Featured Items Ritchie Christian Media

Occasional Letters - How to Keep Awake

D Newell, Glasgow

Do you ever find yourself nodding over your Bible reading? Whether it’s the start or the end of the day, one of the best ways to keep awake and alert is to mark as you read. I was raised in a home where books were treated with due reverence – one dared not lick one’s fingers to turn the pages (as the manner of some is), let alone scribble in the margins. But written interaction with God’s Word can be very profitable. It means, at its simplest, selecting and systematically marking a key word or phrase. Let’s try an example. Psalm 119 is the longest and certainly one of the richest of the psalms. As you read it, have your pen handy to trace the occurrences of the phrase "I am". My text is the AV, but I suspect other versions will be much the same. Now we all know that in John’s Gospel "I am" often signals an announcement of the deity of Christ, such as the amazing declaration of 8.58-59, which obviously echoes the name of Jehovah in Exodus 3.13-14. In our psalm, however, an ordinary man is speaking, describing his experience in a hostile world. So let’s analyse the occurrences.

First, "I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me" (v.19). This highlights the psalmist’s separation from the society around him; as a sojourner he is not at home in a world where the things of God are despised. Don’t be surprised if you are a bit lonely at work – every true believer is, because we cannot go along with the crowd and its ways. Being different from the folk about us, we need to be supported and succoured daily by God’s Word – it is the spiritual nourishment which keeps us healthy. But though the writer, like all saints, feels out of place in a sinful world, he is in fact not alone, because he actively seeks the society of those who love the Lord, finding godly association with like-minded people. "I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and of them that keep thy precepts" (v.63). This is really the truth of Hebrews 10.25 and 2 Timothy 2.22: "Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart". It is hard to take a solitary stand against wickedness, but much easier to do so in company with those who have the same mindset as us. Assembly fellowship is the practical blessing of travelling together to heaven (Acts 2.42). Those who advanced with Moses to the Promised Land moved out in orderly and efficiently organized tribal units, with Judah in the lead (Num 10.14). However nervous the individual Israelite may have felt, he must have been comforted to know he was part of the vast company of the redeemed.

This of course does not mean that all is plain sailing. "I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes" (v.83). The picture language suggests a blackened and shrivelled skin bottle. Here’s Spurgeon’s helpful comment: "The skins used for containing wine, when emptied, were hung up in the tent, and when the place reeked with smoke the skins grew black and sooty, and in the heat they became wrinkled and worn. The Psalmist’s face through sorrow had become dark and dismal, furrowed and lined; indeed, his whole body had so sympathized with his sorrowing mind as to have lost its natural moisture, and to have become like a skin dried and tanned. His character had been smoked with slander, and his mind parched with persecution; he was half afraid that he would become useless and incapable through so much mental suffering, and that men would look upon him as an old worn-out skin bottle, which could hold nothing and answer no purpose". Tribulation in general (but not that future period of time described as the "great tribulation") is the common lot of God’s people (Jn 16.33; Acts 14.22), yet is paradoxically one of the means the Lord uses to develop our spiritual muscles. Whatever pressure you are under, don’t forget to feed on the Word.

Giving the writer confidence is his assurance of salvation: "I am thine, save me; for I have sought thy precepts" (v.94). Redeemed at tremendous cost, we know we belong to the Lord Jesus, just as Israel will one day acknowledge God’s gracious work in ransoming and regathering them to their land (Is 43.1-2). And in the very midst of trials the psalmist finds strength in calling upon the Lord: "I am afflicted very much: quicken me, O Lord, according unto thy word" (v.107). The believer’s heart goes out in instinctive supplication to a God who cannot fail (Ps 120.1). Sometimes, confronted with the emergency, all we can cry, like Peter, is, "Lord, save me!" But a man who finds such blessing in Scripture never becomes casual or trivial in his treatment of it. After all, it is God’s voice: "My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; and I am afraid of thy judgments" (v.120). This is not the craven, cringing fear of the unsaved, but the deep veneration which a believer feels for the things of God. Like every thing else in our life, our reading of the Bible should always be coloured by reverence, for this is no ordinary book but the very oracles of God.

More, the psalmist has a reason for living: "I am thy servant; give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies" (v.125). Whatever his secular labour (and vv.23,46 and 161 hint that he moves in elevated circles), his ultimate occupation is God’s service, than which there is no higher calling. And to serve the Lord fittingly we must spend quality time with Scripture – studying, meditating, learning, obeying. But such familiarity will never promote spiritual big-headedness. Listen: "I am small and despised: yet do not I forget thy precepts" (v.141). The last "I am" speaks appropriately of humiliation: the growing believer will remain lowly, small in his own eyes, and probably despised by the world at large. So do not be discouraged – be what you should be for God and lay hold on all the resources He has provided for you.

But don’t stop there. We should never be looking exclusively at ourselves, not even at our position by grace, lest we become downcast or self-obsessed. Horatius Bonar expresses it memorably in his hymn:

Not what I am, O Lord, but what Thou art –
That, that alone can be my soul’s true rest;
Thy love, not mine, bids fear and doubt depart,
And stills the tempest of my tossing breast.

Fittingly, therefore, the same psalm fills our minds with what God is. Mark the "thou art" phrases which punctuate the poem. These, interestingly, are not formal statements of abstract doctrine – rather, they are the language of adoration, of a heart addressing God in thankful praise. First comes direct worship: "Blessed art thou, O Lord: teach me thy statutes" (v.12). Those blessed by God should in turn bless God (Eph 1.3). Then comes a testimony to divine sufficiency: "Thou art my portion, O Lord" (v.57). To have the Living God is to have enough. The Levites might have had no portion in Canaan, but they had the Lord (Deut 18.1-2)! Although these days a common reply to the question, "How are you?" is, "Good", in fact "none is good, save one, that is, God" (Lk 18.19). Without Him there is no measure of goodness, and man, struggling in the morass of individual preferences, does what is right in his own eyes. The psalmist knew better: "Thou art good, and doest good; teach me thy statutes" (v.68). Note that: God is good, does good, and teaches what is good. The only safe way through the minefield of the world is to heed Him. And if the world think otherwise what is our recourse? We flee to Christ: "Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word" (v.114). This we do in the sure knowledge that our God is absolutely right in all His ways: "Righteous art thou, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments" (v.137). Finally, in our time of need does the Lord ever seem far off? Take heart: "Thou art near, O Lord; and all thy commandments are truth" (v.151). Yes, marking the Bible is a great way to keep awake, to keep the mind active, to keep going on for God. It’s good to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest"!


Back issues are provided here as a free resource. To support production and to receive current editions of Believer's Magazine, please subscribe...

Print Edition

Digital Edition

Copyright © 2017 John Ritchie Ltd. Home