God's Word is Always Relevant

| Psalm 119:89-96 | December 25, 2016

 

Week of January 1, 2017

The Point:  God’s Word reflects His character and power – and always will.

The Faithfulness of God:  Psalm 119:89-96.

[89]  Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. [90]  Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast. [91]  By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants. [92]  If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. [93]  I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life. [94]  I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts. [95]  The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your testimonies. [96]  I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.  [ESV]

“Psalm 119 is not offered to us as the personal life experiences of the psalmist. It is a collection of inspired reflections on the nature of God’s Word and of the righteous person’s proper response to it. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape feeling that at least in some places the writer is speaking personally. He seems to be doing so in these verses. In moving from a study of stanza eleven to stanza twelve, we are passing the midpoint of the psalm and are moving beyond its lowest level. Stanzas nine through eleven described the psalmist’s afflictions, and they did so in such a powerful and poignant way that we can hardly doubt that these were sufferings the writer actually did experience. In stanza eleven he says his soul had fainted with longing for God’s salvation [81], his eyes had failed [82], he was like a wineskin in the smoke [83], and he had almost perished [87]. The stanza ends with a gasping cry to God: In your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth [88]. Now we come to stanza twelve and find that God had indeed preserved his life and there is an entirely different tone as a result. From this point on, the writer begins to move forward and upward again, building his life on the only foundation that is truly steadfast and eternal. It is as if he had been struggling in a pounding ocean surf, trying desperately to reach land, and had at last drawn himself up on a big rock standing by the shore; or as if he had been sinking in quicksand and had suddenly found solid ground beneath his feet. That rock, that solid foundation, is the Word of God.

God’s Everlasting Word [89-91].  Martin Luther once wrote of God’s Word, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me. The Bible is not antique or modern. It is eternal.” The everlasting nature of the Bible is the theme of this stanza, particularly of verses 89-91. Each of these verses is more or less parallel to the others; each says that God’s Word is everlasting and therefore something a person can build on not only for this life but also for eternity. If faithfulness in verse 90 refers to God’s Word, then these verses are saying that because God’s Word is eternal in heaven, it can also clearly be depended upon on earth. If it refers to a separate attribute of God, then they are saying that three things are eternal: God’s Word in heaven; God’s faithfulness on earth; and the laws of God that, like the heavens and the earth, endure to this day. The laws of God will endure even longer, of course, since, as the last and summarizing verse of this section states, they are exceedingly broad or “boundless” [96]. Jesus clearly taught the everlasting nature of God’s Word. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, in what is some of His most extensive teaching on the Scriptures, Jesus said, Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished [Matt. 5:17-18]. Jesus was teaching that not even the smallest mark of the sacred text will be lost from Scripture until every single portion of it is fulfilled. And not even then! For as He said elsewhere, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away [Matt. 24:35]. The psalmist wrote, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens [89]. Neither you nor I can see things from the perspective of eternity – only God can – but we can testify to the enduring qualities of Scripture throughout observable history. Indeed, one reason among many for believing the Bible to be God’s Word and not the word of mere human beings is its extraordinary preservation through the centuries. Today, after the Bible has been translated, in part or whole, into many hundreds of languages, many with multiple versions, and after millions of copies have been printed and distributed, it would be nearly impossible to destroy the bible. However, such conditions did not always prevail. Until the time of the Reformation, when Gutenberg’s remarkable discovery of moveable type enabled the Bible as well as other literature to be mass-produced and distributed easily throughout civilized lands, the text of the Bible was preserved by the laborious and time-consuming process of copying it over and over again by hand, at first onto papyrus sheets and then onto parchments. Throughout much of this time, the Bible was an object of extreme hatred by many in authority. They tried to stamp it out, but the text survived. In the early days of the church, Celsus, Prophyry, and Lucien tried to destroy it by arguments. Later the emperors Diocletian and Julian tried to destroy it by force. In some periods of history it was a capital offense to possess a copy of the Bible. Yet the text survived. If the Bible had been only the thoughts or work of mere men, it would have been eliminated long ago, as other books have been. We know from passing references in other ancient books that we have lost masterpieces by many of the greatest writers of the past. But the Bible has endured and has endured intact. Isaiah wrote: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever [Isaiah 40:8].

