The Lord’s Day Evening
February 3, 2013
Not By Bread Alone
“Give Me Life in Your Ways, to the End, with a Whole Heart”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me again to Psalm 119. We’ve come to the section that runs from verses 33 to 40 which picks up on some of the themes that we saw the last time but which features a series of petitions which actually offer us a clue to what is going on in this passage. He continues to celebrate the importance of the Word of God in the believer’s life but there is an accent upon the work of God and divine grace in this passage that we don’t want to miss. Let’s look to God in prayer before we read His Word.
Our heavenly Father, Your Word is exceedingly rich and profoundly true and deeply searching. So often when we read the Word we come away feeling as if it is the Word reading us. It’s Your Word showing us things in our hearts and lives that we work very hard not to let other people see. And it’s this kind of searching wisdom that we come looking for tonight — spiritual discernment that comes from the Word which is powerful and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword that pierces to the joints and marrow, gets to the very inner essence of things. By Your Spirit, do this work in us that we might delight in You. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it. Psalm 119 beginning in verse 33:
“Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of our commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared. Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good. Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life!”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Once again we see the psalmist keeping together God and His Word, not allowing those things to be separated. It’s emphasized repeatedly, just like we’ve seen in the previous stanzas. Not just the statues of God but Your statues, O LORD; Your law, Your commandments, Your testimonies, Your ways, Your promise, Your rules, Your righteousness. It’s so important for us to remember that. We love God’s Word first and foremost because it’s God’s Word and we study God’s Word so that we can know God. We want fellowship with God. We want communion with God. And the Word is the way in which God has revealed Himself to us. And we love to study it not just so that we will know things and know true things, but so that we would know the one, true and living God. And the psalmist emphasizes those things once again in this passage just like he has in every stanza of this psalm that we’ve studied so far. But there are five things in particular that I want to draw to your attention tonight that strike me as I study this passage. We don’t have time to study all the themes that are here but let me choose these five and work through them with you.
And the first one is this, and you see it in the very beginning words of verse 33. And we’re going to look through the whole of this stanza together and identify eight times where this truth is pressed home. But here it is. The first thing I want you to see is this. The Law, the Torah, the Word, rightly understood, requires grace. The Law, rightly understood, requires grace. The Hebrew word behind Law is Torah, the instruction that God has given to His people — sometimes translated Word, sometimes translated other things. But notice here again a prayer that God would teach the psalmist His statutes. And it’s a repeated petition that occurs throughout the psalm. Just look with me at a few of the examples of it.
First, an appeal — “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statues.” Now the psalmist has repeatedly said, “I love Your Word,” and now comes a petition, “Lord, teach me Your Word.” Now think about it for a minute. Why? And then in verse 34, “Give me understanding that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” “Lead me in the path of your commandments,” verse 35. “Incline my heart to your testimonies,” verse 36. “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things and give me life in your ways,” verse 37. “Confirm to your servant your promise” — another one of the words for the Word. “Turn away the reproach that I dread for your rules are good.” “I love for your precepts.” Over and over the psalmist is praying for God to help him keep the Word.
Now why does he do that? He does that because salvation and the Christian life are impossible except by divine grace! If the Word of God, as glorious as it is, if this Word of God is given to us as a covenant of works, we’re done for! If keeping this is the way that we make ourselves right with God, we’re done! One of the reasons we repeat the Ten Commandments when we take the Lord’s Supper is to remind ourselves precisely that point. God calls upon us to keep the commands as a rule of life; that’s a blessing. But He doesn’t call upon believers to keep the commands as a covenant of works. It’s not the way that you are made right with God; it’s the way that you live life having been made right with God by the work of Jesus Christ in keeping those commandments on our behalf, in bearing the penalty in His own body on the tree for our not keeping those commandments. But saying those commandments at the time of Communion reminds us that we haven’t kept them. And if those commands were the way by which we were saved, we would not be saved for we do not keep them. And the psalmist, as much as he loves the Word, over and over in this stanza cries out for God to help him obey the Word. Why? Because the Christian life is impossible except by divine grace. In other words, if you understand the law correctly, you will understand the necessity of grace. If you read God’s Word rightly, you will never assume that you have the intrinsic power to keep those words as a covenant of works with God. And the psalmist is reminding us of this here.
