by Thomas Manton
Oh that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!—Psalm 119: 5.
IN the former verse he had spoken of God's authority; now he beggeth grace to obey: 'Thou hast commanded;' and 'Oh that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!'
1. Note, that it is the use and duty of the people of God to turn precepts into prayers.
That this is the practice of God's children appeareth: Jer. 31:18, 'Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.' God had said, 'Turn you, and you shall live;' and they ask it of God, 'Turn us,' as he required it of them. It was Augustine's prayer, Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis, Give what thou requirest, and require what thou wilt. It is the duty of the saints; for—1. It suiteth with the gospel-covenant, where precepts and promises go hand in hand, where God giveth what he commandeth, and 'worketh all our works in us,' and for us. They are not conditions of the covenant only, but a part of it. What God hath required at our hands, that we may desire at his hands. God is no Pharaoh, to require brick where he giveth no straw. Lex jubet, gratia juvat. The articles of the new covenant are not only put into the form of precepts, but promises. The law giveth no strength to perform anything, but the gospel offereth grace. 2. Because by this means the ends of God are fulfilled. Why doth God require what we cannot perform by our own strength? He doth it—(1.) To keep up his right; (2.) To convince us of our impotency, and that upon a trial; without his grace we cannot do his work; (3.) That the creature may express his readiness to obey; (4.) To bring us to lie at his feet for grace.
Now, when we turn precepts into prayers, all these ends are accomplished.
[1.] To keep up his right. If we have lost our power, there is no reason God should lose his right. A drunken servant is under the obligation and duty of a servant still; he is unable to do his master's work, but he is bound to it. It is unreasonable that another should suffer through my default. Well, then, God may well command the fallen creature to keep his precepts diligently. Now, when we deal earnestly with God about it, it argueth a sense of his authority upon our hearts. If we were not held under the awe of the commandment, why should we be so earnest about it? If men were more sensible, of their obligations, we should have more prayers in this kind. This is the will of God, and how shall I do to observe it?
[2.] To convince us of our impotency, and that upon a trial. Practical conviction is best. We may discourse of the weakness and insufficiency of the creature, but we are not affected with it till we try. A diseased man as long as he sits still feels not the lameness of his joints, but upon exercise it is sensible. Now, these prayers are a profession of weakness upon a trial: Rom. 7:18, 'For to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good, I find not.' That presupposeth a search, not I cannot, but I find not, and then we run to prayer. Every prayer is an acknowledgment of our weakness and dependence. Who would ask that of another which he thinketh to be in his own power?
[3.] That the creature may express his readiness. God will have us will, though we cannot do. It is true he giveth both: Phil. 2:13, 'For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.' But the one by preventing, the other by assisting grace, Rom. 7:18. Though we are unable to do what we should, yet it is the desire of our hearts. Prayer is the expression of our desire. When we heartily beg grace, it is a sign the commandment is not grievous, but our lusts. It much discovereth a man's heart, what he counteth to be his bondage and the yoke: 1 John 5:3, 'For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous.' Which do we groan under? the burden of the law, or the body of death? That is best seen by our heartiness in prayer.
[4.] To bring us to lie at his feet. God will be owned not only as a lawgiver, but as a fountain of grace. The precept cometh from God to drive us to God; his sovereignty maketh way for his grace. He calleth upon us for obedience, that we may call upon him for help. First, he giveth us a law, that he may afterwards give us a heart. God's end is to bring us upon our knees. As hard providences conduce to bring God and us together, so do hard commandments. Till we be reduced to a distress, we never think seriously of dealing with God.
