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Occasional Letters: Staying Hungry

D Newell, Glasgow

When I was very small there was a brief time when my mother had to coax me into accepting nourishment. Her technique was intriguing, to say the least. She confidentially informed me that, deep inside my body, there was a colony of "little men" who counted on me for survival. As I sat in my high chair we often went through a ritual in which I was reminded that, to preserve the lives of these tiny squatters, I must allow various foodstuffs to enter my mouth. Oddly, it never occurred to me to question the credibility of the tale. But it served its purpose. I discovered that regular feeding was vital to healthy growth and, as we all do, eventually graduated from spoon feeding to feeding myself.

Sadly, some believers seem afflicted with a kind of spiritual anorexia which means they rely for nourishment primarily upon the spoon feeding offered by ministry meetings. This is tragic. Of course, when we are young our appreciation of God's Word is mediated largely through others – believing family members or Sunday school teachers. But this should not remain the norm. If my spiritual experience is still tied by an invisible umbilical cord to a parent or a partner I am effectively imprisoned in immaturity. It is God's desire that all His people – male and female, young and old – should be getting their nourishment straight from the source. How else can we imitate the noble Bereans of Acts 17.11?

To encourage a healthy appetite let's consider a representative slice of Psalm 119, that wonderful poem dedicated to celebrating God's word in all its astonishing variety. The sixth stanza consists of verses 41-48; while it relates contextually to Israel's law I want to apply it to the completed Scriptures:

Let thy mercies come also unto me, O Lord, even thy salvation, according to thy word. So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word. And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth; for I have hoped in thy judgments. So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever. And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts. I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed. And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved. My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes.

We learn that the word is a message of salvation (v.41), a blessing which originates in God's grace, for it was "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us" (Titus 3.5). After all, the Scriptures are able to make us "wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3.15). Every time we sit down with an open Bible we are enjoying a personal encounter with God's salvation in Christ!

It is also an object of confidence (v.42). As soon as the psalmist comes into the good of God's grace he discovers he has enemies – those who reproach him for his faith. It is not socially, intellectually or ecclesiastically respectable to be a simple believer. But the answer to opposition is found in the very book men despise. The unscrupulous Ammonites could not deceive Jephthah with their revisionary history of Israel's entrance into the land because he knew the details of the Pentateuch far too well (Judg 11.14-27). Nor could Satan deflect the Saviour from a pathway of obedience because, as the perfect man, He rested wholly on the word. The better we know it the better we can resist the enemy's attacks.

But, more, Scripture provides an exhaustless topic of conversation (v.43), for the psalmist savours the word in his mouth. Yes, it's a weapon against opponents, but since his chosen companions are the likeminded, those who "fear thee, and…keep thy precepts" (Ps 119.63), we may reasonably assume that they spoke together about the things which meant most to them. Like Bunyan's pilgrims en route to the Celestial City, Christians delight to share their Biblical discoveries. It is a terrible indictment if our interest in divine truth ceases the minute we leave the Gospel Hall. The Israelite was trained to "talk of [God's words] when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Deut 6.7). Does that describe your household?

But God's word is also a rule of obedience (v.44), for talk and walk must agree. The psalmist promises without any qualification to "keep thy law". That includes obedience even when it doesn't make sense. In Genesis 22 Abraham was commanded to sacrifice the very son through whom God had guaranteed universal blessing. Yet he went ahead, convinced that, to be true to His pledge, God would have to resurrect Isaac. He was prepared to obey the precept while still clinging to the promise. Mind you, we may well feel that the psalmist's hyperbolical language goes beyond the ability of any man to fulfil – "So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever"! For ever and ever? Only One could speak with such assurance – the incarnate Word who affirmed, "I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart" (Ps 40.8). Although we cannot honour the written Word as the Lord Jesus did we can still keep on reading it so that its instructions, rather than ephemeral modern fashions, mould our lifestyle.

Paradoxically, a rule of life then becomes a sphere of freedom, allowing us to "walk at liberty" (v.45). Ever since Genesis 3 Satan has tried to brainwash men into thinking God a tyrannical killjoy, whereas the opposite is the reality: duty fulfilled brings delight. It is sin, not Scriptural submission, which enslaves, for "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin" (Jn 8.34). I read somewhere a fable about two foolish men who gazed in wonder upon a beautiful cherry tree in full flower. "What a shame that such a lovely tree is trapped in the ground", said one; "let's set it free". So they dug it up. True liberty is found in being where and what God wishes us to be.

Scripture is also a cause of boldness: the psalmist is not tongue-tied in the presence of worldly greatness (v.46). Ordinary fishermen waxed eloquent before the massed ranks of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Daniel rebuked a blasphemous emperor, John Baptist an adulterous king, Paul a procrastinating monarch. And yet this empowering word is simultaneously a source of delight (v.47). Its riches thrill the soul. How much do you enjoy your daily Bible reading? If it seems a chore then listen to the psalmist's outburst: "How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Ps 119.103). Even amid the distress accompanying his tough assignment for God Jeremiah confessed, "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart" (Jer 15.16).

What we love, we think about. The word therefore constitutes a theme of meditation (v.97). The imagery is strikingly physical: "My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments" (v.48). Does this signal an oath to obey (Gen 14.22), or a prayer for divine help (Ps 28.2), or perhaps a deep longing to stretch out and lay hold on God's truth? It is clear that, along with saints of all times, the psalmist loved to chew over Scripture. This explains Jonah's recourse to the imagery of the Psalms in his prayer, Hannah's echo of Deuteronomy in her song, and Stephen's use of the Saviour's final words in his dying moments. One final point. Apart from four verses (can you find them?), every verse in Psalm 119 addresses God. This great celebration of Scripture is at the same time a reverent conversation with its Author. When you find your daily passage tough, why not talk to the Lord about it? Indeed, why not always talk to Him about it? That will help you to keep on feasting on the Word and stay hungry for more.

To be continued.


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