The Lord's Day Evening
March 17, 2013
Not by Bread Alone
“It was Good to be Afflicted?”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, would you to turn with me to Psalm 119? We’re going to be looking, as Bill said, at verses 65 to 72. By the way, the choir sounded so good tonight and I know that many of you know that they went to New York and sang at the Astoria Community Church, one of the Redeemer branches, and also at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and if you are a Facebook person you can actually go and type in your little search line for “First Pres Jackson Student Choir” and it will pop up to the page and you can see pictures of the choir tour and you can even see a video of their singing a song in the cathedral last Sunday afternoon. Really, it was beautiful, and I'm really proud of our young people. And Bill was telling me too that he got a very nice note from the minister of the Astoria Community Church complementing the choir not only on their singing but on their godly conduct, which always warms our hearts.
Well we're in Psalm 119 and if you took a peek at Psalm 119 verse 71 you will know that this is a stanza of Psalm 119 that meditates on two things together that you might not think belong — God's goodness and our affliction, and the acknowledgement of God's goodness in our affliction. And knowing how those things go together in Christian experience is very frankly one of the most important things that we ever do in the Christian life. A Christian in affliction will reveal much about her or his heart. In the midst of affliction, your acknowledgment of the Lord's goodness and your confidence in the Lord's providence is one of the surest indications of the Holy Spirit's work in your life. And this section of Psalm 119 is a meditation on that very truth. And so before we read God's Word let's pray and ask for God's help and blessing as we study it.
Father, this is Your Word and it's speaking to us about a subject that is practical and needed and relevant to every single one of us, for there are no children of God without trials and troubles and afflictions. So our Heavenly Father, we pray that You would teach us how we ought to live, in and through those afflictions, and how we ought to think about You, in and under those afflictions, from Your Word. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it, in Psalm 119 beginning in verse 65:
“You have dealt well with your servant, O LORD, according to your word. Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts; their heart is unfeeling like fat, but I delight in your law. It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
In this section of Psalm 119, the psalmist is acknowledging that he needed discipline, he needed the discipline of the Lord in his life, and this discipline came to him in the context of affliction. Now the affliction isn't specified. The affliction could have been the persecution of the unbelievers that he mentions in verses 69 and 70, or it could have been a more active affliction by the Lord of him, or it could have been both and more. But throughout the psalm he acknowledges that this discipline was one of the ways that the Lord dealt well with him, dealt wisely with him. Twice we see him saying, “The Lord humbled me.” Look at verses 67 and 71. “I went astray, but now I keep your word…I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” So in both those instances, the affliction that he experienced humbled him and actually set him on the way of the Lord. He doesn't tell us what the form of that humbling was — It could have been physical suffering, it could have been emotional anguish, it could have been the mental suffering of the lies and the insensitivity of the unbelievers who were mentioned in verses 69 and 70, but whatever the form was, he accepts it from God as divine discipline, and he acknowledges to God that it was wise and that it was effective.
THE LORD’S WISDOM AND GOODNESS IN HIS DEALINGS
And I want to look with you tonight — there's so much that we could look at here — but I want to look with you tonight at four acknowledgements that he makes that are important for any Christian who is under affliction. As we think together about God's goodness and our affliction, I want you to see four acknowledgments in this passage. And the first thing I want you to see is this. I want you to see an acknowledgment from the psalmist of the Lord's wisdom and goodness in His dealings. The psalmist cries out, and we ought to be able to cry out in all of our afflictions, “Lord, You are good and do good.” Now I know that all of us, at times in our afflictions, don't feel like saying that, but we want to get there. There are times in our afflictions where we don't feel like saying that, or when we say it it's hollow, but we are in the best place in our afflictions when we can get there and say, “Lord, You are good and You do good.”
