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This Psalm was the special admiration of Pascal, who, as his sister Madame Perier says, often spoke with such feeling about it, 'that he seemed transported, qu'il paraissait hora de lui même' . He used to say that, 'with the deep study of life, it contained the sum of all the Christian virtues'. He singled out verse 59 as giving the turning-point of man's character and destiny: 'I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies'.
Verse 9. 'Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to Thy word.' Henry Scougal, author of The Life of God in the Soul of Man, when a youth, opened his Bible and lighted by peradventure on this passage. It went to his heart, and he gave himself to God, and to the Christian ministry. He became Professor of Theology, King's College, Aberdeen, and dying in 1678 at the early age of twenty-eight, has left a fragrance in his name which associates it with that of Leighton.
Verse 20. Chalmers says that though 'he could not speak of the raptures of Christian enjoyment, he thought he could enter into the feeling of the Psalmist, "My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto Thy judgments at all times".'
References. CXIX. 1. J. Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, vol. ii. p. 226. J. Keble, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, p. 186. CXIX. 11. A. Maclaren, After the Resurrection, p. 258. CXIX. 18. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. v. p. 77. H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons (2nd Series), p. 169. J. Keble, Sermons for Advent to Christmas Eve, p. 312. CXIX. 25. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. iv. p. 259. CXIX. 32. J. Keble, Village Sermons on the Baptismal Service, p. 126. J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons (9th Series), p. 95. E. J. Boyce, Parochial Sermons, p. 64.
This was the text printed on the title page of the Augsburg Confession which was published in quarto form in April, 1531, with the Apology. The text is given in Latin: 'Et loquebar de testimoniis tuis in conspectu Regum et non confundebar'. A copy with this motto, says Dr. J. W. Richard, is found in the royal library at Dresden. 'Beneath the title Melanchthon wrote with his own hand, D Doctori Martino. Et rogo ut legal et emendet .'
References. CXIX. 54. J. Monro-Gibeon, A Strong City, p. 195. CXIX. 55, 56. J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 292. CXIX. 59, 60. G. Jackson, The Scottish Review, vol. iii. p. 107. CXIX. 62. J. M. Neale, Sermons on Passages of the Psalms, p. 284. CXIX. 63. J. Keble, Sermons for the Saints' Days, p. 394. CXIX. 75. F. Bourdillon, Plain Sermons for Family Reading (2nd Series), p. 217. CXIX. 80. J. Smith, The Integrity of Scripture, p. 151. CXIX. 89-91. R. Allen, The Words of Christ, p. 258. CXIX. 90. A. Tucker, Preachers' Magazine, vol. xix. p. 323.
Comfort in Trouble
When we study the Psalms with a religious purpose, we would know something of the writers, and it is unfortunate that we know very little about them.
But when we look into so long a Psalm as the 119th we seem to see somewhat of the circumstances of the writer's life. It is a late Psalm, a Psalm written by one who lived in times when the Jewish nation was being influenced by the heathen nations around, and it seemed almost as if the persecution had gone further in reference to him who wrote the Psalm, as if they had actually placed him in durance vile. Yet, clinging more strongly to the words of God revealed to him and to his nation by the prophets of old, they were the sole comfort to him in his distress. 'The same is my comfort in my trouble: for Thy word hath quickened me.'
I. Now we come to the application to ourselves. Does it ever happen that we are similarly situated? Has it never occurred to us that we have been under influences which we felt were influences which tended to weaken the hold of the Christian faith upon our souls and our hearts? Certainly, we are from time to time brought face to face with persecution. Have we had recourse to God's promises, written and preserved to us in God's Word, and can we say with this pious Jew, 'The same is my comfort in my trouble'? You and I will all, some time or other, have to face trouble and pain. Pain will certainly come to us before the pilgrimage is over, and what a glorious and splendid thing it will be if you and I, like this pious Jew, can say of our trouble that we have got its corresponding comfort. This, I know, is my trouble, and this is my comfort. We will face trouble, then, much more readily when we know we have got our comfort.