The apostle Paul, of course, also reminds us of that truth. And isn’t it interesting and providential that the question we would be studying tonight was on the tenth commandment? And do you remember? It is the tenth commandment that Paul tells us in Romans chapter 7 that taught him that the law is spiritual. That is, Paul is saying, “It was the tenth commandment that taught me that you cannot merely keep the Law externally and have kept it because the tenth commandment is a commandment of the heart.” Most of the time people can’t see us coveting. Sometimes they can see the results of our coveting but most of the time people can’t see us coveting. They don’t have that kind of spiritual x-ray vision to look into our hearts and know what it is that we want selfishly. And listen to what this psalm says. Verse 36 — “Incline my heart to your testimonies, not to selfish gain!” What’s he after there? Covetousness! He’s after the tenth commandment! Now the apostle Paul in Romans 7 says, “The tenth command not to covet taught me that I can’t keep the Law merely externally and then look at God and say, ‘I’ve kept the Law,’ because until I’ve kept the Law down to the very depths of my heart I’ve not kept it.”
And the psalmist reminds us of that truth here. And that means that as we study God’s Word and as we relish God’s Word and we delight in God’s Word that we’re getting that right is going to press us back onto His grace and it’s going to press us into dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We will long for the Holy Spirit to help us keep the Law if we understand what the Law is asking us to keep. That’s why we pray things like, “Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word.” Is that because there aren’t wonderful things in the Word? No, there are! But we’re so often blind to them! And so what are we asking? We’re asking the Holy Spirit, “Holy Spirit, don’t let us be blind to the wonderful things in Your Word.” There’s no problem with the Word; the problem is with our eyes, our spiritual eyes, our perceptions, our hearts. And so even as we read the Word we’re asking for God to give us a spiritual perception of its riches. The Law, the Word, the Torah, rightly understood, requires grace. Salvation and the Christian life are impossible except by divine grace. That’s the first thing that I want you to see from this psalm tonight.
The second thing is this. We need a spiritual discernment, a spiritual understanding and discernment if we are going to live the Christian life. It’s interesting that the psalmist does not pray for bare knowledge here. He’s not looking for bare knowledge. Bare knowledge, you and I can get without any aid of the Holy Spirit. We can memorize Bible passages, we can study Bible outlines, we can understand certain things that certain authors emphasize, we can pick up certain themes from the text, we can become just good readers and get much intellectual knowledge of the content of the Scripture, but what we long for is a spiritual understanding and discernment. Dear Charles Simeon of Cambridge, a century ago, said this, “A spiritual discernment essentially differs from a mere exercise of our intellectual powers. A man may have the richest stores of human knowledge and the most discriminating faculty in the branches of science and yet be under the dominion, the allowed dominion of his own lusts and passions. But spiritual knowledge is always accompanied with gracious dispositions. And for the sake of its practical effects alone is to be desired.”
Do you see what he’s saying? When the psalmist cries out — look at verses 33 and 34 — “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; give me understanding that I may keep your law,” he’s not asking for mere intellectual knowledge. He’s asking for spiritual understanding and discernment, a spiritual understanding that will focus his heart on the right things and will have in its product a unique and gracious way of life. This is the kind of knowledge, this is the kind of understanding that the psalmist wants. It’s so important for us in a church where, thank God the study of the Bible is valued. That has been a hallmark to God’s glory alone of this congregation for 175 years. It is one of the reasons it is a sheer delight for those of us who get the privilege to do it, to teach and preach in this congregation. I promise you that the women who teach the women in the church Bible studies and the Sunday school teachers who teach in the Sunday school classes and the preachers who get to preach in this pulpit and elsewhere will constantly comment on the way that the people of this congregation are hungry for the Word of God. Thank God for that.