And look at how he acknowledges that. In verse 65, “You have dealt well with your servant, O LORD, according to your word.” He acknowledges the wisdom of God in dealing with him. “Lord, the way You dealt with me was good and wise. You are good and You do good and the way You dealt with me was good and wise because it was according to Your Word. Just like Your Word teaches me that You are going to deal with me, You dealt with me that way and I want to acknowledge Your goodness, Lord.” And then look at verse 68. Here's the direct assertion. “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.” Do you hear what the psalmist is saying? What's the song we sing? “For I know what’er befalls me, He doeth all things well.” That is exactly what the psalmist is saying here. “Lord, what has befallen me I would never in a million years have drawn up for myself. I wouldn't have prayed for it, I wouldn't have asked for it, and very frankly I don't enjoy it, and I wish that it were different, but having reflected upon my affliction and your goodness, I can say, Lord, You do all things well. You are good and You do good.”
Now I'm not rushing you, suffering saint, to always be at that point. I know that sometimes that is a very long process and sometimes there are pits and darknesses in that process. Sometimes you’re there and then you just lose it and then you get it back again. But it ought to be a desire and an aspiration of our hearts in all of our afflictions to get there and say, “Lord, You are good and You do good,” and we're never safe until we're there, are we? We’re never safe until we're there. So there's the first acknowledgement that I want you to see — the acknowledgement of the Lord's wisdom and goodness in His dealings with us even in our afflictions.
THE LORD’S USE OF AFFLICTION FOR OUR GOOD
Here's the second thing — an acknowledgement of the Lord's use of affliction for our good. The psalmist gives us a very clear acknowledgment of the Lord's use of afflictions for the good of the believer and he in effect prays, “Lord, You use even affliction as a blessing for me. Lord, You use even affliction as a blessing for me,” and as he prays that we ought to aspire to pray it. Look at verses 67 and 71. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” There's an acknowledgement that he was wandering, and the Lord's affliction got his attention. “You have my full attention, Lord. I went astray, You sent affliction, You taught me Your Word, and I keep it.” And look again at verse 71. “It it good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn your statutes.” He's acknowledging that the Lord used affliction in his life to bring him back from straying and to teach him His statutes. So he acknowledges the Lord's use of affliction for his good.
Randy Alcorn says, provocatively, “God sometimes uses pain to get our attention.” And if that's true, it is also true that God uses affliction to get our attention, but not only to get our attention, but to do us good. You know, we're going to be reading in just a couple of weeks on Sunday morning from Jeremiah 22, and in Jeremiah 22 verse 21, Jeremiah says to Israel, “I spoke to you in your prosperity and you would not listen.” And here, the psalmist says, “I understand that. Sometimes when things are good I turn a deaf ear to God, but in affliction He has my full attention.” But it's not just attention; it's blessing. Do you remember the story of Job? You know, I don't think there are many of us who would want to sit down on the pew next to Job and say, “You know, Job, I know you had it bad but let me tell you about my life.” Most of us, I think most of us would be a little embarrassed about our afflictions if we were sitting next to Mr. Job on the pew in church. There was a man who was deeply and profoundly afflicted in manifold ways that are far beyond most of what we experience in life, and yet, take a look, turn with me to Job 42. Take a look at what Job says about that experience at the end of that experience. Here's Job's own assessment of what God has done in his life.
Job 42 verses 1 to 6:
“Job answered the LORD” —
Now you remember, this is after that long, that long word from the Lord to Job where Job is asked a whole bunch of questions. Do you remember when God asked Job all those questions that he can't answer? And here's Job's response:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
So there's an acknowledgment of God's sovereignty. “You can do all things.”
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
And who does he say it is? “That's me, Lord. That's me. I'm in the front of the line. I'm the one who hides wisdom or counsel without knowledge.”
“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
He's saying, “Lord, You’re exactly right. I've been talking about things that I don't know anything about. But now I am going to speak, Lord, and here's what I'm going to say.” Look at what he says in verse 4.
“Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” What does he say? “I had heard of you by the hearing of my ear, but now my eye sees you; and therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
It's a stunning statement. “Lord, I had heard of You. I thought I knew You, but now I've seen You. Through this affliction I have come to see who You are, what You are like, and You are right and I am wrong.” It's an acknowledgment that, “Lord, You are good and You do good, even in my affliction.” And you know, the apostle Paul gives us even more encouragement than that in Romans when he tells us that God works all things for good for those who love Him, for those who are called according to His purpose. And he goes on to say — what's included in that? Turn with me to Romans chapter 8 and begin in verse 35:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. for I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor power, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In other words, the Lord uses everything, even affliction, for our good.
