The Afflictions of the Godly
For the past few years, we have endeavored to help some of God’s unestablished children by devoting one article annually (under this title) to the particular end of resolving their uncertainty. In order that they may recognize their spiritual portrait, we seek to describe one or other of those features of the regenerate which the Holy Spirit has drawn in the Scriptures. So far from despising those who are deeply exercised as to their actual state, refusing to “give themselves the benefit of the doubt,” we admire their caution.
God has exhorted His people to “make their calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10), and one of the ways we may set about doing so is to prayerfully and humbly compare our hearts and lives — with those marks of grace, or fruits of the Spirit, which are delineated in the Bible. God’s Word is likened unto a “mirror” in which we may behold ourselves (James 1:23-24) and perceive what we are by nature — and what we have been made by grace. May each of us be granted eyes to see ourselves as that divine Mirror represents us.
“Before I was afflicted I went astray — but now have I kept your word.”
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn your statutes.”
“I know, O LORD, that your judgments are right, and that you in faithfulness have afflicted me.” (Psalm 119:67, 71, 75).
We link these three verses together because they treat of the same subject, namely the attitude of the heart of one who had been afflicted by God. Each of them breathes the language of a gracious soul, and not that of a natural man. Each of them acknowledges the beneficial effects of sanctified trials. Each of them evidences a humble heart, for so far from murmuring at God’s dispensations — unpleasant though they be to flesh and blood — there is a grateful acknowledgment of their benevolent design. Each of them is a confession made not while smarting under the rod — but after it has done its appointed work.
If our readers can truthfully make such language their own, then they have good reason to conclude they are bound in the same “bundle of life” (1Sa 25:29) as David.
“Before I was afflicted I went astray — but now have I kept your word.” This is the expression of an honest heart, for it freely owns that before affliction he had “gone astray.” Since the “flesh” still remains in the Christian’s heart, he is very prone to stray from God; yes, unless he is diligent in watching and praying against temptation and daily mortifying his lusts — he is certain to do so. That evil tendency is much stimulated by temporal success, for then we are far more apt to indulge the flesh — than deny it. “But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: you are waxen fat, you are grown thick, you are covered with fatness; then he forsook God” (Deu 32:15). “I spoke unto you in your prosperity; but you said, I will not hear” (Jeremiah 22:21). By such backsliding, we bring down upon ourselves the rod of God — to curb further excesses of carnality, and to drive us back into the paths of righteousness. God often sends a worm to smite the gourd of our creature comforts (Jonah 4:7); and prosperity is followed by adversity; but if that affliction is blessed to us — then do we keep the Word as we did not previously (Luke 2:19).
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn your statutes.” This is the breathing of a grateful heart. Very different is the sentiment of the natural man. Scripture declares, “Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects” (Job 5:17) — but the world imagines that happy is he who is exempt from trials and troubles. Which do you agree with, my reader? Yet it is one thing to give a general assent to the inspired declaration, “Blessed is the man whom you chasten, O LORD, and teach out of your law” (Psalm 94:12) — but it is quite another to learn by experience, the benefits of affliction. To be meekly reconciled to our tribulations is a great mercy — but to have personal proof that, though the medicine be unpalatable, its effects are beneficial, is yet better.
Such is the result in those who are “exercised” under the chastening hand of their Father (Hebrews 12:11). “The Philistines could not understand Samson’s riddle — how ‘Out of the eater came something to eat — and out of the strong came something sweet’ (Judges 14:14). As little can the world comprehend the fruitfulness of the Christian’s trials: how his gracious Lord sweetens the ‘bitter’ waters of Marah (Exo 15:23)” — Charles Bridges (1794-1869).
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted” (Psalm 119:71). God has many ways of afflicting. In the context, David mentions those who had opposed and maligned him. At the time — he may have felt it keenly — but later — he realized it was a mercy. It is good for us — when we have solid reason to make this acknowledgment.
What is our chief “good”? Is it not the enjoyment of God? Then how thankful should we be for anything which draws us nearer unto Him! “LORD, in trouble have they visited you, they poured out a prayer when your chastening was upon them” (Isaiah 26:16). God is then sought unto more earnestly and persistently. When settled on our lees, our devotions are very apt to become formal and mechanical — but when our nest is disturbed, we “pour out a prayer” or a “secret speech” (margin) — that is the groanings of the heart. Sanctified afflictions:
wean us from the creature,
make the conscience more tender,
call into exercise our graces, and
quicken us in the path of duty.
If we can discover such beneficial effects, must we not exclaim, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted!”
“I know, O LORD, that your judgments are right, and that you in faithfulness have afflicted me.” This is the language of discernment. “Judgments” here refer not (as often in the Psalms) to the equitable laws of God — but to His governmental dealings — in punishing the wicked — or in correcting His people. Nor was David speaking of the knowledge of carnal reason — but of that which faith and a spiritual experience supplies. He condemned himself, acknowledging that his waywardness had called for the rod.
When the empty professor is sorely afflicted, he says, “What have I done to deserve this?” Others less rebellious — but equally self-righteous, ask, “Why should I be singled out as a mark for adversity?” Very different are the sentiments of the godly: they vindicate the Lord. So far from deeming themselves to be dealt with unjustly, or even harshly, they exonerate the hand that smites them.
The wicked do not recognize the One who is dealing with them, looking no farther than secondary causes or human instruments. But the eyes of faith behold Him who is invisible: not only as a provider and comforter — but also as a chastiser and afflicter; and that, not only in love — but in righteousness: “Your judgments are right.”
“You in faithfulness have afflicted me.” Numerous sermons have been preached upon the faithfulness of God and many pieces written upon this divine perfection, yet few have preserved the balance thereon. It requires to be shown that God is not only true to His Word in making good His promises — but also in fulfilling His threatenings; faithful not only in providing for His people — but also in dealing with their follies. We frequently hear of God’s covenant-faithfulness — but we are not so often reminded that chastisement is one of the articles in His covenant. “If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments…Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes…My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips” (Psalm 89:30-34).
“Our Father is no Eli — He will not allow His children to sin without rebuke” — Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892).
Therefore, it is their duty to own His integrity while enduring His faithful discipline. This is what David here did: he acknowledged that God was fulfilling His covenant engagement, and he made that avowal not sullenly — but thankfully; yes, he made it adoringly, for he knew that God also had his welfare in view.
Now, my reader, measure yourself by what has been pointed out above. Do you say, “I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him” (Mic 7:9)? Have you learned by experience that affliction is made a school to God’s people, in which they learn many valuable lessons — both about themselves and God, and about their duties and privileges? Have you discovered by first-hand acquaintance, that chastisement is a beneficial medicine to subdue pride, purge of carnality, and heal backslidings? Has the rod recovered you from your wanderings? Can you say from the heart, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn [experimentally] your statutes” (Psalm 119:71)? Do you freely own that God’s providential dealings with you — His “judgments” — are right: that is, just and equitable? Yes, do you feel that God has dealt far more leniently than your “iniquities deserve” (Ezra 9:13)? Do you aver that God is faithful, not only in Himself — but in smiting you? Then you have Scriptural ground for concluding that a miracle of grace has been wrought in your soul.