But our desire is not for mere intellectual knowledge of the content of Scripture. We want our minds to be given spiritual understanding and our hearts to be given spiritual discernment so that our desires are right and so that it leads to a gracious way of life. The Word of God — we want the Word of God to have its way with us. We want the Word of God to produce its fruits in us. And it’s possible for us to know a great deal about the Word of God and not possess that kind of spiritual understanding. And the psalmist is so wise to pray this petition, “Give me understanding!” He doesn’t just assume that he can open up his Bible and study it and have that understanding. He craves it from God. “Give me that understanding, O God!” That’s the second thing I want you to see.
THE ESSENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
The third thing is this. Delight in God, delight in God and His Word, is the very essence of the Christian life. Notice verse 35. “Lead me in the paths of your commandments, for I delight in it.” The very fact that the psalmist prays that prayer, “Lord, lead me in the paths of your righteousness. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it,” is evidence that God’s Spirit is at work in his heart to give him a delight in God’s commandments, for delight in God and His Word is at the very essence of the Christian life. God wants us to obey His Word because we delight in it. He wants it to be a willing and joyful obedience, not some sort of a burdensome, hard, cold, bare thing. He wants it to be the joy and delight of our hearts.
Did you notice how we sang about that in the very first song? Take out your hymnals again and look at number 700. “Come, we that love the Lord and let our joys be known.” Why? Because we delight in God and His Word. It isn’t some burdensome thing. This is the most joyous, delightful thing in the world to know God and His Word. The world wants to tell you that the way of God’s Word, that is the way of repression! That is a sure way not only to rain on your own parade but to rain on everybody else’s parade! And the psalmist says, “You’ve got to be kidding. No, no, no. The way of God’s commandments is the way of delight.” And the only way you can walk in the way of God’s commandments is in the way of delight. There is no other way.
And then the song goes on. “Let those refuse to sing that never knew our God, but children of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad!” And you’ll see that theme throughout the rest of that hymn. Delight in God, delight in His Word, is the essence of the Christian life. Or, to quote Charles Bridge, the author of a wonderful commentary on Psalm 119, “Delight is the marrow of religion.” If we’ve heard the Bible’s message, if we’ve heard the Gospel’s call, if we’ve responded to Christ in faith, if we’ve been changed in our inmost being by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, if we’ve been converted, then we will delight in God and in His Word and there will be no earthly delight to compete with it. And this is so important for us to understand because it’s all we have, it’s all we have to fight our most challenging sins.
If a young man is trapped in the sin of pornography, the only thing that can deliver him from it is a greater delight, and if there is not a greater delight in God and His Word, there is nothing that can deliver him from that. If a man or a woman in an unhappy marital union is tempted either to infidelity or simply to leave, there is nothing that can fight that temptation except a greater delight. And I can go down a whole list of sins. Every one of them has to be fought with delight. It’s what Thomas Chalmers called, “The expulsive power of a new affection.” The only way you can get a heart sin that has gotten hold of you, the only way you can get any leverage on it is in a greater delight. This has been one of the themes of John Piper’s ministry for thirty years now — to fight temptation with superior delight, to fight temptation and sin with superior joy, to mock the faux-joys that are offered by the sins of this world with real joy, with deep joy, with lasting joy, with joy that nothing can take away from you, joy that’s better.
And the psalmist is saying here, “I delight in your commandments.” And that in and of itself is the work of God’s grace in him that he can delight in God’s commandments. It’s one of several phrases in this passage that only a regenerate Christian can say. You know, no unbeliever can say, “I delight in God’s commandments.” No unbeliever can say, “I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life!” There’s so many phrases. These are all phrases of those who know grace, who know God, who’ve been embraced by the Gospel, who trust in Christ. But the third thing I wanted you to see is simply this again. Delight in God and His Word is the essence of the Christian life.