THE BLESSING OF GOOD JUDGEMENT AND TRUE KNOWLEDGE
Third, there is an acknowledgment here by the psalmist of the blessing of good judgment and true knowledge. There is an acknowledgment here by the psalmist of the blessing of good judgment and true knowledge. He, in effect, prays, “Lord, You want me to grow in true knowledge and good judgment” and we ought to pray the same way. “Lord, in what we're experiencing in life, give us true knowledge and good judgment.” Listen to what he says in verses 66 and 72. “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments…The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Notice how he's saying that in the Lord's dealings with him he's grown in true knowledge. Ignorance doesn't sanctify; truth does. How did Jesus pray for you in the Upper Room, on the night when He was betrayed? “Father, sanctify them by truth. Your Word is truth.” True knowledge is the instrument of the Holy Spirit in your sanctification and the psalmist is acknowledging that right here. “Lord, all of this dealing that You've been doing with me has driven me to Your Word and what has Your Word given me? It's given me true knowledge. And how has that helped me? It's grown me up, Lord. I needed true knowledge and You've given it to me.”
And it's given him good judgment. Did you notice that? Verse 66 — “Teach me good judgment.” Have you ever run into a really, really smart person who didn't have a lick of common sense? You know, you can know a lot and not have good judgment, and the psalmist doesn't want to be one of those people. He wants to have true knowledge that sanctifies but he also wants good judgment. How do you get that? From the Word at work in your heart, in your life. And he says, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge.” Many have knowledge but little judgment, little discernment, little discretion. And he's saying, “Lord, give me discretion, give me discernment, give me good judgment by Your Spirit from Your Word.”
THE LORD’S BLESSING IS OFTEN ATTENDED BY THE WORLD’S CURSING
And then finally, he acknowledges the Lord's blessing is often attended by the world's cursing. The Lord's blessing is often attended by the world's cursing. And he prays in effect, “Lord, I will delight and keep Your law even in the face of the lying and insensitivity of the world.” Look at verses 69 and 70. “The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts; their heart is unfeeling like fat, but I delight in your law.” Notice here that he accepts even the smears and lies and insensitivity of these insolent people as a humbling that the Lord has given to him. It almost reminds you, doesn't it, of David having to march out of Jerusalem after the rebellion of Absalom. And the wicked fool, Shimei, is up on the hill, he's on the crest of the hill, and he's shouting down curses on David and he's spouting out mocking, smearing lies. And what does David do? He just keeps his mouth shut. And his men say, “Lord, let us take a shot at him. We could take him down now.” And he says, “Nope. You just let him talk.” And he mocks and he mocks and he mocks. And here the psalmist says, “Lord, even that was good for me. Even that was good for me. It just drove me into Your Word. That's where it drove me. It drove me right into Your Word.”
Don't think that when the Lord is teaching you that the world will necessarily always like you. And when the world mocks you and lies about you, let it drive you into the Word. Young folks, that's going to be more and more important in the days ahead, more and more important in the days ahead, that the mocking of the world drives you not away from but into the Word of God and that you recognize that the Lord's blessing does not necessarily mean the world's blessing but in fact often involves the world's cursing.
Well those are four acknowledgments from this great passage and I commend them to you tonight. If you find yourself in a place of affliction, remember that your Savior as well learned obedience from what He suffered, and if your Savior learned obedience from what He suffered, surely you can learn godliness and contentment and the goodness of the Lord even in your afflictions. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word and we ask that You would press it home to our hearts. Encourage us by this. If there are brothers and sisters right now in this room in the heat of affliction, I pray Your special blessing upon them to hold them up. We do not glibly introduce these acknowledgments as platitudes that will make their afflictions go away, but we announce them as the truth of Your Word to be aspired to and believed and eventually even experienced in the hottest of furnaces for Your glory and for their comfort. So by Your Spirit, minister Your Word to their hearts and receive our thanks and praise 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.