Today is known as Bible Sunday, and we are looking at some verses from Psalm 119, the longest Psalm.
Psalm 119 is written by a person who is passionately devoted to the bible as the Word of God. It is interesting that as you look through these 8 verses, the word 'your' is used 10 times: 'Your word, your commands, your word, your decrees, laws that come from your mouth, your statutes, your precepts, your ways, your decrees, your word'
I say that he is passionately devoted to the bible as the Word of God, but that is not strictly true. For the Psalmist, the word of God was what we know now as the first 5 books of the bible. These are the laws and commands and decrees and statutes and precepts about which he writes.
For Jews who lived later, the word of God came to include all of what we call the Old Testament; and for Christians, the word of God comes to include what we know as the New Testament, the writings of the apostles and those who were with them.
And the reason that we accept the Old Testament as the word of God is because Jesus accepted the Old Testament as the word of God; and the reason we receive the New Testament as the word of God is because we receive the teaching of the apostles as authoritative, and the New Testament is the teaching of the apostles.
In other words, what the Psalmist says of the first five books of the bible, we can say of the rest of the bible - including these verses.
So what does the Psalmist say of the bible
1. He says that the Word of God brings great joy.
He delights in God's decrees (v16); he rejoices in following God's statutes as one rejoices in great riches (v14).
So often the attitude we have toward the bible is anything but that of joy.
For some, it is a book that is incomprehensible. They think, here is something we just don't understand: like when people read complicated poetry - it floats over our head.
To be honest, that is just not true. Maybe when all we had was the old version, which used 17th century English, glorious though it might be, it was difficult to understand. But today there are so many good modern translations, and also some excellent bible handbooks. If we wish to know what it means, we can find out.
For others, it is a book that is irrelevant: an outdated code of morality, a set of laws, telling us what to do and what not to do, written by people who lived in a far off place, in a far off time.
The problem is that unless we are someone who loves the history of religious ideas, philosophy or sources of trivia questions, the bible may be a best-seller, but it is a turn off. And if we do open the pages and start to read, then it may well seem hard to understand and irrelevant. It's a bit like when I've tried to read the Koran: I've got so far and given up (I have to say that I think the bible is objectively far more interesting than the Koran, because the bible tells a story)
But if we come to the bible, by faith, assuming that this is the Word of God, that it does - in its entirety - make sense, that this is God's wisdom, that it contains God's promises, that it points us to the one who can give us eternal life, and if we come seeking God and asking him to give us his Holy Spirit to help us to understand it and live it, then this book is not like any other book: this book is power, the Gk word is dunamis, dynamite.
Do you notice how the Psalmist says, 'How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word'. But then he says, 'I seek you with all my heart'. In other words, the bible on its own will do nothing. It is the bible with God that changes lives.
And when we get the bible and the Holy Spirit together, then this book is a light to our path; it is food for the heart and mind and soul. It is more precious than gold. It does bring joy and delight.
2. The Psalmist says that the word of God makes us pure.
'How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word'
For the Psalmist it was a matter of believing the promises of God and living the commands of God, of living the old Testament laws.
For the Christian, we have so much more. We still have the promises of God which we believe and we hold on to, but we do not need to keep the letter of the Old Testament laws, as the Psalmist did. Instead we are called to obey the Spirit who gave those laws and promises in the first place. They were good laws, they made sense for the Israelite nation, they embodied everything that is good and right and true, and they pointed forward to Jesus.
But for us, Jesus is the fulfilment, the embodiment of those laws: we interpret them through him.
So how do we keep our way pure; how do we get rid of the sin and rubbish in our lives, how do we become totally authentic human beings; how do we become transparently sincere; how do we become full of love?
The answer is the same as the Psalmist gave: by living according to God's word: by believing his promises, by looking to Jesus, by coming to him, by allowing his teachings to shape our inner being, by allowing his Spirit to live in us, by listening to what he says.
'I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways' (v15)
The bible is the story of God's love towards human beings. It begins with creation; it ends with the new creation. It is about the fall, the great disobedience, and God's rescue plan. It is about paradise lost and paradise gained. It is about the choosing of an individual and a nation to be the ones who bring God to the world. It is about human sin and rebellion against God, and how even the chosen nation rebelled against God. It is about how, out of that nation, a child was born, who was the Son of God. He died and rose again. He offered to people who put their faith in him relationship with him: new life in a new community with a new hope and a new destiny.
This is the story of the love of God, the justice and mercy of God, the purposes of God, the ways of God, the promises of God, the victory of God.
So this is the book that brings joy; that enables us to live pure lives; that shows to us the ways of God.
To reject or neglect this book is to plug our ears to the Holy Spirit; it is to silence God; it is to close off our life from ultimate joy and delight. It is like taking the gift of a £1million cheque, and either tearing it up, or putting it on a top shelf to gather dust.
I trust we do not wish to be like that. And there are three ways that the Psalmist shows that he has not neglected God's word.
- 'I have hidden your word in my heart':
The easiest way to do that is to learn verses from the bible, by heart. It is a spiritual discipline, and it is very precious. I was on retreat this week, and decided to put this into practice: I learnt these verses. So I was able to think them through as I went for a walk; and one night when I couldn't sleep I was able to meditate on them. And if we have learnt scripture, when the enemy comes, when we are tempted, we can say to God: 'I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you'.
It doesn't need to be a long passage. It only needs to be one verse: 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. But to hide God's word in our heart is to know it, to live with it, to allow it to sink into our very being. And to those of us who preach the bible: we need to let it live in us. Read the passage on Monday. Learn it if possible. Let it sink in. Study it. Meditate on it. Live it. And then preach it.
- 'with my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth': A great way not to neglect God's word is to speak it.
To speak it to ourselves: read it out loud. Listen to it being read on MP3 or CD.
To speak it in church: we speak the word of God; we sing the word of God. We're just sung, 'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path'. That is Psalm 119:105
To speak it in the world: that is the hardest. How do we speak and apply the teaching of the bible to our everyday life, to our colleagues and neighbours? It is a life-long learning exercise.
- 'I meditate on your precepts'. We are called to meditate on the word of God: to think deeply about it. That is why we take time to read the bible. Many many people find it helpful to put aside time every day to read and to pray. That is where bible reading notes come in helpful. Personally, I've never found bible reading notes to work; I find that they are restrictive, and I much prefer following a pattern of reading that, for example, we have on our notice sheet: includes Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms.
Maybe you are someone who finds it difficult to make time every day. That is OK - so long as you give yourself other significant time to reading the bible and thinking it through.
There are so many things to help us: I've mentioned bible reading notes, commentaries - Tom Wright's series: 'Matthew for today'; study bibles; internet (but so easy to be distracted). So instead of flobbing in front of the TV, pick up the bible - read it.
And of course it does help to listen to what other people think. That is why we have bible study groups
May I urge you not simply to read this book, not simply to study this book so that you get it all right - may I urge you to read it and to study it, but more than that, to read it seeking God with all your heart, to read it as the Word of God - and then to live it.
If you notice, in v14, the Psalmist does not say, 'I rejoice in your statutes'. He says, 'I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches'.