Turn away my reproach which I fear: For thy judgments are good (Psa 119.39).
Psalm 119 lets us into the prayer closet of an eminent saint, deeply devout, and expressing his sincere and innermost thoughts and feelings to the Lord. Yet it was composed under the controlling prophetic influence of the Spirit of God as a pattern of piety for all believers, to be read and sung publicly in the church’s worship of God. Though the psalmist is a sinful man, we cannot fault any sentiment he expresses in this psalm, because he had the inspiration and protection of the Most Holy Spirit and thus was guarded from all error. Indeed, a critical spirit is spiritually blind. We must have the humble, teachable attitude of little children who know nothing, if we would learn at all something of true and experiential godliness.
If anything of the psalmist’s perspectives and attitudes should surprise us, then, it only exposes our distance from the exalted piety he experienced and expresses in this psalm. For this piety we should yearn, and having fallen short, we should confess our spiritual deficiency, and embrace this entire revelation of true spirituality. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, acceptable, and perfect will of God (Rom 12.2). Christians are progressively transformed by submitting our souls to Scripture—even and especially when it surprises or grates on us.
The precise sense of our text is difficult to discern with certainty, but we will offer for your consideration what seems to us the most plausible interpretation, leading to this doctrine:
For the glory of God, a godly person prays against the dreaded possibility of sin and shame.
Throughout the immediate context, the psalmist has been praying especially for divine grace to be genuinely and consistently godly, both inside and out, in conformity to God’s commandments (cf. vv. 33-38). Toward this end, the psalmist knows he needs a constant infusion of spiritual life from God (v. 40) as a work of His saving mercy according to His promises in the Word, that is, the gospel (v. 41). If the Lord would hear and answer these exemplary petitions, then the psalmist knows that he will have sufficient vindication before wicked accusers (v. 42). This last verse uses the same Hebrew word as found in v. 39, both translated “reproach,” with the apparent sense of “blame or scorn cast upon someone.” Also, the word “fear” could just as legitimately be translated “dread.”
Thus the petition is that the psalmist might be saved from dreaded disgrace, either present or future, and probably including both. Closely related to these ideas of verses 22-23 and 31, which see.
This establishes the truth that a godly person, such as the psalmist is, dreads the possibility of sin and shame in his own life.
Since the very profession of true religion is despised in this world of sinners, it is inevitable that making a profession will bring the bold believer into an unjustified but real disrepute among them, even without sin on our part. When a professor falls into public and scandalous sin, then how his shame increases! In both cases, these trials weigh heavily on those who are most spiritually sensitive, and so Scripture strongly encourages us to rejoice despite unjustified slander (e.g., Matt 5.11-12), and to hope in God’s mercy when we have had to confess and forsake great sins (e.g., Prov 28.13).
Still, these experiences of disgrace are miserable, and so the eminent saint of Psalm 119 prays against them. He begs, “turn away” (“get rid of, banish,” e.g., Eccl 11.10), either that disgrace which I have already begun to experience, or that which I will surely experience in the event of backsliding, “my reproach which I fear.”
Beyond the natural desire to escape such soul-suffering as that belonging to the disgraced, whether justly or unjustly, the psalmist adds a reason to his petition, offering an argument for why the Lord should grant it. Something vastly more important is at stake in this than the godly man’s urge to save face.
“For thy judgments are good.” The original word for “judgments” appears 23 times in this psalm, and it generally refers, along with several other terms, one of which appears in almost every single one of these 176 verses, to the Word of God in Scripture (e.g., cf. vv. 7, 13, 20, 30, 43, etc.). There is no good reason to take it in any other sense here. The second line we understand, then, to be a confession that God’s Word is good.
It only remains to discover the connection between the first and second lines. If our interpretation is sound so far, then we might paraphrase the sentiment this way: “Save me from dreaded disgrace, because Your Word is good.”
My opinion is that the psalmist is, in the second line, expressing his desire that the public recognition of the goodness and glory of Scripture may not be diminished through his own shame, because the glory of Scripture is the glory of God, it being His own Word.
This then constitutes a most powerful reason for God to answer his prayer, since there is nothing whatsoever of which God is more tender than His own glory. Further, there is no concern greater in the heart of a true believer than that God’s name or reputation may be exalted both in this age and the age to come. This is the first and most important petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed by Thy name” (Matt 6.9).
Further, those who have taken God’s name upon themselves by joining themselves to His holy people are in the most danger of disgracing God’s name before sinners, because of their distinctive
association with God. Nathan reproved David for having done this very thing after the fallen king had committed the grievous sins of adultery and murder.
And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die (2 Sam 12.13-14, emphasis mine).
God’s reputation among the heathen was besmirched by His holy king, and this was what pained David most! He had, in great measure through this sin, failed to live up to the great end for which he was made, viz., to glorify God.
The unconverted cannot relate to his petition in our text at all, because a sinner has no love for the true and living God, no sympathy with His cause, and no concern for the salvation of other souls. But the godly heart, in its noblest frame, pondering the possibility that at some future time he or she might become a laughingstock of the church’s enemies and bring the Christian religion itself into public disgrace, counts this as the greatest dread of all.
This petition, then, is the unforced plea of such a saint. Providence governs our experiences. We will be able to persevere in grace and faith only to the degree that God is pleased to preserve us. We will persist in good works so that others may glorify our heavenly Father only if and as the Lord controls us by His gracious Spirit. And prayer is one of the chief means He has ordained for our constant and increasing enjoyment of His sustaining grace. We should entreat Him with specific, heartfelt, and strong cries that He would abide with us and save us from all sin and disgrace.
Therefore, for the glory of God, a godly person prays against the dreaded possibility of sin and shame. May He be pleased to suffuse our souls with these lofty concerns, and may He also set our lips free to utter the very same petitions to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all we ask or think. Amen.
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