How to Endure Unjust Persecution: A Meditation on Psalm 119:161-168

“Princes have persecuted me without a cause: but my heart standeth in awe of Thy word” (Psalm 119:161).

If we hear of persecution, we should not assume that those persecuted have done something wrong. Unjust persecution by a government is a reality. In Muslim countries like Iran, and in communist countries like North Korea, Christians are being unjustly persecuted for their faith, with full sanction by the leading officials (the “princes”). Jesus Himself experienced such persecution from the chief priests. In explaining this treatment, Jesus not only explained to His disciples, “They hated me without a cause” (John 15:25; cf. Psalm 69:4); He also forewarned them, “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). And so it has came to pass. Christians from the apostles onward have been persecuted for no legitimate reason.

How should we endure such persecution? This stanza gives us two key insights.

First, the battle in persecution is won or lost in the affectionate domain (vv. 161-164). In other words, what you fear, what do you love, and what do you hate will ultimately foretell your victory or defeat at the hands of government officials. Be warned: Demas “loved this present world;” therefore, he deserted Paul (2 Timothy 4:10).

Specifically, we must be in dread of the word of God, not the word of the government (v. 161). When the government gives orders in accordance with God’s law, we obey (1 Peter 2:13-14); but when the government gives orders contrary to God’s law, we must be empowered, as the apostles were, to say, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). As Jesus taught us, we must fight the fear of man with the fear of God (see Matthew 10:28).

Moreover, we must rejoice over the word of God with the same intensity as one who has just won the lottery (v. 162). How would you feel if right now I handed you a $1000 to do with as you please? Would you be indifferent, or in danger of falling asleep? How blind we are, as the people of God! Week after week, we hold in our hand and hear in our ears the precious words of God, which open to us the way of Paradise and introduce us into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity, and to think, we cannot stay awake, let alone rejoice! Unless we repent, we are sitting ducks to future persecution. No. Let those princes nab what they will, if we have the sayings of God, we are amazingly rich still.

Finally, we must love God’s law and hate, even abominate, all that is false (v. 163). While it is tempting in the face of danger to lie, as Abraham did twice, we must resist all falsehood as something to detest. Again and again, even “seven times a day,” let us praise the God of Heaven, whose judgments are always right (v. 164). In time, He will plead our case and save us from unjust persecution.

Second, the only safe road is a full, robust love of the law of God (vv. 165-168). Out of all the affections, love is the greatest; and in this stanza, it is love for God’s law that is cited three times (vv. 163, 165, 167). Please note: What is emphasized is not doing the law, nor keeping the law, but loving the law. What specifically makes loving the law of God so important?

The answer is found in the fifth verse of the stanza, which is the only verse of the eight that makes a general statement–a statement that upholds the hope of the psalmist:

“Great peace have they which love Thy law: and nothing shall offend them” (v. 165).

Peace is the absence of hostility, and implies a state of safety. At first, it seems odd to describe one who is persecuted as having not just peace, but even great peace. How can this be? After all, to be hounded for one’s life seems to be the opposite of having great peace.

The peace envisioned here concerns outer safety in light of inner danger. Here is the great secret of surviving persecution: The dangers are not without, but within. The prince of this world came to Jesus, but could ultimately do nothing to Him, because he had nothing in Him (John 14:30). Jesus loved the will of God more than food and rest, and made it His highest aim, to glorify the Father by finishing the work He had been given to do (cf. John 4:34; 17:4; 19:30); therefore, what could the devil grab in Christ? Similarly, the persecuting prince can do nothing to those truly born of God, for it is written, “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him” (1 John 2:10; cf. 2 Peter 1:10-11). For those who love God’s law, there is ultimately no danger, for “nothing shall offend them” (v. 165).

The word “offend” refers to a stumbling-block, something that causes you to fall. In the New Testament, this concept is used of anyone who gets in the way of your strict allegiance to God, either by example or by counsel (1 Romans 14:13-21; Corinthians 8:9-11; Matthew 16:21-23; 18:6-10; cf. Malachi 2:8). If it is a particular sin, you must radically remove it from your life (Matthew 18:8-9). If it a person, even a close friend, you must rebuke him (Luke 17:1-4; e.g. Matthew 16:24). If it is something about Jesus or His words that offends you, then you must do some major soul-searching before God, for you cannot remove Jesus! Something in you must change. Specifically, you do not love the law of God as you should, for if you did, nothing would offend you! Amazingly, this is quite common, for Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would be “a stone of stumbling” and “a rock of offence” to the self-righteous Jews (Isaiah 8:14).

Paradoxically, only those loving the law of God take no offence at Jesus Himself or at His commandments. While it may seem like legalism to stress a love for God’s law, the legalist actually hates the law, because it condemns him. That is why he is so offended by the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 5:11). Not loving the law of God, the legalist constructs his own law that he can supposedly keep (cf. Matthew 15:1-9). In contrast to the legalist, the person renouncing self-righteousness and trusting Christ alone for justification receives the liberating Spirit of Holiness, who inclines him to obey God freely (cf. Romans 8:3-4). Only those trusting in Christ can aspire to say with the psalmist:

“LORD, I have hoped for Thy salvation, and done Thy commandments. My soul hath kept Thy testimonies; and I love them exceedingly. I have kept Thy precepts and Thy testimonies: for all my ways are before Thee” (vv. 166-168).

What we love, we keep. And if we love, we have no cause of stumbling in us. How blessed are all those who are not offended at Jesus (Matthew 11:6)!

Christian, please grasp this point. For the devil to trip you up on the highway to Zion (cf. Isaiah 57:14), he must have an angle to work. If it is your love of the world, he can entice you like Demas. If it is your love of money, he can ensnare you like Judas. If it is your pride, he can offend you like the Jews who left Jesus in John chapter six. Whatever it is, he must have an angle, but what can he grab in the man who loves the law of God? The devil has nothing in him.

Therefore, please watch your heart carefully (cf. Proverbs 4:23). Do not let any pet project or secret sin replace Jesus and His will at the center of your affections. It troubles me to see church people upset by a particular point of biblical doctrine or practice that somehow touches on some darling idea or practice. Yes, we all disagree on specific points, but when a particular point is made that has some visible basis in God’s word, and is made in the balance of God’s word, why should we be offended by it? Should we not rather give it some serious consideration, as those who love God’s word so much, that we want to know all the details? Instead, people switch churches, perhaps to find sooner or later something in the next church to offend them, just as one who divorces and remarries, only to divorce again. How much better to love the law of God, than to keep the little darling! Is anything worth more than Jesus?

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In the day of persecution, you will be glad that you did.

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