The Lord's Day Evening
January 27, 2013
Not By Bread Alone
“Give Me Life. Strengthen Me in Sorrow. Enlarge My Heart.”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 119. We’re going to be looking at the fourth section of this alphabetical psalm, working its way through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting each of the stanzas of each of the sections with that particular letter of the Hebrew alphabet that is providing the alliteration for the particular section. Tonight it's Doleth, the Hebrew letter, Doleth. And this is a passage that teaches us much about the Christian life. Just looking at the parallels in the language in this passage it's hard to do it justice. There are so many intricate connections. But we do see, as we look at this passage, the psalmist in trouble again. If you’ll look at the very first line that we’ll read tonight, “My soul clings to the dust,” indicates that the psalmist is in a life threatening situation. And then if you’ll look down in verse 28 he says, “My soul melts away for sorrow.” And then again you see in verse 29 he says, “Put false ways far from me.” So the psalmist is perhaps in a life threatening situation. He's so burdened and sorrowful and grieving. He's not sure whether he can go on. He's surrounded by false ways; perhaps this is once again slander against him and falsehood by wicked men who seek to bring him down but he's lifting up his soul to the Lord in time of trouble.
But it's interesting how in Christian men and women, even when we're in times of trouble, trouble doesn't come alone. When we are victims of unjust trouble in our experience, so often the thing that presses us hardest is our own sin. You know, even when something is happening in our experience that we're not responsible for, that we haven't done anything to cause, the way we respond to it, the way we reflect upon our own lives, our sin begins to weigh us down even as we try and engage with the trouble in our experience. This is true of the soul troubles of all believers. And often in those times of trouble we sense a loss of communion with God. Have you ever gotten to the point where you just couldn't pray, you couldn't get the words out of your mouth? You've known what it is to feel close to God but now you feel far away. And the trouble's not your responsibility but the fact that you feel far away from God weighs on you like a millstone around your neck. The psalmist may be in a situation just like this and nothing, nothing is harder for a believer to endure. The very communion that we once had with God now deepens our grief in the time of trouble.
And so what does the psalmist do in that setting? He lifts up his soul to God. I love what William Plumer says about this passage. “Whatever we do, whatever our state may be, let us deal candidly with God and declare to Him our whole case.” So he just tells the Lord, “Lord, my soul is clinging to the dust. I feel like I'm almost dead. My soul is melting away to the point of dissolving.” He spreads it out before the Lord and he tells the Lord exactly what is going on in his own heart, not because the Lord needs to be informed, you understand; the Lord already knows the state of his soul, but because he needs to be honest with the Lord. He needs to open up before the Lord. And I love what William Plumer goes on to say about that. “If we are sad, the Lord can cheer us. If we are in the dark, the Lord can give us light. If we have no strength, He can strengthen us. If our wants are many, He can supply them. If we are shut up and cannot come forth, He can enlarge us. Whatever is our case, let us state it all, even as Hezekiah spread his letter before the Lord, let us state it all to the Lord.” That's what the psalmist is doing here tonight. He's opening up his heart, he's spreading it out before the Lord, and he's saying, “Lord, I'm clinging to the dust. My soul is dissolving. Help me.” And in the course of that, he manages to teach us two very important things about the Christian life and I want us to look at those together tonight. But before we read this passage and begin to study it let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the Psalms and thank You for this psalm and thank You for this passage. We need them and we need it. One of the things we marvel at is the way that, in Your Word, You unfold things to us that speak directly with an unnerving specificity to the very experience that we are undergoing when we encounter Your Word. This is one of the irrefutable truths of the inspiration and authority of Your living and active Word. We ask tonight, O Lord, that You would take this Word, inspired by Your Spirit, and You would apply it to our hearts by Your Spirit for Your glory and our everlasting good. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it, beginning in Psalm 119 verse 25:
“My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word! When I told of my ways, you answered me; teach me your statutes! Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works. My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me. I cling to your testimonies, O LORD; let me not be put to shame! I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
THREE PETITIONS ACKNOWLEDGING OUR
DEPENDENCE ON THE GRACE OF GOD
You know there's a sense in which the whole of this section is an answer to the prayer in the second half of verse 29. The psalmist there, you’ll remember, prays, “Graciously teach me your law.” Isn't that a beautiful prayer? “Graciously teach me your law.” The Law, there, is not our accuser, the Law there is our rule of life. And the psalmist counts it a grace for the Lord to teach him that rule of life and he teaches him in this section of the psalm two ways, two things, about God's way of life. And the first thing I want you to see in verses 25, 28, and 32. As he speaks about the way of godliness, about the way of life, he emphasizes that the Christian life is utterly dependent upon God's grace and power. And do you see that in the three petitions of verse 25, 28, and 32? “Give me life” — it's something that he acknowledges that he can't do for himself. “Strengthen me in sorrow” — it's something that he's acknowledging that only the Lord can do for him. “Enlarge my heart.” I want to look at those three petitions with you for just a few moments because they emphasize the necessity of God's grace and power if we are going to live the Christian life, if we are going to walk in the way of godliness.
