A Song of Ascents – Psalm 123

A Song of Ascents. To You I lift up my eyes, O You who are enthroned in the heavens! 2 Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until He is gracious to us. 3 Be gracious to us, O LORD, be gracious to us, for we are greatly filled with contempt. 4 Our soul is greatly filled with the scoffing of those who are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud. (Psa 123:1-4 NASB)

    A SongPsalm 123 is one of fifteen songs of ascent (Psa 120 to 134), of which four are attributed to David (Psa 122, 124, 131, 133) and one to Solomon (Psa 127). The Mishmash states these psalms were sung on the fifteen steps that led up to the temple; however, it is more likely they were sung by pilgrims as they traveled up to Jerusalem, as stated in Psalm 122:1-2 and 125:1-2. Whether Jerusalem or the temple, these psalms were intended to prepare the worshiper’s mind to look to the Lord in faith. Spurgeon states, “Yet we must use our eyes with resolution, for they will not go upward to the Lord of themselves, but they incline to look downward, or inward, or anywhere but to the Lord.”[1]

     The opening verse is singular, “To You I lift up my eyes” (Psa 123:1a), whereas the second verse is plural, “so our eyes look to the LORD our God” (Psa 123:2b); this makes the prayer both individual and corporate. And where is the focus of their attention? It is to God who is “enthroned in the heavens!” (Psa 123:1b). This anthropomorphic language pictures God seated upon His throne and is a recognition of His sovereignty, for “the LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psa 103:19). It is God who reigns supreme and has the authority to effect change in His creation. He cares about what happens on the earth. His people know that it is He who “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of His people” (Psa 113:7-8).

     These humble worshipers approach the Lord with a servant’s heart, singing, “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until He is gracious to us” (Psa 123:2). Here is a picture of humility and submissiveness; for just as servants cannot act on their own initiative or authority, and constantly watch for their sovereign’s gesture, so these humble believers look to the LORD their God, until He is gracious to them. And what is their desire? They twice request, “Be gracious to us, O LORD, be gracious to us” (Psa 123:3a). The repetitious appeal for God to be gracious underscores their desire to meet some pressing need. Though God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, He is no tyrant to be feared by those who are humble. These worshippers confidently approach God because they know something about Him; they know He is a God of grace. On numerous occasions the Bible reveals the LORD is “compassionate and gracious” (Exo 34:6a), “a God merciful and gracious” (Psa 86:15a), “a gracious and compassionate God” (Jon 4:2a), and “a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate” (Neh 9:17a; cf. Psa 103:8, 116:5; 145:8). This gracious disposition is true of all three Persons of the Trinity. God the Father is described as “the God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10), who sits upon a “throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), who “gives grace to the afflicted” (Prov 3:34), and provides salvation “by grace” through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9; cf. Acts 15:11; Rom 3:24). Jesus is said to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29). Grace is undeserved favor. It is the kindness and goodness that one person freely confers upon another who does not deserve it. There is a common grace that God extends to all, in which “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). This blessing is upon all people and is rooted in the goodness and open-handedness of the Giver, not the worthiness of the object. However, apart from common grace, there is special grace that God gives to the humble, for “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5b). God’s grace will meet their needs, and their humility is the open hand that receives it. 

     Why do they need God’s grace? Because they “are greatly filled with contempt” (Psa 123:3b). The word filled is a translation of the Hebrew verb שָׂבַע saba, which means to be sated, filled, satisfied, have enough. The word usually refers to something positive, such as being filled with food (Ex 16:8; Lev 25:19; Psa 132:15), but here it has a negative connotation of being filled with something hurtful, namely “contempt” (בּוּז buz), which refers to the despising or belittling that one person verbally casts into the ear of another. And the afflicted are described as being “greatly” filled (רָב rab), which means they are overflowing with contempt. Other translations read, “we’ve had more than enough contempt” (CSB), and “we have had our fill of humiliation, and then some” (NET). Their souls were injured by “the scoffing of those who are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud” (Psa 123:4). Those who are at “ease” (שַׁאֲנָן shaanan) live secure lives, free from the affliction that often accompanies those whom the Lord is perfecting through some trial. The “proud” (גָּאֲיוֹן gaayon) are those who see themselves as self-sufficient and who operate independently of God; they see no need for grace, and have none to give. Theirs is the hand of oppression and they cannot abstain from violence; they care little about the harm they inflict. Unfortunately, when others think little of us, we are all too quick to think little of ourselves and to reject the consolations of a friend. “Scoffing” (לַעַג laag) is the ridicule, mocking, or derisive speech they use to poison the souls of their victims. It is deeply hurtful to be regarded as unimportant or insignificant by others, and the wicked have no consideration of those on whom they trample verbally. “The reason people ridicule what they oppose, aside from it being so easy, is that it is demoralizing and frequently effective. It is effective because it strikes at the hidden insecurities or weaknesses that almost everybody has.”[2]

