Before I was afflicted I went astray:
But now have I kept thy word (Psa 119.67).
Before God, the church, and the world, this is the psalmists’ testimony of his growth in grace and a painful means by which it came. He measured his spirituality by the rule of Scripture. “I had departed from Scripture and now I have returned to keep it.” You are no closer to God than you are to His Word—not only in a knowledge of it, but also in the love of it—and all those who love His commandments consistently put them into practice. The more love to His law, the more consistency in obedience to it.
Through suffering of some kind which he does not specify, the psalmist had come to a different state of soul which produced a change in his conduct. His was now a chastened soul, and consequently his life, more holy, more consistent in practicing the divine precepts.
This topic is intensely interesting to every true child of our heavenly Father, because we can relate it to our own actual experience. Let us then meditate on this instructive text and make spiritual progress in an easier way than the one it describes. The psalmist implies three distinct times in his life.
If he is speaking as an individual,1 he relates his experience since conversion. Even saints go through spiritual seasons when they are withering, revitalized, and then withering again.
An initial obedience. “I went astray.” The implicit metaphor seems to be the straight and narrow pathway marked out by God’s commandments. This was an old way of describing spiritual faithfulness. “Ye shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Deut 5.32). This is the way that leads to spiritual life, and “few there be that find it” (Matt 7.14).
By faith the psalmist had been walking in that way; otherwise, he could not have considered himself in any sense a godly man (cf. Psa 1). The original Hebrew verb for “went astray” has the sense of committing sin or error, with the possible connotation of doing so ignorantly or inadvertently, without deliberate planning. Paul spoke of a brother being “overtaken in a fault” (Gal 6.1). The psalmist had evidently been traveling the right way at first.
A wandering from it. “I went astray” (Heb., “I was straying off”) in this biblical context clearly means that he either failed to keep some particular precept(s) of God’s Word or violated some prohibition(s) of the same, though in the last analysis, these are but two different conceptions of the same reality which is sin. Every omission necessarily involves a commission and vice versa. Straying from the path of righteousness (omission) is a path of unrighteousness (commission).
Even especially serious sin in a true believer’s life does not “destroy the principle of spiritual life” in him (the RCC concept of “mortal sin”2). To assert otherwise is to pervert the gospel into a message of salvation by our own efforts and spiritual achievement. Beware a naïve perfectionism in your understanding of genuine Christian experience. This would keep you perpetually miserable since you will never reach the standard which is Jesus Christ Himself until you see Him. Perfectionists also never enjoy much assurance of their salvation until they delude themselves into much self-congratulation, and then their “assurance” is only carnal presumption after all. True Christians have been known to murder, commit adultery, worship an idol—anything you can imagine—and then go to heaven.
Because God is committed to save each one of His elect from their sins, straying from His Word calls forth dark providences.
The reality of affliction. “I was afflicted.” The original can also include the senses of being disturbed and oppressed, i.e., to be in a state of feeling anxiety and distress. Here it seems to connote both the objective trouble that happened to him along with the psychological trauma he suffered in its wake.
Realizing that real Christians are called to actual and great suffering in this life should comfort us because when we are going through seasons of distress, we may avoid the intolerable conclusion, on those grounds alone, that we are not real Christians. Look at Job! He was the most righteous and the most afflicted (Job 1.8; 2.13).
The meaning of a Christian’s affliction. While God sent Job’s trials primarily to display the reality of grace powerfully at work in his life, sometimes God sends affliction for His sinning children’s spiritual recovery, for reforming our heart and conduct. This is not “punishment” for our sins. Punishment is a legal term, what justice requires, and the sentence of a judge. Rather, a Christian’s afflictions, when God’s response to our sin, always have the character of “chastening,” a family term, what love requires, and the faithful ministry of our heavenly Father to His beloved sons and daughters. The psalmist knew that this was the true meaning of the affliction through which he had lately passed. A summary of the Bible’s teaching on this is found in Hebrews 12.5-11, which see.
The misery of a Christian’s affliction. The non-judicial character of our afflictions does not lessen the pain and suffering! “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous” (Heb 12.11a). “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (NIV). This is real pain stemming from real afflictions in this life, sometimes even catastrophic losses.
These afflictions may be endlessly varied, and adapted to the case of every individual. God knows every heart, and the best way to reach any heart. By sickness; by disappointment; by loss of property; by bereavement; by blighted hopes; by the ingratitude of others; by the unkindness of professed friends, and the malice of enemies; by domestic troubles; by the misconduct of children — perhaps the most severe of all human ills, and the hardest to bear; in ten thousand ways God can reach the heart, and break and crush it, and make it ready for the entrance of truth — as the farmer breaks and pulverizes the soil by the plow and the harrow, so that it shall be prepared to receive the seed.3
Thus even when the suffering friend is our fellow-believer and his trials are evidently divine chastening for his sins, we ought to weep with him and for him, sympathizing with a tender heart in his miseries, even though they will ultimately help him.
Thankfully, the second line of the couplet begins with a change in circumstances: “But now.” God’s “anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psa 30.5). We who have been grievously afflicted can sing to the Lord who did it and give thanks at the remembrance of His holiness (Psa 30.4).
A return to the right way. “But now have I kept thy word.” Obedience is the blessed fruit of chastening. “Nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb 12.11b). The one who strayed is now brought back into the way of blessedness in the service of God to His glory. When Bunyan’s Christian and Hopeful had gone into By-Path Meadow they met Giant Despair, but returning to the King’s Highway, they were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction.4
Of those who are the children of God it may be said that they are “always” benefited “sooner” or “later” by afflictions. It may not be at the time of the affliction, but the “ultimate” effect is in all cases to benefit them. Some error is corrected; some evil habit changed; some mode of life not consistent with religion is forsaken; pride is humbled; the heart is quickened in duty; habits of prayer are resumed or formed; the affections are fixed on a better world; the soul is made more gentle, calm, humble, spiritual, pure.5
Or to think of this dynamic in a beautifully-poetic way,
As all the perfumes of the vanished day / Rise from the earth still moistened with the dew / So from my chastened soul beneath thy ray / Old love is born anew.6
A promotion to greater blessing. A pastor’s hospital visit, when he had prayed for healing, brought this response from the sick saint: “Please pray that all this suffering will not be wasted!” The psalmist had the comfort of knowing that now, having passed through the painful discipline, he had become more obedient to God. Real Christians prize this spiritual progress more than the temporal ease and pleasure they missed to acquire the priceless treasure.
Afflictions are often charged to do good work. Their commission is mercy. A thin disguise conceals a friendly form. They check the wanderers and bring them back. In the time of suffering they may be bitter, but in retrospect they are sweet. They lead to holiness, and holiness is joy.7
The Lord give each of us a chastened soul, and bring us through every trial only to rejoice. Amen.
1. This verse is referred by Hengstenberg to the chastening effect produced on the Jews’ minds by the captivity (Jer 31.18-19).
2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II, Q74, Art. 4.
3. Albert Barnes on Heb 12.11.
4. The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part I, Seventh Stage.
5. Barnes, ibid.
6. Alfred de Mussett (1810-1857).
7. Henry Law, in loc.
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