GIVE ME LIFE
First, here's this petition of verse 25. “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” The psalmist looks to the Lord in this life threatening situation and he cries out to God to give him life. Have you ever been there, where you were at the point that you just wanted to die, you were ready for it to be over, you couldn't go on? And the one who raised you from the dead of sin to the life of righteousness, the one who caused you to be born again, the one who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light, and if you can remember those first days of walking with Him it was like you were breathing real air for the first time in your life and the world was alive to His presence — the one who raised you to newness of life, the one who gave you the new birth can answer that prayer when you’re crying out to Him now in the midst of your wilderness. If He could give you new life then He can give you new life now.
And the psalmist is saying, “Lord, my soul is clinging to the dust!” You get the image there. Adam was created out of the dust of the earth and dust was so often associated in the Old Testament with Sheol, the place of the dead. The point is what? Our God can bring life from death! He does it when He saves us, when He converts us, when we're born again. He brings life from death. We don't save ourselves because we are dead in our trespasses and sins but He gives us new life and the God who gives us new life can give us life in the midst of our wilderness when our souls are clinging to the dust. And so the psalmist just asks, “Lord, Lord give me life!” If God has raised us from the death of sin through Jesus Christ we may hope that He can renew life to us now no matter how close we think we are to the end.
This psalmist says, “Give me life according to your word.” It's one of two times in which he says this same phrase. Look down – by the way it comes in verse 28 as well. “Give me life according to your word.” It's right after he says, “My soul clings to the dust.” And then he says again, “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.” What does that mean? In the Word, God makes promises to you, His children. And one of the promises that He makes is that you are in His hand and you are under His protection and nothing can touch you apart from His will. And that is absolutely essential to believe when you are crying out with the prayer, “Lord, my soul clings to the dust.” To affirm that the life of the faithful is in God's hand and under His protection is absolutely essential to your comfort and to you being strengthened. That is, when we lift up this petition, “Give me life,” we must reckon with the promises of God's Word. I love what Calvin says about this. “Apart from God's Word, God's power would afford us little comfort.” If God had made these promises to us in His Word, even His power would afford us little comfort, but He has made promises to us in His Word. And therefore, when our soul clings to the dust and we cry out, “Give me life,” we do so according to the promises of His Word and we may expect blessing. There's the first petition, “Give me life.”
STRENGTHEN ME IN SORROW
Here's the second one. Look again at verse 28. Strengthen me in sorrow is this petition. “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.” This psalmist here is so disconsolate, so discouraged, he feels as if his soul is dissolving in sorrow. I wonder if the very language of melting away or dissolving is a picture of tears. Have you ever felt like that? The tears just won't stop and you feel like you’re just going to be a puddle eventually. Remember the story of Elijah? Turn with me to 1 Kings 19. Elijah wanted there to be a nationwide revival wherein the Baals were rejected and the one true God of Israel was worshiped. But even after his great contests with the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and even after their defeat, Elijah was thrust into a situation of despair. Remember after he defeats the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 19 he literally outruns a chariot back to Jezreel. Now Jezreel was the capital of the northern kingdom at that time and it indicates that Elijah thought that because of the miraculous deliverance that God had given, not only in the defeat of the prophets of Baal with fire from heaven consuming the altar and the prophets of Baal being slaughtered and the rain coming on the land at the prayers of God's prophet, that he expected there to be a response all over the nation wherein everyone turned back to God. And so he went to the capital to wait for that to happen. It would be like us praying and praying and praying for a nationwide revival to breakout in our country and going to Washington so we could be there when the ripple effect started. But when he gets to Jezreel he's met by a messenger with a message from Jezebel saying, “You’re going to be dead this time tomorrow.” And it plunges him into discouragement. His soul is so filled with sorrow that it almost melts away. And Elijah begins to run.
Look at the passage:
“He himself,” this is verse 4, “went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’ And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat.’ And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”
And isn't it an amazing picture there? He's in the wilderness and he doesn't have anything left in him. He lies down under a broom tree in the wilderness and he just wants to die. He doesn't have any provisions, he's left his servant behind, he fully expects to die in the wilderness, and what does the Lord do? The Lord sends him an angel to cook him a hot breakfast and wakes him up and says, “Elijah, eat. And by the way, here's some cool refreshing water to go along with the bread.” But he's still weak and he goes right back to sleep again. And the angel of the Lord wakes him up a second time and he gets second breakfast. And there's the picture of the answer to the psalmist's prayer. “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me.” The psalmist doesn't have anything to offer here and Elijah didn't have anything to offer here, but the Lord had something to offer to Elijah and to the psalmist and He strengthened them. Just remember that picture. When you cry that desperate prayer out to God, “Lord, strengthen me,” you just remember how God strengthened Elijah when he had nothing left in him; he just wanted to lay down and die. The Lord fed him.
