The age in which we live is steeped in existentialism, a philosophy of life that seeks to define life primarily by one’s personal experience of it. And the man who most exemplified that thought was Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, the great existentialist, wrote, “Purity of heart is to Will One Thing.” In this very meditative book, Kierkegaard guides his readers through a process of shedding all other things in life to focus on one important thing. And in this process of simplifying and focusing, we become “whole, integrated persons.”Becoming a “whole, integrated person” with meaning and purpose is a good thing we would all agree. It is what every person here wants: we want to know who we are, why we are here, and to live within that great story of meaning. But how do we do it?
I read recently of a lady who was interested in gaining a more spiritual balance in her life. The fast paced living of self imposed deadlines, goals, expectations and consumerism felt like she was being squeezed to the limit. So in order to find a spirituality that could help her out of her suburban sprawl soul, she went with a spirituality tour of Sedona, Arizona. There, she was supposed to focus on the simple landscape of that beautiful area and find meaning and purpose and balance for her life. But at the end of her trip, she left disillusioned. She returned to her busy life exhausted. She said:“I took a spiritual tour of sacred Sedona, Arizona, and all I got was this rock. And a mystical encounter with a mountain lion.”
Can we find God through a mystical encounter with a mountain lion? Can we find it by going to Sedona? Or by taking a nature walk? Or for that matter pouring our lives into a really good cause? We all seeking meaning for our lives? But will we ever find it from a starting point of “me?”Christianity, in short, is not existential. It is propositional. There is right. There is wrong. There is a way to God. And the way we know is through God’s revelation of Himself.And that is what Psalm 119 is all about. When we are facing the greatest questions and the greatest needs of life, only the Word will do.Now for eight weeks we will look at portions of this great Psalm, Psalm 119, the longest Psalm, and for that matter the longest chapter in the Bible. We begin with verses 1-8.
The headlines this week raged across our lives like a California brush fire in August: Terrorist plotting to kill thousands at one time in plane explosions over the Atlantic; tapes released from 9/11 recounting the horror of human beings trapped in collapsing buildings, never knowing what hit them; terrorists becoming local heroes for lobbing rockets at innocent civilians in Northern Israel; and a twisted case of a Christmas eve murder of a child from a decade ago, and an obviously very disturbed man admitting the crime, and whether guilty of this crime or not, exposing sinister soul lurking beneath a seemingly mild mannered man.The talking heads on all of the talk shows had no clear answers. There were only questions: “What now?”“What now?” is the cry of human beings, not only in response to headlines like these, but the headlines of our own lives: for every rocket launched by Hezbollah, there are a million rockets launched in homes by unfaithful husbands to grieving wives, or plots uncovered of a disease attaching a vital organ, or the cries of a child whose world is crashing down in front of them. Just spend one day at family court. You will leave and ask yourself, “What now?”This is the human condition. And it has not changed in five thousand years. But God answered the “What nows?” of life in a place we call Psalm 119.Psalm 119 lies at the very heart of the Word of God. It is the longest chapter in the Bible. Spurgeon sees in this Psalm the clear imprint of King David. Though the Psalm is anonymous, the styles, the theme, and the authentic, clear, openhearted approach to self and to God makes a convincing case for Davidic authorship. Regardless, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, arranged in 22 sections, with 8 verses in each section, each line of which begins with the corresponding Hebrew letter. No other part of Scripture approaches this Psalm in its tight organization and literary structure. Yet, paradoxically, the Psalm may seem random. It is like wisdom literature in that it moves from one theme to another. I rather like Matthew Henry’s thoughts on this. He said that this is not a string of jewels all lined out together, but a treasure chest of jewels. I would say that there are 22 treasure chests, filled with beautiful and rare finds. But of course they all have a common theme. That theme is, of course, the Word of God. Even here, there is tight literary organization of this theme. There are eight synonyms used for Torah, of the Law. Each noun appears on average 22 times “and the eight verses of any given stanza will contain most if not all of them.” The Word of God is called command (or commands), decrees, law, laws (a different Hebrew word meaning judgments or rulings), precepts, promises, statutes and Word. In the Heth section all of these words appear and it is here that one of our favorite words, Hesed, appears. God’s love is expressed through His very Word. And it is here that I want to talk about something else. And this is really a word of caution for those of us who are familiar with this Psalm. We come to this Psalm, as David Powlison writes about it, with preconceived notions. Psalm 119 is the Psalm for memory work. It is here we remember Psalm 119.105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalms 119.105 ESV) or Psalm 119.11: “I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” And it is true that Psalm 119 is a veritable gold mine for memory verses. Or maybe you know it for its emphasis on the Word, or its A-B-C divisions. Psalm 119 is a great source for Biblical trivial pursuit. But is Psalm 119 just a curiosity? Is it just information about the Word? Or did the Lord write in this way to communicate simply about profound subjects that he wanted us to get? The answer is clearly that Psalm 119 is about the heart of a man who is seeking one thing and has found it and is sharing it with you and me.
