Avoiding Ruin (Psalm 119:161–168)

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Acts 16 records an incident that Christians around the world have found incredible. Paul and Silas, unjustly imprisoned for their faithful preaching of the gospel, were heard singing God’s praises at midnight. It is an astounding account.

What gave these missionaries the ability to sing so worshipfully in the midst of such affliction? The answer, I believe, can be found in the text before us: “Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble” (v. 165). Literally, the last clause reads, “Nothing causes them ruin.” This verse, I believe, establishes the theme for the present section (vv. 161–168).

What about you? Perhaps you are facing mistreatment at work, school, or in the home. Perhaps you are facing mistreatment by the authorities. Perhaps you are facing mistreatment by another Christian in your own local church. This mistreatment can either ruin you or reform you. It is your choice.

The present text offers a living example of what it means to put on the shoes of the gospel peace (Ephesians 6:15). These verses are wonderfully instructive concerning how to avoid ruin. When the devil wants to ruin you—and he does want to ruin you!—biblical peace is what will keep you from ruin.

There are four things that I wish to draw your attention to in these verses.

The Power of Peace

Verse 165—the theme verse, as I have said—highlights the power of peace: “Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble.”

The word translated “great” speaks of something being multiplied, of being exceeding abundant. It describes something that is more than sufficient. In this instance, it is God’s peace that is more than sufficient. Jesus promised, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Philippians 4:7 speaks of “the peace of God, which passes all understanding.” This is the peace of which the psalmist writes.

“Peace” translates the Hebrew word shalom, which speaks of an all-encompassing sense of well-being. It is the peace that, in the midst of absolute turmoil, sings, “It is well with my soul.” “Stumble” speaks, properly, of a stumblingblock. Those who love God’s law neither stumble themselves, nor do they put a stumblingblock before others. Ezekiel 18:30 translates this word as “ruin.”

The promise here is to those who “love” God’s law. “Love” speaks of the affections. Affection before affliction is essential! Loving God’s word is evidence of love for the God whom it reveals.

This kind of peace empowers purity, guarding us from ruinous impurity. We might think of David, who did not respond in kind when Saul tried to kill him. Instead of flinging the spears back at Saul, David fled. In the words of Scripture, he behaved himself wisely. And he did so because he knew of the peace of God.

This peace also empowers perseverance. The implication is that nothing ever causes them ruin. God’s peace enables those who love his law to continue loving his law. Even when we are severely persecuted, we overcome by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:10–11).

The Disruption of Peace

But the psalmist also writes of those who would disrupt his peace: “Princes persecute me without a cause, but my heart stands in awe of your word. I rejoice at your word as one who finds great treasure. I hate and abhor lying, but I love your law” (vv. 161–163).

There are plenty of opportunities for us to be ruined. At the risk of sounding glib, we need to post a do-not-disturb sentry at the door of our heart, because the attacks against peace will come. And disruptions will come from different sources.

The Powerful

First, disruptions may arise from “princes” (v. 161). The word describes those in places of authority. It is the word that was used to describe the keeper of the prison in which Joseph found himself in Genesis 39:22.

Those in authority can sometimes tempt us to stumble. They can try to ruin us. These might be parents, or employers, or husbands, or church leaders, or governing authorities. But if we love God’s Word—if our affections are right—then we won’t be guilty of defection.

Joseph was tempted by Potiphar’s wife—one in authority—to sin, but he persevered in purity. Daniel and his friends were similarly tempted to sin by those in authority, but they responded as Joseph did. First Peter 3 exhorts wives to respond in a God-honouring way even when their husbands do not:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.

Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honour to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.

(1 Peter 3:1–7)

When the authorities forbade Peter and John from preaching in the name of Jesus, they responded with purity and perseverance (Acts 4:13–20). They did so again just one chapter later when, face with an illegitimate command to stop preaching the gospel, they replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

I am convinced that South African Christians will increasingly need to respond in a similar way. In recent months, we have seen legislation outlawing corporal punishment in the home. Christians need to stand for truth in the face of such opposition. As I write these words, another bill is before parliament seeking to severely restrict parental rights for the education of their children. Even as we pray that this legislation will not pass, the peace of God should so overwhelm us that, even if it does, we will do what is right. A third piece of legislation proposes that government have the authority to regulate religion in the country, and churches will need to respond with purity and perseverance if that law passes.

