Which Way? Finding God's Way in the Maze of Life: Back to School! Covenant Counsel to Covenant People

Sermon by Derek Thomas on July 11, 2004

Psalms 119:97-112

The Lord’s Day Evening
July 11, 204

Psalm 119:97-112
“Back to School! Covenant Counsel to Covenant People”

Dr. Derek Thomas

Now, we began last Lord’s Day evening a series that’s going to take us through the summer. And it’s a series on the topic of guidance. We began gently last week to introduce the topic. I want this evening to take it a little further, and our text for this evening is in the 119th Psalm, beginning with verse 97, through to verse 112. Psalm 119, beginning at verse 97. Before we read the passage together, let’s pray.

Truly, O Lord, this is Your word. Holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Now help us, we pray, to read, and mark, and learn, and inwardly digest, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

“O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed Thy precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Thy word. I have not turned aside from Thine ordinances, for Thou Thyself hast taught me. How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! From Thy precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. I have sworn, and I will confirm it, that I will keep Thy righteous ordinances. I am exceedingly afflicted; revive me, O Lord, according to Thy word. O accept the freewill offerings of my mouth, O Lord, and teach me Thine ordinances. My life is continually in my hand, yet I do not forget Thy law. The wicked have laid a snare for me, yet I have not gone astray from Thy precepts. I have inherited Thy testimonies forever, for they are the joy of my heart. I have inclined my heart to perform Thy statutes forever, even to the end.”

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Now, Psalm 119 is God’s ‘alphabet psalm.’ It’s in twenty-two sections; the Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two characters. Each section begins and utilizes that acrostic, the alphabet of Hebrew. Now, some classic studies on Psalm 119, if you can get your hands on one by Charles Bridges, a wonderful Anglican of a former century, of the ilk of Charles Simeon, and a wonderful commentary on Psalm 119.

In 1819, William Wilberforce,2 social reformer in England most notorious for ending slavery in the British Empire–William Wilberforce wrote in his diary, “Walked from Hyde Park Corner…” (if you’ve been in London, you’ve been to the American Embassy, you’ll be just a few yards from Hyde Park Corner)… “…walked from Hyde Park Corner repeating the 119th Psalm in great comfort.” I’m not sure whether he did that from memory, or whether he was actually reading a copy of it. It’s a long psalm to remember.

Henry Martyn3, famous missionary to India and then, eventually, to Persia, Henry Martyn often referred to this psalm in his diary. He writes, “In the evening, grew better by reading the 119th Psalm, which generally brings me into a spiritual frame of mind.” It was a favorite Psalm of Blaise Paschal, who once said of it, “It contains the sum of all the Christian virtues.” And verse 59 was said to be his favorite verse: “I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to Your statutes.”

Well, you’ll also probably know that every verse, bar one, and if you’re going to ask, it’s verse 122, every verse, bar one, refers in some way or another to God’s law, or God’s precepts, or God’s ordinances, or God’s judgments. The Hebrew language has a slew of words, an entire thesaurus of words, including just the one Hebrew word which I’ll utilize is my own name: Derek. “Derek” in Hebrew means “the way.” And that’s one of the words that was utilized here in Psalm 119. Every verse, bar one, refers to God’s law, God’s precepts. And generally speaking, that is a reference not so much to the commandments and not so much to The Ten Commandments, and not so much to a civil law, or a ceremonial law of Israel, but to the law in the sense of the Bible. Because not all the Bible was available when Psalm 119 was written, but it’s a psalm that’s rejoicing in the Scriptures.

Let’s take for our meditation this evening, verse 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. The Bible is our Maker’s guidebook. It’s God’s way of instructing us, telling us that we are made in His image, that we are rational creatures, that we are to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest (to use the words of Cranmer’s liturgy4)–read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the contents of His word. All sixty-six books. All two-million-plus words. They contain God’s law, God’s counsel, God’s directive, God’s advice, God’s thoughts on every conceivable situation and contingency that we’ll ever likely to find ourselves in.

