Forever Settled in Heaven: Building on the Unshakable Foundation
January 6, 2002 | Ray Pritchard
Our church theme for 2002 is “God’s Word: Our Unshakable Foundation.” Considering the events of the last few months, it seems like a theme perfectly suited for these perilous times. We need a foundation that cannot be shaken by world events or personal circumstances. We need a place to stand during the hard times that come to all of us sooner or later.
In order to help us think about this theme, we are beginning the new year with a series of four messages from Psalm 119. If you are a student of the Bible, you no doubt know that this is the longest chapter of the Bible. It is also an acrostic or alphabet psalm. That fact is not immediately apparent in the English translations, but it is very clear if you look at the Hebrew text. When the psalmist (who is not named in the text) sat down to write, he used the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet as his guide. He ended up writing 22 eight-verse stanzas, one for each letter of the alphabet. Verses 1-8 all begin with the Hebrew letter aleph, verses 9-16 with the letter beth, verses 17-24 with the gimel, and so on, all the way down to the last letter, tau. There are 22 stanzas with eight verses each, totaling 176 verses in the psalm.
But the acrostic structure, though unique, is not the most notable fact about this psalm. Its most unusual feature is its theme: The glories of the Word of God. The longest psalm in the Bible is a psalm in praise of the Bible! Every verse (with only one or two exceptions) contains a direct reference to the Bible. To give variety, the psalmist uses at least nine different terms to describe God’s Word: law, testimonies, judgments, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances, promises and word. Those words are synonyms for God’s spoken and written revelation. They call us to praise God for the gift of his Word. Taken from a New Testament perspective, we should praise God for his written Word that reveals the incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Savior and the source of eternal life.
Throughout church history many Christian leaders have been drawn to this psalm. John Calvin preached 22 sermons (one for each stanza) from Psalm 119. Charles Spurgeon (the great London preacher of the late 1800s) devoted 398 pages of his Treasury of David (the finest commentary on the Psalms ever written) to this psalm. In 1927 Charles Bridges wrote a 480-page exposition of Psalm 119. But pride of place belongs to Thomas Manton, the puritan pastor, who preached 190 sermons on these 176 verses. Those sermons were published in three volumes that run to over 1600 verses. In our day James Montgomery Boice preached 14 sermons from this chapter (later published as Living by the Book, Baker Book House, 1997). He mentions an amusing story (told first by Spurgeon) about a man named George Wishart, the first Episcopal bishop of Edinburgh, who during the 1600s was sentenced to death by hanging. He came to the day of his execution hoping for a pardon that had not yet arrived. It was a custom in those days to allow a condemned man to call for the singing of a psalm before he was put to death. Bishop Wishart, stalling for time, called for the singing of Psalm 119. As the story goes, before the psalm was 2/3 sung, the pardon arrived and Wishart was spared. Thus does God use his Word to deliver his servants.
Dr. Boice laments the fact that many evangelicals do not greatly value God’s Word. Although we claim to believe it, we do not read it or study it or memorize it or meditate upon it with any frequency. And few of us can be said to delight in God’s Word. It is precisely at this point that Psalm 119 is so helpful. It was written by a man who, despite his many troubles, truly loved God’s Word. He found in it everything he needed—life, light, hope, help, salvation, deliverance, encouragement, joy, rebuke, correction, restoration, peace, and every other spiritual grace. It would be good in our generation if we developed a similar love for God’s Word.
As a side note, I would like to issue a challenge to the readers of this sermon. Is there someone out there somewhere (in America or around the world) who would take up the challenge of memorizing Psalm 119 in 2002? If you memorized one verse every two days, you would finish the entire psalm in one year. What a wonderful foundation that would be. What an enormous blessing to you. I hope someone who reads these words will send me a message saying, “Pastor Ray, I accept the challenge. With God’s help, I will memorize Psalm 119 this year.” Who will be the first to say yes?
With that we turn to consider Psalm 119:89. In the New International Version the verse reads this way: “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.” The English Standard Version says, “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.” The King James Version is very similar: “For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven.” As I pondered this verse the words of Martin Luther came to mind: “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me. The Bible is not antique or modern. It is eternal.” The Bible is eternal. This is the theme of Psalm 119:89. As we consider this verse, we find that it teaches us three truths about the Bible.
I. It is God’s Word
The first thing we learn from this verse is that we are dealing with God’s Word. The psalmist calls it “your Word.” We may tend to take this for granted, but it is actually a very crucial fact. A word is really a revealed thought. You would not know what I was thinking unless I used words to tell you. Likewise, we are left totally in the dark about what God is thinking unless he uses words to tell us. Note that the psalmist uses the singular “word,” not the plural “words.” The difference is crucial. He says “your word” is settled, not “your words” are settled. The plural would not be wrong. It is perfectly appropriate to speak of the “words” of God. But here he uses the singular to refer to all that God has said as one declarative “word” from heaven. In so doing the writer declares the essential unity of Holy Scripture. All that God has said, every verse and every word from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s “word” to us.
