Affliction: God’s School Of Obedience

A brief study of Psalm 119:65-72, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 2 Aug 2013


The 9th strophe of Psalm 119 is demarcated by the Hebrew letter Teth (F). It is not surprising, then, to find the words towb (bwfo) and tuwb (bWf) featuring prominently in it. These two words may be translated as “good” or “well.”

So we see the word “good” appearing quite a few times in this song in English. But if you read the song carefully, you will realise that the theme is not just about the goodness of God in general. Rather it is about the goodness of God in sending us afflictions. We may subtitle it, “Affliction, God’s School of Obedience.

This is a song given by our Saviour for us to sing in union with Him in grateful expression to the Father for His goodness toward us by way of loving chastisement. Our Lord, of course, did not stray as in verse 67.[1]  But He could certainly take those words in His holy lips in sympathy and union with us for whom He came to live, suffer and die. Indeed, does not the Holy Spirit inform us concerning the Lord Jesus that “though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” (Heb 5:8).

As it was true for the Lord so it is true for us. Affliction is appointed by the gracious hand of God to cultivate obedience in us.

There are three thoughts in this psalm.

First, we are given to acknowledge the goodness of God and to ask Him to teach us good judgment and knowledge though affliction.

Secondly, we are given to acknowledge the benefits of affliction and to ask the Lord to use it to teach us His ways.

Thirdly, we are given to acknowledge that slander is an affliction that can tempt us to sin, but coupled with a love for God’s commandment, it actually cultivates obedience.

1. Teach Me Good Judgement
& Knowledge

The first thing that we must acknowledge about God whenever we think about affliction must the goodness of God. God is good. All that He does is good and right. He needs never apologise and will never apologise. We must never forget that. God is good even when He sends negative providence.

Thus, this song which centres on the theme of affliction begins with an acknowledgement of God’s goodness:

65 Thou hast dealt well with thy servant, O LORD, according unto thy word.

Though I suffered, I know that Thou are good. I am convinced that Thou has dealt well with me. This would have been the confession of our Saviour, and it must be our confession too.

In God’s hand, all things work together for good to them that love Him (Rom 8:28). How does it work for good? It works for good by cultivating godly virtues in us. Paul says: “We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope” (Rom 5:3-4).

But these are not the only virtues produced by affliction. We are, rather, given in our text to ask the LORD to teach us good judgement and knowledge through trials, verse 66—

66 Teach me good judgment and knowledge: for I have believed thy commandments.

The word translated ‘judgment’ (µ['f', táam) in this context is the word for “taste”, as in “is there any taste in the white of an egg?” (Job 6:6). It may also be translated as “discretion”, as in “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion” (Prov 11:22). So really we are asking the LORD to teach us good spiritual taste or discretion coupled with godly knowledge.

2

 
Afflictions may not bear good fruit in the heart of an unbeliever. Indeed, it may even bear bitterness. But in the life of one who believes in the commandments of God, afflictions are excellent tutors to teach good taste and spiritual knowledge. It teaches us more about making choices than hours of lectures and reading. It teaches many things that cannot be taught in any other ways. It gives us, for example, knowledge of ourselves and of others. It teaches us about the mysterious ways of the Lord for our sanctification. It teaches us what are really important and what are not. It makes us spiritually mature.

Indeed, affliction teaches us not only judgement and knowledge. It teaches us also obedience. This is what we are given to ask the Lord for in the 2nd part of this song, with which we request…

2. Teach Me Obedience
by Affliction

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word. 68 Thou art good, and doest good; teach me thy statutes.

To be taught the statutes is essentially to be taught obedience.

When our lives are smooth sailing, we tend to become careless and allow ourselves to drift. When that happens we tend to go astray. Affflictions tend to humble us and to bring us back to God so that we keep His word.

Think of the example of Job. Did Job stray? I believe he did by way of self-confidence and perhaps a bit of self-righteousness. Affliction humbled him so that he began to cease pleading his innocence but to trust in his Redeemer.

Or think of Jacob. He was self-reliant and deceitful. He was afflicted in Haran where he was deceived many times by his uncle Laban. He was defeated and given a permanent limp by the Angel of the Lord at Penuel. He was humbled and learned to walk in the way of the Lord.

Or think of Joseph. Did he stray? Perhaps there was a hint of pride and arrogance in his heart. He was by the hand of God sold into Egypt. By affliction, the Lord moulded him and prepared him to be a leader of his people.