Now let us consider just for a moment that thought, 'My comfort in my trouble'. It is quite clear that the words are emphatic, that the Psalmist meant to draw attention to himself, both in reference to his trouble and in reference to his comfort. And so you and I must also be emphatic, and devote our attention to our trouble and our comfort. Let us see, then, in what way he speaks of God's revelation as his comfort.
First of all, he would distinguish it from the comfort that other persons receive. The man of the world finds comfort in various sources. But this saint of God speaks of God's Word as 'my comfort'. It tells of that spiritual experience which is peculiar to each one of us when we with all our hearts strive to serve God, and it speaks of that comfort and joy which we can recollect we have received in reading with faith and with love God's Word, and deriving from it that help which we well know we need in the hour of our trouble.
Or again, it is my comfort as revealing to me the cause of my trouble. The servant of God looks to God's Word, and there he finds that God has allowed this trouble to come upon him to try him, to see whether he really loves Him, to see whether that heart of the pilgrim responds to the heart of Him Who is its King, its Guide. And therefore he begins to feel that the trouble is, after all, one allowed to come upon him by God for some good reason of His own, and in that he receives comfort.
Or, again, it is my comfort, this message from God's Word, because it is one always present with me wherever I go. Wherever I am there is that message from God which I recollect, remember imperfectly perhaps in reference to the exact words, but there it is. I store it up in my memory: it is an ever-present comfort.
But one word more. The verse in the Psalm consists of two clauses: "The same is my comfort in my trouble; for Thy Word hath quickened me'; that is to say, that the result of this comfort which God gives to His striving and faithful soldier, in these messages which He conveys through His revealed Word to His soul, gives him new life, quickens him.
II. This quickening of our spiritual life, this quickening of our effort in the affairs of our daily life, comes to us in two distinct ways.
First of all it comes to us from outside, it comes to us from our reading of God's Word. Holy Scripture is full of comfort and encouragement to those who strive with a good heart. Only be strong and of a good courage. When the Apostles thought they were overwhelmed with the waves of the storm on the lake, Jesus was present with them, and when, in their fear, they saw Him coming, He cried out, 'Be not afraid: it is I'. And we see in every page of God's Word how God was the comfort and support of His servants of old.
And it gives us new life from within. For we recall, in reference to that moment of our spiritual wavering, many a time when God was very good to us. Our spiritual experience tells us of a time when temptation came and seemed almost as if it were going to overwhelm us, and how God in His goodness sent the angel, and He closed the lion's mouth that it should not hurt us. And we feel guilty of ingratitude because we doubted that God would help us, and the thought of what He has done for us in the past gives us new life. Yes, there wells up from within a new vigour; the grace of God has been given us.
Ask yourselves to what extent you can take these words home; ask yourselves, in reference to your trouble, to what extent God is your comfort? Can we say: 'Thy Word, Thy revealed truth is my comfort, shall be my comfort all the days of my pilgrimage, whenever my trouble shall come upon me?' May God give us grace to answer this aright.
The Mystery of Pain
It is scarcely surprising if the mystery of pain has been a problem which beyond almost any other has tasked the brain and wearied the heart of many of the world's greatest thinkers. With the steady advance of knowledge, moreover, especially that of a scientific character, the shadows upon the picture seem to grow yet more sombre of hue. Day by day the cry continues all around us, 'Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He shut up His lovingkindness in displeasure? Why does He not eradicate the ape and tiger instincts from the heart of man? Why tarry the wheels of His chariot so long in coming? Why does He not lay bare His holy arm and scatter the legions of iniquity for ever?' Over and over again, when men have witnessed some helpless body racked with pain in its most exquisite forms, when they have beheld the great social cankers sapping the very springs of life, when the dogs of war are let loose and they see before them such horrors as those depicted by Zola in La Débâcle, at such seasons as these the cry has often risen to men's lips, 'Is there any reward for the righteous? Is there a Judge Who judgeth the earth?'