ENLARGE MY HEART
Third, look at the third petition in verse 32. “Enlarge my heart.” Now this is an exceedingly rich petition and there's no way for me to do it justice, but here's what I want to emphasize. When the psalmist says, “Enlarge my heart,” he's asking for something that's more than intellectual. He's not looking for information. He's acknowledging that we cannot do anything, we cannot do anything in the Christian life without God's divine assistance. You know one of the things that we profess when we become members of this congregation, as full communing members, is that we will endeavor to live as becomes followers of the Lord Jesus Christ but we say explicitly that we will do this in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit. And that is exactly what this petition is getting at. He's asking God to enlarge his heart. William Plumer says, “If we are to make any good speed in the Christian life it is by receiving strength from above. If the Lord appears and enlarges our hearts we will have strength for every duty and delight in every sacrifice. Enlightened, evangelical, holy obedience can only spring from the operation of divine grace in the heart. We never begin to act for God until He begins to work in us all His holy will and the work of faith with power. All of our fruit comes from His work in us.” And so the prayer of godliness is the prayer, “Enlarge my heart — give me life, strengthen me in sorrow, enlarge my heart.” All of those petitions show us that the way of godliness is the way of dependence upon God's grace and power.
THREE RESOLUTIONS TO WALK IN THE WAY OF GODLINESS
But there are three more things that I want you to see and we're going to concentrate on verses 30 to 32 because the way of godliness also involves our response and our resolve. The way of godliness is not only about God's grace and power but also about our response and our resolve. The way of godliness involves our response and our resolution. And I want you to look at the verbs that begin verses 30, 31, and 32 — “chosen, cling, and run.” “I have chosen the way of faithfulness…I cling to your testimonies…I will run in the way of your commandments.”
I HAVE CHOSEN
The first one in verse 30 is, “I have chosen.” Here, we're reminded that one of our responses to God's work in us in the way of godliness is to choose God and His Word. Have you ever known someone who had set before them two ways and they knew that the choice that was right that they ought to make was God and His Word and they could not choose it? I have known such people. And of course those people are recorded in God's Word. We think of the rich young ruler whom the Lord loved and looked at and set before him the way of life and the rich young ruler rejected it and went away sorrowing because he loved his money.
But in contrast I want to take you to Hebrews chapter 11. Turn with me there if you would. If you look at Hebrews 11 verse 25 – when the psalmist says, “I have chosen the way of faithfulness,” what's he talking about? Well, Hebrews 11:25 is a perfect illustration. Let me pick up in verse 24. “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” There it is. Our response to God's grace requires us to choose this day whom we will serve. God and His Word or the fleeting pleasures of sin. Choose.
I WILL CLING
Second, look with me in Psalm 119 at verse 31. “I cling to your testimonies.” Now this is another one of those interesting verbal similarities in the psalm. How did the psalm begin? “My soul clings to the dust.” But now the psalmist is resolving, “I cling to Your testimonies. I am hanging on for dear life to Your Word, Lord. My soul was clinging to the dust but now I'm clinging to Your Word.” Turn with me in your Bibles to Acts chapter 11 verse 23. There's an interesting passage where believers have come to faith, people have been converted, they’re now believers, they've come to faith in Christ, and the church in Jerusalem finds out about them and so they sent Barnabas to encourage them. And in Acts 11:23 we read, “When he came and saw the grace of God he was glad and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.” He exhorted them to remain faithful, to cling tight, to hold fast to the Lord. In fact, the King James translates that passage that, “When he saw them he exhorted them all that with the purpose of their heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” Now it's the same language that we use in a marriage ceremony. That God has appointed that a man will leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, remain faithful to her, be utterly loyal to her, cling to her. And the psalmist says, “I'm clinging to Your Word.” He's chosen to walk in the way of the Lord not in the way of the pleasures, the fleeting pleasures of this life, and now he's clinging to God and His Word. That's his response to God's grace in the way of godliness.
I WILL RUN
And then look at verse 32. “I will run.” I have chosen. I cling. I will run. “I will run in the way of your commandments.” Now you know running is a picture of the Christian life. Paul picks up on it repeatedly. That's one reason that the Marathon Conference got named the Marathon Conference. But look with me at Philippians chapter 3 verse 12 because Paul speaks of this running, this pressing on that the psalmist is speaking of there. Philippians 3 verse 12. “Not that I have already attained this or an already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind me and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul is just working out for you there what the psalmist is resolving when he says, “I will run in the way of God and His Word. I am pressing on towards the prize. That's what I'm aiming for. I've chosen the Lord, not the fleeting pleasures of sin. I'm clinging to His Word. I'm not doing it my way. I'm clinging to His Word. And I'm pressing on. I'm running the way of God's commandments and my aim is the goal of the upward call.” That's the response and the resolution of the believer to God's grace and power in the way of godliness.
This psalm, in the midst of our trouble and our sorrow, teaches us the way of godliness. We are utterly dependent upon God's grace and power and God's grace and power at work in us calls for a response and a resolution. May God grant that we would so respond. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the Psalms. Thank You for this encouragement. When our souls cling to the dust and our sorrows make us feel as if we're going to melt away, strengthen us, enliven us, enlarge our hearts to believe You, to believe on Your Word. Do this all according to Your Scripture, to its promises, by Your power. And then grant, O God, that we would choose and cling and run to You and to Your good Word, for we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing?
Peace be to the brethren and love with faith from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ until the daybreak and the shadows flee away. Amen.