Use. It teacheth us what to do when we meet with anything that is difficult and impossible to us; as to repent, believe, to renounce a bewitching lust, or perform a spiritual duty. Two ways we are apt to miscarry in such a case; either by murmuring against God, as if he were harsh and austere, and had 'reaped where he hath not sown, and gathered where he hath not strewed;' or by casting off all out of a foolish despondency: cut at heart, or else wax faint. These are the two evils. I shall never get rid of this naughty heart. Or else we fret against God: Prov. 19:3, 'The foolishness of man perverteth his way; and his heart fretteth against the Lord.' Now to prevent these evils, spread the case before the Lord in this manner—
(1.) Acknowledge the debt. God will keep up the sense of his authority; his command must be the reason of our care, as well as his promise the ground of our hope. (2.) Confess your impotency: 2 Cor. 3:5, 'Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.' This is to empty the bucket before we go to the fountain. When we are full of self, there is no room for grace. (3.) Own God's power: Mat. 19:26, 'But Jesus beheld them, and saith unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.' The difficulties that we meet with in the way to heaven should serve only to make us despair of our own strength and abilities, not of God's, with whom nothing is impossible. It is a relief to consider of the divine power, from whence we fetch all our supplies necessary to life and godliness. (4.) Deal with God earnestly about help. The command showeth how pleasing such requests are to God, and you own God not only as a lawgiver, but author of grace. Do not come in a lukewarm, careless fashion, but 'Oh that my heart were directed!' Sluggish wishes will do no good; you bespeak your own denial when you ask grace as a thing of course: Jer. 31:18, 'I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus, Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.'
2. The next thing that we may note, is the serious desire that is in God's people after holiness. Mark, it is not a velleity, but a volition, Oh that, noteth the vehemency and heartiness.
It is his first desire. David had hitherto spoken assertively; when he cometh to speak supplications, his first and chief request to God is, 'Oh that my ways were directed!' &c.
Mark again, it is not a desire of happiness, but holiness; not 'Oh that I were blessed!' but 'Oh that my ways were directed!' A mind to know, a will to obey, and a memory to keep in mind God's precepts.
It is practical holiness: 'Oh that my ways!' God hath his ways: 'They walk in his ways,' ver. 3. And we have our ways: 'Oh that my ways were directed!' that is, all my thoughts, counsels, inclinations, speeches, actions, were directed by thy statutes. Every commandment is a royal edict, a statute which God hath made for the governing of the world.
Now the saints have this desire of holiness—
[1.] From the new nature that is in them. The appetite followeth the nature: Gal. 5:17, 'The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.' Desires being the vigorous bent of the soul, discover the temper of it. The carnal nature puts forth itself in lustings, so doth the new nature. The main thing we have by grace is a new heart, that is, new loves, new desires, and new delights: Rom. 8:5, 'For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh, but they that are after the spirit the things of the spirit.'
[2.] Out of love to God, which implieth subjection and conformity to him. Love to God is testified by a desire of subjection; for his love is a love of bounty, ours a love of duty: 1 John 5:3, 'For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous.' It is the great desire of their souls that they may be subject to God. As he that loveth would not offend the party loved, so it is their desire to please God in all things; and as holiness implieth a conformity to God, they study to be like him. It is their hope, their desire, their care. Their hope: 1 John 3:2, 'But we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.' It is their desire and care in every ordinance: 2 Cor. 3:18, 'But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.' And it is their constant endeavour: 1 Peter 1:15, 'But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation.'
[3.] Out of experience of the ways of God, of that goodness and enlargement of heart that is to be found in them. They have tasted and seen how good his laws are. They can answer God's appeal, 'Do not my words do good to him that walketh uprightly?' Yea, doubtless, it is good: Ps. 19:10, 11, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is thy servant warned, and in keeping of them there is great reward.' The spiritual life is interlined and refreshed with many sweet experiences.
The use here is, first, a note of discovery; for men are judged by their desires, rather than their practices, as being freest from constraint; and this is humbly represented by the children of God, to incline his favour and compassion to them: Neh. 1:11, 'Let thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name.' They come short in many things, but they desire to fear God: Isa. 26:8, 'The desires of our soul are to thy name, and to the remembrance of thee.' They could speak little of what they had done for God. Paul was better at willing than performing, till freed from 'this body of death:' Rom. 7:18, 'For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not.' This will be our best evidence to the last, 'Oh that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!'
But may not wicked men have good desires?
