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Obstacles to God's Good Word | Psalm 119:33-40

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

"What obstacles stand before you and engaging God's good Word?"

1) Obstacle #1: Selfish Ambition

2) Obstacle #2: Empty Distractions

3) Obstacle #3: Fear of Man

4) The Cure: Set Your Hope on God's Righteousness and Faithfulness (Not Your Own)

Obstacles to God’s Good Word

Psalm 119:33-40

February 25, 2024

I am a notebook kind of guy. I use notebooks to write out my thoughts, make plans, and keep track of different goals. If you were to pick up my notebooks, you would find a graveyard of resolutions, because a lot of my plans do not come to fruition. These failures can be chalked up to various issues. Sometimes they are unrealistic; other times they are half-baked; and sometimes I just forget about them. But here is what they all have in common: they died because I didn’t realistically deal with the obstacles that stood before these plans. And this failure is, ultimately, a failure of counsel. Proverbs 15:22 tells us, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisors, they succeed.” This is true of running plans, reading plans, diets, and so on. But it is also true in regard to the obstacles that stand before us in regard to engaging God’s word. 

Last week, we explored the reality that we need God to widen our hearts in order to desire his word. But even as we feel this need to have our hearts widened, this cannot simply be a one-time request of asking God to change our hearts. It needs to be constant because there are obstacles in our hearts. What better counselor could we have than the Lord himself, speaking through his word, in how to know about and overcome the obstacles that stand between us and meaningful engagement with his word? 

Psalm 119:33-40 shows us what those obstacles are, calls us to watch out for them, and points us to the ultimate solution needed in light of these obstacles. 

What obstacles stand before you and delight in God’s good word? Let’s look at them and then turn our eyes to the solution. 

Obstacle #1: Selfish Ambition (33-36)

Verses 33-37 each begin with an imperative, calling on God to give instruction and understanding of his word to the psalmist. He calls out for God to “Teach me” (33), “Give me understanding” (34), “lead me in the path of your commandments” (35), “incline my heart to your testimonies” (36).  This might be things that you have asked of God yourself. But don’t miss the reason behind these requests. The psalmist let’s his motivation for these requests be known in the second half of each verse: 

Teach me, “and I will keep it to the end.”

Give me understanding, “that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”

Lead me, “for I delight in it.”

Incline my heart to your testimonies, “and not to selfish gain.” 

Do you see his goal? He wants to understand and know God’s word so that he can obey the Lord, delight in his ways, and live for the Lord always.

It is love for God, not love for self, that sends him into God’s word. It is a desire to obey the Lord, delight in the Lord’s ways, and seek the Lord’s ways over seeking immediate gratification for his passions. 

Hang on that expression with me for a moment: “immediate gratification of passions.” That is what is meant by “selfish gain.” Another way of translating this statement would be “dishonest gain, dishonest profit.” 

What the psalmist recognizes in these first 4 verses is that he is not merely in need of information. He needs transformation. His heart is inclined toward selfishness and he needs God, by his word, to direct his desires to his word. He is tempted to experience gain through falsehood, but he wants to experience true gain through God’s word, the truth. 

He faces the temptation to satiate and gratify his passions and desires as they are defined by his sinful flesh and not by the hunger of his soul. 

Why You Do (and Don’t) Read the Bible 

This gets right at the heart of our motivation for reading God’s word. What motivates you to read the word on a daily basis? Or, an even better question, what motivates you to not read the word on a daily basis? Whatever you are doing, there is motivation behind it. Selfishness, the desire to gratify sinful passions, can lead you to read the Bible and lead you to ignore the Bible. These can be referred to as the twin motivations of “problems” and “Praise.” 

Sometimes, a desire for selfish gain can actually keep us in God’s word daily. Perhaps you have a particular problem and you think reading God’s word will give you the solution. So you search Scripture heavily. But once the problem resolves itself, you put the Bible away and don’t think about it very often. It is not communion with the Lord and obedience to his perfect will that interests you, but your own personal pleasure and ease. 

This happens all of the time. A couple has marital difficulty, so they search the Scriptures diligently in search of answers. But once issues calm down, whether or not they are actually resolved, the desire to be in the word wanes. Why? The situation has changed and the panic has subsided. With no more threats to the desire of your heart (ease, comfort, getting your way), the need for God’s word disappears and so does your hunger for it.

But if you aren’t motivated by problems, you may be motivated by praise. Perhaps you have a desire to have a certain reputation as a godly person, so you pick up the Bible daily because you want to be able to say to other people that you read the Bible on a daily basis. 