David Powlison writes in his book, Speaking Truth in Love, words in Psalm 119, like “law, commandment, precept, testimony, statute, judgment” run a distant second to words like, “I, me, my, mine, and you, your, yours.”Psalm 119 is about how we can know how to personally relate to God and to enjoy the life He has given us. We do that by knowing His Word, the revelation of Himself.
And this brings us back to the “what nows” of life. I suspect some of you today are facing them or soon will. And when you do, only the Word will do. This is the message for our lives from Psalm 119.I will not, in this shortfall series, preach all 22 sections. But I will give some expository messages on major themes that the Psalm addresses.Today, we launch out in 1-8. This is the Alpha section, the “A” section. And it deals with three very basic principles about what knowing this One Thing, God’s Word, does in our lives.
1. Seeking that One Thing, God’s Word, brings great blessings (vv. 1-3)
The Psalmist begins by talking about blessedness. It is a Hebrew word that begins with Aleph, or “A” so it is the right start. But it is the best start and the God intended beginning for what God wants us to know in this Psalm. He wants us to know that His Word brings blessing. And somehow we get that wrong. We think that the Word brings bondage not blessing. We think that to go to God’s Word is like volunteering for duty in the military: you are going to get into a lot of work. If you go to God with your problems, you will end up as some religious kook out of touch with reality. And the Psalmist, obviously a man who has tried out the wisdom of the world, emphatically begins by saying “NO!” “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the Law. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek Him with all their heart.” He is not saying that they are perfect because they seek God’s Word, but that there is a purity, a loveliness, and a blessing that comes in following the way of the Lord, revealed in His Word, rather than following the ways of the world, which do not bring purpose, much less lasting joy. John Piper, perhaps more than anyone else, has popularized the works of Jonathan Edwards. John Piper writes much about what he calls “Christian Hedonism.” That is he seeks joy through knowing God. And to know God is to have joy. And to know Him we come to Him on His terms, which is His Word. This is pure Edwards. Edwards, arguably the greatest thinker that America has ever produced, was a man who sought God. Thus for Edwards, as a student, a husband, a father, a pastor, and the president of Princeton, his life was consumed with going deeper and deeper into the Word of God. And despite the trials of his life, which were many, he was first and always a man of joy.We sometimes think of Christians who walk around with their Bibles wherever they go as dour, unbalanced, joyless people. And if they are it is because they are reading for information, not diving for blessings.How about you? God has made you to desire joy. You cannot deny it! You want blessing in your relationships, in your work, for your children, for your own sense of personhood! And God made that. And God fulfills that with the revelation of Himself in the Bible. Take it from a guy who has tried. There is no fulfillment, no answer anywhere else than here.Question: Are you reading this Word for information, or mining for blessings?
The Psalmist then makes a move from blessing to demands. And this is the second principle of this passage:
2. Seeking that One Thing, God’s Word, requires true obedience (v. 4)
“You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed” (Psalms 119.4 NIV).
The Psalmist does this throughout Psalm 119. He alternates between the blessings of God’s Word and the demands of God’s Word. In these primordial verses of this longest Psalm, we see that blessing comes from God’s precepts, one of the eight synonyms for Torah, being “fully obeyed.” Blessing comes from obedience.To obey is not a very popular phrase. In postmodern thought, in existentialism, purity of heart, freedom and purpose and meaning are to be found through truth, but truth is personalized. Obedience to God and specifically to His special revelation is not popular. But, as Al Mohler wrote recently, a postmodern airline pilot, who may abhor obedience to God’s Word and resist anything that has to do with God and His requirements on his life, is not consistent with that line of thought. For that same pilot, at 30,000 feet, is trusting fully in the laws of aerodynamics. He is trusting in the laws of gravity. He is seeking obedience to all of these laws.
I remember a funny line by Bob Newhart, in which he played the part of an airline pilot. The pilot’s voice was calm and reassuring as it came across the PA system of the plane bound for Honolulu. “Welcome ladies and gentlemen. We hope you sit back and enjoy this flight across the Pacific to beautiful Hawaii.” There was a pause. Then his voice came on again. “We are proud to have our new navigator aboard. This is his first flight.” Another pause. “Ladies and gentlemen, if there is anyone aboard who has ever actually flown to Hawaii, will you please come forward and meet with our navigator. Thanks and enjoy your flight.”
The point is that we all depend on obeying certain laws in order to find our way to our destination. God’s Word shows us that natural revelation, the stars and sky and trees and lakes, are beautiful. Theologians call that God’s “General” or “Natural Revelation.” And they show us that there is a God. But it is only in His Word that we learn what He requires of us. And what he requires is what brings us blessing. He requires obedience to the laws of redemption. Here we learn our plight and God’s power and God’s precepts for being saved from our plight. This book is about God’s love, our sin, our need, and God’s provision.Question: Do you think of obedience to God as bondage, or freedom?