God’s Liberating Word [92-95].  I have noted several times how practical the writer of Psalm 119 is, and this is a quality we see again here. His theme is the eternal or enduring character of God’s Word. Starting with that truth, he then reflects on three things this eternal, or indestructible, Word has done for him. 1. God’s Word rescued him [92].  Verse 92 picks up on the theme of the last three stanzas: affliction. It tells us that God heard and answered the prayer with which those stanzas end. What was it that got the psalmist through those extremely hard times? God, of course, but that is not the way the writer states the answer. He says, If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction [92]. In other words, what got him through his afflictions was his lifelong habit of reading, marking, learning, meditating upon, spiritually digesting, and above all obeying God’s Law. Thus, even in stanza eleven, the lowest point of all in this long psalm, he maintains: I hope in your word [81]; I have not forgotten your statues [83]; I have not forsaken your precepts [87]; that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth [88]. When we get in trouble we usually go to God for help, which the writer did too. But we often stop at that point, expecting God to intervene all by Himself, miraculously, without any work on our part. The psalmist was wiser than we are, for while he prayed for help, he also did what he was able and obliged to do: he studied and meditated on the Bible. He knew that although it is God who must work, God nevertheless works through means, and in the matter of lifting us out of our trouble and setting our feet on a sure foundation, the only indispensable means of deliverance and growth is Bible study. The four synonyms for Scripture occurring in verses 81, 83, 87, and 88 have slight distinctions. Word (dabar, 81) is the most general of these terms. It embraces everything that God has said in the bible, whether it be law or gospel, commands or promises. Statutes (huqqim, sometimes rendered “decrees”, 83) refers to binding rules or laws, such as those inscribed on a stone tablet – the Ten Commandments, for instance. Precepts (piqqudim, 87) is like our word “regulations.” It is what a government official might issue after he has looked into a problem and figured out what detailed rules might resolve it. Testimonies (hedot, 88) pictures the Bible as God’s faithful witness to His people, containing warnings of distress and judgment if the Word is disobeyed and promises of blessing and joy if it is heeded. In his affliction the psalmist took the whole of the Bible as his and clung to it tenaciously. He knew, as the apostle Paul also knew, that all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work [2 Tim. 3:16-17]. We never know what portion of the Bible God will use to bless us and keep us steady in hard times. 2. God’s Word renewed him [93].  The psalmist found renewal as he studied the Bible in his afflictions, which makes verse 93 synonymous with verse 92. In fact, verses 94 and 95 are synonymous too, making three parallel statements of deliverance that correspond to the three parallel and nearly synonymous statements about the eternal qualities of God’s Law in verses 89-91. Still, each of these ideas has its own particular flavor. Prayers for renewal are a recurring motif in this psalm. The psalmist prayed for renewal as early as verse 25, saying, give me life according to your word, a sentence he repeated in verse 37: give me life in your ways. In verse 40 he wrote, in your righteousness give me life. Verse 50 declared, your promise gives me life. The same thought occurs in the latter half of the psalm: verse 107 says, give me life, O Lord, according to your word. Verse 149 says, according to your justice give me life. Verse 154 says, give me life according to your promise, and verse 156 says, give me life according to your rules. In the stanza we are studying now, the psalmist is not praying for renewal, he is declaring that God has renewed him. The renewal came about as he remembered God’s Word, which is what the other verses also affirm. How do we think of renewal? We think of it as something God does by His Holy Spirit, which is right, but we tend to forget the link between the Holy Spirit and God’s Word. We must remember that the Word and the Spirit always go together. God speaks to us through the Word, and only through the Word does the Spirit renew us inwardly. Although affliction was the theme of the preceding three stanzas – where it was developed at great length – and although it has reoccurred in this stanza [92], it appears here only briefly and as something in the past. God has indeed renewed the psalmist so he is no longer under that depression of spirit that his afflictions caused. 3. God’s Word saves him [94-95].  Verses 94 and 95 belong together because they deal with salvation from the psalmist’s enemies. These enemies were part of his afflictions [84,87]. God delivered him from these wicked people who were against him, renewing his life and spirit. This truly was salvation. Now we discover from verse 95 that these wicked people were still around; therefore, the third of these statements of what God has done is in the form of an ongoing prayer (save me) and not a statement of something in the past, as was the case with the others (I would have perished in my affliction [92] and you have given me life [93]). The writer needed God’s salvation constantly. So do we. If God were not with us every moment of every single day, sustaining our lives and preserving us from constant dangers, perceived and unperceived, we would certainly perish in an instant. Even more, we need God’s constant salvation from our sins. We sometimes speak of three tenses of salvation: salvation in the past, meaning Jesus’ death and atonement for our sin and God’s forgiveness on the basis of that utterly sufficient atonement; salvation in the present, by which we grow in grace and holiness by the power of God’s Spirit working through His written Word, attaining to higher and higher levels of obedience and understanding; and salvation in the future, when we shall be taken to heaven and delivered from the presence of sin and of all desires to yield to it. Our assurance of salvation comes because he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ [Phil. 1:6]. That is a promise. In other words, to go back to the theme of this stanza, stated in verses 89-91, because the Word of God is eternal and is firmly fixed in the heavens, because it endures to all generations and endures to this day, we can rest assured in God’s salvation. Look at the words I am yours in verse 94. Each word has only one syllable; they are simplicity itself, but what an amazing truth, that we should belong to God! If we belong to Him, we can count on Him to save us – now and to the very end. Charles Spurgeon called verse 94 “a comprehensive prayer with a prevailing argument,” noting that “if we are confident that we are the Lord’s, we may be confident that He will save us.”