Your desire is for selfish gain—the aggrandizement and pleasure of self through the praise of man. Your love of reputation, not your love of God, motivates you to read the word. Your desire to be glorified, not your love of God’s glory, drives you deeper into Scripture. 

Jesus himself warns us about this reality in Matthew 23. He lays out woes on the Scribes and Pharisees because, in their devotions, they are aiming at their own glory and not God’s. He says in verses 25-28, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but aside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, so that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy.”

This is what is so insidious about selfishness: you can’t always see it. It can look righteous, noble, and good. It can masquerade as selflessness. So much of the time, other people can’t detect it. So how can you? 

One Question to Discern Selfishness: Information or Transformation? 

Here is a simple step and question to ask of yourself: when you come to the word of God, are you looking for information or transformation? That is to say, do you come to the Bible in order to get a little guidance for your life that you can take or leave, or do you submit your heart to be conformed by it? 

Does the Bible only ever serve to affirm (and it should at times) or does it also beat against your selfish heart? Do you find yourself saying at times, “I don’t like that,” but instead of running away you place your heart into the hand of God and say, “Change it to be in line with what your word says.” 

God gives his word to be obeyed. He speaks so that we would act, think, and feel in accord with what is true, right, beautiful, and good. Selfishness is centering your acting, thinking, and feeling on you; godliness is centering your acting, thinking, and feeling on God. 

When sin entered into the world, it came in the form of a question: should I trust God or myself? Is God the arbiter, the decider, of what is good, right, beautiful, and true or is it me? Is God the greatest or am I? Is God the center and sum of all things, or is it me? And the lie of sin is always the same. Sin, including the sin of selfishness, promises that it will provide superior pleasure to that of God.

We were created to have true and full joy as our hearts cry out to God without reservation, “Thy will be done.” Sin perverts and destroys this because it deceives us into thinking that our great joy comes as we say, “My will be done.”

Confronting the Obstacle of Selfishness

Come to God’s word aiming to be instructed and confronted so that you may obey what you read and receive. God gives his word to us not merely to transfer information but to wholly transform who we are so that we may eternally delight and rejoice in him. So when you take up the word either to read it or hear it preached, confess your proclivity to selfishness to God and plead for his help. Say, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.” Place your heart before the Lord as you take up his good word and say, “Change how I feel; change how I think; change how I live. May your will be done.” 

Obstacle #2: Empty Distractions

Verse 37 continues the use of imperatives toward God. In this verse the psalmist cries out to God and pleads with him, saying “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things, and give me life in your ways.” This is a focus on the next obstacle that stands between us and the word of God: worthless, vain, distractions. It is by God turning his eyes away from worthless things—things of no value that merely distract him—that he will receive real life. 

There is life in God’s word. Through his words, we commune with the God who is life and he makes sense of our hearts. This is why truly diving into God’s word feels like eating a good meal, breathing after holding our breath, and drinking water on a hot day. We cry out with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). 

Distractions are an obstacle to real engagement with the word of God. You can have your eyes run along the page, but engaging with God’s word is more than mere reading and hearing. It is digesting and meditating, which takes focus and time. While our lives are full of things that we could call distractions, not all distractions are the same, meaning that they are not all worthless. Moms, when your baby cries out because he is hurt, yes you are diverted from focusing on the word, but you aren’t distracted with a worthless thing. When you are engaged in the word, and someone calls out to you for mercy and your attention is diverted, you aren’t distracted by a worthless thing. Diversion toward good and distraction caused by something vain is not the same. 

What Are Worthless Distractions?

So what are worthless distractions? These are things that distract from the word of God and the purpose of God in his word. Let me highlight just three.

First, there are distractions FROM the word: this refers to anything that keeps you from being in the word of God, and there are a lot of things. We are in a world full of amusement and distraction. Just about everyone in our culture carries a supercomputer in their pocket that can play music, podcasts, movies, how-to tutorials, display pictures, pornography, text messages, and—few know this—can also make phone calls. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world today work for companies and are paid to figure out how to keep you glued to your mobile device through entertainment, scrolling, and distraction. And it is working, as Americans spend on average 2 1/2 hours on social media a day.

When reflecting on the use of social media, especially John Piper said “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.” 

Ironically, he said that, and I read that on Twitter, but the point still stands.

It isn’t just social media. We could say this about sports, movies, and other entertainment—but I focus on social media because it has incredible reach, novelty, and malleability so that it can fit into areas of our lives that other forms of distraction cannot. It is becoming more and more well-known that the human ability to focus is waning because of the heavy use of these distractions, to the point that people cannot pay attention to a movie without having to check their phones. 

