(Delivered Sunday, February 26, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
Lately, I have been re-reading the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have grown to be very grateful for the good, solid, biblical truths in that great old confession.
Just the other day, I read the portion of the confession that speaks of the 'providence' of God - that is, how as Creator of all things, He wisely upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures, actions, and things - from the least to the greatest - and all to the praise of His glory. To me, that is a very comforting doctrine.
And with respect to God's providence, I read these words that have to do with the times of suffering that He may allow to come into our lives:
The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave for a season His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption, and deceitfulness of their hearts . . .
In other words, our God - whose providential care toward His children is always all-wise, all-loving, and all-powerful - may, at times, see fit to pull His hand away and allow us to undergo a time of suffering and temptation and deep struggle of soul.
I don't believe this is ever to punish us in a judicial way. Our wonderful Savior, Jesus, took all of the punishment for our sins for us on the cross. Rather, when God - in His providence - allows us to undergo these times of suffering and chastening, it is always for a good and loving purpose. He allows them to correct us, or teach us, or train us to trust in Him more. The confession goes on to say that God permits these times to come upon His beloved children
. . . that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends (Westminster Confession of Faith, 5.5).
God is sovereign in His providential care. He lets nothing come upon us but what will fulfill His good purposes for us. This is true even of times of suffering. If He permits trials and suffering to come upon us, it is because He uses such times to bring us into a closer and deeper relationship with Himself. He uses those times to teach us how frail we are, and how sufficient and powerful He is. And by those times of suffering, He weans us off of the fleshly, temporal, man-centered things we wrongly place our trust in; and trains us instead to depend only on Him.
Seen then in the light of God's providential care, suffering is a blessing. Anything that He permits to come into our lives that results in our drawing closer to Him is a great gift of His grace. If we were only thinking right about those times, how much we would thank God for them!
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I wanted to share those words from the Westminster Confession with you today because I ran across them at the same time as I was studying this morning's Scripture passage. I have been drawn the past week or so to Psalm 39; and I was surprised at how the words of this psalm give clear, experiential testimony to God's providential goodness to us through those times of sorrow and suffering.
King David was the man who wrote the words of this psalm. And though we don't know the exact details or circumstances under which he wrote them, it's plain that he was undergoing a time of deep suffering. Some scholars believe that it was written during the time that his own son Absalom had committed an act of treason against him and was seeking to take over his kingdom - forcing David to flee for his life. But perhaps it was because of someone else who had proven to be traitorous toward him, or who had betrayed him or persecuted him, or who had sought his harm in some way.
In any case, the circumstances are not revealed to us. And perhaps that's intentional. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit's wise plan that the exact circumstances be kept broad and undefined. Perhaps He intended that this psalm speak comfort to God's people in a very wide way - in the midst of all kinds of suffering.
Let me read it to you. And as I read it, watch carefully to see how God used this particular time of suffering to take David's eyes off of lesser things, give him a clearer perspective, and ultimately draw him to a greater dependency upon Himself.
It reads as follows:
To the Chief Musician. To Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.I said, "I will guard my ways,
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I wonder if there is a brother or sister here this morning that is undergoing a particular time of suffering. I want you to know that - though I don't know who you might be - I have prayed for you in advance. I have asked God that you would be here this morning; and that He would bless this psalm to you in a very special and practical way.
I want you to know that I have been going through a time of inward struggle this week, too. In fact, that's what first attracted me to this psalm. And I want you to know that I found a great deal of practical comfort in it. I'm going to be speaking this morning from it primarily with you in mind, dear brother or sister - whoever you are. And of course, I invite everyone else to listen in.
To summarize the flow of this psalm, we see that it first teaches us that, in a time of suffering from the hand of God, we should be silent before men. We should be very careful what we say. But in that silence, we should not be inactive; but rather, we should think - deeply think! - humbly think! Then, in our thinking, we should learn to look at God in all His majesty and transcendent glory; and learn to hope in Him. And finally, in that growing sense of hope, we should cry out to God.
The psalm, in other words, begins with careful silence in a state of suffering, in ends in a loud cry to God - and all from a heart wisely taught in the time of trial.
So, let's walk through this psalm together as we learn together from King David's experience. Let's learn together about how to undergo this time of suffering in a wise and worshipful way - in such a way that God can teach us what He wants us to know from it, and can draw us away from lesser things and into a deeper dependency upon Him as our soul's greatest good.
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The first principle this psalm teaches us is . . .