Our text, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,”–our text tells us that we have a journey to make, that we are pilgrims. Pilgrims making a journey, and that we must traverse through difficult places, through places that are going to be filled with all manner of darkness. And God’s word is going to be a light. God’s word is going to be a lamp in a dark place.

Yes, I come back again to The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Sam, you remember, entering Mordor in some dark, subterranean tunnel; heavy, black, thick darkness descends. Something is approaching. It’s an enormous spider. And you remember what Sam suddenly recalls? The lamp! The Phial of Galadriel, promised to him that in a dark place would shine and give him light. “Slowly his hand went to his bosom, and slowly he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind. It began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light. The darkness receded from it, until it seemed to shine in the center of a globe of airy crystal. And the hand that held it sparkled with white fire.” Well, if that doesn’t make you want to go and read the book, then forget it!

A lamp in a dark place. That’s the Bible. That’s what Psalm 119 is celebrating. Now, let me make three points, three applicatory points, as we think through this issue of guidance and as we focus especially on this section of Psalm 119.

I. Treasure the Bible.
First of all, treasure the Bible. Treasure the Bible. Prize the Bible. The psalmist isn’t being superstitious here about the word, about God’s law, about God’s precepts. What the psalm is saying is that the word is a lamp. It enables us to see. It may not at times enable us to see all that we desire to see, but it does enable us to see. It gives out light. I see something as a result of the word. It’s not treasure what you don’t understand; it’s treasure because you do understand, and you do see, and there is light cast before you so that you can see your way. He’s understood something, he’s received something. Instruction has come into his head and into his heart.

The Bible isn’t like some magic book, like repeating the words “abracadabra,” which folk used to wear as an amulet to ward off fever. It’s not like the mezuzah5, which Jews will sometimes place on the lentil of the doorpost at an angle, and inside of which is a tiny little scroll with the shema of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” and then, another text from Deuteronomy 11. And it’s put there, and it’s like a piece of superstition. The Bible isn’t meant to be utilized as some piece of superstition. The Bible profits you nothing if you don’t read it, if you don’t study it. If you don’t hold it before you and ask it questions, and interrogate it, and let it sift into your mind and into your rational being, and into your hearts and into your emotions, and into your wills. Treasure the Bible that gives you such light!

Now think about it: God’s plan of redemption. It involves calling Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans — I wonder if you could put that on a map — calling him and promising to him that from his seed would rise a great nation, and through that seed would come Messiah, born in Bethlehem. Where is Bethlehem? I wonder if you could put that on a map. Raised in Nazareth, ministered in a country smaller than Mississippi, and all of it two thousands years ago. Imagine if there was no Bible. Imagine if there was no written Scripture, and you were wholly dependent on the passing on of oral tradition. You know, “I know something that a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend has heard someone say, somewhere.” Imagine that’s all that you had.

Now, I’m not saying that God didn’t utilize oral traditions at times in redemptive history. He did. Before the writing of the Pentateuch, before Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible it was mainly by oral tradition. Before the gospels were written, many of the words and sermons of Jesus were handed on by oral tradition from one person to the other. But imagine, two thousand years later, trying to find out for certainty what Jesus said? What Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus?

And here’s the link between then and now: the written word of God. God insured for our benefit, for your benefit, my benefit, that this word would be written down, enscripturated, kept pure through the ages, so that this evening you can take out a Bible, and you can begin to read it for yourselves in your own native language, and be absolutely persuaded that it is the word of God, the word of the Living God. Jesus gave us the Bible. It was His promise to the disciples, that He would go away, but He would send the Holy Spirit, who would make all things known to them.

Now, liberals, of course, deny that God did this. And some deny that God could do that. But that is to impugn the wisdom of God. God in His infinite wisdom saw to it that you and I would have a Bible in our language, accessible to us. Prize it! Treasure it!