If you are training your mind to crave and be satisfied by quick and easy distractions, are you surprised that focusing on a Bible passage—even a sermon—is difficult? 

What is distracting you from engaging God’s word? Repent and get rid of it. Consider 1 Timothy 4:8 on this point, “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Life is better when you place your eyes consistently on worthy things, especially the word of God. There is great value in godliness now and for all eternity. Plead with the Lord and then make daily choices that will put your eyes and mind on things of value. 

Does your soul feel weak and famished? Is it not because you refuse to feast on the only food that will satisfy and nourish, God’s good word? If you fed your body in the same fashion that you feed your soul, would someone call you healthy or sick? Fit or broken? Take heed to feed on God’s good word and not distractions. 

Second, there are distractions IN the word. By this, I mean you can be in the word of God but miss the point of God’s word because your focus is on fruitless controversy instead of God’s glory, the spread of the gospel, and the good of others. Writing on such controversies, the Puritan John Flavel says that these fruitless disputes “make us puzzle our heads when we should be inspecting our hearts.”

Brothers and sisters, if the word of God is more useful to you as a weapon against others than as a scalpel on your own heart, then you are caught up in distractions even as you are in the word of God. Is your hard cold to the word of God because you are fixated on a controversy that distracts your heart? Repent and flee from it!

Third, there are distractions against the word, by which I mean sin. Simply put, sin distracts from the word of God. If you pursue sin, you will not pursue engagement with God’s word. The word becomes more of a burden since it is a heavy witness against the way you are living. 

Sea turtles are known to starve to death after eating plastic debris because, having ingested the plastic, they feel full and therefore stop eating. Feeling alive, they are doomed to die. The fleeting pleasure of sin makes your heart sing and turn away from the true food that will satisfy your heart eternally. 

Is your heart cold toward the word of God? Do you find it burdensome? Is this because you are building trenches to protect sin in your life instead of seeking to remove it? Repent of this pet sin and confess to a brother or sister so that God’s word may soak into your heart instead of sin. 

Obstacle #3: Fear of Man

Verses 38-39 hold the next movement of this psalm and move us to this third obstacle of fear. Verse 38 is an imperative toward God, pleading that he would confirm his promise to his servant, for by doing so he would fear God. Likewise, verse 39 pleads with God to turn away from him the reproach that he dreads, for by the reproach of others he is tempted to turn away from God’s law that he knows is good. 

So his thinking is working like this: Lord, if you confirm—that is, bring about—your promise, then my attention will be turned toward you and not others. That’s what it means to fear God—to give him preeminence of place in your thinking and acting. But, the psalmist goes on, if the promise goes unanswered, then I will be reproached by others, and that will tempt me to turn away from trusting you and instead direct my living away from your good law and toward living in a way that accords with those who reproach me. 

The dynamic here is between the fear of God and the fear of man. Scripture teaches us that we will always fear someone or something. Fear does not refer to trembling terror, but a preoccupation with someone or something. In every situation, you will either give preeminence of place in your thinking to what God says and what God can do or to what man says and what man can do. For example, when Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife, he refuses to give in to her advances. Keep in mind that he is a slave in her house and therefore under her power. She can, and eventually does, make his life miserable. But in responding to her offer, he refuses saying that he could not do this thing against God. He feared God’s displeasure more than hers and he desired his pleasure more than hers. That’s what it means to fear the Lord over man. 

Do You Feel the Pressure of Fearing Man? 

Have you ever felt this pressure from the world? You are a fool for trusting the Bible? The world does not reward you for your devotion to God’s word. In fact, they will quickly reproach you for entrusting your whole life to God’s promise. Slowly, feeling this pressure can send us away from devotion to the word and instead cause us to spend our time in things that the world calls reputable. The worldly system is not set up in such a way that devotion to the word of God is easy. You actually have to go out of your way to slow down and set your life at a pace that allows you to spend time in God’s word and meditate on his promise. 

And that is the ultimate cure to the fear of man: meditation on his promise, which is giving your mind, heart, and hope over to God’s word more than the words of the world. 

Speaking of that, what is this promise that the psalmist pleads with God to confirm? 

What is the Promise?