1. IN SUFFERING, BE SILENT BEFORE MEN (vv. 1-3).
That doesn't sound like the kind of advice we typically receive; does it? We're usually taught that, in a time of suffering and trial, we should talk about it. We should 'get it all out'. We should make our feelings known.
And I would hasten to say that the Bible DOES encourage us to share our times of suffering with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It teaches us that, as members together of the body of Christ, we are to "[b]ear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).
But look carefully at this psalm. You'll see that, when it came to speaking about his suffering, David wanted to be very careful that he didn't sin in what he said. In giving expression to his anguish, he didn't want to utter any unrighteous accusations or insults toward other people; and he didn't want to cast sinful blame toward God. He made this his resolve; "'I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue'" (v. 1a).
Another thing he was concerned about was the fact that wicked and ungodly people were listening in. He said, "'I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me'" (v. 1b). In fact, he said, "I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good" (v. 2a). He didn't try to give utterance to his suffering before the wicked - either in a way that voiced his complaint in a sinful manner, or that expressed something good about it. He trembled at the thought that the things he might say in his time of suffering and anguish could result in the wicked taking sinful advantage of the situation - so that they spoke blasphemies against God. And so, realizing his vulnerability, he chose to keep silent - even to the point of figuratively keeping a muzzle on his mouth.
Some commentators have said that David was wrong to do this. But I strongly disagree. David rightly realized the dangerous potential there was in our tongues - and how, even at our very best state, "the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire by hell" (James 3:6). The danger is always there - and it is especially there at a time of suffering.
And besides this, hasn't our Lord has warned us to be very careful with our words around ungodly people? He said, "Do not give what is holy to dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces" (Matthew 7:6). On the sending end, there is always dangerous potential of sinning with our tongues; and on the receiving end, that dangerous potential is seized ahold of and greatly amplified by wicked and ungodly listeners. I believe that David was very wise to practice a discrete silence at this time.
Dear brother or sister; in your time of suffering, I suggest that you share feelings. But I also very strongly suggest that you be wise and discrete in your sharing. If you cannot speak about your suffering in any way but in a sinful way; or if you cannot share the details of that suffering but within the earshot of those who will sinfully use what you say, and speak in a dishonorable or untrue manner about your heavenly Father; then it's a time to be silent and wait.
Jesus warns us that "for every idol word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matthew 12:36). It's a terrible thing to turn suffering of the soul into a time of sinning with the lips; and to hastily say something that we will regret later!
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But that's not to say that we should remain silent all the time. In fact, David kept silent until he could keep silent no longer. And then, at last, he spoke. He said that he held his peace, even from good - "And my sorrow was stirred up. My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue" (vv. 2b-3). And what he spoke was right to say.
And before we look at the many things he then said, pay very special attention to the first word that came out of his mouth - "LORD . . ." He wasn't entirely silent, you see. He spoke. But the thing to notice is that he spoke to the right Person first! He spoke to the Lord. He poured out his painfully burdened heart to God.
And I see a very practical lesson in that, dear brother or sister. Taking the time to be silent in our time of suffering gives us a chance to rightly orient our spirits, and to direct our words to the One to whom they should go first - to our great and merciful Father. That, after all, is what He wants from us. His great concern is that we learn to make Him our primary trust. "Call upon Me in the day of trouble," He tells us; "I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me" (Psalm 50:15).
We should be silent before men; but not before God. And think of it: If we would learn to speak first to Him, we would be far less inclined to sin with our words before men!
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So the first principle we see is that, in a time of suffering, we should be silent before men. But if you were paying attention, you'd notice that this silence was not an inactive silence. David testified that, in his silence, he was 'musing' (or 'meditating', as it is in the NIV). In his suffering, he was thinking and evaluating and reflecting on what was going on. This is another good reason to be silent in a time of suffering; isn't it? It gives us a chance to think!
And so, this leads us to a second principle we see in this psalm about suffering . . .
2. IN SILENCE, THINK HUMBLY (vv. 4-6).
Now, in your suffering, what is it that you tend to think about? I have to confess that, in my silence during times of suffering, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what a rotten deal I was getting; or - I'm ashamed to admit this - devising ways to pay back whoever brought this suffering upon me. Sometimes, I sit and think about the 'piece of my mind' I'd really like to give them - a piece that I would probably do better to keep to myself!
