I remembered thy judgments of old, O Lord;
And have comforted myself (Psa 119.52).
The misery of suffering persecution is, of all spiritual trials, especially dangerous to the soul. It can tempt us to wonder whether God really loves us, or whether He even exists. It can eventually beat down our resolve to love God faithfully when the price is so steep. Prolonged persecution, especially that which lasts over many generations, can make it seem that there is no end to the present, awful order of things, where the wicked triumph over the righteous.
Totally losing such faith, hope, and love toward God is spiritually disastrous. It is apostasy of the worst kind, a complete falling away from God, and a going back to the side of His enemies, foes that are doomed except they repent. The frightening reality is that apart from God’s preserving grace, any of us are liable to this catastrophe.
Thankfully, God has provided means by which His elect may prove more than conquerors through Him that loved us. The psalmist testifies of one of those means and the blessed effects he experienced by using it. This golden biblical nugget is a precious preventative against the spiritually-withering effects of persecution.
“I remembered thy judgments of old, O Lord.” Judgments are either righteous laws declared, or the consequences of those laws meted out, whether the blessing or the curse. These two notions correspond the judgments of God’s mouth (Psa 105.5; 119.13) and the judgments of God’s hand (Gen 18.25 where “right” = judgment; Deut 32.41; Psa 111.7).
While the prepositional phrase “of old” could possibly be intended to modify the verb “remembered” (i.e., “I have long remembered your regulations,” NET Bible notes), the AV is probably best translating it as modifying the noun, as also, “I remember your ancient regulations” (NET Bible). However, it is not so clear that the psalmist intended to limit his reference to “the judgments of God’s mouth,” though most every verse of Psalm 119 mentions alludes to Scripture. The psalmist may also have been remembering the judgments of God’s hand, the times in biblical history that the Lord has visited His people with His abounding mercy and His enemies with His terrible wrath.
The Hebrew word translated “remembered” can have the sense of “recalling information or events, with a focus on responding in an appropriate manner.”1 For example, in Exodus 6.5 the Lord said, “I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered [same Hebrew word] my covenant.” Here the Lord is saying that He was about to deliver Israel mercifully from their enemies, and this redemption was implicitly contained in the covenant He had made with their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He remembered His covenant in the sense that He purposed to grant to them some of the blessings it promised.
Now when the psalmist says he remembered the ancient judgments, whether things God had spoken or things God had done, surely he means that he called to mind God’s Word, written long before, with a purpose to believe and obey it, and/or he meditated upon God’s dealings with His chosen people and His enemies, with a view toward the psalmist’s responding accordingly—that is, to keep faith and be in the way of also being blessed like his forefathers, and also to avoid the sin which had historically provoked the Lord’s severities.
God’s ancient Word, both the legislative and the historical parts, is an important tonic for the soul when it is sorely tried by the mocking and general mistreatment inflicted by unbelievers (cf. 119.50).
The record preserved in Scripture of God’s laws and acts of punishing sinners remains an effective warning for believers. “Now these things [a generation of ancient Israel being overthrown in the wilderness] were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (1 Cor 10.6). Paul also wrote, “now all these things [23,000 dying of plague in one day as a judgment from God, v. 8; many dying of poisonous snakes, also as a result of God’s righteous anger, v. 9; many others destroyed for murmuring, v. 10] happened unto them for ensamples [examples, types]: and they are written for our admonition [Gk. nouthesia, teaching, instruction, warning counsel, etc.], upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor 10.11). This is the negative benefit we may have from ancient judgments.
There is also a positive side to ancient judgments. Romans 15.4 says, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” God promised from the earliest days of human history to deliver His people from our spiritual enemies through Christ (Gen 3.15), and there have been countless partial fulfillments of these promises through the centuries.
Pondering God’s promises and His faithfulness to act on behalf of His people is valuable for comforting real Christians today. “I remembered thy judgments of old, O Lord; and have comforted myself.” The word “comfort” probably evokes a psycho-emotional sense to us. When we are “comforted” we feel better. But when it was chosen by the Authorized Version translators, it likely had more the sense of “to strengthen, to invigorate, to cheer or enliven.”2 Puritan Thomas Manton helpfully said, “Comfort is the strengthening of the heart against evil, when either faith is confirmed, love to God increased, [and/or] hope [is] made more lively.”3
Now it is more apparent how remembering God’s ancient judgments would be useful for strengthening the psalmist’s heart against the evil of waning faith, love, and hope. Does not God have a proven track record of keeping His promises, so that we may yet trust Him to perform everything else of which He has assured us (see Josh 23.14; 1 Kgs 8.56)? Has not God proven again and again that He loves His people by the astounding deliverances He had already wrought for them, and is this not sufficient grounds to love Him in return? There have been many times in the past when God’s people have had to suffer a long time before God brought them relief, and may we not now also be going through such a time of distress in our persecutions? Why would we give up hope that He will also come to our rescue?
Brethren, if these things were so for the psalmist in ancient times, how much more ground has God given us to withstand persecution since then! Our loving Father in heaven sent His only Son, the one and only Savior from all misery, to suffer in our place, to rise from the dead, and to ascend to heaven, whence He reigns ever since and forevermore. “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom 8.32). Remember how that the wicked Roman empire, though ruthlessly slaughtering the early Christians by throwing them to lions in the coliseum, finally accorded a great degree of religious freedom to the Christians, despite the opposition of idol-worshiping pagans, and then God threw down the empire. The martyrs just prior to and during the Protestant reformation laid a foundation with their blood for the gospel triumph of centuries to come. And even in our own day, the efforts of Communist China to suppress Christianity there have largely failed, and the current trend suggests a mega-shift eastward of evangelical faith in the world.
We persecuted Christians have always been on the winning side! It is easy to lose sight of that in the dark days of oppression, but here is what you must do. Comfort yourself by remembering God’s ancient judgments. Though all the graces of faith, hope, and love come from God, yet it is your responsibility to use the means of grace He has ordained, especially the intake of His Word in Scripture, with due appreciation for its narrative passages.
We do not sufficiently consider the mercy and gracious wisdom of God, in occupying so much of His written word with the records of His judgments of old. One class will pay a prominent attention to the preceptive, another to the doctrinal, parts of revelation—each forgetting that the historical records comprise a full and striking illustration of both, and have always proved most supporting grounds of consolation to the Lord’s people. . . . Willfully, therefore, to neglect the historical portion of the sacred volume, from the idea of confining our attention to what we deem the more spiritual parts of Scripture—would show a sad deficiency of spiritual apprehension, and deprive ourselves of the most valuable instruction, and most abundant comfort.4
Henry Law put it even more simply.
It is a profitable lesson to ponder God’s righteous dealings. The history of the Church is a precious volume. It shows the overthrow of the wicked and constant security of the righteous. Deep streams of comfort flow in these channels.5
Let us take advantage of the spiritual resources God has given us in His Word, so that we will persevere through the worst the world can throw at us. Then we will have that eternal comfort which will come by surveying all the glorious acts of God throughout the whole of human history. Amen.
1 DBL #2349.
2 Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.
3 Sermon on this text in Works VII.47.
4 Charles Bridges, in loc.
5 Daily Prayer and Praise, in loc.