Notice specifically what the psalmist asks in verse 38, “Confirm your promise to your servant.” Focus on that word, “promise.” It is singular, referring to a specific promise. But there is little indication in this passage about what that promise is until we look at verse 41 (which we will cover more thoroughly next week). Verse 41 says, “Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise.” Again, there is reference to this singular promise and this promise speaks of salvation. Most likely, this is not just referring to a general promise of salvation, but a specific one given to the servant of the Lord, for verse 38 says that this promise was given to God’s servant. When we look at 2 Samuel 7, we see a specific promise given to David. In speaking this promise, God says through the prophet Nathan in 2 Sam 7:5, “Go tell my servant David…” So, David is God’s servant. Go proceeds to give the words of a covenant to David in which God will make one of his sons king forever. David, in hearing this promise, realizes it isn’t just for him. In response, he says in 2 Sam 7:19, “You have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and this is instruction for mankind, O Lord GOD!” So this promise is not about a mere dynasty, but a dynasty that will come to rule all humanity and bless humanity. 

The psalmist, therefore, is pleading that God would bring about his promise of salvation by bringing about this forever king. Yet he recognizes that he is susceptible to the reproaches of men—the fear of man—as they call him a fool for having such hope in God’s word. And these reproaches have one end: they call for him to place his hope in something else other than God’s promise of salvation through the promised King. 

Is This Your Promise? 

But is this the promise to which you look? If it is, then I have wonderful news for you. While this promise seemed to be snubbed out as Babylon conquered Jerusalem, killed the sons of Zedekiah, the king on the throne, and took him away in captivity, God remained faithful to his promise. For we read in the opening verse of Matthew’s Gospel, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David…” One of two things had to occur in order for David to always have a son on the throne. First, the kingdom of Israel would need to endure and David’s line would need to produce son after son to sit on the throne in succession. But that didn’t happen. Second, David would need to have a son that could never die. Or—more accurately—a Son who could not stay dead. This is Jesus Christ, who is risen from the dead, the offspring of David according to the flesh. God has confirmed his promise and answered this prayer in Psalm 119:38. Therefore, we should fear him—give him preeminence of place—in our living, thinking, and acting. 

When you are tempted to fear what man can do for you, remember what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. This is the only way to be protected from the fear of reproach that the world will continually sling at those who hope in God. Remember what God led the apostle Paul to write in Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The world has nothing to offer you that can compare with the promise of salvation—eternal life, peace with God, and life in the New Creation. The world has nothing to take from you that God cannot repair. God will confirm his promise, but the world cannot. 

But that is easier said than done. So let’s close by looking at the foundational solution to overcome all of these obstacles. 

The Ultimate Cure: Set Your Hope on God’s Righteousness and Faithfulness, Not Your Own (40)

This stanza ends in verse 40, not with an imperative, but with a declaration: “Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life!” In saying that he longs for God’s precepts, he is declaring that he is looking at all of God’s words, wisdom, and commands and saying “That is good! I want to obey and live under this wisdom! I want to live in a world full of this wisdom and is completely obedient to these words!” In short, he is longing for the end of sin, rebellion, and death. He is longing that God’s promise of salvation would be so complete and thorough, his rule so conclusive, that all of creation would be under his precepts and ways. That’s what he longs for most of all. 

But he also knows that his life does not match this longing, so he needs God to give him life through God’s own righteousness. That is to say, he cannot be righteous enough himself in order to see his own life keep all of God’s precepts. He needs God himself to make him alive by making him righteous. 

This is our truest need as well. Do you feel convicted this morning because you see the power of selfishness, empty distractions, and fear of man in your life? The solution is not to simply try harder. That itself is selfishness, distraction, and living in the fear of man because it is saying of yourself, “I myself am strong enough to make these changes,” but that is a distraction from what the word says: you need his power and his righteousness.

This he gives through the Spirit as you turn to Christ in faith. When we come to Christ, our sin is counted toward Christ, and his righteousness is counted toward us. This happens because we are united to Christ by faith as the Spirit of God indwells us. 

So you can now come to the word, not with the motivation that you need to read God’s word in order to be made right with him. Jesus alone has done that. You get to come to the word now so that you can enjoy God and be conformed to the image of Christ. God’s precepts lead us into his presence. As we submit and are changed by God’s word through the power of his Spirit, we experience the blessing of communion with God, and this communion through the Spirit comes by faith in Christ.

Faith is setting all your hopes on God’s righteousness, not your own. It is developing all your plans based on his power, not your own. It is directing your love toward what he says is good, not on what your passions demand of you. 

Therefore, do what the Psalmist does and confess your inability to escape these obstacles unless God acts. Declare your desire to be perfectly conformed to his precepts and call on God to act in his righteousness to give you life. That’s a prayer he loves to hear and rejoices to answer. 


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