The Word: Source of Peace for Sinners
The Word: Source of Peace for Sinners
by William Klock
As we make our way through Psalm 119, and especially through these last stanzas, we see David moving deeper into his experience of the grace of God. As I said a couple of weeks ago, it seems most likely that David wrote this psalm when he was an old man and as he looked back on his life. It’s autobiographical. It starts out with a young man who knew that the Word was the place to meet God, who knew that what we read in the Word is true, and who had a passion for the Word, and yet as we see him mature—and especially mature through times of trial, tribulation, and persecution—his passion for the Word just keeps growing. Over and over we see his passion for God and for holiness transformed into grace by the power of the Scriptures, but we also see that the more his passion and hunger are satisfied by grace, each experience of grace fires new hunger and new passion for more of the Word and to experience more of God’s grace. There’s a reason why this psalm was originally appointed to be read over the course of Trinitytide. The other lessons of this season were selected more than fifteen-hundred years ago and were meant to teach us how to live the Christian life. Psalm 119 fits in beautifully with those lessons on the Christian life as it gives us, in prayer and praise, David’s own experience and overview of a life lived in accordance with the precepts of God’s Scriptures and experiencing the grace of God’s promises.
When it comes to the Christian life, one of the most fundamental things we need to remember is that Jesus calls us out of the kingdom of the word and into the kingdom of God. We may still live in this world, but through him we’re now citizens of heaven—and these two kingdom have very different rules. The other lessons of the season and the psalm remind us over and over that the Gospel calls us to be different from the world around us—and that we can expect to experience the world’s persecution when we’re obedient to God and doing the work of his kingdom. I was reading Charles Bridges’ commentary this week and his way of putting it struck me: “so contrary are the principles of God and the world! God chastens his people for their sin; the world persecutes them for their godliness. So it has been from the beginning, and will continue to the end.” But as saints, because God has given us an eternal perspective, we know that it’s a far worse thing to fall into the wrath of God than into the wrath of men. It’s a terrible thing to fall under the wrath of God, because there is no comfort there and there is no escape. And yet as we face the wrath and persecution of men, the Scriptures remind us over and over that God is with us through it all. Think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They refused to bow before Nebuchadnezzar and were thrown into the fiery furnace, but God was with them there and saw them through it. Think of Paul and Silas. They were locked in a Philippian prison, but God was with them and they knew it. They spent the night singing hymns until God caused an earthquake that set them free. Even then, they were still so confident of God’s presence with them that they didn’t run. And in both cases, because God was with his people and because they demonstrated their great faith in him, the world ended up giving God glory. Nebuchadnezzar, the king who had demanded the world bow before him, recognised the greatness of God and the Philippian prison guard came to acknowledge Christ as his Saviour and Lord through the witness given by Paul and Silas.
David’s situation, then, shouldn’t be a surprise. Because he feared God, the world feared and persecuted him. Look with me at verse 161:
Princes persecute me without cause, but my heart stands in awe of your words.
We’ve all experienced some kind of persecution for following Christ. We live in a more-or-less free society and when it comes to persecution, the most we experience here is usually not much more than mild ridicule. Because of our faith, many of us are held at arms length by friends or family members that don’t want to hear about our “religion”. Every once in a while we hear about someone losing his job because he refused to do this or that thing that he knew to be wrong. In comparison to what David experienced, our persecution is mild. Because of his stand for God, there were people who wanted to kill David—and not just anyone, there were “princes”. The Hebrew word can refer to princes and other nobles, to chieftans, and even to military captains. Not only was David persecuted by King Saul, but he had Saul’s nobles and military leaders after him at different times. And Saul wasn’t the only one. David had lots of enemies because of the favour God had shown him and because of his own stand for God.
David could take comfort at least in knowing that he was innocent. It’s no fun to be in trouble when you’re not guilty of doing anything wrong, but at least David could find a sense of assurance in knowing that he was being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and that God has promised to bless those who are persecuted unjustly. David could also have assurance in knowing that he was on the right track, because the enemy doesn’t attack lazy or straying saints—he attacks the ones who are truly growing, experiencing grace, and doing good work for God and his kingdom.