Summary

     These worshipers ascended, not just to Jerusalem or the temple, but to God who is enthroned in heaven. And as a watchful servant looks to his/her master, so these persecuted believers look to the Lord until He is gracious to them; and they need His grace, for the scoffing of the proud has greatly wounded them. Overall, there is intentionality in their mindset as they look to the Lord, for their natural proclivity—and ours as well—is to look anywhere and everywhere other than to the One who sustains in times of trouble.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. God’s Grace is Sufficient  
  2. Living by Grace  
  3. The Basics of Grace  
  4. The Lord is My Shepherd – Psalm 23 
  5. Choosing the Faithful Way – Psalm 119:25-32 
  6. God’s Word Sustains Us – Psalm 119:89-96 
  7. Establish Our Footsteps – Psalm 119:129-136 
  8. Seek Your Servant – Psalm 119:169-176 

 

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. 3 (McLeon, Virginia, MacDonald Publishing Company, ND), 41.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 107–150: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 1090.

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They Will Suffer for Your Unfaithfulness

     I struggled with how to title this article. I prefer to be positive, but many sections of the Bible reveal things that are negative, and an honest preacher will not ignore those sections. The title is actually a partial quote from Numbers 14:33, which reveals that Israelite children suffered because their parents were unfaithful to the Lord. The article ends on a positive note and call to action, but we must look at the difficult section first.

Twelve Spies     The concept of blessing and cursing by association is biblical. When Israel was advancing spiritually, walking with the Lord, and obeying His will, they experienced His blessings which spilled over into the lives of others. But, when they failed to grow spiritually and live by faith, they became their own worst enemy and experienced suffering, which negatively touched the lives of those near them. An example is found in the book of Numbers where God commanded Moses to send a dozen Israelites to spy out the land of Canaan. After forty days in Canaan the spies returned and gave an account of what they saw; but ten of the spies—who operated by human viewpoint—gave a negative report that discouraged the people (read Numbers 13:1-33). The fearful reaction lead to complaining and irrational behavior, as the Israelites concluded it would be better to return to Egypt than continue onward (Num 14:1-3). The people were ready to reject Moses’ leadership and elect new leaders, “So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt’” (Num 14:4). Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua tried to reverse the impact of the negative report by calling the people to see the situation with eyes of faith, not fear (Num 14:5-9), but the people would not listen and “all the congregation threatened to stone them” (Num 14:10a). When God and His Word are absent in our stream of consciousness, it’s very easy for fear to set in and dominate our thoughts, and fear is very difficult to dislodge when it becomes deeply seated in the human spirit, as it leads to psychological disequilibrium, which in turn can birth irrational and harmful behavior. Unfortunately, the people chose fear, not faith, and what followed were the consequences of their choice, as the Lord appeared and pronounced judgment upon them (Num 14:10b-29). He said, “Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey—I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected” (Num 14:30-32).

     I understand God judging His people because of their sin; He certainly disciplines me for mine. But what follows in the next verse is very sobering, as the Lord states, “But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness” (Num 14:33). Choices have consequences, and those Israelites who chose to live by fear and not faith were making decisions, not only for themselves, but for their children, who would either be blessed or cursed by those decisions. The opposite would have happened if the Israelites would have lived by faith, obeyed the Lord and walked with Him; but they did not, and their children paid the penalty for it.

How should we live?

     First, understand how we live impacts the lives of others, either positively or negatively for God; not only as a model for good behavior, but with the realization that our choices bring blessing or cursing into the lives of those near us, both in the moment, and for many years to come. The Israelites who accepted the negative report from the spies chose fear over faith and brought cursing into their lives as well as the lives of their children. Joshua and Caleb chose to operate by divine viewpoint and tried to unseat the fearful choices of their contemporaries, unfortunately, without success. Though Joshua and Caleb lived by faith, and would eventually enter the Promised Land, they too had to wait forty years.