But that's not what David was thinking about. He may have thought in sinful and revengeful ways at first; but clearly, that was not what he ended up meditating and musing on. Instead, he thought about how frail and humble mankind is before God - and particularly how frail and humble he himself is as a part of mankind. David meditated on human frailties and limitations in the sight of God; and that put his problems into perspective.
Look at what David says. He asks, "LORD, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days . . ." (v. 4a). He asks God to help him gain a grasp of his own life-span - how many days God had appointed to him. And it wasn't because he had a morbid interest in how many years he had left to live. Rather, it was so that he could put himself in perspective; ". . . that I may know how frail I am" (v. 4b). In other words, one of the things that David was made to think about in his time of suffering was the brevity of human life. He went on to say, "Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my age [or "the span of my years" as it is in the NIV] as nothing before You . . ." (v. 5a).
The culture we live in has a tendency to minimize the brevity of life. We tend to avoid the issue. We glorify the youth culture; and make it seem as if death will never come. And yet, the Bible reminds us to pray,
The days of our lives are seventy years; and if reason of strength they are eighty years, and yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knows the power of Your anger? For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:10-12).
Thinking humbly during a time of silent suffering helps us to remember how short our lives on this earth are, and how truly frail we are as we live upon it. It helps us to concentrate on what's important - so that we focus our attention on preparing for an eternity in our Father's house.
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Another thing that David thought about was the vanity of human glory. He said, "Certainly every man at his best state is but a vapor" (or, as it is in the NIV, "Each man's life is but a breath"); and he adds the musical phrase "Selah", which encourages us to pause and think carefully about what was just said.
I was intrigued to find that David uses an interesting Hebrew word - hevel. It's the word he uses to describe the span of his own years before God; describing it as "nothing". Here, it's used to describe man in his most glorious state - a mere "vapor" or a mere "breath". He is nothing more than a mere puff of air. It's the same word that is used in Ecclesiastes 1:2; "'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.'" I've heard one preacher translate it "soap bubbles"! I know one saint who suggested this translation: "Certainly every man in his best state is nothin' but pickle smoke!"
Think of that! Man - even man at his very best state; even the mightiest and most powerful man on earth at his very best and most glorious condition on this earth - is, before God, nothing more than "a vapor". A mere puff of air. A nothing. As Isaiah 2:22 says, his breath is in his nostrils! Pinch his nose shut, and he'll die. Now how 'glorious' is that?! All the earthly majesty of even the mightiest of men fades away as they lay in the grave; and no one remembers any of his pomp in any relevant way ever again - any more than they remember a puff of air.
In fact, David says, "Surely every man walks about like a shadow . . ." (v. 6a). You see it, and it looks impressive; but it has no real substance. You try to grab at it; and you find that there's nothing really there. He is, as the NIV has it, "a mere phantom". Thinking humbly during a time of silent suffering helps us to remember that the people we think are so important and worthy of our honor, or who are so fearsome and dreadful and threatening to us, are really nothing at all but puffs of smoke - mere vapors - before our God.
How truly humble and frail we all really are!
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So; David thought about the brevity of human life, and about the vanity of human glory. And thirdly, he thought about the fleeting character of human riches. He says, "Surely they busy themselves in vain" (v. 6b). They make a big uproar for nothing. They're like the rich fool that Jesus spoke of - who worked hard, and saved up all his riches, and built bigger and bigger barns to hold more and more wealth - only to hear God say, "Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?" (Luke 12:20).
In fact, David says, "He heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them" (v. 6c). He gathers his things together; only for them to end up in the thrift store where someone else buys them at discount prices. Men often forget what one preacher said about earthly riches and possessions; that they are like piles of manure in the garden - only useful when spread around. Thinking humbly in a time of silent suffering helps us to remember that the things we think are so important to life are really not what life is made up of at all.
Dear brother or sister; may I encourage you, during your time of suffering, to be silent and think? It's good to be quiet for a while and remember that the earthly, temporal things we think are so important are not really important at all from the standpoint of eternity. Human life is short; human glory is vain; human riches are fleeting. Only what is in Christ will last.
So, God gives us times of suffering to help break us away from these things and to concentrate on what is eternal. He permits us to suffer in order to clear our minds of the nonsense of this world, and to regain heaven's perspective. How grateful we should be that He does that for us.
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So let's review. First, this psalm teaches us that - in a time of suffering, we should be silent before men. And second, during that silence, we should think humbly before our God. And now we come to a third principle we should note from this psalm; that we should . . .