Ans. They may have a loose inclination to good things, but not a full resolution for God. Wicked men have an enlightened conscience, but no renewed wills. This enlightened conscience may carry them so far, as to some general approbation of the things of God, which may produce a wish that they were so and so; but this doth no good to the heart. Sparks do not kindle the fire, but coals: a spark is enough to set us on fire in carnal matters, but not in spiritual. More distinctly—
[1.] Wicked men may desire their own happiness, though not upon God's terms: Num. 23:10, 'Oh that I might die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!' At oportuit sic vixisse. John 6:34, 'Evermore give us of this bread' of life. Every man would be blessed, and go to heaven, if it were left to his option and choice; they like the end, but not the means. There was not a murmuring Israelite but would count Canaan a good land; but the giants and sons of Anak were there.
[2.] They may have some languid and vanishing motions towards the means as well as the end, being convinced of the necessity of holiness; yea, they may draw out their wishes into a cold prayer that God would make them better; as lazy persons sometimes express their desires, Would I were at such a place, and never travel! Would I had written such a task, and never put pen to paper!—Vellent sed nolunt. When it cometh to trial, they do not set themselves in good earnest to get that grace they wish for.
What is the difference between a volition and a velleity?
(1.) Such desires as are not waving, but resolute and fixed. Aquinas saith, Velleitas est voluntas incompleta, a half will. They have a month's mind to that which is good, but not a thorough resolution; as Agrippa, almost persuaded, but not altogether; such a desire as will bear up against a strong tide of opposition. It is called the 'setting of the heart:' 1 Chron. 22:19, 'Now set your heart and your soul to seek the Lord your God.' Whatever cometh of it, they must and will have grace: Ps. 27:4, 'One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.'
(2.) Such desires as are absolute, and do not stand upon terms. There is an hypothetical and conditional will. We would, but with such conditions. I would have Christ, if it did not cost me so dear—to deny lusts, interests, friends, relations, much waiting, praying, watching, striving. So Mat. 22:5, they would come to the supper; but house, oxen, farm, merchandise—there was something in the way that hindered them: there was no full and perfect will. A chapman no doubt would have the wares he liketh, but will not come to the price. I will have heaven, whatever it cost me, is the voice of a desiring saint.
(3.) Such desires as are active and industrious; not a remiss will: Prov. 13:4, 'The soul of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing; but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat.' Cold, raw wishes are unuseful and fruitless; we must work as well as wish. Poor, languid, inactive desires come to nothing, when men do not put forth their endeavours, and apply themselves to the prosecution of what is desired. Faint and sluggish velleities do hurt: Prov. 21:25, 'The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuseth labour.' Whatever a man doth seriously desire to have, he will use proper means to procure it. Wishes are but the fruits of a speculative fancy, rather than an industrious affection.
(4.) Such desires as are constant, and not easily controlled by other desires. Idle, lazy wishes, ineffectual glances, sudden motions, while their hearts are detained in the speculation of holiness, are like children's desires, soon put out of the humour. There may be vehement and sudden lustings in an unregenerated person; free-will hath its pangs of devotion. But the apostle declares: Rom. 7:18, 'To will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.' It is a constant habitual will, not a volatile devotion, that cometh upon us now and then; but such a will as is present, as sin is present. He had said before, 'When I would do good, evil is present with me.' Whithersoever you go, you carry a sinning nature about with you. It is present, urging the heart to vanity, folly, lust; so should this will be present with you, urging the heart to good.
(5.) Such desires are joined with serious groans and sorrow for our defects. He cannot be so good as he would, but desireth and complaineth; therefore God accepteth of the will for the deed: Rom. 7:24, 'O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?' Though an unrenewed man seem to desire grace, yet he feeleth no grief in the want of grace, it never troubleth him; his desires do not break out into groans and bitter complaints, because of indwelling corruption. Now, by these things may you try your hearts.