But notice what David’s eternal perspective does for him. If you’ve ever been in trouble because of your faith in Christ, you know how daunting it can be to take a stand and do the right thing. I remember back to when my boss gave me instructions to do something that I knew was wrong; it was daunting to know that I had to tell him “No” and risk getting fired. One of the earliest controversies in the Church was over what to do with all the people, who in the face of persecution—and in those days that usually meant execution in very brutal ways—renounced Christ, and then when the persecution was over, returned to the Church and wanted back in. It’s a fearful thing to face persecution at the hands of those who have power over you, but David could face the persecution of the world because he stood in awe of God’s words. Literally, the Hebrew word David uses when he says that he stands in awe of the Word means to shake or to tremble with fear and it’s a word that’s used in relation to the awesome majesty of God in his role as King. God’s Word declares his holiness and his righteousness. God’s Word reminds us of his holy expectations for us. And God’s Word reminds us that when we fail to meet that holy standard, we stand under his wrath. Friends, David knew that the Bible wasn’t just a book filled with interesting stories and inspirational sayings. He knew it was the Word of Almighty God and that God has given it to his people for good reason. He knew that ultimately the Word is not a thing to be taken lightly.
Do you see the eternal perspective of verse 161? Being persecuted by a prince is no small thing. Facing martyrdom in the arena under a Nero or a Diocletian is frightening. And yet for the man or woman who has come to know God through his Word, who knows his character, who know his expectations, who knows his ways—and especially who knows and has faith in the fact that God has already won the final victory—the wrath of God is a far more fearful thing than the wrath or persecution of men. The men of this world may have power over our bodies, but God has power over our eternal souls. And so David says, having this eternal perspective, I would rather suffer the wrath of men than the wrath of God.
This raises the question of what it means to “fear the Lord”. We hear that phrase from time to time in the Bible. Even though David doesn’t use those words, he expressing something of that same concept here. Some people have mistaken what it means to fear God. David gives us some understanding of what that means in verse 162. On the one hand it does mean that we stand in awe—and “fear”—of the awesome majesty of our King, but look at the next verse:
I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.
The Word inspires awe and fearful trembling, but in that same fear David rejoiced—he was happy. As much as God is a god to be feared because of his wrath, we can’t forget that he is also a God who delights in showing his loving kindness—his love, mercy, and grace. In his wrath he punishes sin—and we need to take that fact very seriously—but he also loves us and in his graciousness has provided a means of redemption—a means of salvation from his wrath—through Jesus Christ, if we will only trust him to be for us the righteousness we don’t have on our own. The same awesome God we fear is also the source of our happy redemption!
The same Scriptures that tell us we are dead in our sins also tell us how we can be alive in Christ. In fact, that we first know that we deserve eternal damnation, should cause us to have even greater joy when we hear the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! And that was why David both stood in trembling fear before the Scriptures and at the same time could say that he rejoiced in having them before him, because they are a treasure trove of grace.
And it’s not without good reason that David describes the Word in terms of finding a great spoil. Think of how much we tend to treasure earthly things. Jesus spoke very truly when he said that a man can’t serve both God and money. Think back to the Israelites and their conquest of Canaan. God told them everything—all the spoils—belonged to him. And yet even with that very explicit command, the people were tempted by all the treasures they found when the walls of Jericho fell. Achan found a fancy robe and some gold and silver that he couldn’t live without. That earthly treasure tempted him and he chose it over obedience to God—to his own doom. In contrast, David was a man who had access to everything the world has to offer, but he treasured the Scriptures above it all—and in contrast to Achan who fell under the wrath of God for his disobedience, David found the greatest of all joys in the treasures of the Word and in the grace he found there. God is to be feared, but he is, at the same time, the source of our joy.
David goes on in verse 163:
I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law.
