Good evening. Here’s a prayer based on Psalm 119.18 for us to start with:
Open our eyes, heavenly Father, by your Spirt, that we may see wondrous things in your Word. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
This evening we come to the end of our short series in the opening sections of Psalm 119. Our section tis evening is Psalm 119.33-40 and the title I’ve given this is ‘A Cry from the Heart’ because that’s what this section is. And it has a crucial lesson if we’re going to understand Psalm 119 – and indeed if we’re going to understand the Christian life.
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s easy to find Psalm 119 rather intimidating. And that’s not just because it’s long – which it is, at a record-breaking 176 verses. Nor is it because of the formidable poetic structure the Psalm has; with each section headed with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each line starting with that letter. Both of those aspects of the Psalm are impressive enough.
But, I think on the face of it this Psalm can seem particularly intimidating for a struggling believer like me – and I suspect you – because of the portrait that it paints of someone with a profound, intense and unrelenting Godliness. So for instance, from the sections that we’ve looked at so far, here’s Psalm 119.11:
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
And Psalm 119.13:
With my lips I declare
all the rule of your mouth.
My soul is consumed with longing
for your rules at all times.
And Psalm 119.30:
I have chosen the way of faithfulness …
And those kinds of statements of total Godliness are multiplied and if any thing strengthened through the Psalm. So does this Psalm present a pattern of discipleship that is far out of reach for those of us who know ourselves to be frail and all too often half-hearted in our Godliness?
One thing to say is that here, as in all the Psalms, whenever we get a view of absolute Godliness, we’re looking at Jesus, and at what we will ultimately become in him and in the resurrection life of eternity. The other thing to say is that when we look more closely at this Psalm (and not only at those intimidating bits) we get a very different picture of what’s going on here.
It does indeed put before our eyes a picture of glorious Godliness – a picture of Christ, if you like. But it’s also a deep cry from the heart along these lines: “My Lord and my God, make me Godly – because if you don’t, I’m sunk. Unless you do your work in me, it’s beyond me.” That cry from the heart runs right through the Psalm, sometimes under the surface. But in our section this evening (Psalm 119.33-40) it is up front and centre.
So let’s have a look at those Psalm 119.33-40. Eight verses. If you have a Bible with you, or you’ve got one on a device, please have that open in front of you. We can’t get the whole section on the screen at once, so if you can see the whole thing together, that’ll be a great help.
Each of these eight verses contains this cry from the heart for God to work in us, and expresses it in a different way. Each verse does four things. It indicates what we’re like without God’s work in us. It has a cry to God for him to do his work in us. It confidently rejoices in the Godly results when God answers this cry. And it focuses on God’s word as the way he does his work in our lives. So for instance, look at Psalm 119.33:
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end.
In other words, I need teaching because I’m ignorant otherwise. Work in me by teaching me. When you do I will be empowered by you to live your way. And it’s your statutes in the Scriptures that show me how to live. And you can see that four part pattern in each of these eight verses. Combine them together and they pack a powerful punch.
So in the light of that I have four headings:
First, WITHOUT THE WORK OF GOD WE ARE SPIRITUALLY DEAD
Let me run through these eight verses so we can build up this picture of spiritual death first of all. And notice that if the Psalmist is praying for something, it’s because he hasn’t got it unless God answers his prayer. So, Psalm 119.33:
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end.
That is, I’m ignorant unless you teach me! Psalm 119.34:
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
Without you I don’t keep your law, my heart is corrupt and disobedient. Psalm 119.35:
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.
I wander off like a lost sheep unless you lead me. Psalm 119.36:
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!
Unless you change me, I’m out for self-centred advantage at the expense of others. Psalm 119.37:
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.
Unless you give me a new vision, I waste my life on worthless things. Psalm 119.38:
Confirm to your servant your promise,
that you may be feared.
Without your promise I’m without hope and without God in the world. Psalm 119.39:
Turn away the reproach that I dread,
for your rules are good.
Unless you have mercy on me I’m under condemnation and facing judgement. And Psalm 119.40:
Behold, I long for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life!
Unless you give it to me, I have no life. I may be physically surviving for now, but I’m dead inside. So there are eight marks of spiritual death. Add all that up and here is someone, here are we, ignorant, disobedient, wandering, selfish, focused on worthless things, without hope, facing judgement, spiritually dead.