And this leads us to the third principle in this passage.
3. Finding that One Thing, God’s Word, requires a purity of heart that we don’t have, but that God gives (vv. 5-8)
Every now and then we will hear of a plane, maybe in the mountains of South America that takes off, looses its instrumentation, and slams into a mountain. Frequently, we know of people in our lives that are like that. The instruments fail, the internal power systems of morals and choices all fail. And they slam into the mountains of life and crash.We all want to clear the mountain, get the blessing, find our way home, but how do get there?
The Psalm in verse 5 now responds to all of this. He wants the blessing. He wants to know obedience.“Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.”This is the crux of the matter. And it is the major difference between philosophy of man and the Word of God. In man’s philosophy, you seek answers and you look within yourself to find the power to grab hold of the answer. In God’s Word, the power is outside of yourself and comes to you as you submit to God’s Word. In other words the power to obey and get the blessing comes not from yourself but from God.And what is that power? It is not a religious experience, though one certainly enjoys experiences of God.
No, it is rather a Person.
John the evangelist wrote:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1.1).And John identified this Word:The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1.14
When John was exiled on the Isle of Patmos for preaching the Word, Jesus Christ came to Him and showed Him the victory that would be his.
And we read in Revelation 19.3:
“He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God” (Revelation 19.13).
The Word is God. Not simply a book, or printer’s ink, or paragraphs, or verses. The Word is God. AndGod the Word is the Son. To receive the blessing, to obey the Lord, is to receive the Son.For the Psalmist it results in praise:“I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees…” And then it ends suddenly in this first section:“Do not utterly forsake me” (Psalms 119.8).This is an honest cry. For we are found by God and we must be kept by God. The joy we seek is to found through God and His Word, through the Word made flesh Jesus Christ. He is our power for living. And only in Him are we kept on the way to blessing, now and forever. But the good word of Jesus is this: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”And what the Psalmist has experienced we too can experience.
Finding Our Way to Wherever it is We are Going
So if you want blessing you must seek one thing: and that is the truth of God in His Word, the Bible.That is what I told Jeannie yesterday (and that is not her name). I hope you are here today, Jeannie. If you are, come and see me and let’s pray about what we talked about yesterday. You gave me a ride while my car was being worked on. We talked about your own journey from New Mexico to searching for your identity to being led to Chattanooga. And we talked about how any of us can ever find our way to wherever it is we are going. It is through a Word made flesh. We talked about how, if Jesus is who He said He was, the Son of God come to die for our sins on the cross and rise again from the dead, then all of the Bible is true. And if that is so we are loved. And if we are in Him, by faith, we are not really lost after all.What I say to Jeannie, the Lord says to us all. When “what now” comes to you, don’t look inside. Don’t look to another. Only the Word will do. And the Word became flesh.I wrote a song about this. And would like to share it with you. It is called, “When Only the Word Will Do.”
When Only the Word Will Do(Based on sermons from Psalm 119)
© 2009 Michael Anthony Milton and Bethesda Words and Music, BMI
A little boy crying, his old Snooper lies still
Then a woman gently carries him home
The child asks a question about heaven and dogs
And his sobs thankfully muffle her own
In such times, we feel helpless
In such times, we need truthIn such times, our own wisdom will fail us
These are the times, when only the Word will do
A father looks into the eyes of his daughter
But another man is making her smile
And he’s happy but sad as the people all rise
And he walks her down the aisleIn such times, we feel helpless
In such times, we need truthIn such times, our own wisdom will fail us
These are the times, when only the Word will do
Late in the night as you drive through the country
You look into the star-studded sky
And you wonder where you are going
And you wonder why
The room is quite, your life is now reflection
On years like a river rushed by
You clutch an old picture of a woman and a dog
Now where will you go when you…
In such times, we feel helpless
In such times, we need truth
In such times, our own wisdom fails us
These are the times, when only the Word will…
In such times, we feel helpless
In such times, we need You
In such times, human wisdom will fail us
These are the times, when only the Word will do Only the Word will do Only the Word will do
This sermon was first preached at First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Fall, 2006
Kierkegaard, S˙ren, and Douglas V. Steere. Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing; Spiritual Preparation for the Feast of Confession. New York and London,: Harper & brothers, 1938.
Powlison, David. Speaking Truth in Love. Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005.
Schuman, Wendy. Stalking the Energy Vortex Beliefnet, 2006 [cited August 13 2006]. Available from http://www.beliefnet.com/story/195/story_19551_1.html.
Wilcock, Michael. The Message of Psalms 73-150. Edited by J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001.