In describing this truth, theologians speak of the “plenary” inspiration of the Bible. The term “plenary” means “whole” or “complete.” A “plenary” session at a conference means a conference where everyone is assembled at the same time in the same place. At Calvary we rarely have plenary worship services. That is, the congregation as a whole rarely meets together. We have multiple worship services on Sunday morning. Our last “plenary” worship service took place in Scoville Park last September. To speak of “plenary” inspiration means that every part of the Bible is equally inspired and every part is equally true. Our Articles of Faith contain this important sentence: “We further believe that this inspiration is not in different degrees, but extends equally and fully to all parts of the Bible: historical, poetical, doctrinal and prophetical.” This means that the Bible speaks truth in all its parts and in all its details. What the Bible says in Genesis is just as true as what it says in Judges or Song of Solomon or Romans or Revelation. There is no part of the Bible that is “more inspired” or “more true” than some other part. We believe that what the Bible teaches about history or geology or geography is true in every respect. We specifically reject the notion that God’s Word could somehow contain human error. It’s all true down to the tiniest detail.
This is an exceedingly high view of biblical inspiration, but it is what the Christian church has generally believed across the centuries. To put the matter that way does not mean that there are no problems or difficulties. To the contrary, there are many problem passages and many verses that we cannot fully explain. We freely confess that there are some difficulties in the text that do not admit easy explanations. But the fact that we cannot fully answer every question does not destroy our faith in God’s Word. To paraphrase the great Anglican Bishop J. C. Ryle, I would rather believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Holy Scripture than to stand with those who doubt. I can live with the problems and with questions I cannot fully answer while I wait patiently for answers to come. And while I wait, I am standing on the rock of God’s truth.
The truth of plenary inspiration means that the Bible is absolutely authoritative and true in every part. Away with those who chop up the Bible and say they want the “God of love” of the New Testament and not the “God of war” of the Old Testament. And away with those who regard Genesis 1-11 as mere myth and legend. We have no time for them and will pay them no mind. Although our understanding of the Bible is not perfect, and while we agree with the Puritans who declared that God has yet more light to bring forth from his Word, we humbly accept all the Bible as the Word of God and attempt to the best of our ability to read it all, to believe it all, and to obey it all. If it is God’s Word, we can do no less.
II. It is God’s Settled Word
The psalmist adds a vital fact when he declares that God’s Word is “settled” in heaven. The word “settled” means to be firmly fixed so that an object cannot be moved. Before a skyscraper can be built, pilings must be driven into the ground, sometimes 60 or 80 or even 100 feet below the surface until they finally hit bedrock. You must go deep if you want to go high. Otherwise the building will be unstable and unable to stand in all weather conditions. To say that God’s Word is “settled” means that it is driven down deep into the bedrock of heaven. Nothing that happens on earth can change God’s Word in heaven.
This point gains relevance when you consider that we live in an unsettled world. Surely the events since September 11 prove that point. First we had the terrorist attacks, then the anthrax scare, then a series of terrorism alerts, then the war in Afghanistan. Along the way we’ve had a shaky economy, worries about airport security, new fighting in the Middle East, and recently, worries about war between India and Pakistan. And this is only the first week of the New Year. Who knows what the rest of 2002 will bring?
No wonder many people have unsettled hearts. Even in the best of times, things change all around us. Friends come and go, jobs are gained and lost, marriages are made and broken, yesterday’s promises become today’s distant memories. A sudden illness comes and the life we knew is gone forever. So it goes for all of us.
Against those realities is this truth: God’s Word does not change because it is settled in heaven. Years ago I remember reading a book by the late evangelist John R. Rice in which he argued (based on this verse) that God’s Word is settled because it was written down in heaven before it was ever written down on earth. He meant that before Isaiah ever uttered a single prophecy, all that he was going to write was planned by God in heaven. Ditto for Moses, David, Paul, John and all the other writers of the Bible. Biblical inspiration means that God so perfectly prepared the writers of Scripture that, using their thoughts, their words and their personal style, what they wrote was exactly what God wanted written. It was “settled” in heaven in the mind of God and then sometime later it was written on earth by men who were moved by God’s Holy Spirit.
We should learn two things from the fact that God’s Word is settled in heaven:
A) God’s truth cannot be overturned.
It can be doubted but it cannot be defeated though millions have tried across the years. Before his death in 1778, the French skeptic Voltaire predicted that within 100 years Christianity would no longer exist because thinking people would completely reject it. In one of the delightful ironies of history, less that 50 years after his death, the Geneva Bible Society was using his printing press and his house to produce stacks of Bibles for the people of Europe. This should not surprise us. The skeptics do their best but they cannot overturn God’s Word. It remains settled forever in heaven.