Which is precisely the New Testament diagnosis of those without Christ. For instance, in Titus 3.3:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us …
We need to be clear-eyed about this. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not flattering, to say the least – and we like to be flattered. But Scripture is unsparing, for our sakes. We need to know our need. Otherwise, why would we cry out for help? Without the work of God we are spiritually dead.
Secondly, WE NEED TO CRY OUT TO GOD FOR HIS SPIRIT TO WORK IN US
Do you see this eight-part prayer here – a heartfelt outpouring of the soul to God. Let me string it all together (Psam 119.33-40):
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; …
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law …
Lead me in the path of your commandments …
Incline my heart to your testimonies …
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things …
Confirm to your servant your promise …
Turn away the reproach that I dread …
… in your righteousness give me life!
This is a sustained, powerless, helpless cry for the Spirit of God to be at work in his mind, heart, eyes and behaviour to change him. It’s a cry for mercy and for rescue from spiritual death. It’s a cry from an unworthy one for the undeserved gift of life from the hand of the only one who can give it – the righteous Lord.
Teach me. Give me understanding. Lead me. Incline my heart. Turn my eyes. Confirm your promise. Turn away the reproach that I dread. Give me life!
That is the cry we need to be making to the living God our heavenly Father, and to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ his Son. Although it’s a cry, it doesn’t need to be noisy. But like this Psalm 119 cry, it needs to be from the depths of our heart, and it needs to be sustained. The Holy Spirit first taught me to cry out in this way when I was around thirteen years old. I have needed to keep on crying out for mercy and for life ever since.
If you’re listening to this, and you haven’t yet started to cry out to God in this way, today’s a good day to start. Why not use these very verses and make them your own cry?
If we’re in the habit of crying out to God in this way, then we must never stop. We need to intensify our cry, and seek a deeper experience of his mercy and life-giving grace that leads to obedience and love for his word.
We need to cry to God for his Spirit to work in us.
Thirdly, GOD DOES HIS WORK THROUGH HIS WORD
We have his word here in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit works to bring about these life-giving changes in us by taking his word and driving it home into our hearts. God’s word, as Hebrews 4.12 puts it, is:
… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Every one of these eight Psalm 119 verses talks about God’s word in one way or another. They speak of ‘your statutes … your law … your commandments … your testimonies … your ways … your promise … your rules … your precepts’. The central importance of this eight-fold living word to beginning and growing in Godly living could hardly be clearer. If we want life from God, and we want to learn how to live it as he intends, glorifying him and enjoying him forever, then we need to be putting ourselves in the way of the Bible week by week and day by day. That’s why we delve into it in these services.
This great long Psalm is saturated with God’s word from beginning to end. Let’s learn from it. God does his work through his word. Then:
Fourthly, GOD WILL HEAR OUR CRY AND GIVE US LIFE
If we despair of ourselves, we’re on the right track. But we mustn’t stop there, and neither does this Psalm. What are the answers to his cry that the writer of the Psalm confidently expects?
Look through our section verse by verse. How will he be changed by God’s grace and power? He will keep God’s statutes to the end. He will keep God’s law and observe it with his whole heart. He will follow God’s commandments and delight in them. His heart will be inclined to listen to God rather than the seductive call of the godless world. His life will become focused on God and his ways, rather than worthess, life-wasting things. He will find hope in God’s promises, and live with a proper reverence for God. He will no longer need to fear judgement because he will experience God’s mercy and grace. He will be given the gift of life.
rlier we saw the eight marks of spiritual death. Now we can see them replaced by these eight signs of spiritual life. God will hear our cry and give us life.
These verses remind me of Revelation chapters 4 and 5, that we were looking at together a few weeks ago. Do you remember the cry of the angel in heaven (Revelation 5.2):
Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?
The scroll, that is, of history and God’s plan of salvation. And the answer comes that it’s the Lion of Judah, Jesus, who is worthy. But it’s easy to skip over what’s said before we get to that answer. Revelation 5.3-4 says:
And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
No one. Not the writer of Psalm 119. Not the Christian you most admire. Not you. Not me. We are all unworthy even to look in to God’s word. There is only one who is worthy. And that’s Jesus. Our only hope is in him. So we need to cry to him. And he will answer.
Last Sunday, if you were with us then, we prayed the great little Collect for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost. Let’s pray it again, because it puts in a nutshell the cry of this section of Psalm 119. Let’s pray:
without you we are not able to please you.
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
May in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.