I’ve told you this story before. My grandfather on my mother’s side–he died when I was seven years of age, but he has a considerable influence on my life to this very day. And I share with him a love for music. And when he died, my grandmother kept his marvelous, astonishing record collection, and gave it to me when I was about sixteen years of age. And I was converted when I was eighteen, and in those first few months I came across one of these ‘fundies’ who told me that it was worldly and that I should get rid of it. Which I did, as an act of consecration to Jesus. And I sold it all for about five dollars. And if I could get those back! If I could know of some way, somehow, to undo that moment, because I treasure them. I could tell you the covers on the LP’s of Klemperer’s version of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” I can see the cover; I can hold it in my hands, and I sold it. I don’t want to say how long ago, but it was over thirty years ago, and if only I could get that back! because I treasure it, and I lost that treasure. You know, my friends, don’t ever do that to the Scriptures. Don’t do that to your Bibles. Treasure your Bible!

Jim Packer — J. I. Packer — wrote a book–not Knowing God–but God Has Spoken. It’s a textbook that I have at the seminary. In the first edition, and it will make a fortune, so buy a copy if you can see a first edition, get one, because eventually it’s going to be worth something–but, in that first edition there is a misprint. In the acknowledgements page, right at the beginning of the book, he acknowledges that he is using the RSV as the Bible — the Revised Standard Version. Except that it doesn’t say RSV, it says “RSVP.” But you know, in a sense, that’s what the Bible is. It’s God’s letter to us, and He expects us to send a reply. He wants the replies of our adoration. He wants the replies of our worship; he wants the replies of our praise! He wants us, in the morning, to read His word and send Him a letter, thanking Him for the gift of Scripture. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, it is the product of the out-breathing of God, and it is profitable for teaching and reproof and correction, and training in the way of righteousness. It’ll teach you about life. It’ll instruct you, it’ll guide you. It will reprove you when things go wrong. It will correct and tell you what things ought to be. And it will train you, it will instruct you in the path of discipleship, so that you might become mature, a man of God thoroughly equipped unto every good work.

You want to know what God’s will for your life is? And it starts here. God’s will for your life is that you be mature, is that you grow up in the faith. And for that purpose and to that end, Jesus has given you a Bible. He’s given you the Scriptures. Value it. Praise God for it!

The Moderator of the Church of Scotland, at the coronation of the sovereign (I’m in Britain now, you understand) —at the coronation of the sovereign, and the last one was in 1952, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland gives to the King or Queen a Bible, with these words (well, in 1952 it was these words):“Our gracious Queen, to keep Your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the gospel of God as the rule for the whole life and government of Christian princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.”Those are the words. “The most valuable thing that this world affords.” Treasure your Bible. That’s the first thing.

II. Know your Bible.
Secondly, know your Bible. There’s a very moving point in the Book of Joshua, when Joshua is taking over the leadership from Moses. In the first chapter of the Book of Joshua, “Be strong and very courageous…,” God says to him, “…being careful to do all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

‘Meditate on the Bible, Joshua’, he is being told.

Look at this psalm again. Verse 97 of Psalm 119: “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.” Look at verse 99: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation.” You know, John Owen has this remark: “What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything in particular? Because that will be indicative of your spiritual maturity. If you find yourself drifting off into meditation on the word of God…ah, would that be so!” If you don’t love exploring the Bible, if you don’t love studying the Bible, if your heart doesn’t skip a beat at the thought of starting a study of Ephesians, starting a study of the Gospel of John, or starting a study of Leviticus, or whatever it is…then, my friend, there’s something wrong with you. A doctor would say, if that were physically your condition, that you have no desire for food. There’s something wrong. And it needs to be remedied.

Take a look at this psalm again. Verse 96: “I have seen a limit to all perfection; but Your commandment is exceeding broad.” It covers everything, in other words! It covers behavior, and desire, and action and fantasy, and doings and broodings, and what Ezekiel 8 calls “the chambers of our imagery.” Yes, what we think about in our minds. Yes, God deals with us as adults. He doesn’t answer all of our questions. He asks us to think, and He asks us to be mature in the way that we read Scripture. Not every question is answered in the Bible directly. Some of it will have to be discerned. Some of it you’ll have to use rigorous logic in order to evaluate what an answer might be. But here in the Scriptures is God’s will. Get to know it, and get to learn it. Read your Bible every moment you’ve got.

