowsy praying where our prayers are little more than talking to ourselves, we must be driven to a spirit of longing and supplication in which we call upon God according to his word and look for nothing else than for him to hear us and give what he has promised. In short, we must have no other comfort than the living God, the knowledge that he loves and hears us, has made promises to us, counts us at his sons and daughters, and pledged himself to come to our assistance when we call upon him. Is this all our comfort in affliction? God himself? That his word quickens us exactly because it is his word? If we make God and his promises in his word our hope and comfort, he will never fail us. However dark a season of testing and affliction may be, however utterly reduced in circumstances we may feel ourselves to be, we may count upon God’s word to raise us up on high.

Here is a marvelous thing, the source of “invincible constancy,” and an immovable anchor for our soul in difficult times. We may be tried to our wits’ end, have ample cause for despair, at least if our lot is considered by mere human judgment, and feel that we are utterly destitute. We may have fallen again into a bitter sin. We may be stricken with disease, lose a loved one, or feel like Elijah: “I am left alone.” Nevertheless, God’s word is able to quicken us; it will quicken us if we make it our only comfort exactly because it is God’s own promise to us. Do we feel weighed down with sin and grief, that God’s hand is heavy upon us for our sins? The promise comes: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). Are we afflicted in ways that appear beyond our ability to bear it? The word of our Savior comes to us: “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness?” (2 Cor. 12:9). Do we feel like wandering sheep, without a guide or friend in the world? Ah: “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). Is the world pressing us hard, the hordes of ungodly men making us afraid? We hear our Lord’s joyful voice: “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33); and, “The Lord sitteth upon the flood; surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him” (Ps. 29:10; 32:6). Do we wonder how we shall pay our bills, find sufficient food, or take care of our family? Then, this wondrous promise floods our soul: “Will he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt. 6:30). There is simply no test, hardship, occasion for suffering, or temptation in which the Lord is not able to quicken us, to make us alive again, and to fill us with hope if we will give ourselves fully to his promises. Thus, we should, as James says, “Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (James 1:2). It is certain that we come to know best the quickening power of God’s word not in seasons when all is going well but in those that we are so tested and emptied, as our Savior was, that we are brought to cast ourselves upon the mercies of our Father alone. In fact, there are some promises of God’s word that only the sorely afflicted come to appreciate for all their life-giving power. Not one of us, however hard our circumstances, can ever exhaust the quickening power of God’s word. When such times come, and our Father wisely distributes them to us according to his knowledge of what we truly need for our growth in grace and greater dependence upon him, we must earnestly pray, “Lord, remember your promises upon which you have caused me to hope.” Then, we shall learn that his word is truly our rock and refuge, that his name is our high and impregnable tower, and that our whole security and happiness lies in reposing in him alone.

When the World Mocks (vv. 51-52)
The world cannot but ridicule such a hope. It only understands the hope of the fool: that man on his own will somehow find a way out of the darkness, that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and all such vain expression of trust in man. The man of pride will not allow him to think of God in his difficulties, except to curse him. He laughs at the thought of God’s judgment, thinks he shall never be moved, and curses at the obstacles that hem in his way (Ps. 10:5-7). The reach of his pride does not end there. He turns it upon the righteous. When the righteous tremble before God’s judgments, he mocks and grows angry. When the righteous humbles himself before the hand of God, he lifts himself higher, puffs out his chest farther, and dares brace himself to stand before the whirlwind of God’s majestic works. Is not our age filled with ridicule for the word of God? Does it not mock the hope of the righteous? Does it not regard all those who warn it of sin, righteousness, and judgment with complete contempt? Yes, and it always has. Pride hates confrontation. Pride hates God. It will tolerate no reminder of its true weakness, insufficiency, and precariousness. And it often turns its fury, as David’s enemies did, upon those who make the Lord their only hope. This pride comes in a variety of forms. One of the most bitter and tempting for the righteous is that unspoken contempt of neglect, media blackout and censorship, and refusal to offer “equal time” for those of religious persuasion. It is as if our entire age, even while all our unbelieving institutions are smoking under the wrath of God, still has enough strength left to curse the righteous, ridicule his faith in God’s word, and treat him with utter disdain.