     Second, choose to live by faith, learning and living God’s Word in all aspects of our lives. As Christians, we will be confronted with negative reports and behavior, even from other believers. Though we cannot control the negativity, God expects us to choose faith over fear, obedience over defiance. In fact, this is exactly what God wants from us, to “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness” (Psa 37:3), “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Pro 3:5), and “Trust in the LORD forever, for in GOD the LORD, we have an everlasting Rock” (Isa 26:4). This means we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), for, “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6), and “My righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him” (Heb 10:38).

     As I wrote this brief article, I thought about my grandmother and how she blessed me when I was young. Much of her life was focused on God as she modeled right living in conformity with God’s Word, whereas all others around me were focused on themselves and advancing worldly agendas. She feared the Lord, read her Bible, obeyed His Word, prayed often, sang praises, shared the Gospel, and sprinkled Scripture into her daily discussions with others. She was not perfect, but she owned her failures, confessed them, accepted consequences, sought forgiveness and moved on. That’s integrity. She was a light in my darkness. The seeds she sowed have come to life and are bearing fruit; not only in my life, but the lives of others. I want to carry on that noble Christian legacy, realizing how I live my life touches others. It touches family, friends, coworkers, students, and people I meet along the way. I realize the greatest blessing we can give to others is a life that communicates and models faith in God. Will you live that life? Will you leave that legacy for others to follow? Please do. Please, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mat 5:16).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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Seek Your Servant – Psalm 119:169-176

Let my cry come before You, O LORD; give me understanding according to Your word. 170 Let my supplication come before You; deliver me according to Your word. 171 Let my lips utter praise, for You teach me Your statutes. 172 Let my tongue sing of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness. 173 Let Your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen Your precepts. 174 I long for Your salvation, O LORD, and Your law is my delight. 175 Let my soul live that it may praise You, and let Your ordinances help me. 176 I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments. (Psa 119:169-176 NASB)

     This final section of Psalm 119 presents the psalmist as one who has wandered away from God, but cries for understanding and deliverance that he might praise and worship Him. At the opening of this pericope, the author appears spent, with nothing to bring to God but a “cry” for help and “supplication” for grace (Psa 119:169-170). He does not look beyond the Lord, but brings his requests directly before Him; literally, “before Your face” (פָּנִים panim). He desires God’s full attention as he asks for “understanding” and “deliverance” from Him. He asks for “understanding” that he might make sense of his difficulty and know how to respond to it. This is faith in action. He also requests “deliverance” from the Lord, that he might experience His concrete goodness. Both of these requests are given with the twice repeated phrase, “according to Your word.” All that he understands about God and could expect from Him was found in the special revelation of His Word.

     The next two verses express the psalmists desire to praise and sing to God for two reasons: 1) “You teach me Your statutes” (Psa 119:171), and 2) “all Your commandments are righteousness” (Psa 119:172). God Himself is his teacher, and what is revealed are His statutes (חֹק choq). God’s statutes are His rules that establish the boundaries for living in a right relationship with Him. Those who love God love His statutes, because they remove ambiguity of expectation and illumine the path He sets for us that we might walk with Him. This is reinforced by the appositional clause, “all Your commandments are righteousness” (Psa 119:172b). The Lord’s commandments (מִצְוָה mitsvah) are right (צֶדֶק tsedeq) because they reflect His righteous character, and lead the believer into righteous living. Such revelation is worthy of praise and song to God.

     The psalmist reveals he’s overwhelmed by something in his life, but he does not say what. Using anthropomorphic language, he cries, “Let Your hand be ready to help me” (Psa 119:173a). He realizes his own hand cannot do what is needed; so, he appeals to the hand that made him. The ground of his petition rests in the fact that he has chosen God’s precepts (Psa 119:173b). He has chosen them, not because there were no others, but because there were none better. The verse follows with the phrase, “I long for Your salvation, O LORD, and Your law is my delight” (Psa 119:174). Here is intentionality with the psalmist, as he requests help from the One whose laws are his delight. The word salvation (יְשׁוּעָה yeshuah) connotes physical deliverance, as the psalmist feels threatened by death. He asks, “let my soul live that it may praise you, and let Your ordinances help me” (Psa 119:175). By answering his request for salvation, God would be able to enjoy continued praise from His servant (which would cease if he died), and the servant would be able to continue doing what he loves, which is praising God. There is reciprocation here, for he desires to praise God and needs His help in doing so, and when God delivers, it becomes further grounds for praise.

