The Anatomy of Backsliding

Sunday Evening Message

I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek thy servant,
for I do not forget thy commandments.


The truth about our experience is that we fail to live at the level of holiness that we know is fitting for a follower of Christ. We need to see how this same reality of imperfection turns up in the saints of Scripture and how they handled it.

The Structure of Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is the most sustained act of praise and commitment to the Word of God in all the Bible.

It is composed of 22 stanzas of 8 verses each. Each of the 22 stanzas is built on a different Hebrew letter, of which there are 22 in the Hebrew alphabet. In each of the stanzas, each of the eight verses begins with the letter of that stanza.

Why This Structure?

It is the sort of thing you do when you "delight in the law of the Lord" (Psalm 1:2) and when you believe (with Psalm 19:7–10) that:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.

It is a way of passing the time of night or day rolling the Word over in your mind, seeing how many different angles you can see.

It is a reveling in the riches of the Word. Like when we wanted to honor Elsie, we took the letters of her name and thought up words to describe her.

The Background for the Shocking Last Verse

That is the background for the last verse of the psalm, a verse that comes as a shock, because there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the psalm—a confession that, in spite of all that has gone before, he has now backslidden and gone astray. Verse 176:

I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek thy servant,
for I do not forget thy commandments.

Three Parts to the Anatomy of Backsliding

1. "I have gone astray like a lost sheep . . . "

The saints sometimes go astray.

  • He was a saint:
    • his love for the law—v. 97
    • his life of prayer—vv. 145, 147 (whole psalm!)
    • his persistent praise of the Word—v. 164
    • his track record of obedience—vv. 22, 100f., 110, 121
  • He went astray:
    • he admits it openly in this verse—v. 176
    • it is not the first time—v. 67
    • the battle will not be over to the end of life; perhaps this is why he puts it last: after all his success the battle for holiness goes on!
  • Like a lost sheep:
    • "lost" in Hebrew also means perishing
    • sheep will die if not found

2. " . . . seek your servant . . . "

True saints cry out to be found when straying.
  • He is not content to stray.
  • He admits his need of help: "Seek me!"
  • How does he anticipate God's intervention?
    • be gracious—v. 58
    • revive me—v. 25
    • open my eyes—v. 18 (cf. 129!)
    • incline my heart—vv. 36f., 112 (cf. 165!)
    • teach me—vv. 12, 26f., 29, etc.
    • strengthen me—vv. 28, 133
    • afflict me—vv. 67, 71

Note: though he gives God the tribute of having power to rescue him, he does not fault God for his straying. God is not guilty that I am prone to wander. He is not bound to rescue me in any time but his own, if at all.

What is the saint's assurance of God's willingness to seek him?

3. " . . . for I do not forget your commandments."

True saints cannot erase the law that has been written on their heart by the Spirit of God. They remain there beckoning and enticing.
  • The spiritual taste for God cannot be wholly obliterated in the heart of the saints.
  • Saints not only call on God to seek them, they seek God through his Word. "Not forgetting" is a litotes for "really remember and call to mind."
    • Especially the "commandments" to believe God's promises (Proverbs 3:5–6).
    • Ezekiel 34:11–12, "I will seek my sheep."
    • Luke 19:10, "Son of man came to seek"
    • John 10:27–29, "I will keep my sheep"
    • Luke 15:3–4, he leaves the 99 to find one.
    • Jude 24–25, "He is able to keep you."
  • Connection to Communion:
    • Isaiah 53:6—"All we like sheep . . . "
    • John 10:11—"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."