I. Pain the Result of Sin. It is important for us to remember at the outset that a huge amount of the pain of which we ourselves are the unwilling witnesses, perhaps even victims, today, is the direct or indirect result of sin, and being such it is wholly unjustifiable for us to cast the tiniest stigma of blame upon the Almighty for its existence. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, yea, even unto the third and fourth generation. This statement is not a mere piece of philosophic theory, it is a tremendous present-day fact of which even the most unreflecting among us cannot fail to take notice. Consequences are God's commentaries. If you narrow down the subject for a moment to those particular forms of child-suffering which touch our hearts so deeply, we shall learn from those whose mission in life it is to do what they can to alleviate cruelty and suffering at this time, we shall learn from them that ninety-nine per cent of the child-cruelty with which they are brought into contact is the result simply and solely of the curse of intemperance on the part of their parents or guardians.
II. The Discipline of Pain. But my purpose now is rather to dwell upon pain and suffering regarded from their disciplinary point of view that is to say, as exercising an important influence in the formation and development of the highest type in Christian character, that type of Christian character which has been so wonderfully summed up for us by the great Apostle in the familiar words, the life which is 'hid with Christ in God'. First of all, then, I would appeal to the testimony of the Gospels. I do not mean necessarily the experience of great thinkers, but also that of the humblest and most commonplace of the sons of men. Can we fail to recognize it as a truth that pain and suffering have been responsible, times without number, for the development of the most beautiful traits of Christian character? Is it not an incontestable fact that pain is, as it were, a great moral lever wielding a far mightier power than riches, or force, or both. The road to victory lies across the burning, fiery furnace of martyrdom. It was in the presence of a Man of Sorrows that the great unshaken imperial might of Rome was at length compelled to bow, and at last crumbled to atoms. Hence we can understand the tremendous words of the Master when He charged us to take up our cross and follow Him. Pain, suffering, discipline, these are potent beyond anything else to uplift our poor human nature to its true height. Trial or suffering, this must be the lot of us all. It was through discipline like this that the great Captain of our salvation, wealing the robe of flesh, was exalted to the right hand of the Father Himself, and we ourselves cannot rebel against a similar lot. 'I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.' And this leads us to a second thought: the formation within each one of a Divine character through and by the aid of suffering and discipline. This brings in its train many consequences which are altogether external to ourselves, but which are none the less of a most far-reaching type. Cases undoubtedly do exist, and have existed, in which the effect of suffering, whether it be physical or mental, appears to be the freezing up of all love. This result, however, we may truly regard as being applicable to a very small minority of people indeed, whereas, on the other hand, suffering and discipline, if only they be accepted in the true Christian temper, in the spirit of the Christ, with a manful determination to show forth in our own body the marks of the Lord Jesus Himself suffering such as this is bound, however little we ourselves may be conscious of the fact, to produce flowers of grace which could never otherwise have put forth their exquisite blossoms. Personal suffering this is a cross which we must inevitably endure if we desire our own individual souls to be filled with the Divine grace of sympathy, if we desire to take our share in bearing the burdens of our comrades. It will quicken our spiritual perceptions till we become possessed of an insight, altogether foreign to any previous experience, an insight which will impel us to extend a helping hand to a companion who has perhaps been racked with some long agony. The very fact that we ourselves have partaken of God's gift of suffering will throw around us in the eyes of our fellow-men a bright halo of love. It will draw our fellow-men to our side, to be absolutely at one, in full sympathy and communion with our fellow-men. In order to bring about this end, the influence of sorrow is a thousand times more powerful than that of joy. Pain and sorrow possess an attractive power of a most extraordinary type. They simply weld the most divergent characters together. Whether it be the soldiers who have fought shoulder to shoulder through some toilsome campaign, or the patriots who have sworn that they will give their life-blood if need be for the triumph of their cause, or the husband and wife upon whose heads the storms of adversity have descended in blinding torrents; these will be the people who will be able to exclaim with the full heart of the Psalmist, 'It is good for me that I have been in trouble'.
