Stablish thy word unto thy servant,
Who is devoted to thy fear (Psa 119.38).
God is good and cannot lie. His promises of amazing grace to sinners are found throughout the Word like countless diamonds strewn about a field and glistening in the sun. God has chosen a great host of people throughout history to enjoy them, and they shall. But what good are they to me unless I know for sure that I personally will possess and own them?
This spiritual concern becomes especially intense when I consider the alternative—a poverty beyond the capacity of human language to express. Heaven has its counterpart in hell, and both alike are incomprehensible with their opposite extremes. To miss out on the blessing of gospel promises is to be ruined and doomed for eternity.
The psalmist resorted to prayer when troubled by anxious thoughts of his destiny, and so should we. As an exemplary believer, he teaches us that
We should pray for assurance of our personal interest in Christ and His salvation.
The first line is the petition proper, “Stablish [i.e., establish] thy word unto thy servant.” The Hebrew for “establish” in this grammatical form and context has the sense of establishing a covenant, that is, ratifying it, confirming it. This supports the comment of one study Bible that “thy word” is “likely referring to God’s covenant promise of blessing.” The one great biblical covenant of blessing to sinners is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The verb in question has the literal sense of causing something to stand. Various translations render the expression here, “confirm unto thy servant thy word” (ASV), “stablish thy promise to thy servant” (1599 Geneva, spelling modernized), “fulfill your promise to your servant” (NIV).
There are two senses in which this petition may be taken, and perhaps both are intended. First, “Lord, establish Your promise in my heart,” that is, assure me that it pertains to me personally.
When a young Christian, I remember wishing so much that I could find a verse in the Bible that mentioned me by name and place with God’s promise to save me, for then I felt I would have the strongest possible grounds for assurance of salvation. The Lord has done much better than this, for He has promised the blessings of the gospel promise to anyone and everyone who will believe Him for them. Still, saving faith is distinct from strong assurance of ultimate salvation, and so we are called to pray that God’s promises, already believed in a measure, may stand erect in our hearts, and that we will right now be fully persuaded that what He has promised generally will eventually be experienced by us in particular.
Second, the petition may be taken this way: “Lord, establish Your promise to me by causing me to enjoy all its blessings,” that is, give me what You have promised. This then is a prayer to receive the full complex of blessings which are a part of the salvation that is in Jesus Christ, to use NT language. The nearest verses to Psa 119.38 (e.g., vv. 36-37) suggest the psalmist may have had his own spiritual sanctification especially in mind.
All the real blessings anyone could ever enjoy, both in this life and the life to come, are summarily comprehended in the gospel of Christ, and flow from the grace that Christ purchased for us by His blood. We ought not to pray for anything beyond what God has promised for us in Christ, and we who believe have a warrant to ask for every blessedness in Him, to be enjoyed as Providence ordains. As Matthew Henry said,
What God has promised we must pray for; we need not be so aspiring as to ask more; we need not be so modest as to ask less (in loc).
Calvin’s comments on this verse are characteristically excellent:
Confirm thy word unto thy servant. Here we have briefly set forth the sole end and legitimate use of prayer, which is, that we may reap the fruits of God’s promises. Whence it comes to pass, that they commit sin who utter vague and incoherent desires. For we perceive the prophet allows not himself to petition or wish anything but what God hath condescended to promise. And certainly their presumption is great, who rush into the presence of God without any call from his word; as if they would make him subservient to their humor and caprice (in loc.).
Biblical prayers typically contain not only requests for God’s blessing, but an appeal to Him for the blessing on some rational basis—that is, an argument or reason for a favorable answer.
The first argument for this petition is that the blessings sought were indeed promised explicitly by God in words. Our hope of salvation is not based on wishful thinking but on “thy word,” that is, God’s word of promise in Scripture.
But there must be more than this, for God has not in His Word identified me specifically and personally as an heir of these glorious gospel promises. So the godly man pleads to receive the blessings because he is God’s “servant,” and that by choice, not only by nature (God is inherently Lord and Master over all His creatures) or by duty (God commands all rational creatures, i.e., men and angels, to serve Him).
Instead of appealing to any personal merit of his own, the psalmist is testifying to the reality of divine grace in his life which had already distinguished him from others. “Lord, You have made me Your servant, and therefore I ask you to grant me the full extent of Your grace.”
The second line of our text seems ambiguous in the Hebrew. It could be literally rendered, “Establish to thy servant thy word, which is to the fearing of thee.” The latter phrase could refer to “thy servant” or to “thy word.” In the latter case the argument is this, “Lord, fulfill the promises of Your Word to me, namely, to promote all reverence toward You in me, for that is the very reason and purpose for which You have given Your Word.”
If we take the former sense, then the reason produced before God for hearing this prayer is, “Do for me, your servant, what you have promised to your faithful ones” (a thoughtful paraphrase). The Authorized Version (KJV) presents this basic sense by describing the servant praying as one who is “devoted to thy fear.”
Assurance of salvation does not rightly belong to everyone, but only to those who can sincerely confess before God in prayer that they are His loyal, if not perfect, servants.
The Lord severely condemns false prophets who speak comfortingly to reprobates, a common practice among modern “evangelicals.”
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD. They say still unto them that despise me, The LORD hath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you (Jer 23.16-17).
The manifestations of this spirit of false prophecy today are the countless examples of preachers and religious literature telling all the readers, indiscriminately, that God loves them, that He has a wonderful plan for their lives, and that Christ died for their sins, to pay for them in full. These statements are reckless at best, if not flat-out lies, in our current environment of doctrinal confusion unless carefully explained and qualified.
Such false prophets are preaching not the true gospel, but mere presumption on God’s grace, and therefore they are not saving their hearers, but only spreading a net for their gullible feet!
The gospel is not a promise of ultimate salvation for those who continue to rebel against God and His Word, but a message of pardon and blessing to penitent believers, formerly just like them, but who now have become God’s cheerful and willing servants by His grace alone.
Therefore the way to strong assurance of salvation is by repentance from sin, faith in the gospel, devotion to practice the evangelical fear of God, and pray that God would confirm His promises to us, both in our hearts and in our actual experience of their blessing. When we find a few of those glorious gospel diamonds already in our hands and pockets, we can know for sure that the whole field is ours in Christ.
The Lord give us much grace and wisdom to pursue Him with all our hearts and to gain a well-founded assurance that we shall enjoy all His goodness promised in the gospel. Amen.
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