What about Moses? Think of his pride and overconfidence. What about David? Consider how he gloried in the greatness of his army. What about Peter? Remember his overconfidence. The list goes on. Affliction taught God’s people obedience. Affliction continues to be God’s school for us.

Thus if we are serious about learning obedience, let us remember to ask the Lord to teach us obedience when we undergo affliction. I hesitate to say that we should pray for affliction. I don’t think that is necessary. God will mete out affliction according to His infinite wisdom. He will use it only when we need it. But when He does send affliction, let us learn to ask him for wisdom as James teachs us, and let us ask Him to teach us his statutes as we are given to sing in this song.

But consider now the third part of this song, which we may summarise with the words…

3.  Use Even Slander,
for I love Thy Commandments

Slander is one of the most painful of afflictions. Our Saviour experienced it on many occasions. Perhaps this is why slander is one of the most common of afflictions mentioned in the psalms.

Psalm 31:13—For I have heard the slander of many: fear was on every side: while they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life.

Psalm 35:11—False witnesses did rise up; they laid to my charge things that I knew not.

Psalm 64:3-4—[They] whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words: 4 That they may shoot in secret at the perfect: suddenly do they shoot at him, and fear not.

Psalm 109:2-3—For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.   3 They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.

Here in our text, we are given to sing, verse 69—

69 The proud have forged a lie against me: but I will keep thy precepts with my whole heart. 70 Their heart is as fat as grease; but I delight in thy law.

Slander is essentially lies against others. Those who engage in slander are generally proud; and because they know how to manipulate people, and how to promote themselves by putting down others, they often become rich and powerful. This is what we mean when we say: “their heart is as fat as grease” (v. 70). Elsewhere we are taught: “They are inclosed in their own fat: with their mouth they speak proudly” (Ps 17:10; cf. Ps 73:7).

Those who are slandered will face strong temptations to vindicate themselves, or to give an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But the man who loves God’s word will be fortified against such temptations. Yes, the temptations will come. Our Master himself was tempted like as we are. No doubt He was tempted to vindicate himself. But He fought against all such temptations successfully because He delighted in the law of the Lord and He was resolved to keep God’s precepts with His whole heart.

Was our Lord grieved that He was slandered? Of course! Remember the psalm where it is written “put thou my tears into thy bottle” (Ps 56:8). What is the cause of the tears? Well, at least one of the causes is recorded in the words, “Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil” (v. 5). What was true of David was no doubt true for the Greater David. Our Lord surely sorrowed on account of slander. 

Slander evokes very strong emotions. In fact, I believe that it produces more anger and anxiety than afflictions due to natural causes. We can more readily submit to God’s hand when He sends accidents and diseases then when harsh or slanderous words are spoken by another. We can’t stand it when people speak lies against us.

Nevertheless, let us understand that even this affliction,—which we rather not have,—is good for us. Verse 71—

71 It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes. 72 The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.

As soon as we are settled in our minds that the commandments of God are more precious than thousands of gold and silver, so soon do we learn to thank God for anything that cultivates obedience—including slander.

It is difficult for such a thought to come out of our own heart because the pain of affliction often has a dulling effect upon our heart. This is why we are given this psalm to sing!

Conclusion

Such is 9th song of Psalm 119. It is inspired by the Spirit of Christ that those who are united to Him may know how to think, how to meditate and how to pray when we are undergoing affliction. May the Lord grant us that these words may become true to our hearts that we become truly grateful to the Lord when He does send affliction along our way for our good to make us more like Christ. Amen.

—JJ Lim


 



[1] This is the only verse in Psalm 119 which presents real difficulties to those who hold that the Psalm first speaks of the experience of Christ and then secondarily the experience of believers united with him. To solve the difficulty, Andrew Bonar proposes that the verse may be rendered “I have not yet been afflicted, as one going astray, and still I have kept thy word.” Another way of looking at it is that Christ never intended the Psalms for him to sing apart from the Church. Indeed, everything He did in His incarnation He did as the head of the Church. So he can sing about going astray as He can sing Psalm 51. When singing the Psalms we should as much as possible think of how it applies to our Saviour and at the same time how it applies to ourselves. Some statements in the Psalms cannot apply directly to us (eg. Psalm 22:16), and some cannot apply directly to Christ (e.g. Ps 119:67), but all can variously apply to the Church comprising head and body.