III. Christianity and Life. Suffering and discipline, then, are mighty factors in our spiritual education, and when we dwell upon such themes as these the inherent reasonableness of much which would be otherwise dark and inscrutable is beginning to dawn on our minds. Now we are ascended to higher ground still. The very clouds themselves seem to be rolling away. We almost fancy that we can get a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem. Life this is the great title of Christianity remember not simply the purification of this life, passed in this world of lights and shadows, has the promise of an infinitely purer, grander life in the vast ages which are as yet unborn. Once realize and take home to yourselves the great fact that this world is not an end of itself, but rather a school of character, and the discipline of pain and suffering seems forthwith to fall into its place as a normal and necessary element in the Divine government of the world. We are constrained to believe that each one of us exists for a definite purpose, but the purpose which is apparently the sign of each personality is ever being ceaselessly baffled. In all that we attempt to perform we are fettered, shackled, hampered. Pleasure, knowledge, achievement, each of these in turn breaks down, and as we fall upon them they pierce us through and through. But remember, we are working for the most glorious of futures, when the life we now enjoy will attain to its complete development, when we shall indeed know what it is to realize ourselves; for we shall wake up with Christ's own likeness and be satisfied with it. And all the sad scenes with which we are so constantly confronted, in the presence of the bitter, aching sorrows which sooner or later descend upon us all, till the iron literally enters into our soul, it is difficult to grasp the fact that the whole picture is one of ordered beauty, and not a mass of confused colour destitute of all semblance of design; but have patience, have faith, the work never ceases to go on, although things often seem so meaningless and unintelligible.
Reference. CXIX. 71. H. Windross, The Life Victorious, p. 33.
'Unless Thy law had been my delight, I should have perished in mine affliction,' is written on Martin Luther's Bible by his own hand. The date is 1542, and the Bible is preserved at the Brandenburg Mark Museum, Berlin.
The Sinner and the Saviour
We notice as we read this Psalm that there is one thought that occurs in every single verse right through the Psalm from beginning to end, and that is the thought of God's law. The writer has evidently learned one great fact in his life, that we depend upon God for all our good things, and without Him we can do nothing; he has learned that as God is the supporter and stay of the whole creation, so He is the supporter and stay of the individual human life. And then, as he dwells upon this change, there is another thought which comes to his mind, and which seems to press upon him almost as strongly as that first thought, and that is that there is something between man and God which prevents man from following God's will, and that something he knows to be the existence of sin. He feels his need of pardon, and so he prays, 'I am Thine, O save me'.
I. The Need of a Saviour. This need is a need which we should all of us feel. There have been times, and we know it, when we have wandered far away from God. There have been times when we have seen before us the choice between good and evil, and we have deliberately chosen that which is evil. We have preferred sin. We have loved sin, and chosen it because we preferred it. But God has blessings in store for the sinner, as soon as the sinner becomes penitent and turns from the evil of his ways. And so all that we have to do is to understand the real meaning of the word penitence, or the word conversion, which means practically the same, and see that we are truly penitent, and then we may believe that much blessing is in store for us, that is in store for those who are undefiled in the way.
II. The Meaning of Penitence. Let us try and see what is the real meaning of this word, penitence. The first step necessary in true penitence is that we must learn to know ourselves. The writer of this Psalm says, 'I am Thine, O save me, for I have sought Thy commandments,' and that is necessary for us as it was necessary for him. There are a great many people who have never done what the prodigal son did, they have never come to themselves or thought of their own ways, and learned what their own life has been. How can we gain this necessary self-knowledge? The man of the world would tell us that if we would know human nature, our own nature and lives, we must live in the world, we must see something of the world, we must not be too hard on the faults of the world. Sometimes they will say the best man is the man who has fallen into sin himself. But Christ says to us something very different from this. Christ says, If you would know human nature, know yourself and your own life, there must be times when you cut yourself off from the world, and when you get alone with God. And so, if we would know what real penitence is, it is necessary first of all to know ourselves and our own life, and to call upon the Lord, 'O save me'.
