Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways

A Bible Study Inspired by A Hymn
Primary Bible Passages: Psalm 119:5, 33, 133, 176; Ezekiel 34:11–12; Matthew 18:12–14
("Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways," Lutheran Service Book 707)

Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways
      To keep His statutes still!
Oh, that my God would grant me grace
      To know and do His will!
Isaac Watts

Order my footsteps by Thy Word
      And make my heart sincere;
Let sin have no dominion, Lord,
      But keep my conscience clear.

Assist my soul, too apt to stray,
      A stricter watch to keep;
And should I e’er forget Thy way,
      Restore Thy wand’ring sheep.

Make me to walk in Thy commands—
      ’Tis a delightful road—
Nor let my head or heart or hands
      Offend against my God.

“Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways” was written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the Father of English hymnody. The hymn is basically a prayer, asking God to help the singer live within God’s will and, if he should stray, that the Lord would bring him back. Everything is in God’s hands. As it is a prayer, an “amen” at the end is certainly appropriate. It will be the opening hymn this coming Sunday.

Watts’ opening line of verse 1 echoes Psalm 119:5:
            Oh that my ways may be steadfast
                        in keeping your statutes!

The Psalmist desires to walk in God’s ways, guided by his statutes. But how can we know what that way is? The Psalmist has an answer.
            Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes;
                        and I will keep it to the end (33).

This is the same answer Watts has, “Oh, that my God would grant me grace To know and do His will!” By his grace God teaches us his will through the Word of God, the Bible. Without the Word of God we would never stumble upon his ways (though many have thought they have). This is what Bible studies, Sunday school, Sunday worship, and so on, do. This is what we are instructed to do in the Great Commission, to go and teach everything Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:20).

In his second verse Watts is even clearer about how we discover God’s will and know how to walk in it. “Order my footsteps [O God] by Thy Word.” That is where we find his “statutes” (verse 1). This is no appeal to some feeling we have in our heart or some desire lodged in our minds, but to the Scriptures, the Bible. Yes, temptation comes; seeking to draw us away from God’s revealed word. But, with Watts we pray that the blood of Christ will keep our conscience clear and through the word we cling to Christ and his direction in our lives. Watts’ words are an echo of the Psalmists words:
            Keep steady my steps according to your promise,
                        and let no iniquity get dominion over me.
            Redeem me from man's oppression,
                        that I may keep your precepts. (Psalm 119:133-134)

Notice how the Psalmist uses the word “redeem.” No one can keep the Law of God perfectly so we always need our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He is the one who keeps our conscience clean. “Man’s oppression” does not have to mean physical persecution, like many Christians suffer under oppressive governments. It can also be oppression through generally accepted cultural norms that oppress living as God desires and directs us to sinful lifestyles, deeming them “normal.” How many “heroes” and “heroines” depicted in television shows and movies are crass adulterers? How many take the law into their own hands, even murdering others? How many curse and swear? Consider the oppressive message of our culture in light of Galatians 5:19-23. Does our culture hold up as models those who exhibit the fruits of the flesh or the fruits of the Spirit?
            Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:19-23)

In verse 3 Watts echoes the thought found in Psalm 119:176 (the final verse of this great Psalm):
            I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
                        for I do not forget your commandments

Watts recognizes that our Old Man, our sinful nature, is always drawn away from God and his word, as does the Psalmist. Our hope is not in ourselves but in the Lord, who seeks us out when we stray and is our source of strength to resist temptation and remain loyal to the Lord. Both Watts and the Psalmist recognize that true faith doesn’t mean no temptation. We do stumble, for we are both sinners and saints. But God seeks us out. One is reminded of the short parable Jesus once told.
            What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:12-14)

We will come back to this parable.

Verse four of Watts’ hymn comes full circle. He again expresses the desire to walk in the ways of the Lord, the ways revealed in the Bible. Only by his word can we guard our ways. Only by his word can we not offend the Lord. Only by his word can we understand what is truly pleasing in God’s sight. The devil, the world and our sinful nature will lead us astray. Often we read something in the Bible that seems counterintuitive. Consider again the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. Which is the better way to go? It may seem “natural” to go with the fruits of the flesh, but that is the nature of the Old Man. The “unnatural” way is the fruits of the Spirit. In fact it is so unnatural that it is really supernatural. That is why it has to be worked in us by the Holy Spirit.

Now I said I’d come back to the lost sheep analogy Jesus used. Here Jesus echoes a well know theme from the Old Testament. Ezekiel expresses it like this:  
            “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.(Ezekiel 34:11-12)

Jesus is the Good Shepherd in his story and God is the Good Shepherd in Ezekiel. How remarkable it is that God seeks out his wandering sheep (“Assist my soul, too apt to stray”). But how does he do this? Through his word, certainly, but how is that done? It is done through the word when the word changes our lives and gives us a heart like Jesus’. Being a Christian isn’t just about going to heaven, but also about how we live. So Peter writes, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

The Lord doesn’t give up on his baptized children, even when they stray. He sends his word after them through his other children, his other sheep. Do you know someone who has strayed from the Christian faith? Do you pray for them? Do you seek them out and winsomely witness to them? In this age of the internet, even great distances are reduced to nothing. We can reach out with the love of God in Jesus Christ to both wandering sheep near and far. May the Lord lay on each of our hearts someone who has wandered from the faith that we may be his agents of his love, his word, to them. 

For those of you who love CCM, you might want to ask yourselves how the message of Watts' hymn and his theology might be reproduced in a pop song. 

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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