With the three petitions—for help, for deliverance, and for life, there are four reasons stated for the prayers to be answered: 1) he has chosen God’s law and is resolved to obey it; 2) he has longed for deliverance from all hindrances so that he might obey freely; 3) the law is his devotion and delight; and 4) he desires to praise God for the answers to his prayer. In short, he is a believer who trusts the LORD for salvation, is committed to obeying his word, and will praise him throughout his life. Scripture teaches that God will bless such saints because this is what he desires from them.[1]

Shepherd finding lost sheep     The psalmist closes with the statement, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments” (Psa 119:176). He previously used similar language, saying, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word” (Psa 119:67). Sheep that wander away from the shepherd find themselves without direction and protection, vulnerable to dangers. Even though the psalmist turned away from God’s path, His Word was still present in the stream of his consciousness, convicting him of sin and directing him back to the path of righteousness. Furthermore, the psalmist is simultaneously a “lost sheep” that has gone astray, as well as God’s “servant” who does not forget His commandments. Here is an example of what Luther called simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and a sinner). Believers are made right before God at the moment they trust in Christ as Savior. Their righteous status in God’s sight is not because of any righteousness of their own produced by good works (Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5); rather, it is because of the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to them freely at the moment of salvation (Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). Though saved, we continue to possess a sin nature and face ongoing temptations from a world-system that was created by Satan and is perpetuated by him and his demonic forces. We will walk in righteousness as we learn and live God’s Word, but biblical ignorance, coupled with our sinful proclivity, means we will occasionally wander away from God. But though we wander, we never wander so far that we escape the Holy Spirit Who constantly invades our thinking and reminds us of our need of a Shepherd to pull us back into God’s will. The prayer of the saint should always include a sense of helplessness, confession of sin, and acknowledgment that we need God’s Word to illumine our paths and mature us spiritually.

     Throughout Psalm 119, the writer expresses his deep love for God and His Word and seizes every term within his vocabulary to describe it (i.e. laws, commands, precepts, ordinances, etc.). Furthermore, he describes himself as one who seeks for God’s Word diligently and delights when he finds it, and once obtained, obeys it. But in all his knowledge and application, there is not an ounce of academic pride, but rather, a profound sense of his sinfulness and unworthiness before the God who made him. He would not have been like the self-righteous Pharisee who boasted in his religious life (Luke 18:12); but rather, like the tax collector, who, “standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’” (Luke 18:13)

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (90–150): Commentary, vol. 3, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2016), 594.

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Biblical Meditation

     Meditation, in the biblical sense, is an intentional filling of the mind with divine viewpoint; specifically, God’s Word. The purpose is to saturate our thinking with Scripture so that it will permeate all aspects of our reasonings and guide us in God’s will. This stands in stark contrast to the eastern view of meditation, which instructs adherents to empty the mind and to think nothing at all.

Meditate     The word meditate, in the Bible, translates the Hebrew verb הָגָה hagah, which means “to growl…to utter a sound…to moan…to read in an undertone…to mutter while meditating”[1] The word is used of a moaning dove (Isa 38:14), and a growling lion which hovers over its prey (Isa 31:4). Meditation, when applied to God’s people, connotes the student reads the biblical text no faster than her/his mouth can utter the words, which implies slowness, and perhaps greater comprehension, because one is hearing it as well as seeing it. And, it is the biblical text itself which is contemplated, first for understanding, and then for application. One can see this clearly in the command God gave to Joshua, saying, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Jos 1:8). Here is the principle that we cannot live what we do not know, that knowledge of God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will.

     Meditating on Scripture refers not only to the regular reading of Scripture, but the reflection of it throughout the day, in all aspects of life. David writes of the righteous person who delights “in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). Elsewhere it is written, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed Your precepts” (Psa 119:97-100).

Regardless of the time of day or the context, the godly respond to life in accordance with God’s word. Even where the word is not explicit, the godly person has trained his heart to speak and act with wisdom (Prov 1:1–7). According to Proverbs 3:1–6, the wise man receives instruction (tôrāh), writes it on his heart, and wholeheartedly trusts in the Lord with all his heart in all his daily activities.[2]

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

 

[1] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 237.

[2] Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 55.

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The Christmas Holiday

    Boy PrayingThere is an apocryphal story of a little boy who, during the Christmas season, had been praying for several days for a new puppy. Not feeling his prayers were being heard, he went into the living room near the Christmas tree and took the baby Jesus from the nativity scene, returned to his room, stuffed the little figurine in a sock and put it under his pillow. Afterward, he knelt down next to his bed and prayed, “Dear God, if you ever want to see your Son again, you’ll give me what I want.” Obviously, the little boy missed the reason for the season.

