The proud have forged a lie against me:
But I will keep thy precepts with my whole heart (Psa 119.69).
God’s kingdom triumphs on a battlefield of hostile forces. The ancient contest appears in each generation among men, and in each man’s soul. Not until the end of this age and the arrival of the new heavens and the new earth will all the saints be able to love God and one another unhindered by remaining sin and unmolested by Satan’s minions. For now, as the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
The psalmist notes this particular aspect of misery in a fallen world and then his response. When believers vanquish the enemy like this, they are experiencing Christ’s victory over all the forces of hell in them and through them. “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33). “Do not be overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12.21). “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4.4). “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith” (1 John 5.4).
The psalmist calls his spiritual enemies “the proud.” This is to distinguish them, of course, from the humble. As characteristic humility is a mark of all true believers, so characteristic pride is the brand on every evil forehead. “The proud” is a collective plural, a group designation; arrogance is universal among them. The Hebrew word means “pride, arrogance, haughtiness, combined with insolence” (cf. Prov 21.24; Isa 13.11). People like this tend to be violent (Psa 86.14). They are under God’s curse because they have wandered from His commandments (Psa 119.21). They “work wickedness” (Mal 3.15). They scoff at the righteous (Psa 119.51) and would entrap and oppress them (Psa 119.85, 122). They are destined for utter ruin in the day of the Lord (Mal 4.1).
We live in an age when no one but notorious sinners are commonly regarded as so morally vile, but the biblical diagnosis is that everyone who is not a sincere Christian falls into this general category of “the proud.” This fact needs wide acceptance so that the unconverted will be humbled and true believers will be naïve no longer about the state and propensities of the unbelievers in our lives.
Next consider what the proud had done to the psalmist. The KJV translates, “forged a lie against me,” from the original word meaning “patched up” with the figurative sense of devise or forge. This English idiom uses a metaphor from the blacksmith’s workshop, “to make or shape a metal object by heating and hammering the metal,” or simply, “to create.” Their slander is a sharp sword crafted for harm, but their malicious accusations are pure fabrications with no basis in fact or truth. “But why,” one might wonder, “would anyone treat a truly good person that way?” Simply because the sinner is evil and the saint is righteous. The former’s badness is exposed and rebuked by the latter’s goodness. The wicked typically “call evil good, and good evil” (Isa 5.20).
Another slightly different sense is reflected in the ESV, “the insolent smear me with lies.” In English the word “smear” still means “to vilify especially by secretly and maliciously spreading grave charges and imputations.” Thus, the proud devised smears against the godly man. The falseness of their hostile speech did not eliminate its tendency to depress and demoralize the poor victim, nor to diminish his reputation with gullible hearers. In the biblical mindset, character assassination is no small crime and injury. On Prov 22.1, Matthew Henry wrote,
Great riches bring great cares with them, expose men to danger, and add no real value to a man. A fool and a knave may have great riches, but a good name makes a man easy and safe, supposes a man wise and honest, redounds to the glory of God, and gives a man a greater opportunity of doing good. By great riches we may relieve the bodily wants of others, but by a good name we may recommend religion to them.
We may already draw a couple important edifying truths from these words. First, being the object of slander is no proof of guilt before God. Rather, it is to be expected as the ordinary experience of even the most godly—we might say, of them especially. Was not the psalmist a godly person, even as he wrote these words under the Holy Spirit’s powerful influence? Isn’t the confession of this problem in his life made in the fear of God in the form of a prayer? Read the ancient story of righteous Job and all the horrible things his counselors said about him and to him while he was already suffering so greatly. Which of the OT prophets or NT apostles for that matter escaped the same experience of being slandered? No one has ever attained anything anywhere near the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and who was more hated than He? Even while He hung on the cross pouring out His life blood for the salvation of sinners, we were taunting Him while He prayed,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34). He testified prophetically, “They hated Me without a cause” (John 15.23). Sincere Christians can expect the same treatment from the world (John 15.18-21).
Second, being slandered is no justifiable reason for retaliation, but rather, rejoicing. If the psalmist had responded in kind, then he could not have spoken of “the proud smearing him with lies” as those fundamentally different than himself. This is an OT illustration of a godly man turning the other cheek in response to his abusers (Matt 5.39). He was one being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and so he had a warrant for being very glad, because great was his reward in heaven (Matt 5.11-12).
In the second line of our text, he describes his response in a general way as obedience to God.
“But” is justifiably inserted by the translators, for here we plainly have a contrast between their hateful conduct and his. “I will keep [or, just “keep,” ESV] thy precepts with my whole heart.” It is not merely the testimony of future resolve but of actual performance (cf. 119.101).
God delights in the sincere obedience of His dear children, though it falls far short of perfect obedience. There is a true keeping of God’s precepts which is still objectively flawed. This is what the psalmist claims by writing, “I keep thy precepts with my whole heart.” His obedience came from a fundamental loyalty and love to God and issued in conscious, deliberate, consistent, and practical conformity to the holy written standard, both in heart and conduct. These godly people are the ones upon whom comes the divine benediction. They are described as “undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord [and] keep His testimonies, that seek Him with the whole heart [and] do no iniquity, [for] they walk in His ways” (Psa 119.1-3).
But the psalmist was making no claim to anything like sinless perfection, for he prays, “O that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes! Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all Thy commandments” (Psa 119.5-6). This psalm’s last verse says, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments” (Psa 119.176).
On the other hand, “the proud” can attain to a very great degree of external conformity to the moral law and yet remain evil. Such were the scribes and Pharisees during our Lord’s earthly ministry.
So what’s the difference between the “righteousness” of the proud and the obedience of saints? First, there is a difference in God’s relationship to each. He relates to the unconverted by a covenant of works since they reject His grace and seek to establish their own righteousness instead of humbly submitting to His (Rom 10.1-3; Gal 3.10; Jas 2.10). The saints are related to God by a covenant of grace “wherein He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC #33, “What is justification?”).
Second, there is a difference in the motives of the wicked and the righteous. What the former does for all kinds of sinful reasons which spoil everything, the latter does from love to God and His people. In NT terms, only a believer brings forth the fruit of the Spirit, while unbelievers practice “the works of the flesh” (Gal 5.19-23).
The larger point to be made from line two of Psa 119.69 is that this godly man rose victorious over all the scurrilous attacks of sinners by maintaining his whole-hearted love and obedience to the Lord. The trial had tempted and tested him, but he stood fast. He did not succumb to demoralization, unwarranted self-condemnation, listless discouragement in spiritual things, or blaming God for the misery suffered. No! This saintly soul heard the hateful criticisms and just kept right on the biblically-defined course! Trying to silence the accusers would have been futile anyway. Self-defense in a public arena is rarely warranted or helpful. There is nothing that tends to vindicate the true servants of God more in the long run than their dogged determination to glorify Him and serve His people. This resolute holiness is the way that spiritual champions overcome slanderers.
If you are a faithful Christian, don’t let the carnal critics get you down. Their ire is to be expected; your persevering obedience to God in response is the only thing that really matters. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.
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