THE GOAL OF CHRISTIAN LIVING
A fourth thing is this. What’s the goal? What’s the goal of this psalmist’s love for God’s Word, delight in God’s Word? What’s the goal? The goal, the goal of Christian living is fellowship with the Lord Himself. This is emphasized in different ways but just look for instance at verse 38. He wants the promises to be confirmed to him, and we’re going to come back and look at that phrase in just a minute, so that what? “So that you may be feared.” Now again, that is not the fear of dread — “Oh no, God is going to blast me into oblivion!” That is that filial affection, the affection of a son to a loving Father which holds the Father in such reverence and awe, and Calvin said, “that we would not wish to offend Him by sin though there were no hell.” So what’s the point? The confirming of the promises of God are going to lead to what? The psalmist’s reverence and awe of God because what he wants is the Lord Himself. He wants fellowship with the Lord Himself. He wants communion with the Lord Himself. That’s what he wants.
Or look at verse 37. Here’s how it’s said here. “Give me life in your ways.” It’s repeated again at the end of verse 40. “Give me life in your righteousness.” The psalmist is saying, “I want to experience real life. I want to experience eternal life.” How do you do that? There is only one way! If you are not in fellowship with the one who is the way and the truth and the life, guess what? You don’t experience life! And the psalmist says, “Give me life!” Well in order to give him life, the only way God can do that is give him Himself! “You want life, here I am!” So that the end of this delighting in God’s Word, the end in this understanding of God’s Word, the end of being confirmed in the promises of God is all to fellowship with God, to enjoy communion with Him.
PLEADING GOD’S PROMISES
One last thing. And look back at that phrase that we just saw in verse 38. “Confirm to your servant your promise that you may be feared.” Here’s the last thing that I want to say. The psalmist here teaches us, as we see so many times in the Scripture, that prayer is pleading God’s promises back to Him. “Confirm to your servant your promises.” That’s a prayer, and it’s literally a prayer that God’s promises to the psalmist will be fulfilled. “Lord, fulfill Your promises.” That is exactly what the Puritans were talking about when they said that praying is pleading God’s promises. You go to the Scripture, you find God’s promises to you, and you pray them back to Him. “Lord God, You’ve told me there’s life for a look to Jesus. Give me life! You’ve promised that! Give me life! Lord, You’ve promised to never leave me or forsake me. I’m praying it back to You — don’t leave me or forsake me! Lord, You promised that I would dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Grant that I would dwell in the house of the Lord forever!” And on and on and on and on you plead the promises back to God. The psalmist is doing that right here. He’s pleading God’s promises.
But notice what that promotes. Praying for God’s promises and seeing God in His kindness answer your prayers as you plead His promises back to Him, promotes in you what? The true fear of God. Do you remember that passage that teaches us this? “There is forgiveness with You that You may be feared.” Don’t you love that verse? “There is forgiveness with You that You may be feared.” What’s the point? That the very act of God’s forgiving us makes us to love and revere and hold Him in awe and promote in us a true worship of Him. And here again the psalmist is saying, “Lord, when You confirm the promises that You’ve made in Your Word to me in my personal experience it just makes me love You, revere You, hold You in awe, worship You more.” That’s why it’s so important for you to plead those promises back to God, not only because God gives you the right things to focus on in life. Some people kind of treat God like a divine gumball machine where they’re going to put in their quarter and they’re going to get out whatever it is that they want. But God isn’t here to get you what you want that is other than what He says is what you need. God, in His kindness, is here to give you what you really need.
And how do you learn that what really is? By seeing what His promises are in the Word because those are what you really need. So instead of, with the country singer singing, “O Lord, won’t You give me a Mercedes Benz?” we go to God’s Word and we see what He’s promised and we say, “Ah, the loving heavenly Father has known that that is what I really need and so He’s promised it to me. Help me want that more because I’ve got my eyes on all sorts of other things I want right now. Some of them are perfectly good in and of themselves but I don’t know whether those are in fact the things that you really want for me, but I do know that these promises are things that You want for me, so give them to me, Lord.” And when we do and He does, what happens? We increase in our worship of God because our experience of His answer resonates in our souls. He is true, He is real, this is good.
Psalm 119 is about a whole lot more than just the Word of God and there’s a lot more to learn. Let’s pray.
O Lord, by grace, grant us that we would live the Christian life. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing?
Peace be to the brethren and love with faith, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, until the daybreak and the shadows flee away. Amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.