     So, what is Christmas and why is it celebrated? Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, the Jewish Messiah, Who is the Savior of all who trust in Him for salvation (John 3:16; Acts 4:12; Eph 2:8-9). Unlike the Jewish holidays that were mandated under the Mosaic Law (i.e. Passover, Feast of Booths, Yom Kippur, etc.), Christians are not biblically commanded to celebrate Christmas; rather, it has become a longstanding tradition within the church.

     When we think about the birth of Jesus, we should see it within the larger theological context of Scripture, which reveals His righteous life, compassion for the lost, substitutionary death on the cross, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The death of Jesus is really the major focus of the Bible, as only two chapters mention His birth, whereas thirty-eight chapters mention His death. Borrowing from a previous article I wrote on the meaning of Christmas, Christians should see the birth of Jesus in at least three ways:

  1. Christmas is about the gift of God to a fallen world. Nearly 2,000 years ago, God the Son added true humanity to Himself (hypostatic union; John 1:1, 14), was supernaturally conceived in the virgin Mary (parthenogenesis; see Luke 1:26-38), the mother of His humanity (christotokos – bearer of Christ), and was born a son of Abraham, in the line David (Matt. 1:1). Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:40, 52), and lived a sinless and righteous life before God and man (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 3:5).
  2. Christmas is about love and sacrifice. On April 3, A.D. 33, Jesus willingly laid down His life and died a substitutionary atoning death on a cross (Mark 10:45; John 3:16; 10:11, 17-18). He died a death He did not deserve, “the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus’ death forever satisfied every righteous demand God had toward our sin (Rom. 3:24-25; Heb. 10:10-14; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), and is the basis for forgiveness and reconciliation to God (Rom. 5:1-2; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13-14; 20-22). To those who believe the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4), God freely offers the gift of eternal life and the imputation of His righteousness (John 3:16; 10:28; Rom. 5:17; Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9; 1 Pet. 3:18).
  3. Christmas is about a future hope. After His crucifixion, Jesus was buried and resurrected bodily on the third day (Matt. 20:18-19; Acts 10:39-41; 1 Cor. 15:3-4), never to die again (Rom. 5:9), ascending to heaven (Acts 1:9-10), with a promise of a physical return for His own (John 14:1-3; Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Tit. 2:13). Following His return, the King of kings and Lord of lords will reign in righteousness for a thousand years (Rev. 19:11-16; 20:1-6), and afterward, will create a “new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13; cf. Rev. 21:1).

     As we think about the reasons for celebrating Christmas, let us also consider how to live a life that models the One we worship. Like Jesus, may we be willing to accept the Father’s will for us to go where He wants and do what He asks, no matter how difficult the task or great the price. And, may our hearts be motivated by love for others as we give sacrificially for their edification. Lastly, may we learn to keep our eyes on heaven and the future hope that is ours in Christ.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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Establish Our Footsteps – Psalm 119:129-136

Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore, my soul observes them. The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for Your commandments. Turn to me and be gracious to me, after Your manner with those who love Your name. Establish my footsteps in Your word, and do not let any iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from the oppression of man, that I may keep Your precepts. Make Your face shine upon Your servant, and teach me Your statutes. My eyes shed streams of water, because they do not keep Your law. (Psa 119:129-136 NASB)

    papyrus-001The first three verses of this pericope reveal the psalmist’s appreciation of God’s testimonies, words, and commandments. The word wonderful translates the Hebrew noun פֶּלֶא pele, which communicates something unusual or miraculous and refers to God’s acts in history, such as the exodus, where “He wrought wonders [פֶּלֶא pele] before their fathers in the land of Egypt” (Psa 78:12). The psalmist delights reading about God’s acts in history; no doubt because they reveal aspects of His character and ways. Knowledge of God and His ways is tremendously practical, as it provides a mental construct for the psalmist to know what to expect from God in the present, for the Lord does not change (Mal 3:6). This wealth of knowledge derives from Scripture, as he states, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psa 119:130). The unfolding refers to the unrolling of a scroll which contains written words on a page; words which give insight into realities one could never know, except that God has revealed them. Here is the precious light that comes from God, which penetrates into our darkness and exposes what is. That which “gives light” is followed by the appositional phrase, “it gives understanding to the simple.” The implied comparison is that God’s word, when opened and read, illumines the mind and brings understanding to the naïve. The psalmist, being very open to understanding God and His ways, states, “I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for Your commandments” (Psa 119:131). Here is the picture of a little bird with its mouth open wide to receive the nourishment necessary for growth. He’s hungry and ready for what God has for him.