David probably refers specifically to “falsehood” here in light of the false accusations that were made against him. The word refers to lies and deceptions, but in the broader sense he’s simply comparing the ways of sinful men and women to God’s law. The Scriptures present us with the truth. Every one of God’s precepts is founded in truth. Every one of God’s promises is proved to be true. And every one of God’s judgements is founded on his righteousness as Judge and is true. David loved the law and as he walked in it he walked in the light of God’s truth. The world walks in the way of Satan’s lie that he first told Eve—the lie that we can be gods and choose for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.
Brothers and sisters, the Scriptures are God’s gracious gift to us that expose the lie of Satan and lead us back to the path of righteousness—that lead us from death back to life. How can we not love the law? It’s the light for our path that leads us out of the darkness of deception and back into the presence of God. And so David goes on:
Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.
We’ve seen several times now how David writes about being in continual prayer over the course of the day and even through the night, but here he writes about praising God seven times a day. Whether or not he meant “seven” to be taken literally isn’t clear. Maybe he did, but since seven is used through the Scriptures as a symbol of completeness or perfection, it could also be David’s poetic way of expressing that he lived in constant praise just as he lived in constant prayer. But this combination of prayer and praise is what makes Psalm 119 such a wonderful description of Christian experience. As much as David prayed, he also praised. As much as he petitioned God for the needs he had in his life, David praised God for the provisions God had made more him.
David also reminds us to praise God regardless of the circumstances. His praises were continual and that doesn’t happen unless we praise God in all things. But remember that praise is an expression of the heart. Bp. Cowper wrote, “Affections of the soul cannot long be kept secret; if they be strong they will break forth in actions. The love of God is like a fire in the heart of man, which breaks forth, and manifests itself in the obedience of his commandments, and praising him for his benefits….the love of God was not idle in [David’s] heart, but made him fervent and earnest in praising God.” Saint Basil the Great simply noted from this verse that David could never be satisfied in praising God—he always desired to offer more of himself.
This is something to reflect on. How often do we offer praise to God? David says he praised God seven times a day. Are we satisfied with one day in seven? Brothers and sisters, if we aren’t motivated to be praising God often, it’s because we haven’t truly grasped who he is and what he’s done for us—we’ve taken him for granted and we’ve taken his salvation for granted. Maybe it’s because we’ve never truly been humble enough to admit our own sinfulness—that we can never earn our way back into God’s favour—and because of that we’ve never truly valued the new life he offers through Jesus. If your life is void of praise or if singing a few songs on Sunday morning satisfies your desires to praise God, take more time to immerse yourself in the Word that you might come to know him better. Take time to reflect on who he is and on what he’s done. Consider your own sinfulness and then consider the amazing grace in the Gospel message.
Verse 165 brings us back to where David started the stanza. How could he face the world’s persecution? In part he could face it because he knew that the wrath of God was a much greater thing to fear, but he could also face it strong in the peace God and his Word had given him. He writes:
Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.
Notice David doesn’t say that those who keep the law have peace, but those who love it. If we had to keep the law to find peace, we’d all be in trouble. We’d have nothing but God’s wrath to expect. No, God’s grace puts into the hearts of his people a love for his law. Those who love him want to please him and so they pursue holiness and as we pursue that holiness God grants us his peace. Spurgeon wrote, “Though they are often persecuted they have peace, yea, greatpeace; for they have learned the secret of the reconciling blood, they have felt the power of the comforting Spirit, and they stand before the Father as men accepted.” We have peace because we know with St. Paul that for “those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
How often do we think of our peace in the face of persecution and tribulation being rooted in a love for God’s law? I don’t think we do, but David did. St. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:6 that faith works through love and that was as true in the Old Testament as it is in the New. We see this in verse 166:
I hope for your salvation, O Lord, and I do your commandments.
This is salvation by grace. David’s hope was fixed on God and he looked to God alone for salvation—and then when he found that salvation he set his heart on doing the things he knew were pleasing to his Redeemer. It’s interesting that those who rely least on their own good works are usually the very people who abound in them. And that’s because the same Gospel that delivers us from putting confidence in our works is what leads us to abound in every good work out of a desire to glorify God. And so when we’re in trouble we do two things: we hope in God, but we also commit to doing what he teaches us is right. To hope in God without following his commandments is presumptuous, but to follow his commandments without hoping in him is formalism or legalism. We need to both hope and follow—to truly trust in him enough to put our life in his hands. To quote Spurgeon again: “If we have acted rightly towards God we are sure that he will act kindly with us.”
