Theme: The Need for Personal Resolution
In this first stanza of Psalm 119, we are told of the importance of loving and obeying God’s Word.
Scripture: Psalm 119:1-8
Sometimes when we read the Bible we get the idea that its characters were special people very unlike ourselves, and we are likely to do that here unless we are careful. We are only beginning our study of this psalm. But already we have been reading about those happy people who are so because they live blamelessly according to the law of the Lord, keep his statues and seek him with their whole heart. The psalmist must be one of these very blessed people, we think. Otherwise he would not be writing as he does. However, we do not get very far into the psalm before we discover that he is very much like ourselves, at least in this respect, that he has not yet gotten to be like the happy, blessed ones he is describing. He wants to be, but he is not there yet. Therefore, he cries,
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees (v. 5)!
There is something that rings true and is commendably honest about this heartfelt cry of the psalmist. He is a very godly man. But in a seemingly contradictory manner, he is acutely aware of how ungodly he still is.
I think he is saying in this verse almost exactly what the apostle Paul wrote at much greater length in Romans 7:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing….So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members (vv. 15, 18, 19, 21-23).
Some people who have written on Romans 7 have supposed that in these verses Paul is writing about himself as an unbeliever, that is, before he came to know Jesus Christ as his Savior. But that is not the case at all. Paul is writing as a Christian, saying that life even for an apostle is a struggle. Although we want to keep the law of God, we do not keep it and, in fact, cannot keep it, at least not in our own power. It is a case of what J. I. Packer calls “spiritual realism.”1 It is a case of mere honesty before the living God.
But honesty is not the whole story. A moment ago I wrote that the psalmist is like us in that he has not yet attained the obedience for which he yearns. He admits this openly. But it is possible to admit many things honestly and never go beyond the honesty, never making any progress toward a better or more obedient way of life. By contrast, the psalmist does want to make progress. So the question for us now is not so much, Is the psalmist like us? Instead it is, Are we like him? Are we like him in his desire to seek God, know the Bible and actually obey God’s commands?
How determined was he? For an answer I take you to the last verse of the stanza, which is determined resolution:
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.
This verse is at one and the same time: 1) a strong resolution; 2) a sincere confession; and 3) an urgent plea. The resolution is that “I am resolved to obey God’s decrees.” The confession is that “I cannot obey God’s decrees unless God enables me do it.” The plea is, “Therefore, do not forsake me, O my God.” This does not mean that the psalmist thinks God might somehow abandon him in the matter of his salvation. He was as aware as we should be that God’s calling is unalterable. God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; see Deut. 31:6). What he is asking is that God will stick by him in his determination to live according to God’s law.
This first stanza has moved from statements about the Bible as a source of blessing for all persons to a very personal resolution. If the psalm is to be helpful to us, it must become personal in our lives, too.
1J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), pp. 258-261.
For whom is the psalmist writing? How is the psalmist just like us?
How is verse 5 related to the Romans 7 passage?
What is the significant question Dr. Boice raises in comparing ourselves to the psalmist? Answer the question about yourself.
What is meant by the plea for God not to abandon the psalmist? What doesn’t it include?
Reflection: How do you respond knowing that the apostle Paul also struggled against sin?
Key Point: Although we want to keep the law of God, we do not keep it and, in fact, cannot keep it, at least not in our own power.
For Further Study: Consider using James Boice’s published series on the Psalms for your devotional reading in the upcoming year. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is offering the three-volume paperback set for 25% off the regular price.