3. IN THINKING, HOPE IN GOD (vv. 7-11).
Thinking carefully and musing on the vanity of earthly things weaned David of his inordinate attachment to them. But what does he then turn to? He prays; "And now, LORD, what do I wait for? My hope is in You" (v. 7). Isn't that wonderful? In a similar psalm - Psalm 73 - we read, "Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalm 73:25-26).
David never would have come to that point in his heart if he hadn't first spent some time thinking in silence during his suffering.
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Suffering gave him a new and higher set of things to long for. Look at what he now longs for from God. First, it made him long for the deliverance from the sin that is in him. He says, "Deliver me from all my transgressions; do not make me the reproach of the foolish" (v. 8).
One of the purifying results of wise suffering is that it makes us long for the time when we will be brought fully into glory before God. No longer will our faults and failures be paraded before us by the wicked. No longer will we be slandered by the devil. Instead, such suffering makes us look forward to the time when we will be fully delivered from our falleness and weaknesses; and when Jesus will present us to Himself "a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing", but rather, "holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27).
Another thing he now appreciates from God is the fulfillment of God's own purpose through him. He lets us know that this was, in fact, one of the reasons why he was silent. He says, "I was mute, I did not open my mouth, because it was You who did it" (v. 9).
David no longer looked to ways to get out of his suffering; but became silent under God's hand, so that God's good will might be accomplished in him. He learned to trust that God is doing something good in his trial - even if he couldn't see it right then. He trusted that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).
And third, he now recognizes the sanctifying effect of trials upon him. He affirms that these trials are indeed from God; saying, "Remove Your plague from me; I am consumed by the blow of Your hand" (v. 10). And here, he trusts God to know how much suffering he can take and when it will be time for the suffering to stop. But then he adds, "When with rebukes You correct a man for iniquity, you make his beauty melt away like a moth; surely every man is vapor" (v. 11).
David was, you'll remember, a king. He was a 'great one' among men. And yet, when God rebuked him and disciplined him, he was cut down in size. His human 'glory' was consumed away, and his earthly 'beauty' melted; and he realized that, like all other men, he is a mere "nothing" in and of himself. He came to realize that, if he was anything at all, it was because that was what God had made him. So, the suffering God permitted to come upon David had a sanctifying impact upon him. It purified him of those things that stood in the way of what God really wanted from him.
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The suffering lead David to be silent; and in the silence, he thought; and in the thinking, he hoped in God. And finally, notice how this led Him - at last - to break the silence loudly and . . .
4. IN HOPE, CRY OUT IN PRAYER (vv. 12-13).
David expresses great dependence upon God. I would suggest to you that any kind of suffering that makes you cry out in dependence upon God is a great gift of His grace.
Notice how David expressed his dependency upon God. First, he prayed in confident trust for God's mercy. He said, "Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry. Do not be silent at my tears . . ." (v. 12a). He voiced his pain to God; and trusted confidently that God would hear him and give attention to Him in his sorrow. That's a prayer of faith that God will hear.
Second, he affirmed that he looked to an eternal home with God. He said, ". . . For I am a stranger with You, a sojourner, as all my fathers were" (v. 12b). He confessed that all he was before God on earth was a mere "stranger" and "sojourner" - even though he was a king who lived in a great palace. He confessed that he was not going to stay on this earth for long - a truth he especially recognized as he looked back to time past, and saw that all of his fathers who were before him were also gone from this earth. He affirmed in this that he "waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10).
Finally, he pled for compassion from God during discipline. He said, "Remove Your gaze [that is, a stern gaze of discipline] from me, that I may regain strength, before I go away and am no more" (v. 13). He appealed to God that His disciplining hand might be removed - trusting that God loved him and knew how much he could take. And indeed, "God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able" (1 Corinthians 10:13).
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I'm indebted to another brother for pointing out to me what it says in the next few verses of the next psalm - Psalm 40. Perhaps David had come out of that time of suffering and - for our encouragement and edification under the leading of the Holy Spirit - wanted to share the results with us. He wrote;
I waited patiently for the LORD;
David would not have been able to say those things, unless he had gained them through a time of suffering.
Dear brother or sister; God has so much good to do in you and me during our time of suffering - if we will only let him. And here, He gives us a practical example to follow so that our time of suffering can result in the greatest benefit to our souls. In suffering, let's learn to be silent before men. And in our silence, let's think humbly before God. And in thinking, let's hope in God. And in our hope, let's cry out to Him dependently.
If we do this, we will be suffering wisely - and to the glory of our Lord Jesus.
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