Delighting in the Law of God
Sunday Evening Message
For some people the word "argument" only means "dispute" or "haggling" or "wrangling." But I want to use the word "argument" in its more positive sense of the giving of reasons and the drawing of inferences. I don't like haggling and wrangling but I love to ponder the arguments in Scripture—the way the inspired writers give reasons for their assertions and the way they draw inferences from shared facts. My heart gets stirred and my back has chills run down it sometimes when I find a solid argument about sanctification. For example: God sanctifies his people by means of truth. Thy word is truth. Therefore, we should give ourselves heartily to the Word for our sanctification.
Last Sunday evening I said that one of my goals for Bethlehem was that we become a people for whom nothing is trivial—a people who see things with the eyes of God and so see in everything and every person a reflection of eternity, a glimmer of something infinite and startling—a people of whom visitors will say: In that church worship and prayer and fellowship and singing are not trivial.
Head and Heart
Now there is a second little goal I want to mention. I want Bethlehem to become a people who do not believe or feel that argumentation (just as I described it) and deep emotion are opposed to each other. For many people the work of the head and the overflow of the heart are at odds. Thinking and feeling are like oil and water; they repulse each other.
Whatever the reason for this tension that exists in so many people, my own experience, my awareness of the experience of others in history, and my understanding of the Bible teach me that it is neither a necessary tension nor a healthy one, at least not to the degree that most people experience it. My goal is to help us all become the kind of folk for whom sound thinking kindles deep feeling and for whom deep feeling motivates sound thinking. Most of the opposition we feel between the heart and the head is, I think, due to learned behavior patterns which do not necessarily result from the nature of our emotions or our thought. We have been warned so often about not becoming a cold intellectual that we have trouble imagining the possibility of intellect that lights fires instead of putting them out. Or on the other side we have been taught to be so wary of fanatic emotionalism that we can scarcely believe that a tear in someone's eye might be coming from a holy syllogism instead of a pathological passion.
God has given us minds and demanded that we use them in understanding and applying his Word. And God has given us emotions which are equally essential and which he has commanded to be vigorously engaged in his service.
If we neglect the mind we will drift into all sorts of doctrinal error and dishonor God who wills to be known as he is. And if we neglect the heart we will be dead while we yet live no matter how right our creed is. "This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me." So my goal for us is that we put together what so many keep apart to their own hurt. Let us be clear in our heads and warm in our hearts. Let us feel with all our might and think with all our might.
Now what does all this have to do with Psalm 1, which is our text for tonight? This: I want to do a series called Summer Psalms. But as I began to think about Psalm 1, and others that we will look at, I realized that my approach might strike some people as strange. My approach will usually include the question: What is the argument of this psalm, or this passage in the psalm? And I could imagine someone saying: He is really in a rut. Doesn't he know that psalms are songs. They express the feelings of God's people of old. They are not treatises to be dissected. They are songs to be sung. What is all this talk about arguments and reasons and inferences?
So, since I know some might respond like that I've started with a little plea not to jump the gun and rip apart what might belong together, namely head and heart, thought and feeling, argument and song, reasoning and poetry.
My case is that good poetry or good songs will usually have sound argument. If a song has a bad argument it ruins the song, including the emotional impact. For example, Sonny and Cher had a song back in 1966 which had a line that went "I'd live for you, I'd die for you, I'd even climb the mountain high for you." What's wrong with that argument? The word "even" implies that climbing mountains is more drastic or sacrificial than dying which is false. The logic of the poem is contradictory and so the song is poor and its total impact is weakened.
You may say, "It was only weakened for you—you are probably the only person who heard the problem." I hope that's not true. But if it is, that is exactly what I want to change—the separation of our minds and our emotions so that shrewd advertisers and entertainers (who know us better than we know ourselves) can hook us in the nose of our emotions and pull us wherever they want because our minds are shut down. They have taught us to shut them down when the music begins.
But in Bethlehem Baptist Church we will not shut them down when the psalms of God begin. I will sing with my spirit and I will sing with my mind. If I don't, my mind will be lifeless and my spirit without truth and substance. Let's be whole people and not let the stereotypes of intellectualism or emotionalism force us into their mold. Let's make a new mold—fashioned by the Spirit of God—the Spirit of truth and the Spirit of love.
A Poem That Argues
One other illustration to press home the point. I love to read and write poetry, and I hope the pressures of pastoral life don't wring all the juice out of me so that there is none left for writing. I brought along one example to show how for me things deeply felt are always expressed in some form of argument. The poem was a 1977 Mother's Day poem entitled "To My Sons' Mother."
TO MY SONS' MOTHER
Were there a price that I could set
Upon my sons, it would surpass
What I with goods and life could get,
Or in a thousand years amass.