The Reformation way of reading the Bible was to see that the Bible contains law and promises, and, yes, examples. Examples of godly men and godly women, who, in their lives as they conformed to the principles and precepts of God, gave to us and give to us patterns of godly and Christian behavior. Get to know your Bible. Keep a study book next to your Bible. Be disciplined about the way that you read your Bible.

Are you reading your Bible from cover to cover? I asked…well, I don’t want to be too specific about this, but I remember asking someone once, who was heading for gospel ministry, had he read the Bible from cover to cover? And with shamed face, he said, “No.” And it was a moment of revelation.

My friends, when you get to heaven and you meet Ezekiel, and you suddenly find yourself standing next to him, and he introduces himself as one of the great Old Testament prophets, and you say to him, “I’m very pleased to meet you. I’ve always longed for this moment, but I’m sorry, I just never got around to reading your book.” Get to know your Bible. Treasure it. Know it.

III. Obey it.
And thirdly, obey it. Yes, obey it. The Bible is to be obeyed. That’s what Psalm 119 is celebrating. That the Bible is God’s law. The Bible is God’s precept. The Bible is God’s commandment for us. “I have seen a limit to all perfection, but Your commandment is exceeding broad,” the psalmist says. And it contains instruction for every area of our lives. Look at verse 101: “I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep Your word.” Look at verse 109: “I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget Your law.” Get to so love the Bible that it is your daily prayer to want to keep it, and to obey it.

You want, my friend, to know God’s will for your life. You want to know what God would have you do in this situation, or that situation, in this context or that context. Turn first of all to the Bible.

Now, true, the Bible won’t answer specifically whether you should marry this person or that person, but it’ll help you get a great deal of the way. If you come to me and say, “God has told me to marry Miss So-and-So, only she’s already married, but God has told me that she’s going to get a divorce, and I’m going to be her husband,” I will tell you to go and read your Bible, and read it again, and read it again, because God isn’t saying anything of the sort.

Yes, the Bible gives us broad instruction, and sometimes we’re going to have to use what our Confession calls “the light of nature and Christian prudence” in order to apply the broad principles of Scripture to the context in which we find ourselves. But first of all, go to your Scriptures.

My friends, some of you, perhaps, may be at sea on the issue of guidance. And maybe, just maybe, the reason is you don’t know your Scriptures well enough. You don’t love your Scriptures well enough. And just maybe you’re not obeying the Scriptures as you should. Right, we haven’t answered all of the questions–not those specific questions of vocation that may be on your mind. Well, you’ll just have to come back next week. That’s where we’re going. But this evening I want just to lay that broad fundamental basis and platform: treasure the Bible, and know the Bible, and obey the Bible, and you’ll see God’s blessing on your life in every way.

Let’s pray together.

Father in heaven, as we close out this Lord’s Day, we are ashamed as we think of how little we treasure Your word. It lies for days on a shelf, or on a table, on the side of a chair, or beside a bed, unopened and unread, and unstudied. And we pray, Lord, have dealings with us even tonight. Help us to remove every obstacle, and give to us a love, a burning desire to know what You have caused to be written in Your word. Help us to treasure it more than our necessary food, and as we read it and study it and inwardly digest it, that it might be sweeter to us even than honey itself. Now grant Your blessing, O Lord, we pray. Forgive us all of our sins and set us as disciples on the pilgrim road that leads to the eternal city, and give us joy in our hearts, through faith in Christ. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

1. http://49.1911encyclopedia.org/S/SI/SIMEON_CHARLES.htm
2. http://www.brycchancarey.com/abolition/wilberforce.htm
3. http://96.1911encyclopedia.org/M/MA/MARTYN_HENRY.htm
4. Thomas Cranmer’s “Preface to The Great Bible”
http://www.bible-researcher.com/cranmer.html
5. http://www.jewfaq.org/signs.htm

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