Standing on the Rock [96].  The last verse of this section stands alone as a summary statement linking the truth that God’s Law is eternal [89-91] with the salvation that is ours through believing and acting on God’s commands [92-95]: I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad. Earlier in the stanza the psalmist wrote that God established the earth, and it stands fast [90], earthly physical laws corresponding to the Word of God in heaven. Here he seems to acknowledge that even this apparently stable earth will disappear at last. Heaven and earth will pass away [Matt. 24:35], Jesus affirmed years later. I have seen a limit to all perfection, the psalmist says. Like Jesus, the psalmist also knew that there is one thing that will remain forever, and that is God’s Word. Jesus added, but my words will not pass away [Matt. 24:35]. The psalmist adds, but your commandment is exceedingly broad (or boundless). So why don’t we stand on this foundation and build on it? If you wanted to build a house and had a choice between a solid rock and sand for your foundation, wouldn’t you choose the solid rock? If you were investing for your retirement years and had a choice between a proven blue-chip firm and a fly-by-night, over-the-counter adventure, wouldn’t you choose the blue-chip firm? Why, then, should you do differently with your life, which is of far greater value than a house or a bank account? Why should you not build on a foundation that will stand firm when the tempests of life come [see Matt. 7:24-27]?”  [Boice, pp. 1010-1016].

Introduction.  In every generation, those who have most treasured God’s Word have been those most mightily used by God. Having a passionate devotion to His Word and being a powerful force for God are inseparably bound together. The former feeds the latter. One is the root, the other the fruit. Loving God’s Word is the cause; being used by the Lord is the effect. The fact is, no one can love God without loving His Word. It is in God’s Word that the believer learns about the unfathomable glory of God, supremely revealed in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The more fully one grows to know the Word, the more deeply He may grow to know the Lord. It is the Word of God that makes God intimately known to receptive hearts. No one knows more about God than what he learns about Him in His Word. For this reason, the saints must cherish this Book, the Bible, for it is the inspired revelation of God to man. A heart fervent toward the Word will soon be glowing toward God.”  [Lawson, p. 251].

“Message and Application.  This meditation reminds us of the eternality, immutability, and comprehensiveness of God’s law. Moreover, for believers enduring persecution and suffering, this word of God has provided them with comfort and security. The expository idea might be stated: There is security for those who love and live according to God’s eternally established, faithful, and boundless decrees. Two passages in the New Testament speak to this point more fully. In John 1:1-3 we have the revelation of the divine Word who created everything, a Word that was preexistent, powerful, and in time revelatory. This Word confirmed that He gave His disciples the word that the Father had given Him [John 17:8], a word that would provide their safety and sanctity [John 17:11-17]. Because the world that was created by the word has been established, the word that has been revealed to us from the creator is trustworthy. And so time and time again believers in danger or affliction return to the word of God to renew their hope and their commitment.”  [Ross, p. 543].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Briefly compare stanzas 11 and 12. What change occurs with the psalmist in stanza 12? What causes this change? What do you learn from the psalmist that you can apply in your life when you are experiencing suffering and difficulties?
  1. List the six terms the psalmist uses for God’s Word (note his repeated use of your). What is the psalmist teaching us concerning God’s Word? How does Jesus add to this teaching in Matthew 5:17-18; 24:35? What difference should this teaching make in the way you live your life now?
  1. What three things has the eternal Word of God done for the psalmist [92-95]? Note that these three things were not done for the psalmist in isolation from his own actions. What three things did the psalmist do in verses 92-95 (see also verses 81,83,87,88)? Seek to make these things central in your life.

References:

Psalms, vol. 3, James Boice, Baker.

An Exposition of Psalm 119, Charles Bridges, ebook.

Psalms 76-150, Steven Lawson, Holman Reference.

A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 3, Allen Ross, Kregel.