And how are we to respond to such a wall of pride? Our hearts burn feverishly within us. Love for God’s honor is not completely eradicated from our midst. There are those who cry out in warning, like Noah, Elijah, and Jeremiah – lonely souls armed only with confidence in God’s word. We are not to allow ourselves to be influenced one whit by the prideful scoffing of men. In fact, the more we see men rushing headlong to their own destruction, the more steadfastly we are to cling to God’s word – not just inwardly, as if God’s reign in us is simply a private affair of the heart – but boldly proclaiming another King, one Jesus, calling upon men to repent, and showing by our own brokenness and humility before God that there is a God in heaven before whom all must repent or surely perish. This is a vital way we remember God’s word in prideful times. We do not seek to water down the claims of God’s truth. We may not make common cause with God’s enemies, follow their methods, or seek to make peace with their expectations and goals in an effort to thrust ourselves forward into public debate. It will not do. Christ and Colossus, the city of God and the city of man, light and darkness, are antithetical. We go forward not by compromise and synthesis but by reformation and transformation in terms of God’s holy word. We bear our Savior’s cross patiently, joyfully, and partake of his afflictions. And this begins at the level of the individual, as we see with David. “The proud have had me greatly in derision.” As a child of God, David was God’s representative; David’s hope, faith, and comfort challenged and provoked the unbelievers around him and brought their ridicule upon his head. His response was to confess allegiance to God’s law and seek greater commitment to it, not to depart from it one inch for any reason. And it is compelling that this word “decline” can mean “to stretch, bend, bow.” The forces opposing the godly at every level seek exactly this response from their mockery: to cause the righteous to back off just a little, to give up some of the more pointed doctrines, to encourage just a little compromise. One begun, this path is a slippery slope. Declining from God’s law even slightly means that more departure will be forthcoming; any stopping place along the way is purely arbitrary on our part. The creep of compromise, theological, political, or personal, is a slide that, once begun, inevitably moves further from God’s truth. The only sure road is to remember God’s word, hold it firmly, and the more ungodly men spew their venom against it, the more boldly and steadfastly we confess it before them.

Where shall we find the courage to do so? The old paths are not much frequented today; it is easy to be deceived by the siren call of “relevance” onto the broad path. We remember God’s judgments of old (v. 52). We must, as our Savior did, “commit our souls unto him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). “Fiery trials” should not be thought a strange thing for us (1 Pet. 4:9,12). Can our Head be so hated and ridiculed while we escape through life without sharing in his sufferings? We once knew this and willingly took up his cross, but much that has happened in the west over the past two centuries, not least the allure of prosperity and peace as the fruits of a certain economic system rather than of faith in God and steadfastness to his covenant, has deceived us into forgetting it. We have become cross-averse. Therefore, it is a great mercy that God’s word is filled with instances his judgments against the wicked, of historical examples setting forth the cause and effect relationship of sin and judgment, righteousness and blessing. Believing these, holding up before our languishing eyes of faith the inspiring examples of steadfastness in the face of opposition and God’s judgment against his enemies, we may become bold again, hardened for battle, and even rejoicing again when we are “counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41). This is the way, moreover, that we are to use the historical sections of Scripture, for this is the way Scripture uses them (Rom. 15:4). We are to use every instance of God’s judgment against the proud and wicked city of man, each godly man’s stand for truth in the face of apparently insuperable obstacles, as fire to fuel our faith in God’s sovereignty, his justice, and his commitment to us. God’s judgment against Egypt, for example, is paradigmatic for the continual war the Lord of hosts wages against the hordes of ungodly men (e.g. (Isa. 51:9-11; Heb. 11:29; Jude 1:5). The flood and God’s judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah are similarly used as instances of God’s deliverances of the righteous and infliction of terrible wrath upon the wicked (2 Pet. 2:5-9). These examples, while notable, are not isolated; they may be multiplied exponentially in personal circumstances in biblical and more recent times. The Judge of all the earth always does right by his people (Gen. 18:25). “It is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” (Thess. 1:6). The book of history marvelously confirms the book of divine revelation. The wicked may spread themselves proudly like a great bay tree, but the righteous, who “give God no rest,” “possess their souls in patience,” and “commit themselves to him who judges righteously” will certainly be vindicated. God honors those who resist the onslaught of the wicked by looking to him as their only Shield and Defender. They will look again and not be able to find the wicked (Ps. 37:26). This is the grand lesson of history and the reason we should pore over God’s mighty works of judgment with great delight. They steel our nerve; they enflame our faith; they quicken us to stand against the taunts and ridicule of men; they make us diligent in persuading men, for we know the terror of the Lord against the wicked (2 Cor. 5:11).

