Teach me good judgment and knowledge:
For I have believed thy commandments (Psa 119.66)
“The just shall live by faith” (Hab 2.4; Rom 1.17; Gal 3.11; Heb 10.38). This great biblical statement has depths not fully comprehended by even the most mature Christian and seasoned theologian. It states succinctly some of the most profound truth about God, His creation, and our relationship with Him.
For starters, it is a solid foundation for the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone. The justified one, that is, the one whom God declares perfectly righteous, having forgiven him all his sins, shall live, that is, possess spiritual life in reconciled fellowship with the God whom he had offended, through faith, trusting God and His Word concerning His Son Jesus Christ, and through faith apart from works, trusting in God’s grace to the unworthy as opposed to the self-reliance of the self-righteous sinner. For centuries faithful Bible teachers have given a unified testimony to these things in the Protestant tradition.
But the spiritual significance of this gospel banner does not end there. The justified believer keeps on believing to live as a Christian. He walks by faith, not by sight. He believes in order to know, not vice versa. A healthy soul trusts God’s Word with strong desires to advance in wisdom and love.
This stands against the perverse demands of skeptics who insist that we explain the Christian faith to their satisfaction and provide proof sufficient by their own judgment of the Christian faith before they will believe. This is nothing but a smokescreen for intellectual pride and stubbornness. They are already suppressing the truth they clearly perceive and will never welcome more until God changes them from the inside out, making them sincere believers. It is not evidence they lack, but faith. God’s real existence is a first-truth with abundant testimony on every hand, and His Word is self-evidently His to those with eyes to see.
Once we fundamentally repent toward God and begin exercising implicit trust in His Word, we begin to understand and embrace truth to which we had been completely blind all our lives. That initial illumination by the Spirit through the Word only grows brighter as our faith increases while we walk with God.
This first illumination followed by a growing spiritual perception is illustrated in a story of Jesus healing a blind man (Mark 8.22-25). Jesus spit on his eyes and suddenly the man could see, but things were blurry. In a second act of mercy, Jesus put His hands on the man’s eyes and his vision was fully restored, so that he could see clearly. The Christian life is like that. Regeneration imparts true sight to the spiritually-blind, but sanctification sharpens our spiritual insight, so that the glory of God in all things becomes increasingly obvious and sweet to our souls.
Jesus says, “If any man will do his (i.e., God’s) will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7.17). Obedience is the fruit of faith, and faith precedes evangelical knowledge, the kind of “know-so” certainty real Christians have about the credibility of Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah.
There is no way of testing a claim to divine revelation other than this one. Nor is the situation different in principle for any claim to ultimate authority. Since by definition there can be no higher authority, there is no external criterion by which such claims can be tested; they must be self-authenticating. Only by submitting to God with complete willingness to do his will are we in a position to evaluate Jesus’ claim. But when we do come in that attitude, Jesus asserts, we shall discover that Jesus’ teaching is indeed the very truth of God, and therefore that Jesus is who he claims to be, the divine Son who is one with the Father.1
Our psalm text sets forth more underpinnings for this way of thinking about our spiritual walk.
A PETITION FOR DISCERNMENT
As with the entire psalm, this verse is addressed to the Lord. The imperative voice (“teach me”) should be interpreted as a strong and desperate petition, not a command or demand upon God. “As one of the twelve words for teaching in the OT, this one has the idea of training as well as educating.”2 It is used 13 times in Psalm 119 and everywhere else it has God’s commandments explicitly in view (vv. 7, 12, 26, 64, 68, 71, 73, 99, 108, 124, 135, 171). In this one instance it is, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge,” literally, “good taste and knowledge,” though the KJV rendering is to be preferred.
We say someone has good taste in mundane things when they can tell the difference between what is good and bad. If the subject in view is music, then they know the difference between refined, beautiful music in comparison with the crude and cacophonous—and they prefer the former. They have good taste in music. Or if we think of paintings, one with good taste is judicious in separating between the truly beautiful and the merely common or even ugly. In other words, one with good taste has discernment that others lack.
Of course the psalmist’s desire was not fundamentally concerned with music or art, though the blessing he sought has a relationship even to these things. He wanted to know and serve God with increasing excellence, and so the petition is for more spiritual discernment of truth versus error, beauty versus ugliness, and good versus evil, with an ardent love for the former class of things. Many people err by thinking it is easy to tell the difference, our inherent ability. While conscience is universal, it is never as informed as it needs to be, and even when it has the data of God’s truth, conscience is not infallible. In complicated cases, even a sincere conscience becomes confused about what to think and do. Hence a believer prays for greater discernment and more spiritual knowledge, both for himself and for others. Paul wrote, “And this I pray, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ” (Phil 1.9-10).
Because God’s law is constantly the subject matter the psalmist prays to learn, it is a reasonable and necessary inference that he expects to gain this spiritual discernment by the prayerful and persevering study of God’s law. If Psalm 119 teaches anything, it is that a godly life is founded upon and intrinsically related to Holy Scripture. No spiritual salvation or growth in grace is possible at all apart from God’s Word, the Bible.
This psalm couplet, like many others, adds a plea to the petition stating why the psalmist believes the prayer should be answered.
A PLEA OF PRIOR FAITH
“For I have believed thy judgments.” The Hebrew grammar reveals that the psalmist confesses his faith as a completed action, conveying the vividness and reality of his faith. The particular verb here has the connotation of firmness, endurance, faithfulness, and trust. The immediate object of the psalmist’s trust has been God’s “commandments” or “instruction,” the revealed truth and will of God which is Scripture.
Now it is absolutely critical that we shun any notion of merit in the psalmist’s confession of faith. He is not saying, “Lord, now look, I have trusted You at great personal risk and sacrifice. I have been loyal to You, and I have been Your servant. Now, Lord, You owe me. I’ve been good; now bless me!” There is none of that legalistic and proud spirit here.
Rather, the psalmist appeals to God for more discernment with a clear conscience of sincerity. “Lord, by Your grace toward me, I have gladly received the truth and light You have already given me, and now I beg You to lead me into a deeper and fuller and more discerning appreciation of that truth, that I may draw nearer to You and become more faithful as Your unworthy servant.” This kind of humble, God-glorifying attitude exemplifies the psalmist’s spiritual and evangelical approach to His Redeemer.
In a sermon of convicting power unusual even for him, Jonathan Edwards asserted that though “hypocrites may continue for a season in the duty of secret prayer, yet it is their manner, after a while, in great measure, to leave it off.” Explaining why this is the case, he preached,
When a hypocrite hath had his false conversion, his needs are in his sense of things already supplied . . . so he finds no further business at the throne of grace. . . . Why should he still go on to resort to the throne of grace with earnest requests? He is out of danger. . . . But it is far otherwise with the true convert. . . . He sees himself still to be a poor, empty, helpless creature, and that he still stands in great and continual need of God’s help. . . . After a true conversion, the soul remains sensible of its own impotence and emptiness, as it is in itself, and its sense of it is rather increased than diminished. It is still sensible of its universal dependence on God for everything.3
The acid test of true humility before God is actual perseverance in private prayer for such spiritual blessings like this asked by the psalmist. I ask not if you agree that you should pray this way, but rather if you really do. If not, you ought to repent and begin immediately. If so, I commend you and assure you that such earnest prayers are always answered in time because they please God well.
1. Milne, B. The Message of John. The Bible Speaks Today series.
2. TWOT #1116.
3. “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer,” read it well!
All rights reserved