III. A Change of Life. Conversion means turning to God, seeking His commandments, and we must make no mistake about it. It means a change of heart, which must be followed by a change of life. Real penitence, real conversion is not a state of feeling, but a change of life. The result of our conversion, or our turning to God, may show itself in different ways. It sometimes is a sudden result, and it shows itself suddenly in the complete change of a life, so that those who know us can see what has taken place in our lives and see at once we have turned to God. But conversion does not always come to a man in this way. Sometimes it comes slowly and gradually. Sometimes God's Holy Spirit has to deal with a man very gently, and lead him on slowly, step by step, correcting one fault at a time, gradually changing his life; and it is only after a long time that we see the result of the change in his changed life.
Reference. CXIX. 94. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines, p. 76.
Ruskin says: 'If people would but read the text of their Bibles with heartier purpose of understanding it, instead of superstitiously, they would see that throughout the parts which they are intended to make most personally their own (the Psalms) it is always the Law which is spoken of with chief joy. The Psalms respecting mercy are often sorrowful, as in thought of what it cost; but those respecting the law are always full of delight. David cannot contain himself for joy in thinking of it, he is never weary of its praise: "How love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Thy testimonies are my delight and my counsellors; sweeter, also, than honey and the honeycomb."'
Modern Painters, vol. v., pt. vii. chap. IV. § 22.
Verse 97. Henry Martyn says: 'I experienced a solemn gladness in learning this part, "Mem," of the 119th Psalm'.
The Word of God is compared to a lamp or lantern such as that which is carried on dark nights in country places in lands where fixed lights are not to be found. Let us see how the Word of God may be compared to such a lamp.
I. First like a lighted lantern on a dark and lonely journey it is a pleasant companion. A lamp cannot indeed talk to us or even listen to our voices; but its cheerful light close beside us, belonging to us, and going on continually with us, takes away our feeling of loneliness, and we feel that the common saying is quite true that 'a light is pleasant company'. This is much more true of the Word of God. Life has not only its sunny days, but its long dark nights in which we must go on just the same in the way that is set before us. But even in the dark nights of temptation, pain, disappointment, sickness or bereavement, we need not travel alone, for this lamp may be ever at our sides, cheering us with its radiance.
II. Then again the Word of God, like a lighted lantern, is a protection against danger. The shining light of the truth we love will often preserve us from the more accidental spiritual dangers and temptations of life. It will save also in deliberately planned attacks of our spiritual enemies upon us. A thief would not choose to try to rob a man who carried a lighted lamp in his hand or to break open the lock of a house with the Master's lantern shining full on him.
III. But the third and principal value of a lamp is that it shows us the way, and it is in this respect especially that the truth of God is most precious to us.
( a ) It shows us the entrance to the way.
( b ) Then it shows us the way itself, as we travel on step by step through the lonely darkness. If at some meeting of the ways we might in darkness have turned in the wrong direction this lamp will show us the true path, whispering kindly to us 'This is the way, walk ye in it; when ye turn to the right, or when ye turn to the left' (Isaiah 30:21 ).
( c ) Then lastly the Word of God will show us the end of the way. The word of God is a lamp that will light us all the way to heaven, where we shall need it no more.
R. Brewin, British Weekly Pulpit, vol. III. p. 24.
Verse 105. 'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet.' This is the text prefixed to a little book called The Lantern of Light, which was the favourite reading of the Lollards before the Reformation. The close of a prayer in the preface shows the principles of these children of the dawn: 'When Thou, O Lord, didst die upon the cross, Thou didst breathe into Thy Word the spirit of life, and didst give it power to quicken us through Thine own precious blood, as Thou Thyself hast said: "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life".' The Lollards of England and Scotland were charged with reading the Bible in their mother tongue Wyclif's translation and with esteeming it above any instruction they received from the priests. On this account they were called Biblemen. A considerable number of them were taken up for trial in Kyle in Ayrshire, and other western districts, in 1494, nearly seventy years before the time of Knox. That region, so prominent in the time of the Reformation and the Covenant, had the seed in the soil.
