Living by the Book
Have you ever noticed how novelists describe the way a person walks to highlight his or her character? Proud men walk with their heads held high. Beautiful women glide or float. Evil villains slouch, sneak, creep, or swagger. The need to describe different ways of walking has enriched our language. The Oxford Thesaurus lists dozens of synonyms for walk: trek, shuffle, ramble, march, roam, wander, and others. But English is not the best of the worlds languages in this respect. According to Eugene A. Nida of the American Bible Society, the Zulu language has at least 120 words for walking: to walk pompously, to walk with a swagger, to walk crouched down as when hunting a wild animal, to walk in tight clothes, and so on.
How should Christians walk? The Bible tells us to walk worthy of our "vocation" (Ephesians. 4:1 KJV), "uprightly" (Isaiah 57:2), and "in the light" (1 John 1:7). Micah 6:8 says, "What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." In the section of Psalm 119 to which we come now (the samekh and ay'm stanzas, verses. 113-28) the writer is concerned with his walk, and the burden of his concern is that it be according to God's Word. This important theme was actually introduced a stanza before this, with the nun stanza (verses. 105-12), beginning with the words: 'Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (verse 105). We looked at those words in terms of the Bible's clarity. Yet they also have to do with walking along a right path. This is the theme that continues through verse 128, which wraps up this line of thought by stating, "I hate every wrong path."
Seeing the Right Path Clearly
In regard to the believer's walk, the point of stanza fourteen is that if we are to walk as God wants us to walk, we must be able to see the right way clearly. We will never be able to see it by ourselves because this is a dark world, we have no natural light in ourselves, and there are deviating paths. We can only see the right path if the Word of God shines on it and lights it up for us. The Bible does this. It teaches us the way we should go and actually enables us to walk in it,
This stanza has two ideas in regard to walking, one positive and the other negative. As far as the positive idea is concerned, the psalmist says that he has taken an oath to "follow your righteous laws (verse. 106). That is, he has determined to obey the Bible's teaching. The Bible shows him the right path to follow.
The negative idea is in verse 110: “The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts." I think here of the apostle Paul's instruction to Timothy, In 2 Timothy chapter three he warns Timothy of "terrible times in the last days," noting that the world will be filled with vices. "People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God." This is an apt description of the kind of world we live in. But what is even worse is that these vices will be in the church, for they will exist in those who have "a form of godliness" but deny "its power" (verses. 1-5).
What is Timothy to do in such terrible times? How can he keep to the right path and avoid falling into the snares that will beset for him by the wicked? He must continue in what he has learned from the Bible. The Bible is not like other books. It is God's book, and it alone will make His way plain. Paul explains it like this. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (verses. 16-17).
There are those positive and negative points again, both of which are necessary. Teaching and training are the positive terms. Rebuking and correcting are the negatives. We need both if we are to walk in the right path and avoid the wrong ones.
Choosing Right and Rejecting Wrong
Choosing the right path and avoiding wrong ones brings us to the second stanza (verses. 113-20) in which the writer speaks particularly about right and wrong paths. The last stanza taught that the Bible alone enables us to see the right way clearly. This stanza teaches that there are many contrary paths and much opposition and if we are to walk as God wants us to walk, we must have determination.
Alexander Maclaren wrote that "this section is mainly the expression of firm resolve to cleave to the Law." He saw a meaningful outline in it. Verses 113-15 "breathe love and determination." This passes in verses 116 and 117 into "prayer in view of the psalmist's weakness and the strength of temptation."
Finally, in verses 118-20 "the fate of the despisers of the Law intensifies the psalmist's clinging grasp of awe-struck love." It will be helpful to follow Maclarens outline.
Determination to Obey God's Law
How are you and I ever going to keep on obeying God's law in a sinfully enticing world like ours? There are several answers to this question. The psalm itself elaborates on quite a few of them. But one thing is certain: We are never going to obey God's law unless, from the very beginning, we determine to obey it. That is our starting point. If we are to live for God, we must determine to obey Him regardless of any enticing calls to sin. What is our chief problem in this area? The biggest problem we face is suggested in verse 113, where the writer declares, "I hate double-minded men."
The adjective "double-minded" is from the same root as the word that is translated "two opinions" in 1 Kings 18:21. In that chapter Elijah is on Mount Carmel challenging the people of Israel to follow Jehovah rather than the false god Baal. "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him," he says. Double-minded people are people who know about God but are not fully determined to worship and serve Him only. Or to put it in other words, they are those who want both God and the world. They want the benefits of true religion, but they want their sin too.
The psalmist says that he hates people who are like this. He hates people halting between two opinions as much as he loves God's law. But isn't it also true that he is saying that he hates this same double-mindedness when he finds it in himself? Otherwise why does he continue by asking God to "sustain" him, according to His promise, and "uphold" him so that he might be kept from sin? These verses "breathe" love of God's law and determination to avoid double-mindedness, as Maclaren says. But only against the dark background of his tendency to be lukewarm does this strong fixing of his mind and will to obey God's law make sense.
How about us? If the psalmist needed to fix his mind on obeying God's law, don't we also need to fix our minds on obeying God's law? James expressed this when he urged his readers to pray in faith, not wavering through any kind of indecision and doubt. The one who wavers "should not think he will receive anything from the Lord, he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does," is what he says (James 1:7-8).
Unfortunately it's true that we often do not pray in faith. We do waver, and the love of the world and its pleasures draws us away from God's Word. Yet the situation is not hopeless. In fact there is great ground for confidence. Our confidence is in God, who is not double-minded and who is on the believer's side. Two points call for special notice. First, the writer calls God "my refuge and my shield" (verse 114). God is our refuge from those who would harm us, and our shield against temptations.
Second, he refers to "my God" (verse 115). This is the only place in the psalm where these words occur, but they are all the more striking for that fact. They are important because they highlight a double grip, on the one hand, the writers grip on God and, on the other, God's grip on him. It is a case of what we call the perseverance of the saints. It's a double persevering—on God's side and ours. The saints must persevere, and will. But the reason they are able to do so is that God first of all perseveres with them.
Prayer for God's Grace
If we persevere because God first of all perseveres with us, then we need to look to Him for sustaining grace to walk on the path He has set before us. This means that we must ask for God's help. It is what the psalmist does next (in verses 116-17). He prays, "Sustain me according to Your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed. Uphold me, and I will be delivered."
An interesting sidelight on this text is that in the Middle Ages, under the monastic order of the Benedictines, when a novice's period of preparation was ended and he was ready to become attached to the monastery for life, there was an induction ceremony in which, with outstretched arms, the novice recited Psalm 119:116 three times: "Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed." The community repeated the words and then sang the Gloria Patri, which was a way of acknowledging that the commitments of the monastic life could only be sustained by God to whom all glory belongs. So too with the life of any Christian. If we are to read, study, understand, and actually obey God's Word, it will only be by God's grace, as He helps us to do it. We must get into the habit of often asking Him for that help.
Standing in Awe of God
In the last three verses of this stanza the psalmist expresses a reordered outlook on the world and God, doubtless growing out of his times of prayer. He has understood his inability to obey God's law. He has sought God's help. Now having been with God, he sees afresh the deceitful vanity or emptiness of the world and the greatness of God before whom he now trembles in reverential awe.
He sees the emptiness of the world and the greatness of God at the same time. It is only when we tremble before the exalted and holy God that we are able to see the world as it really is: twisted and empty. If we do not tremble before God, the world's system seems wonderful to us and pleasantly consumes us.
Verse 120 should be read carefully, prayerfully, and with repentance by every Christian, particularly by evangelical Christians of our day. It is speaking of a reverent awe of God, an important element of walking uprightly before him. There is very little spirit of awe in our time. Instead of being in awe before God many Christians in our day seem to regard Him more as a buddy which shows only that we do not know much about God at all. Doesn't that explain why there is so little truly godly conduct and why Christians are so much like the world? In his classical treatment of the weaknesses of the contemporary evangelical church, No Place for Truth, David F. Wells speaks of the weightlessness of God, meaning that God seems to have very little bearing on the actual life of today's Christians. They do not disbelieve in him; they are Christians, after all. But He is remote from their thinking. He just doesn't enter into their everyday life.
In a fascinating essay the English writer William Hazlitt (1778-1830) describes an evening in which various literary figures of his day discussed people from the past they wished they had seen. They suggested almost every great person one might think of: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Columbus, Caesar, Napoleon, even the American theologian Jonathan Edwards. But Charles Lamb had the last word: 'There is only one other person I can ever think of after this," he said. "If Shakespeare was to come into the room, we should all rise up to meet him, but if that person [he meant Jesus] was to come into it, we should all fall down and try to kiss the hem of His garment!"
That is not nearly reverence enough but it gets at the idea. Today many would merely cry out, "Hey, Jesus, come on over here and tell us how its goin'." The psalmist says that he trembled before God and stood in awe of His laws, which is why he was a godly person and why he has been able to give us the profound teaching we have from Him in this psalm.
Looking for God's Deliverance
In the ay'm stanza (verses. 121-28), the last of the three stanzas that have to do with walking by God’s Word, the contrasts that have already been introduced reoccur: the need for clear direction in a sin-dark world, the threat of enemies versus the sustaining grace of God, and hatred of sin versus love of Gods Word. This stanza flows naturally from the thought that ends the last stanza: the writer's awe of God. This new stanza emphasizes that if we are to walk as God wants us to walk, we must keep looking to Him intently and at all times. As far as sin is concerned, we must look to God's commandments. As far as dangers go, we must look to God for deliverance.
One combination of words that seems to tie the stanza together is "your servant," which is found in verses 122, 124, and 125. These words present the psalmist as God's servant in contrast to those who are God's enemies and who are therefore naturally oppressing him. The writer has spoken of these enemies earlier. They are the wicked of stanza fourteen, who have set snares for him (verse. 110), the double-minded persons, evildoers, and wicked of the earth of stanza fifteen, whom he has turned his back on to follow after God (verses 113, 115, 119). In stanza sixteen they are said to be oppressing him, so much so and for so long that his eyes have failed, looking for Gods salvation. He needs deliverance. Therefore he is going to keep on looking to God until help comes.
According to the Massoretes, verse 122 is the only verse in the psalm that does not mention the Word of God. We have seen that verse 84 also seems not to mention it; verses 90, 121, and 132 may be examples too. But the fact that the Bible is not mentioned here, in verse 122, may be an indication of the depth of mental anguish to which the psalmist fell as a result of the oppression he had endured from wicked men. For a moment his eyes seem to be off the Bible and on his fierce oppressors instead. But not for long! He is God's servant, and "as the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master" and "as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress" (Psalm 123:2), so does he look up anxiously to God, expecting God to act. This stanza gives three arguments for why God should listen to his prayers and save him.
1. Because God is a loving God (verse 124). He has learned that God is not an indifferent, unconcerned deity. He is a loving God; that is why He has given us the Bible. Since He is a loving God, we can expect Him to care for those He love and deliver them.
2. Because the writer is God's servant (verse 125). Masters normally value those who are part of their households. If that is true on earth, shouldn't it also be true in heaven? Can God be any less caring than a good earthly master?
3. Because it is time for God to act (verse 126). We might expect the writer to have said that God should act now because if He delays, it will be too late, he will be crushed by his oppressors. This argument is found in other psalms. But this is not what the psalmist says here. Instead of pleading his own desperate condition, he calls on God to act because "your law is being broken." How interesting! Because he is God's servant, he is more concerned with God's name and God's law than with himself and his own perilous condition. The last two verses of this section repeat a point we saw in verse 113, namely, hatred of what is wrong contrasted with a love of what is good.
Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, And because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path. Verses 127—28
We live in days when it is hard for people, even alleged Christians, to accept the idea that a wrong path should be "hated." Our age is being described as postmodernity, a time in history when all things are regarded as true in the Hegelian sense, that is, they may be true for you or me or for now, but not that they have any binding validity for others or for all times; and nothing is to be considered false. Since there are no absolutes, there is nothing we can call "not true." To call it "not true" is an inexcusable power play on our part. All ways of life must be equally valid and the only thing that is absolutely wrong is to say that the path taken by someone else is wrong. It is absolutely intolerable to hate it. The time is probably coming when Christians holding to absolute standards will be considered criminals.
But Christians do hold to absolutes and must hold to them. For we know that we cannot love God and Satan too. We cannot hold to God's standards without separating from the contrary standards of the world. We cannot love the right path without hating the wrong ones. Jesus put it this way: "No one can serve two masters, . . .Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:24).
Are you willing to hate what God hates? If not, you will never learn truly to love God, and you will certainly never walk in the way that brings true blessing. If you are hesitating, may I encourage you to read the first psalm in the Psalter once again. It contrasts the way of the wicked with the way of the godly. The former "walk in the counsel of the wicked," "stand in the way of sinners," and "sit in the seat of mockers" (Psalm 1:1, italics mine). By contrast, the godly "delight . . . .in the law of the Lord" and meditate on it "day and night" (verse 2), as a result of which, they are like well-nourished trees, which yield good fruit in their season (verse 3). The psalm ends by observing, "For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish" (verse 6).
James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) was the pastor of Philadelphia’s historic Tenth Presbyterian Church (1968-2000). He founded the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals in 1994. He served as an assistant editor of Christianity Today in Washington, D.C., from 1966-1968, and as editor of Eternity from 1985-1989. James Montgomery Boice's Bible teaching continues on The Bible Study Hour radio and internet program, preparing you to think and act biblically.