So that We are Horrified by the Wicked, but Sing as Pilgrims (vv. 53-54)
Sadly, this is not the response we have been making to the builders of the city of man. We seem mesmerized before their decadence, titillated by their license, and generally cowed by their bright lights and bold claims. If we remember, God’s word, however, if we call to mind his judgments, if we keep the loveliness of our Savior before our eyes, we will be horrified by the deeds, words, and schemes of the wicked. By this word horror, which implies a raging heat, a burning within us for God’s honor and purity, the Holy Spirit hereby announces no middle ground between light and darkness, no détente between the two cities, no peace between God and the wicked. Even more, he hereby tells us that the only way we shall keep up our courage, our guard, and our vigor is if, by calling to mind God’s holiness, the brightness of his glory, and the perfection of his word, we are deeply, passionately grieved by the slights given to God, the ridicule of his Son, and the dishonor shown to his law and gospel. You see how quickly David’s thoughts turn from the insults he has received personally (v. 51) to the insult arrogant men heap upon the living God each and every day. As Christ lives in us, transforming us from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord, far from growing more comfortable, slightly enamored with the escapades of the wicked, we are scandalized by them, as he was and is. We are astonished that men would hold his law in such contempt. We are not intrigued or envious of the wicked (Ps. 73:3; Prov. 24:19). We do not wish we could be more like them or share in their pleasures. The more brazen their rebellion, the more fearful we are of God’s judgment. Like our Savior, the more the zeal for our Father’s house consumes us – his zeal, for he works a similar fervor in all true citizens of his kingdom. This is the only way to “keep ourselves unspotted by the world” (James 1:27) – when love for God and for his honor create and sustain within us a holy hatred of all that offends God, when we loathe our own inclinations to the same, and when we seek from God such a zeal for his name that sin is loathsome to us. Then the wicked, far from being an attraction, will be like so many lepers, trying to contaminate us by their plagues. Then, we shall be able to blush again (Ezra 9:6; Jer. 6:15; 8:12). Then, since we know ourselves to be recovered sinners, made what we are only the undeserved mercy of God, zeal to rescue these burning brands from the fire will take hold upon us. Be careful here: religious zealots and moral censors are always viewed by the world as nothing but those who are either guilty of the same sins or would pursue them if they dared. The horror of righteous men, however, is never arrogance, legalistic narrowness, or guilty zeal that is really an effort at self-atonement. It is the warm feeling and heightened sensitivity of God’s friends for the honor of his name, the purity of his word and worship, and the exaltation of his Son. And when we find such forsaking of God’s law in us, our repentance should be like the Corinthians: zealous, enflamed, indignant at ourselves and our sins, vehemently desiring to return to all the ways of God’s commands (2 Cor. 7:11). And, we should feel estranged from the world, a feeling that will grow stronger the more our particular age manifests rebellion against God. David speaks of the “house of his pilgrimage,” which means that as he sees the wicked exalt themselves against God and his truth, he feels like a pilgrim and stranger in the earth (Heb. 11:13). We should not feel at home amid the white-washed tombs of the city of man, graves masquerading as technological prowess, economic control, and sensual pleasure. Our citizenship is in heaven, not in this world, and while the Lord walked here and calls us to live and serve him here, we must never forget our destiny, our home, and our haven. All our affections are heavenward, Christ-ward (Col. 3:1-3). All we do on earth is aimed not at lasting earthly glory but eternal heavenly glory, for we know that this world shall be folded up like a garment and give way to the new heavens and earth, in which righteousness dwells. But are we morbid ascetics? Does the horror that takes hold of us lead us to gloomy thoughts on earth, a listless longing? Is our existence on earth mere a passive waiting for the life to come? Absolutely not. We sing God’s law. Herein lies heavenly balance. While we feel so pressed that our only comfort and hope in God’s word, while we look expectantly for his judgments, we at the same time sing and rejoice. We have a continual feast; we are happy and cheerful, glad with exceeding joy even in the most adverse of circumstances (1 Pet. 4:13). It is God’s word that supplies the feast. It is a rich banquet, even heavenly manna of which the world knows nothing. Its ditties and ballads of forbidden love and sensuous delights, its choruses of rebellion are its death dirges. When men sing of the flesh, you may sure that the death sentence is already upon them. But the fragrance of heaven has descended upon its heirs. They delight in the songs of Zion, the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that hail the dawn of a new age, of Christ’s sacrifice, resurrection, and reign. They sing of justice and of mercy. They sing of God’s righteous, wondrous law. They sing of God’s rich promises, his past faithfulness, and his present aid. They sing even as the city of man taunts, mocks, and persecutes. Heaven in the soul leads to praise on the lips. Many will hear it and be glad (Ps. 34:2).