B) God’s truth remains the same in every generation.
This is bad news for those who insist we need a “new morality” for the 21st century. Some people think the Bible is too outmoded and too time-bound to be useful in dealing with the complexities of modern life. But they are wrong. God’s truth is the same today as it was 500 years ago. Nothing has changed since the days of the New Testament. We don’t need new truth, we need to believe and obey the old truth. Or as Luther would put it, we need to believe and obey the eternal truth. God’s Word isn’t new or old. It’s eternal.
This means we have a reliable basis for making moral judgments. Since God’s Word does not change, we have a reason to say that some things are right and other things are wrong. Without some sort of objective standard, we are left with nothing but the shifting sands of public opinion. But since God’s Word is forever settled in heaven, we can breathe easy. We don’t have to ask, “Is adultery wrong?” God settled that question 3,500 years ago at Mount Sinai when he gave the Ten Commandments. And contrary to what we hear in the media today, we don’t have to wonder, “Is homosexuality okay?” God spoke definitively on that issue in the Bible. Homosexuality is wrong because God said it is wrong. It’s always wrong, in every form and in every manifestation. Ten thousand Gallup Polls cannot change that fact.
But there is also a solemn warning for us to consider in this regard. If God’s truth remains the truth in every generation, we are not free to pick and choose the parts we personally like. We don’t have the freedom to say, “I’ll take that part about grace and love, but I think I’ll skip the ‘Thou shalt nots.’” God’s Word is not a smorgasbord where you have a little love, a bit of happiness, an extra helping of good times, but you pass on the obedience and skip the suffering. We must not do that. If we say we believe God’s Word, then we must deal with all of it all the time.
III. It is God’s Eternal Word
The final thing we learn from this verse is that God’s Word is eternal. The word translated “forever” is the Hebrew word olam. Used over 425 times in the Old Testament, this word means “everlasting, perpetual, forevermore, unending.” It’s a word that specifies that there is no beginning and no ending of something. It continues forever. Applied to God’s Word, it means what God has said has always been true, is true now, and will be true forevermore. There will never be a time when you will wake up and discover that God’s Word is no longer true. That simply won’t happen.
None of us can make a statement like that about our own words. We change, revise, amend, and constantly edit what we say. Yesterday’s strong opinions quickly become today’s discarded ideas. We often have trouble keeping our stories straight because we keep changing our minds. Not so with God. There is no delete button on his computer. He never has to change his words, revise his opinions, or edit his commands. They are settled forever in heaven.
There are several conclusions that follow from this truth:
A) We can trust the Word of God.
Because it is God’s Word, and not merely the religious opinions of certain men who lived thousands of years ago, it is completely trustworthy. What men say may or may not be true. Even our best friends may mislead us unintentionally. They may not have their facts straight or their opinions may be tainted by prejudice. But whatever God says must of necessity be truthful and worthy of our complete confidence.
B) We should not be overly worried by the skeptics.
The skeptics will always be with us. From the beginning, some have doubted the resurrection of Christ and others who attacked the Virgin Birth. Across the centuries skeptics have doubted the miracles of the Bible, assailed the deity of Christ, and mocked Christians for having a religion based on superstition. Like Voltaire, they have predicted that modern science and the advance of human knowledge would render Christianity obsolete. In the words of Bernard Ramm, “a thousand times over, the death knell of the Bible has been sounded, the funeral procession formed, the inscription cut on the tombstone, and committal read. But somehow the corpse never stays put.” Though the Bible has been scrutinized, sifted, and relentlessly vilified, and though today there are some people who make a living attacking Holy Scripture, the Bible stands every test and survives every challenge. Today more than two billion Christians unite in proclaiming their belief that God’s Word is true. When the hammers of unbelief are worn out and discarded, the anvil of God’s truth remains.
No power on earth can hinder what God has said.
Nor can the passage of time dilute its strength.
No events in nature or history can cancel its message.
God’s Word stands. It is settled forever in heaven. Kingdoms rise and fall, armies do battle, rulers come and go, fads and fashions grip the imagination, years turn into generations and generations into centuries. But God’s Word stands. It cannot and will not be defeated.
This is the true meaning of Psalm 119:89. Why don’t we build on this firm foundation? Why would anyone choose sinking sand over the solid rock of the Word of God? A favorite hymn from colonial times says it well
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
How wonderful to know that the Word of God is a “firm foundation” for all the saints of the Lord. On this first Sunday of a new year, in a day when so many earthly foundations have been shaken, when even the greatest works of men so quickly crumble to the dust, let us reaffirm that we still believe the Bible. I do not know what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow. And that is enough for all of us as we venture into the unknown future. Build your life on the unshakable foundation of God’s Word and you will never be disappointed. Amen.