How Firm a Foundation (Psalm 119:89–96)

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One of the older songs that we still sing frequently at BBC is “How Firm a Foundation.” The author of the hymn remains disputed, so there is no certainty as to the story behind the song. However, it is a great song, which could well have been written by a hymnist meditating on Psalm 119:89–96.

The firm foundation of God’s word was the settled hope of the hymnist. Consider the opening words of that song:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent word.
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you who, for refuge, to Jesus have fled?

The original hymn contained a further six verses, each of which focuses on the theme of affliction.

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed
for I am thy God; I will still give thee aid.
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand
upheld by my gracious omnipotent hand….

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

For the hymnist, God’s word was the firm foundation that enabled him to stand strong in tumultuous times. Every affliction that the hymnist describes was bearable because he understood that God’s word was his firm foundation. The writer of Psalm 119 shared this conviction.

The last few stanzas of Psalm 119 have focused very much on the theme of affliction. The psalmist knew what it was to experience persecution and affliction, and when he did he prayed to God. He will yet have more to say about affliction in the verses ahead, but in the section before us, he seems to shift his attention slightly from affliction itself to his comfort in affliction. Here, he focuses on the firm foundation of God’s word in times of affliction. God’s word was his beacon of hope in times of suffering.

In these eight verses, the psalmist draws attention to at least four truths about God’s word that served as his firm foundation in the rough seas of affliction. If you will be helped in your affliction, you need to likewise embrace these four truths. You must realise that God’s word is:

  1. a firm foundation in trial (v. 89);
  2. a faithful reflection of God’s character (vv. 90–91);
  3. a sure hope in affliction (vv. 92–94); and
  4. a standard beyond perfection (vv. 95–96).

A Firm Foundation in Trial

First, the psalmist knew that God’s word was his firm foundation in trial. “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (v. 89).

In times of affliction, we often feel windswept. We feel as if we are being tossed about in the rough waves of our trials. At such times, we need something sure to anchor us, something settled to buttress us, something firm on which we can stand. The psalmist believed that his foundation in times of trial was God’s word. “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.”

David Dickson wrote of this verse: “God has given us His Word to bear up our faith in even the hardest conditions and it is a sure rock which will not fail us, whatsoever appear and howsoever we fail or faint. The Word of God is that which holds us up.” In times of trial and affliction, don’t neglect God’s word! Read it. Meditate on it. Sit under its preaching. It is your only sure foundation in times of trial.

Jesus illustrated this point when he exhorted his listeners to build their house on the rock. There is a Sunday school version of this song that, while catchy, gets the application horribly wrong. After singing about the wise man building his house upon the rock, and the foolish man building his house upon the sand, the story is applied this way:

So build your life on the Lord Jesus Christ,
so build your life on the Lord Jesus Christ,
so build your life on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and the blessings will come down.

The blessings will come down as the prayers go up,
the blessings will come down as the prayers go up,
the blessings will come down as the prayers go up,
so build your life on the Lord.

Unfortunately, that completely misses the point of the parable. In Jesus’ telling of the story, building your house on the rock doesn’t produce blessings; building your house on the rock is the blessing that results from hearing and obeying his words: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).

Do you want your house built on the rock? Then obey the word of God! Don’t tell me how much you know your Bible; show me how humbly you obey your Bible. If you don’t obey what you hear, you are building your life on the sand, and when the storms of life come, your house will crumble.

I don’t know what trial you are going through as you read this. Perhaps you are in the midst of terrible marital strife. Perhaps you are facing heartache over spiritually wayward children. Perhaps you are confronted with difficulties in the workplace, or you find yourself ostracised by family and friends because of your stand for truth. Perhaps you are battling a body that is ravaged by the terrible effects of a sin-cursed world. Whatever your particular trial, let me exhort you to hear and obey God’s word, for only then will your life be built on the rock.

By the way, that doesn’t mean that the trial will vanish. The Christian life is not always a Kendrick brothers movie. But it does mean that you will be able to stand even though the hurricanes of life beat consistently against you.

A Faithful Reflection of God’s Character

Second, the psalmist knew that God’s word was a faithful reflection of his character. “Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast. By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants” (vv. 90–91).

There is a reason that God’s word is a firm foundation—and it’s not because a group of clever men got together and drafted a statement of faith. God’s word is a firm foundation because it came directly from God’s mouth and is a reflection of God’s character.

These two verses are a part of the rare exceptions in Psalm 119 where the writer does not directly reference God’s word. But they are connected to the theme of God’s word, because they tell us about the character of God, which is revealed most clearly in his word. The psalmist was confident in God’s word because he was confident in God’s character.

God “established” the earth, says the psalmist, and it “stands fast.” Every generation has its doomsayers, who declare that the end is nigh. The sun is going to explode, or a giant meteor will strike the planet and wipe out all life as we know it. If everything in creation was purely the result of random chance, the odds would be heavily against us. But it’s not. God established it, God is watching it, and his creation stands firm. God created with a purpose, and he will not allow that purpose to be thwarted. Creation “stands fast” as long as God sees fit for it to stand fast.