That’s very true of David’s attitude. He wasn’t interested in formalism or legalism—just keeping the rules and trying to earn God’s merit or in keeping the rules as part of a formula—a do this and God is obligated to then do that for me. No, David’s obedience was all about love for God and a desire to give him glory in return for salvation. Look at verse 167:
My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly.
Yes, he kept God’s commands with his hands and his feet—in the things he did—but more importantly he kept God’s commands in his soul. That’s the difference between outward religion or formalism and true religion of the heart. The Church has always struggled with this, because it’s so easy to fall into legalism—it’s so much easier to keep the letter and ignore the spirit. Jesus nails us for this in the Sermon on the Mount. How often do we think we’ve done the right thing in not killing the neighbour we hate, while still wishing he were dead? How often have we fulfilled the commandment not to commit adultery and yet lusted in our hearts after someone? Or kept the commandment not to steal, all the while coveting what isn’t ours? True love for God and for his Word means that we don’t just keep it outwardly, but we keep it in our hearts and look for ways to go beyond the mere letter of the law.
In verse 168 he writes:
I keep your precepts and testimonies, for all my ways are before you.
It wasn’t just a matter of keeping the commandments. David loved the practical parts of God’s Word, but he loved the doctrinal parts too—you can’t separate them. He treasured it all. And this serves as a warning. Some people pull the Word apart instead of treasuring it all. There are people in the Church who are happy to keep the Word in deed, but when it comes to doctrine they couldn’t care less. And there are also those who take doctrine very seriously and hardly seem to care for the commandments. David treasured and kept it all—he was serious about keeping, obeying, believing, and trusting in God’s revelation in the Scriptures.
He did this out of love, but he also knew that God was watching—all his ways were before the eyes of God. But it was because he knew God was watching that he makes this an appeal. When he started the stanza he said that princes persecuted him without cause. He could make that claim honestly, based on the grounds that he loved God’s Word and he calls on God here as his witness. Brothers and sisters, you and I can find great comfort—we can live in peace—if we remember that God is watching and that Jesus is our Advocate. No matter what trouble we get into in this world for the sake of righteousness, nothing is hidden from God and he will vindicate his people.
I want to close today on this note, because it’s what gives us hope and it’s what motivates our praises. David was a sinner, just like you and me. We’ll see next week in the last verse of the Psalm, he admits, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” Brothers and sisters, we’ve all gone astray like lost sheep. At other times David openly wept before God as he confessed his sins. And yet because of his faith in the Saviour, David could also stand before God and know that he was righteous based on the merits of Christ. 493 years ago today Martin Luther began his call for reformation—a call for the Church to recover the doctrines of grace. He understood that we are sinners deserving death and that righteousness is offered only through Christ. He made famous the Latin phrase simil justus et peccator. “At the same time both righteous and a sinner.” Friends, that’s the heart of the Gospel. Through trust in the blood of Jesus Christ, graciously shed on the cross, we sinners can stand before the Father clothed in his righteousness—a righteousness not our own and a righteousness we don’t deserve, but a righteousness that God in his steadfast love offers to us that we might escape his wrath. We are both guilty and innocent—sinners made righteous by the sacrifice of another. That’s the amazing grace of God. And as we reflect on that grace, our hearts should be ever moved to new heights of gratitude and love for our God, who is both to be feared in his awesome majesty and holiness and happily loved and adored for his love and mercy.
Please pray with me: Almighty God and Father, you have offered to us poor sinners the righteousness of your own Son that we who were your enemies might be restored to your fellowship. Help us always to remember the grace you offer us through the cross, that as we remember that we are sinners made righteous by the blood of Jesus, we might be always moved to greater heights of love and thankfulness for you and for your gift of eternal life. We ask this through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.