They bear my image, flesh and bone,
My language and my inner thought,
And in their soul there is my own,
By God's design inborn and taught.
They've been my long day's sweet dessert:
How can I ever once forget
The father-fan-club in concert
The front porch "Daddy's here!" duet!
And they will be my old man's joys
If by God's grace I live so long
And they, no longer little boys,
Be men whose love for God is strong.
And yet these lines I do not write
To give my sons a praise supreme;
These I extol so that I might
Their mother's value more esteem.
The more I love these little men,
The higher does my joy ascend,
That Karsten and his brother Ben
Have you for mother and for friend.
Mother's Day, 1977
To write a poem as simple and homely as that requires a great deal more than an outburst of emotion. There is an argument that hinges on the phrase so that: These I extol so that I might / Their mother's value more esteem. Noël would miss the love of my heart if she didn't see the point of my head that the four verses of praise to Karsten and Benjamin are really praise to her. Hopefully that is not hard to see, but my point is that it takes the mind to see it. And I reject the stereotype that says: If you exercise your mind to see such things in a poem, there will be no tears of joy on Mother's Day. It is Satan's lie that would rob us all from the fullness of life and especially from the fullness of God's Word.
The Argument of Psalm 1
Let's look at Psalm 1 together for a few minutes. This little song is worth several sermons so don't feel bad if we emphasize some parts tonight and not others. We'll be back to it some day.
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
And he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season,
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
Now I think this psalm has an argument. Let me sketch it briefly as I see it and then we will focus on the main point.
The psalm presents the reader with two alternatives of ultimate seriousness. Verse 6, "The Lord knows the way of the righteous but the way of the wicked will perish." You can either be among the righteous or you can be among the wicked. These are the only two categories of human beings the psalmist is concerned with, and everybody belongs to one or the other.
Along with these two alternative kinds of persons, the psalmist warns of two alternative destinies in this life and at the judgment. If you are righteous you will be like a tree (v. 3). If you are wicked you will be like chaff (v. 4). If you are wicked your way will end in destruction (v. 6b). If you are righteous your way will be known and attended and protected by God even unto glory (v. 6a). For the wicked: chaff-like and ending in destruction. For the righteous: treelike and ending in the glorious congregation of the righteous.
And then along with the two alternative types of persons and two alternative destinies the psalmist tells us one of the essential differences that distinguish the righteous from the wicked. The righteous delight in God's revealed word and meditate on it (v. 2). The wicked scoff at God's word and heap scorn on those who follow it (v. 1).
My conclusion is clear: Blessed, fortunate, happy is the man who delights in God's word rather than joining the scoffers, because he will be treelike not chaff-like and will experience God's care forever rather than perish in the judgment.
Of course the resounding but unspoken implication of the psalm—the cry of the psalmist for all of us to do is what? Delight yourself in the law of God! And meditate on it day and night. That is the main point of the psalm. It stands at the doorway to the Psalter as if to say: All you who enter here, delight in what you hear, do not scoff.
The Righteous and the Wicked
Before we look more closely at this main point there is a part of the argument that needs to be cleared up. Many of us who love the doctrine of justification by faith may have swallowed hard when I said, "There are two categories of humans: the wicked and the righteous—the one will perish, the other enjoys God's saving attention." We know from Romans 3:10, "There is none righteous, no not one." How then can the psalmist say, "The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish"?
It is very helpful to look at the psalm Paul is paraphrasing in Romans 3:10–12. Look at Psalm 14:1–3.
The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God."
They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds;
There is no one who does good.
The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men,
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one.
Paul uses the word "righteous" (there is none righteous) where the psalmist uses "do good" (there is none that does good). But they both seem at first to rule out a category of people called the righteous. But when we read on look at what we find. Psalm 14:4, 5:
Do all the workers of wickedness not know,
Who eat up my people as they eat bread,
And do not call upon the Lord?
There they are in great dread,
For God is with the righteous generation.
Here in Psalm 14:1–5 it is perfectly clear that the psalmist does not mean there are absolutely no righteous people. There is a generation of righteous ones! What he means is that outside the sphere of God's special sanctifying work (which was going on then mainly in Israel) men are enslaved to sin. But within the sphere of God's sanctifying work people can be righteous.
We can be almost sure that this is what Paul meant too in Romans 3:10 because he concludes his indictment of the human race with the words, "There is no fear of God before their eyes!" (Romans 3:18). But that cannot be said of everybody absolutely because in both the Old Testament and the New Testament the saints have feared God. What Paul means then is that, outside of God's gracious work to change people and draw them to him, people do not fear him and there is none righteous.
