Theme: Prayer and Awe
In this week’s lessons, this portion of Psalm 119 shows that there are absolutes by which believers must live, which are contrary to what the world puts forth.
Scripture: Psalm 119:113-128
As we noted in yesterday’s study, Alexander Maclaren wrote that “this section is mainly the expression of firm resolve to cleave to the Law.” Maclaren went on to note an outline for this section, the first point of which is the psalmist’s determination to obey God’s law. In today’s study, we continue with Maclaren’s other two points about the psalmist.
2. Prayer for God’s grace. If we persevere because God first of all perseveres with us, then we need to look to him for sustaining grace to walk on the path he has set before us. This means that we must ask God’s help. It is what the psalmist does next (in vv. 116, 117). He prays, “Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed. Uphold me, and I will be delivered.”
It is an interesting sidelight on this text that in the Middle Ages, under the monastic order of the Benedictines, when a novice’s period of preparation was ended and he was ready to become attached to the monastery for life, there was an induction ceremony in which, with outstretched arms, the novice recited Psalm 119:116 three times:
Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live;
do not let my hopes be dashed.
The community repeated the words and then sang the Gloria Patri, which was a way of acknowledging that the commitments of the monastic life could only be sustained by God to whom all glory belongs.1 So too with the Christian life as a whole. If we are to read, study, understand and actually obey God’s Word, it will only be by God’s grace, helping us to do it. We must get into the habit of asking him for that help often.
3. Standing in awe of God. In the last three verses of this stanza the psalmist passes to a reordered outlook on the world and God, doubtless growing out of the times of prayer he has referred to. He has understood his inability to obey God’s law. He has sought God’s help. Now having been with God, he sees afresh the deceitful vanity or emptiness of the world and the greatness of God before whom he now trembles in reverential awe.
These two go together, of course. For it is only as we tremble before the exalted and holy God that we will ever see the world and its distorted values to be the empty things they are. If we do not tremble before God, the world’s system will seem wonderful to us and consume us pleasantly.
Verse 120 should be read carefully, prayerfully and with repentance by every Christian, particularly the evangelical Christians of our day. It is speaking of a reverent awe of God, an important element of walking uprightly before him. But there is precious little of this spirit today. Instead of being in awe before God, many in our day seem to regard him more as a buddy, which only shows that we do not know much about God at all. And isn’t that why there is so little truly godly conduct and why we are so much like the world? In his classic treatment of the weaknesses of the contemporary evangelical church, No Place for Truth,2 David F. Wells speaks wisely of the weightlessness of God, meaning that God seems to have very little bearing on the actual life of today’s Christians. They do not disbelieve in him; they are Christians, after all. But he is remote from their thinking. He just doesn’t enter in.
I am sure you know of the fascinating essay by the well-known English writer William Hazlitt (1778-1830) describing an evening in which various literary figures of his day discussed people from the past that they wished they had seen. They suggested almost everyone you might think of: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Columbus, Caesar, Napoleon, even Jonathan Edwards. But Charles Lamb had the last word: “There is only one other person I can ever think of after this,” he said. “If Shakespeare was to come into the room, we should all rise up to meet him; but if that person [Jesus] was to come into it, we should all fall down and try to kiss the hem of his garment!”3
That is not nearly reverence enough, but it gets at the idea. Today many would merely cry out, “Hey, Jesus, come on over here and tell us how it’s goin’.” The psalmist says that he trembled before God and stood in awe of his laws, which is why he was a godly person and why he has been able to give us the profound teaching we have from him in this psalm.
1Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904), p. 59.
2David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993).
3William Hazlitt, “On Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen” in The Harvard Classics, English Essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1994), p. 295. In the original form of this essay the speech is given to Leigh Hunt.
How does the psalmist respond to his double-mindedness?
Explain the psalmist’s outlook on the world and on God. What perspective does this give of the world?
What does Dr. Wells mean by the “weightlessness of God”? Is this idea of God ever true in your life?
Application: Begin the habit of asking for God’s grace often.
Key Point: It is only as we tremble before the exalted and holy God that we will ever see the world and its distorted values to be the empty things they are.
Prayer: Take time today to meditate on verse 120, asking God to give you a humble spirit and to stand before him in reverent awe.