Even in the Night (vv. 55-56)
There is not a time in which we ought not to remember God’s word, even in the night. Some take this as a metaphor for darkness, but this is too subtle an interpretation. Rather, as David’s theme in this section has been “remembrance,” after considering the battles and temptations of the day, he turns to his thoughts upon his bed. As sweet as is a good night’s sleep, for the soul to be engaged in meditation upon God’s word throughout the night is far more blessed. Such sleep refreshes not only the body but also the very soul, so that it may rise refreshed to serve God, defend his honor, and bear our Savior’s cross in the morning. It is when our thoughts are thus preoccupied with God’s thoughts that we gain strength for the keeping of his word. Do not listen to worldly music as you go to sleep. Do not worry fret about the past day or worry about tomorrow. Remember God’s name in the night. And what is God’s name but the revelation of his word and works, of his faithfulness and promises, of his pledge to us to be our God and Savior, since he so highly honors us by calling us after his name? Think on these blessings, on mercy received, pledges fulfilled, divine assistance extended, provision granted. This will fill the heart with peace, the soul with satisfaction. It will make us more zealous in the keeping of God’s word on the day following, as David here affirms. You may tell a great deal about your true self by the thoughts that close your day, the prayers, the meditations, the hopes. If they are upon God and his word, you may be sure that the Lord has remembered you even as have remembered him. It is one of our chief blessings that our Father promises “to instruct us in the night seasons” (Ps. 16:7). He does not give such thoughts to all but only to his own children, those with whom he closes the day with a pledge to “sleep not, nor slumber,” but to watch over them with untiring vigilance, providing, guiding, and blessing them with the sleep he gives to his beloved (Ps. 121:4; 127:2).

And whence comes this blessing? Obedience to God has its own reward. David says, “This I have” – hope and comfort, godly horror and singing, steadfastness in standing for God and zeal for his name, sweet thoughts upon his bed, and peace in the midst of affliction – “because I kept thy law” (v. 56). This is the same as the “grace unto grace” and “strength unto strength” that are held out to us as the consummate earthly blessings (John 1:16; Ps. 84:7). We might paraphrase this entire section: remembering God’s word at all times leads to “obedience unto obedience.” And what is more miserable than not to obey God? To have no hope and comfort? To love what you should hate and hate what you should love? To have tumultuous, worried, and fretful sleep? All this weakness comes from not obeying God. All the blessings in this section are promised to us as we remember God’s word, his judgments, and his name. This places obedience in an entirely different, a far more glorious light than we are accustomed to thinking of it, especially in our age in which any limitation to my “doing what I want to do” is received with opposition and anger. For us, keeping God’s law is the sweetest imaginable blessing. Do we need incentive to do so? Remember that the reward of obedience is strength for more obedience, greater zeal for God, steadfastness in the face of the onslaught of the wicked, singing in the midst of hardship, hope in affliction. This is our destiny if we dedicate ourselves to remembering God’s word and plead with him to remember it in faithfulness and love.