The Perverse

Attempts to disrupt our peace will also come from the perverse. “I hate and abhor lying, but I love your law” (v. 163). “Lying” describes that which is deceitful, and encompasses things like slander and heresy.  If we hate what is false and love what is true, we will not be ruined.

There is a sense in which every trial is a Bible school, urging us to know, love and obey the truth. Righteous affections are our best protection against falsehood. God’s word must define what is true and what is false. Clueless Christians are dead in the water of a lawless culture. We must know our Bible and train ourselves to think biblically. This is why it is incumbent upon elders to be skilled in teaching—so that they will keep the flock from ruin.

Sandwiched between v. 161 and v. 163 is the conclusion we must reach: “I rejoice at your word as one who finds great treasure” (v. 162). If we rejoice at God’s word, we will be enriched by our trials rather than ruined by them. Pleasing God, and not men, will afford us powerful peace.

The Maintaining of Peace

How do we maintain gospel peace in the face of those who would disturb our peace? The psalmist gives us at least four strategies.

Maintain Your Awe

First, the psalmist writes, “My heart stands in awe of your word” (v. 161). It is imperative that we have a proper fear object. God’s word should help us to understand God’s worth, which will drive us to worship. David was a man who loved God’s word, and who therefore understood God’s worth. When he faced Goliath, his knowledge of God’s worth led him to defy the giant in worship of the true God.

We must remember the ultimate authority. We must look at God in Christ, who stands behind the giants to help us in our affliction. Elisha prayed for God to open his servant’s eyes to see the armies of God fighting for them (2 Kings 6:14–17). We should pray for God to open our eyes through the word to see the same.

Maintain Your Affection

Second, the psalmist was determined to maintain affection for God and his word. “I love your law,” he writes (v. 163). He adds that there is a promise of “great peace” to “those who love your law” (v. 165), and confesses, “I love [your testimonies] exceedingly” (v. 167).

We must stay faithful to God and his word if we will stay in love with God and his word. And we must stay in love with God and his word if we will stay faithful to God and his word. Those who love God’s word will not love the world. We must therefore prioritise our time in the word. We must sacrifice to be obedient to the word. We must get to know the word. We must listen to it and learn to experience it.

Maintain Your Aspirations

Third, the psalmist made known his aspirations: “Lord, I hope for your salvation, and I do your commandments” (v. 166). “Hope” means “to view with anticipation.” Keeping our focus—final salvation—will keep us from ruin. We must ever hold before us the promise made through John:

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.

(1 John 3:1–3)

As we embrace the promise of final salvation—that we will be like him—we must at the same time work toward that, purifying ourselves as he is pure. In the midst of ruinous attempts, we must keep our head and our heart and our hands. We must persevere.

Maintain Your Awareness

Fourth, the psalmist expressed his awareness of God’s truth: “I keep your precepts and your testimonies, for all my ways are before you” (v. 168).

“Before” means to be in the presence of. The principle is this: Remembering God’s presence keeps us faithful to his precepts, and guards us from ruin. When Joseph was in prison, he was deeply aware of God’s presence with him. It is written four times in Genesis 39 that God was with him. When Paul was imprisoned, and subsequently abandoned by all his friends, he knew that the Lord was with him (2 Timothy 4:16–18). We can remain faithful if we are persuaded that God’s word persuades us that we are faithful. God always sees what is happening and always has a plan. We know this because the Bible tells us so.

The Prince of Peace

Finally, it is necessary that we remember that all Scripture was designed to point us to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:25–27; John 5:39). What we have studied in these verses has direct bearing on the life and ministry with Jesus, who was hated without a cause (John 15:25) and who was opposed though he had done no wrong (1 Peter 2:18–25). The experience of the psalmist reminds us of the experience of the Prince of Peace.

Jesus was persecuted without a cause by those in authority (chief priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.). Yet he steadfastly maintained his awe, affection, aspiration, and awareness. He endured what he endured looking past his circumstances to the inheritance that lay beyond the cross (Hebrews 12:1–2). Rather than being ruined, he redeemed his people from ruin (see 1 Corinthians 15:1–4). We should therefore embrace his love, and love what he loves. We can enjoy his peace and, as we do, nothing will ruin us.