3. The third thing observable from hence, is the necessity of directing grace, 'Oh that my ways were directed!'
I shall first premise some distinctions—
[1.] There is a general direction, and a particular direction. (1.) The general direction is in the word; there God hath declared his mind in his statutes: 'He hath showed thee, O man, what is good,' Micah 6:8. (2.) A particular direction by his Spirit, who doth order and direct us how to apply the rule to all our ways: Isa. 58:11, 'The Lord shall guide thee continually.' Now, this particular direction is either to our general choice: Ps. 16:7, 'I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel.' It is the work of God only to teach us how to apply the rule so as to choose him for our portion. Or secondly, as to acts and orderly exercise of any particular grace; so 2 Thes. 3:5, 'The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.' Or thirdly, as to the management of our civil actions; as the pillar of the cloud went before the Israelites in their journeys, so doth God still guide his people in all their affairs, both as to duty and success. As to duty: Prov. 3:6, 'In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.' Ask his counsel, leave, and blessing: in doubtful things ask his counsel; in clear cases ask his leave, 'Shall I go up or not?' and then ask his blessing. As to success: Prov. 16:9, 'A man's heart deviseth his way; but the Lord directeth his steps.' Events cross expectation; we cannot foresee the event of things in the course of a man's life, what is expedient, and what not: Prov. 20:24, 'Man's goings are of the Lord; how can a man, then understand his own way?' We purpose and determine many things rightly, and according to rule, but God disposeth of all events: Rom. 1:10, 'Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God, to come unto you.' God brought Paul to Rome by a way be little thought of. Therefore we need to call God to counsel, and to inquire of the oracle in all matters that concern family, commonwealth, or church. We need a guide: Jer. 10:23, 'O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself; neither is it in man that walketh to direct his steps.' Affairs do not depend on our policy or integrity, but on the divine providence, who ordereth every step, to give such success as he pleaseth.
[2.] Distinction. There is a literal direction, and an effectual direction. (1.) The literal direction is by that speculative knowledge that we get by the word: Ps. 119:105, 'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,' sufficient not only for general courses, but particular actions. (2.) The effectual direction is by the Holy Ghost applying the word, and bending the heart to the obedience of it: Isa. 61:8, 'I will direct their work in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them,'—that is, I will so show them their way, as to work their hearts to the sincere obedience of it.
Now, to give you the reasons for the necessity of this direction, three things prove it—
(1.) The blindness of our minds. We are wise in generals, but know not how to apply the rule to particular cases. The heathens were 'vain ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς, in their imaginations,' Rom. 1:21. And the same is true of us Christians: though we have a clearer knowledge of God, and the way how he will be served and glorified; yet to suit it to particular cases, how dark are we! A dial may be well set, yet, if the sun shine not upon it, we cannot tell the time of the day. The scriptures are sufficient to make us wise; but without the light of the Spirit, how do we grope at noonday!
(2.) The forgetfulness of our memories. We need a monitor to stir up in us diligence, watchfulness, and earnest endeavours: Isa. 30:21, 'And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.' The cares and businesses of the world do often drive the sense of our duty out of our minds. One great end of God's Spirit is to put us in remembrance, to revive truths upon us in their season. A ship, though never so well rigged, needs a pilot; we need a good guide to put us in mind of our duty.
(3.) The obstinacy of our heart. So that we need every moment to enforce the authority of God upon us; and to persuade us to what is right and good. The Spirit's light is so directive, that it is also persuasive; there needs not only counsel, but efficacy and power. We have boisterous lusts, and wandering hearts; we need not only to be conducted, but governed. We have hearts that 'love to wander,' Jer. 14:10; we are sheep that need a shepherd, for no creature is more apt to stray: Ps. 95:10, 'It is a people that do err in their hearts:' not only ignorant, but perverse; not in mind only apt to err, but love to err. Thus you see the necessity of this direction, 'Oh that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!'
The uses. Well, then, give the Lord this honour, of being your continual guide: Ps. 48:14, 'For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even unto death.' You do not own him as a God, unless you make him your guide: Ps. 73:24, 'Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory.' In vain do you hope for eternal life else. Therefore—
1. Commit yourselves to the tuition of his grace. A man is to choose God for a guide, as well as to take him for a lord; to ask his counsel as well as submit to his commandments: Jer. 3:4, 'Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My Father, thou art the guide of my youth?'
2. Depend upon him in every action. 'The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord;' all his particular actions: Rom. 8:26, 'For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.'
3. Seek his counsel out of a desire to follow it: John 7:17, 'If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.' Still walk according to light received, and it will increase upon you. Such as make conscience of known truth shall know more. He that cometh with a subjected mind, and fixed resolution to receive and obey, shall have a discerning spirit. God answereth men according to the fidelity of their own hearts.
From An Exposition of Psalm 119, by Thomas Manton