     Next, he requests of God, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, after Your manner with those who love Your name” (Psa 119:132). Having learned about God’s acts in history, and seeing His grace towards others, the psalmist pleads for the same. The Hebrew verb חָנָן chanan, translated grace, is a Qal imperative and best understood as an imperative of request. Through divine revelation the psalmist has learned that God is gracious; that is, He treats us better than we deserve and provides the necessary resources to do His will. The psalmist does not want merely to read about God’s grace, he wants to experience it for himself. Here, the idea of grace is that of divine enablement, which is given to those “who love Your name.” A person’s name conjures up all we know about her/his character and ways, and this is true of God. The humble psalmist loves the Lord and seeks the grace to do His will. Illumination and grace are followed by a request for right guidance, as he entreats the Lord, “Establish my footsteps in Your word, and do not let any iniquity have dominion over me” (Psa 119:133). Only God’s word can provide stability for one’s walk, for all else is unstable. The request that God “not let any iniquity have dominion” over him likely refers to the iniquity of others and not his own. The next clause would support this, for he asks, “Redeem me from the oppression of man, that I may keep Your precepts” (Psa 119:134). Those who are hostile to God and His word possess an inborn proclivity to hate and oppress those who love and walk with Him. The psalmist knows oppression can upset his life, so he prays God will spare him from anything that would hinder his walk with the Lord. He wants to be governed by divine precepts, not human pressures.

     He continues his requests, saying, “Make Your face shine upon Your servant, and teach me Your statutes” (Psa 119:135). The word shine is the same Hebrew word (אוֹר or) used previously of the light that was given through God’s word (vs. 130). The shining of God’s face upon His servant is a picture of grace, as He illumines the one who desires to do His will. The language here is similar to the blessing of Aaron which he was commanded to speak to Israel, saying, “The LORD bless you, and keep you; the LORD make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26).

     In closing this section, the psalmist expresses his sorrow over those who disobey God, saying, “My eyes shed streams of water, because they do not keep Your law” (Psa 119:136). Here is true spirituality manifest in the heart of one who loves others and weeps because they reject God’s law (תּוֹרָה torah), His written revelation which illumines the mind and brightens the path of those who would otherwise walk in darkness. How terrible to live a life in darkness, fumbling and stumbling along, never seeing the path one is on; never knowing if danger lies ahead. “For someone who loves the word of God, lives obediently by it, and finds hope in its promises, to see the world mistreat it and reject it is very painful. Their attitude to the word is completely the opposite of the devout, who have found so much delight and benefit in it that they desire more from the LORD.”[1]

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (90–150): Commentary, vol. 3, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2016), 569.

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No Distractions

     This morning, I was reading a section in Luke that recounts an event where Jesus visited two sisters named Mary and Martha. In the account, Mary was praised by Jesus because she had her priorities straight. When faced with competing priorities (i.e. listen to Jesus teach or clean the house), Mary chose wisely. The account is as follows:

“Now as they were traveling along, He [Jesus] entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42)

     Hard work is a Christian ethic rooted in Scripture (Exo 20:9; 2 Thess 3:10-12; 1 Tim 5:18), but even good work can be a distraction from learning and living God’s will. There’s a simple truth that we cannot live what we do now know, and learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will. One of the strategies of the devil is to get us to focus on anything and everything to the exclusion of God and His Word. I must confess I fall into this trap on occasion, whether at home, work, or driving on the highway. There’s always some pressure that weighs on my soul, and when I allow it to govern my attitude and actions, it brings out the worst in me and the result is that I behave poorly toward others. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to apologize to family, coworkers, or friends. But in spite of my many failures, I keep coming back to Scripture, for it enriches my life and stabilizes my soul. Without it, I know nothing of God or the wealth of blessings and promises He provides. When I live by faith, it blesses me and pleases the Lord, for “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6).

     Sadly, it is possible to hear God’s Word and not benefit from it, because we allow worry to dominate our souls, or we pursue wealth or pleasure above God’s will. Jesus addressed this possibility in the parable of the sower and the fields, where He said, “The one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Matt 13:22), “And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mar 4:18-19), and “The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Luke 8:14).

    No DistractionsLet’s not be those who allow worry, riches, or the pleasures of life to choke the Word of God so that it bears no fruit in our lives, both within and without. Rather, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). And when the pressures of life begin to mount, be wise and cast “all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7), and “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phi 4:6), and “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’” (Heb 13:5)

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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  2. Bible Promises that Strengthen our Soul  
  3. Walking with God  
  4. The Faithfulness of the Lord  
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