References. CXIX. 105. C. Bosanquet, Tender Grass for the Lambs, p. 154. J. Keble, Sermons from Advent to Christmas, p. 257. R. Allen, The Words of Christ, p. 15. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 199. CXIX. 112. G. Bellett, Parochial Sermons, p. 54. CXIX. 117. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii. No. 1657.
The Qualification of a Servant
I. I should call this distinctively the servant's prayer. At first sight it might seem that the prayer of a servant should be more elementary. It might seem that the simple duty of a servant is to ask for orders. The Psalmist has a different view. To his mind the perfection of domestic service is not the receiving but the forestalling of orders the providing for requirements beforehand. 'Because I am a servant, give me understanding, that I may know in advance the things thou hast need of that I may not require to wait for Thy verbal instructions but may consider the wants of Thy household.' That is the Psalmist's meaning, and it is founded on truth. For, in God's house as in man's house, there are two ways in which one may be a 'good and faithful servant' a lower way and a higher way. The lower way is that of the beginner. It is the waiting for every detail. 'What wouldst Thou have me do this day?' So asks the incipient servant. And in answer the heavenly Father gives the details; He issues Ten Commandments.
II. But as yet He misses something in the servant that thing which the Psalmist calls understanding. He craves in the servant a second stage of goodness and faithfulness. Let us suppose that the Father names four rooms of His sanctuary which require sweeping. Let us suppose that on descending from His presence the servant finds that in the interval a fifth apartment has become soiled. Would it not be desirable that in the mind of him or her the understanding should supersede the command. Is the fifth room to be left useless because there is no verbal enactment concerning it? Is there none of the Lord's servants with discernment enough to improvise an eleventh commandment to satisfy God's will instead of His mere law? That is what the Father longs for, that is what the Psalmist prays for, that is what the instinct of all hearts desire.
III. Lord, men of old have said, 'Teach us Thy law'; rather shall my prayer be, 'Teach me Thy will'. My voice shalt Thou hear in the morning; but it will be to suggest not to receive orders. Wilt Thou give me liberty to act for Thee without command! Wilt Thou let us keep Thy house in order where from Thee I have received no order? Wilt Thou give me a commission without detail a mandate to help where I see heaviness, to brighten where I meet burdens, to comfort where I find calamities, to free where I encounter fetters, to protect where I recognize poverty, to cheer where the atmosphere is chill!
G. Matheson, Messages of Hope, p. 125.
References. CXIX. 126-128. A. Maclaren, Old Testament Outlines, p. 146. CXIX. 129. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines, p. 57. Bishop Woodford, Occasional Sermons, vol. i. 258. CXIX. 129,130. J. Wordsworth, 'The One Religion,' Bampton Lectures, 1881, p. 115. CXIX. 130. R. Shutte, Penny Pulpit, No. 1715, p. 761. CXIX. 132. J. Keble, Sermons for Sundays After Trinity, pp. 245,417. CXIX. 133. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xv. No. 878.
In Thomas Hughes' Life of Daniel Macmillan, a letter of the publisher to Mr. Llewellyn Davies is quoted, in which he observes of Plato: 'There is none of the yearning over the sins of the world which expresses itself in "Tears run down my cheeks because men keep not Thy law," nor "I could wish myself accursed for my brethren's sake". He has no feeling of bearing the sins of the world. Vice and mean conduct are very ugly. He would do all in his power to banish them: but he speaks of them in the tone of a "very lofty Athenian gentleman".'
References. CXIX. 140. J. M. Neale, Sermons on Passages of the Psalms, pp. 290, 299. CXIX. 144. T. Sadler, Sermons for Children, p. 85. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxvi. No. 1672. CXIX. 148. H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 1613, p. 301. CXIX. 151. W. H. H. Murray, American Pulpit of Today, vol. iii. p. 209. CXIX. 162. G. A. Sowter, From Heart to Heart, p. 66. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii. No. 1671. CXIX. 176. T. Arnold, Christian Life: Its Hopes, p. 171. J. Bolton, Selected Sermons (2nd Series), p. 135. CXIX. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 409. CXX. Ibid. p. 444.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 119". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany