Notes from “Exposition on Psalm 119, Part II”

This is an overview of the second part of Pastor Alistair Begg’s message available from the Truth for Life ministry on YouTube here.

TEXT:  Mem and Nun

Pastor Begg begins by addressing the repetition of thoughts and phrases:  “God has purposed that we take this to heart and understand it.” Yes, it is a form of poetry; yes it is a literary style wrought with the mind, hands and heart of love for its subject.  But at bottom, Pastor Begg has nailed the point of repetition in the scriptures. Like a gentle but driving rain, the Author seeks to saturate us in its truths.

In verse 72, the psalmist effuses the value he puts on God’s Word: “The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.”   This is repeated with emphasis in v. 103: “Oh, how I love thy law!” Pastor Begg puts that into modern application:  “better than my bank balance,..my retirement account, ….”

Let’s stop and ponder on that for a moment.  Can we name the thing in this world we love the most?  Do we love to read our bible and think on it? Do we love the Person whom it represents more than that one thing or person?  Do we elevate the law of God and the Person of Christ above ALL things?  This is what the psalmist is laying down for us and it is not light stuff.

Going back to Part One, Pastor Begg said the reason the Psalmist loved the law of God was because of its Source (it emanates from the mind and heart of a holy God); its substance (holy, perfect, and excellent law of God hand-in-hand with grace and love); and its strategy (it is “a plan for successful action that molds us in the likeness of Himself” for his and our joy).

God’s Word is summarized as being two-fold:  it a) provides wisdom and prevents wandering.

Synonyms

The psalmist uses synonyms for the law of God again and again.  It is the law, commandments, testimonies, precepts.  Clearly, in poetic language, he is rehearsing this fundamental truth under the inspiration of God. Pastor Begg doesn’t go into the variations each term gives; in my own studies I have seen that translators differ in how they switch out one term for the other, almost as equally interchangeable. Clearly, there are differences to seek out, but the main purpose is that all these terms mean God’s Word, or Law, or Instruction.  As such, they are not negotiable.

The Word of God Provides Wisdom

God’s Word instructs us and thus makes us wise.  But the quality of that wisdom is described in this psalm.

Wiser than my enemies.  Verse 98 says, “Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.”  This is not our own wisdom, but God’s wisdom.  Pastor Begg warns that God’s wisdom is in opposition to the rest of the world.  Therefore, though we don’t aim to make enemies, being a friend of God makes you at odds with those who are NOT a friend of God.  The Psalmist feared God, which is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 9). But those who do not fear God find themselves on the other side.

Still, it is good to look carefully here at the nature of these enemies:  they are “wicked”, “lie in wait to destroy me”, insolent (v. 85). These people are standing in direct opposition of God.

            “If we’re trying to live according to God’s word, every day we will be faced with opposition, the opposition of the world.  The world operates on a different system; it is antagonistic to the things of God; it is not neutral; it is at enmity with God.  Man in his natural sphere resists God and resents those who do follow the Master.” (Begg)

Thus, Begg says, it is not just individuals, but the whole culture we live in that are against us.  We do not boast about how smart we are, but “that we know the living God.”

Pastor Begg mentions by way of application, the steep challenge that our young people face in academic institutions:

             From the very first verse of the Bible “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth“, our young people are “ashamed of the simplicity of the things we affirm from the Bible.  It is a real challenge for them to stand up and declare the simplicity of the Bible in this.”

“Take a young guy within the bounds of the sexual provisions of God.  It is going to take grace to live it, guts to let people know it. The wicked and insolent will dig a pit for your feet.  Culture says ‘Why do you pay attention to this stuff?’  The only answer is, ‘BecauseGod saysin His Word…’ ‘Oh you don’t pay attention to that do you?’ The wicked are really artful.  Arguments are cogent and powerful.  Good for apologetics, but Paul didn’t take them on with their own game.  He says, ‘The message of the cross are foolish to those who are perishing, but to those who are beng saved it is the power of God.'”

As an aside to Pastor Begg’s observation, he is certainly not downplaying the role of apologetics.  Our faith does stand with both feet and is a reasonable faith.  However, if we try to persuade with human argument alone, we will ultimately fail.  For it is with the heart that man believes. Apologetics cannot change the heart, though it can possibly open up the mind to the possibility of truth. But it is with the heart that man believes and receives salvation.  And salvation is the goal, not just a changed mind.

            Wiser than his teachers.  Verse 99:  “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.”  Quoting Calvin again: “When some Bible students grow in understanding more than their teachers, it is clear proof that God is the teacher.”  And then Augustine: “The sound of my voice strikes your ears, but the real teacher is within.”

Pastor Begg takes little time on this, except that only the Lord Himself can teach that which only the Lord has to give.  I would add that only Christ can teach us above what is humanly possible to teach.  God’s Word, when it is applied in obedience, teaches through the power of the Holy Spirit.  “For I meditate on…” is the key.  The Word of God forms the thought life of the diligent student. Luke 6:40 tells us that though a student is not above his teacher [and the Lord Himself is our teacher], the promise is that “everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.”  Therefore, we can rise above our human teachers as we hold to the law of God under the real tutelage of the Holy Spirit through Christ.

            Wiser than the aged.  Pastor Begg makes the point that people revered antiquity at this time this psalm was written. Even today in many cultures around the world, the aged are revered, and even the Bible honors the aged (Job 12:12; Proverbs 16:31; Leviticus 19:32).  However, just being old doesn’t make a person wise.  It is righteousness that makes a man’s age a thing of honor (Psalm 71:17-18; Psalm 91:16; Ecclesiastes 12:1-7; Titus 2:2,3; Isaiah 41:31). Back to Pastor Begg: “Age and antiquity and tradition are not to be equated with Godliness. The longer a person lives without obedience to the law of God, the further he goes astray.”

“Spiritual knowledge, according to the Psalmist, increases only on one path; that path is marked obedience.” (Begg)

Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word. The Father will love him, and will come to him and make his home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my  words. My word that you hear is not and the word is not mine but it is from the Father who sent me.”   (John 14:23,24)

The Word of God Prevents Wandering

Verse 101 says, “I hold back my feet from every wandering way.”  Jesus said, “The one who hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock….But everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand…”(Matthew 7:25).  Two listeners can be sitting under the same sermon. One is listening and will go out and perform it.  Another one hears but disregards or forgets and fails to practice it.  What is the difference?

“The practical outflow of wisdom isn’t cleverness, it is godliness.”  (Begg)

In other words, wisdom is not being head-smart.  It is about being heart-smart.  The godly man, woman, young person or child may be regarded in this life as a complete fool. This is an important point!  The real evidence, Begg says, is a godly life; the choices one makes in accordance with God’s law.

What does godliness looks like?  The psalmist concludes with a great declaration (v. 101…).  “I hold kept my feet from every evil path in order that I might obey your word.”  But verse 102 says “I have not departed from your ways for you yourself have taught me“.  We discipline our wayward impulses so that we may be in obedience with God’s Word, but we also obey God’s Word so that we may discipline our wayward impulses!  it works both ways.

And not just “some” discipline; Pastor Begg says that we wouldn’t want our airplane pilots to say, “I will not crash much on this flight.”  There are some things that must be 100%.  The psalmist says, “I keep my feet from EVERY evil path”.  This is a high calling.

Pastor Begg recalls the words of the Charles Wesley hymn, “Oh, for a Heart to praise my God”(1742):

Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart,

Come quickly from above

and write your new name on my heart,

Your new best name of love.”

 

The key is the internal part. Outward obedience is not what matters.

Rev. Ralph Erskine (1685-1752): [1]

“When we think in terms of the law of God, the law of God in this way, we ought  not to think of it as an outward letter, a letter of condemnation that comes from Mt. Sinai, comes from the giving of the law. Rather than we would hear it as a word of gospel that wrote the law of God upon our hearts.”

Not condemnation, but that “the Spirit of God both subdues and enables us to do consistently and cheerfully that which we ought to do.” (Begg)

Erskine‘s poem:

“When I the gospel truth believe,

Obedience to the law I give;

And when I don’t the law observe,

I, from the gospel method, swerve.

 

To run, to work, the law commands,

The gospel gives me feet and hands,

The one requires that I obey,

The other does the power convey.”

 

“The very words of the psalmist…are frequently on the lips of the Lord Jesus Himself; Jesus who kept the law for the good of His people…  Jesus enables us by dent of our union with him to live in obedience to His Word.” (Begg)

Hymn:  “When all thy mercies, O my God” (Joseph Addison1672-1719; Fernando Ortega, modern recording)

2nd verse:
Unnumbered comforts to my soul

Thy tender care bestowed

Before my infant heart could know

From whom those comforts flowed”

 

God was at work when we were yet unconscious of it.  In another hymn by Joseph Addison (in the same meter), we read:

“When in the slippery paths of youth,

With heedless steps I ran,

God’s arm, unseen, convey’d me safe

And led me up to man.

How was it that he got through? The law of God is His arm to save. “Read your Bible, pray every day” is a song [Begg] sang as a kid in church and was really an appropriate challenge.  A friend of Pastor Begg’s, William McKinsey, was known to relate: “You know the old Highlands farmers prayer:  “Oh, God, keep me kept.”  How? Through His Word.

Charles Bridges said, “We will never depart from sin by the influence of human persuasion.”   That is true.  We are often warned (parents, church, etc.) but we do not heed.  “Man’s teaching is powerless in advancing the soul one step in Christian progress.”   Unless you hear the voice of God in His Word by the Holy Spirit.  Persuasion does not move anyone one step closer.

“That’s why no one knows how to preach.  We’re all approximating.  It would be wrong for it to paralyze us, but it is definitely right for it to humble us.”  (Begg)

Final Declaration:  “I hate every false way”

“The fear of the Lord,” says Solomon, “is the hatred of every evil.”  There is a relationship between the opening “Oh, How I love thy law” and the closing “I hate every evil way.” We have to begin where he begins. The imprecatory psalms…..cracking the heads of the enemies.  John Stott:

“I would find it hard to echo the psalmist’s sentiments, but not because they are beneath me, but they are beyond me.  it is not I would stoop so low, but rather I cannot rise so high.”

Eventually, if to hate every evil way, I must begin in my own heart.  “Search me and try me…….and then please lead me in the way everlasting.”  This must be said in the assurance that God in Christ can bring us to himself despite our proclivity to go our own way, that that which he has purposed to begin, he will bring to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. I can say, Lord Jesus, I am yours. Lord Jesus, you are mine.”

Lord Jesus, I pray in agreement with Pastor Begg when he says we can never plumb the depths of your love, your mercy, or your Word–we cannot understand all of these psalms completely; but you will do all that you have said.  I pray you will bless the reading of your Word this moment in our hearts.  Help us to drink in your Word as life-giving springs of living water.  Help us to move beyond parsing the scriptures; help us to live by them, through them, and in dependence on them for our very life, and for the lives of those whom you have given us in order to share your salvation.  May your Name be praised above all else in this world, Amen.

[1](C.S. Lewis “for every new book you read, read an old one.”

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