Note that creation “stands fast” by God’s “appointment” because “all things” are his “servants.” Everything in creation—good and bad—is God’s “servant.” Everything serves his purposes. As long as creation still has a purpose to fulfil, it will stand fast by God’s appointment. And as long as you have a purpose to fulfil, you will stand fast by God’s appointment. Affliction—no matter how bad it seems—will not derail what God intends to accomplish. In fact, affliction will only further what God is trying to accomplish, because, like “all things,” affliction is God’s “servant.” God’s “faithfulness” to his people persists in rough seas and in smooth sailing.

If you find yourself in a time of affliction, trust what the Bible tells you about God’s character. When your questions are not answered, rest in the character of God. When you don’t understand what God is doing in your life, trust that he is faithful and is working for his glory and your ultimate good. The Bible encourages you that God is faithful. Believe it. Trust him.

A Sure Hope in Affliction

Third, the psalmist knew that God’s word is a sure hope in affliction. “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life. I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts” (vv. 92–94).

The psalmist now returns to speaking directly of the Bible and argues that, in affliction, there is nothing that can help like God’s word. William Plumer notes: “Such is the weight of many of our earthly sorrows that nothing but Scripture, received in faith and applied by the Holy Ghost, can sustain the sinking heart.” And Dickson again writes, “Affliction draws forth the worth of God’s Word, which otherwise we might not have known. And it lets it be seen that the Word of God is able to save a sinking man in tribulation.

In fact, we sing this truth in that great Reformation hymn, don’t we?

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.

Adoniram Judson was a man who understood this truth. Judson and his wife initially travelled to India to minister alongside William Carey. When he was forced to leave India, he opted to go to Burma. Burmese opposition to the gospel at that time was so great that even Carey advised him not to go there. But he took his pregnant wife and they set sail.

The ship in which they were travelling was caught in a three-week monsoon so severe that his wife delivered. The baby died and was buried at sea. In Burma, Judson was terribly persecuted. He was once driven in chains across burning sands, until his back bled and his feet were full of blisters. He spent many years in infested prison cells, where his wife was forced to bring him food under the cover of night. She had another baby while he was in prison but, unable to produce milk due to her illness and weight loss, she had to go through the streets begging for nursing mothers to help feed her child.

The Judsons faced Burmese heat, cholera, malaria and dysentery. They arrived in Burma seventeen months after their marriage, when Adoniram was 24 and Ann was 23. In less than fourteen years, Judson had buried his dear wife and all their children. Eventually, he would lose two wives and seven of his thirteen children, along with several colleagues. And do you know what Judson is most famous for saying? “The future is as bright as the promises of God.”

If God’s word is not your hope, you will perish in your affliction! We live in a world where God’s truth is increasingly marginalised and compromised. The world, the flesh and the devil scream at us that we cannot trust God’s word. The psalmist tells us that, if we don’t, we are without hope. God’s word alone can offer you hope in your affliction.

A Standard beyond Perfection

Finally, the psalmist realised that God’s word is, as Ligon Duncan put it, a standard beyond perfection. “The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your testimonies. I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad” (vv. 94–95).

The psalmist knew that persecution would continue (v. 94), but he also knew that God’s word was sufficient for every affliction he faced (v. 95).

You will never face a trial for which God’s word is insufficient. You will never come to a point where you will be able to say, “I have experienced all that there is for me to experience of the truths and promises of God.” You will never plumb the depths of the wisdom and the knowledge of the Bible. However much you think you know, there is more for you to know! There is more to know about God’s character. There is more to know about God’s love. There is more to know about your sin. There is more to know about God’s promises.

When you are overwhelmed by trials and afflictions, don’t ever think that the Bible cannot help you. There is more in God’s word than you can ever imagine. It is beyond perfection!

When you are afflicted, when you are confused, when you are suffering, God’s word has what you need to stand fast. In fact, the central message of this book is everything you need to stand in affliction. Take, for example, Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 1:8–12.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.

Paul wrote these words to Timothy, who was known to be somewhat naturally timid. But he knew that the promises of God in the gospel would enable Timothy to persevere.

The promises of God enable the believer to persevere. And the greatest promise that the believer has is the promise of the abolition of death and the promise of life and immortality through the gospel! Even if you are afflicted to death (and most of you will not be!), the promise for those who believe the gospel is that death will be abolished, and they will be granted life and immortality through Christ.

But note that this promise is not for everyone. The promise of life and immortality is only for those who believe the gospel. If you do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to save sinners and rose again victorious over death, you have no promise of death abolished and of life and immortality. That promise is only for those who believe the gospel.

Do you see that? Do you see that God’s word is our foundation because of the gospel? Do you see that God’s faithfulness is manifested most abundantly in the gospel? Do you see that your hope in affliction is what the Scriptures reveal about the gospel? And do you see that God’s limitless, beyond-perfection wisdom is displayed most clearly in the gospel.

When you are overwhelmed with affliction and feel as if all things are hopeless, open your Bible and, by faith, embrace the promises of Jesus Christ in the gospel.