July 23, 2017
A note to readers: Today’s post is part of a Sunday Voice Series by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, a close friend, mentor and colleague of mine. He serves as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary among other posts he holds across the global church. This Sunday Voice Series will cover the Psalms, beginning to end, by focusing on a Psalm each Sunday. I can’t tell you how excited I am for his interest in contributing here. This will be a huge blessing to us all.
Psalm 119:129-152 (NIV)
Your statutes are wonderful;
therefore I obey them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple.
I open my mouth and pant,
longing for your commands.
Turn to me and have mercy on me,
as you always do to those who love your name.
Direct my footsteps according to your word;
let no sin rule over me.
Redeem me from human oppression,
that I may obey your precepts.
Make your face shine on your servant
and teach me your decrees.
Streams of tears flow from my eyes,
for your law is not obeyed.
You are righteous, LORD,
and your laws are right.
The statutes you have laid down are righteous;
they are fully trustworthy.
My zeal wears me out,
for my enemies ignore your words.
Your promises have been thoroughly tested,
and your servant loves them.
Though I am lowly and despised,
I do not forget your precepts.
Your righteousness is everlasting
and your law is true.
Trouble and distress have come upon me,
but your commands give me delight.
Your statutes are always righteous;
give me understanding that I may live.
I call with all my heart; answer me, LORD,
and I will obey your decrees.
I call out to you; save me
and I will keep your statutes.
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I have put my hope in your word.
My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
that I may meditate on your promises.
Hear my voice in accordance with your love;
preserve my life, LORD, according to your laws.
Those who devise wicked schemes are near,
but they are far from your law.
Yet you are near, LORD,
and all your commands are true.
Long ago I learned from your statutes
that you established them to last forever.
In the previous meditation, we highlighted verse 105, calling it the most quoted and well-known verse of Psalm 119. Now, in contrast, we look at another verse in the psalm that has been highly neglected and rarely quoted. It is verse 133: “[…] Let no sin rule over me.” There is little doubt that if you were to talk to hundreds, even thousands of Christians, you would find a great unanimity of affirmation in the longing of this verse. Yes, we would all agree, no one should let any sin rule over them. The problem is, despite our strong affirmation of this, the plain fact is that any number of sins do, in fact, rule over us. To put it bluntly, there is a gap between our theology of sin (sin is bad and should not rule over us), and our experience as Christians living in a fallen world. Whether they be acts of wrongdoing; or attitudes of unkindness like racism, selfishness, or unforgiveness; or sins of bondage like addiction; we Christians, despite our shared commitment to live lives free of sin, find ourselves sinning in ways that grieve our own hearts and produce guilt, shame and self-condemnation.
So, when Psalm 119 says, “let no sin rule over me,” is it merely aspirational—an inspiring goal which is prescriptive for righteous living—but not necessarily descriptive of the actual experience of the believer? Or, does Psalm 119 give us any guidance on how we can actually live lives free from sin? The answer is yes! We can live in a way that sin does not rule over us. This verse does not say that we will be without sin in our lives. Christians will always need to confess sins, but sin should be our mortal enemy and never rule over us. The repeated answer in this psalm is to keep our focus and constant meditation upon God and his word. It is when our minds begin to wander and contemplate sin or begin to compare what we have with what someone else has, and so forth, that we find ourselves drawn, once again, into the trap of sin.
This well-trodden progression into sin is highlighted by James in the New Testament. Rather than saying, “God is tempting me,” we should recognize that “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15).
How do we escape this trip? The specific advice that this particular section of the psalm gives is to establish a daily rhythm of focus upon the Lord and his righteous path. We should “rise before dawn and cry for help” (vs. 147). This means that each and every day should begin with earnest prayer before God. This is not a rushed “bless me, O God” as we grab a bagel and head out the door for the day. This is getting up before dawn so we can sit in his presence. Then, throughout the day, we should “meditate on his promises” (vs. 148). Finally, if we awaken or have sleepless nights, then we should take the opportunity to think about the things of God, rather than have our mind drift into anxiety or into areas that will lay a sinful trap for us. The psalmist says that even if he is awake during “the watches of the night,” he will meditate on the Lord (vs. 148).
As Christians, we recognize that the real insight of the psalm is that we have no power in our own strength to live a life so that sin does not rule over us. But, if we abide in Jesus Christ, then he has the power, through the Holy Spirit, to daily draw us to himself and to direct our feet, our hands, our hearts, and our minds into the ways of righteousness.