So it is not contrary to Paul's teaching or to other psalms that humanity is divided into wicked and righteous and that only the righteous will be saved. The one other misunderstanding that needs to be avoided is the error of equating righteousness with sinless perfection. We balk at claiming to be among the righteous because it implies to us perfection, never sinning, and we know that is not true of ourselves. But to be a righteous man in Old Testament language does not mean to be perfect. God required that the saints be righteous in order to be saved (Psalm 1:6); he never made perfection a prerequisite of salvation. The whole sacrificial system was designed to impart forgiveness to sinners so God could save them.
The easiest way to see that being righteous did not mean being perfect in the psalms and to see what it did mean is to look at Psalm 32 . Note especially: 1) David sins and is forgiven; 2) he says there is a group called "godly" (v. 6); 3) the wicked are contrasted with those who trust in the Lord (v. 10); 4) these trusting, forgiven ones are called the righteous and the upright in heart (v. 11). So whenever you read about the righteous, think: those who trust in the Lord for their joy and repent of their sins in earnestness.
Delighting in God's Word
And now Psalm 1 adds one more and very essential characteristic of the righteous—he delights in God's law, God's instruction, and meditates on it day and night. God wants us to be righteous. I want this church to be a righteous people. And the first thing the book of Psalms chooses to say about the righteous is that they do not follow the advice of the world, but they find pleasure in listening to God in his Word.
O, how I love thy law! it is my meditation all the day.
How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (119:97, 103)
Never reduce Christianity to a matter of demands and resolutions and willpower. It is a matter of what we love, what we delight in, what tastes good to us. When Jesus came into the world humanity was split according to what they loved. "The light came into the world and men loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:19). The righteous and the wicked are separated by what they delight in—the revelation of God or the way of the world. But someone may ask: How can I come to delight in the Word of God? My answer would be twofold: 1) pray for new taste buds on the tongue of your heart; 2) meditate on the staggering promises of God to his people.
The same psalmist who said "How sweet are thy words to my taste" (119:103), said earlier, "Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law" (119:18). He prayed, because to have holy taste buds on the tongue of the heart is a gift of God. No man naturally hungers for and delights in God's wisdom.
But when you have prayed, indeed while you pray, meditate on the benefits God promises to his people and on the joy of having Almighty God as your helper now and eternal hope. Who would not delight to read a book, the reading of which would change one from chaff to a cedar of Lebanon, from a Texas dust bowl to a Hawaiian orchard? Nobody deep down wants to be chaff—rootless, weightless, useless. All of us want to draw strength from some deep river of reality and become fruitful, useful people.
That river of reality is the Word of God and all the great saints have been made great by it. Let me give you one example in conclusion to spur you on to more meditation and more delight. George Müller lived from 1805 to 1898 and is famous for establishing numerous orphanages and relying on God for help in remarkable ways. Listen to his testimony about how and why to meditate on Scripture.
While I was staying at Nailsworth, it pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, irrespective of human instrumentality, as far as I know, the benefit of which I have not lost, though now, while preparing the eighth edition for the press, more than forty years have since passed away. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man may be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit. Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as a habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed in the morning.
Now I saw, that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began, therefore, to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord's blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching, as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word; not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer. When thus I have been for awhile making confession, or intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it; but still continually keeping before me, that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is, that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart. Thus also the Lord is pleased to communicate unto me that which, very soon after, I have found to become food for other believers, though it was not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word that I gave myself to meditation, but for the profit of my own inner man.
The difference then between my former practice and my present one is this. Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events, I almost invariably began with prayer, except when I felt my soul to be more than usually barren, in which case I read the Word of God for food, or for refreshment, or for revival and renewal of my inner man, before I gave myself to prayer. But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees, before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, or even an hour, I only then begin really to pray. I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father, and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it!) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word.
It often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this. In no book did I ever read about it. No public ministry ever brought the matter before me. No private intercourse with a brother stirred me up to this matter. And yet now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything, that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man. As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time, except we take food, and as this is one of the first things we do in the morning, so it should be with the inner man. We should take food for that, as every one must allow. Now what is the food for the inner man? Not prayer, but the Word of God; and here again not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.
I dwell so particularly on this point because of the immense spiritual profit and refreshment I am conscious of having derived from it myself and I affectionately and solemnly beseech all my fellow-believers to ponder this matter. By the blessing of God I ascribe to this mode the help and strength which I have had from God to pass in peace through deeper trials in various ways than I had ever had before; and after having now above forty years tried this way, I can most fully in the fear of God, commend it. How different when the soul is refreshed and made happy early in the morning, from what it is when, without spiritual preparation, the service, the trials, and the temptations of the day come upon one!