As God’s children, we can be encouraged by the vigilant and personal care God gives as He watches over us. God’s instruction, however, also brings a warning not to be like a mule, ruled by irrationality and stubborn willfulness. Instead, our minds should be transformed. Reflecting on David’s words in Psalm 32, Alistair Begg directs us to the Word of the Lord, which God uses to reshape us into the image of Christ.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now let’s read from the Bible, in Psalm 32. Psalm 32:1:
Blessed is he
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord does not count against him
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord”—
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
while you may be found;
surely when the mighty waters rise,
they will not reach him.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you and watch over you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the Lord’s unfailing love
surrounds the man who trusts in him.
Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
sing, all you who are upright in heart!
Let’s just pray and then turn to the Bible together:
Father, we thank you for the word of truth that we receive from you this morning—the reminder of the absolute power and authority and sufficiency of your Word and the absolute necessity of our being prepared to proclaim it in an unashamed way. And we pray that you will help us now, as we turn again to the Bible, so that what we don’t know, you will teach us, and what we are not, that you will make us, and what we don’t have, that you will give to us. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, our focus is once again on verses 8 and 9. We began these a week ago in the morning of last Sunday. And we noted for the help of one another that David is discovering here that not only does God deal with the problems of his past and grant to him forgiveness for his past, but he also promises to direct his future. And it is, as we said then—and it is worth simply reiterating—a wonderful and compelling truth from the Bible that God is the God who is able to forgive our past and also to frame and direct our future.
The way in which he does this is to put us in a course—a course of instruction—in which he does not employ teaching assistants, but he actually teaches the course himself. Hence the opening line of verse 8, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.” The speaker there, I believe, is God. God is responding to all that David has said in the first seven verses, and in verse 8 we have a promise of personal guidance.
Spurgeon said, “He who … made you his child, will put you to school.” And in the school of God’s instruction, we noted last time that it was vital instruction, and then that it was practical instruction, and now we notice, at the end of verse 8, that it is watchful instruction. Or, if you like, personal instruction, but I think watchful is fine for us. Because the final phraseology there in verse 8, “I will counsel you and watch over you,” is strongly suggestive of a kind of focused, influential, hands-on apprenticeship program.
Some of us have been apprentices. Some of us have been under the tutelage of others. Some of our careers have been marked by lengthy apprenticeships, and we’ve known what it is to be under the watchful eye of those who are our instructors. Some of you who are craftsmen—and I know a number of you are—may well have learned your craft, perhaps in the finishing of furniture, or even in the making of furniture, at the elbow of someone who was a skilled craftsman. And in the times that I’ve had opportunity to observe that kind of thing, perhaps even in the finishing of a piece of furniture, I’ve experienced situations where, in order to help the novice get the feel for things, the senior craftsman has actually taken not only the plane but the hands of the apprentice on the plane in his hands and then moved them across the surface of the furniture, asking as he did so, “Do you feel the weight of this? Do you feel the pressure of this? Do you get the movement of this?” Because so much that is involved in that kind of skillful execution has to do with feel. And then, eventually, once the apprentice has given assurance that that’s actually the case, then has the trainer said, “Well, now you go ahead and try it on your own, and I will be watching over you. Go ahead.” To plane a piece of furniture is one thing. I can’t imagine what it’s like the first time you have freedom with an open chest cavity and a beating heart. That must be some unbelievable experience.
Some of you are trained as pilots, and some of you train pilots: two sets of controls, sitting side by side, and the trainer tries his very best or her very best to keep her hands off the controls—but always watching very carefully, at least out of the corner of their eye, to make sure that the one under their tutelage is doing everything correctly. And the objective, of course, is that the one who’s in the course of training may become successful and efficient.
Now, these kind of pictures perhaps are not as good as the picture of a mother teaching her son or her daughter to walk. It may be some time since you remember this experience. You may have seen somebody in the process of it not long ago, and you realize that the mother hardly takes her eyes off the child—starts off as they’re able to get up and bounce around a little, and usually she has both of her hands out, holding the hands, either behind and urging the little one forward or in front and beckoning them towards her. And when she feels that there is enough steadiness without the complete hands, then she usually goes down to two fingers. And when she has managed it with two fingers, she often goes down just to her two little fingers, if I remember correctly, until eventually the point comes where, having watched and watched and watched, eventually the grasp is removed and the little one goes off on her own.
It would be a strange thing if your mother was doing that for you when you were in seventh grade, wouldn’t it? And it’d be very, very embarrassing at the elementary school events. No, the mother never takes her eyes off, but eventually she lets go.
Our heavenly Father is just as tender in his care, watching out for us. If you look at the eighteenth verse of the next chapter, you see that it says, “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love.” “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him.”
If you’ve ever played in a school orchestra or you sang in a choir, and you performed in some event, and your parents came to see you, or perhaps your father was coming lately from work, and you were searching constantly out into the auditorium to see if you could see your father and to see if actually he was there and if he was watching you. And it made such a difference just to be under his watchful eye. Here then, in verse 8, we have a wonderful reminder of the vigilance and the intimate care of Almighty God.
If you think about this for a moment or two and allow your mind to range around it and think about the vastness of the universe; think about the extent of human population; think about the company of God’s people, as vast as it is, transcending racial barriers, and the barriers of time and space in many ways; and then say to yourself, “This God, who is sovereign over the affairs of all of these billions of people, actually knows my name and cares about me and has promised to put me in his school and to provide me with instruction that is vital and practical and intensely caring.”
Psalm 121 is one of my favorite psalms. I think it’s often used as a funeral psalm, but it’s perfect for every day of our lives: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He [won’t] let your foot slip.” Now notice the phraseology begins, “He who watches over you”: “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed,” here it comes again, “he who [watches over you,] watches over Israel,” the whole people of God, “will neither slumber nor sleep.” Here it comes again: “The Lord watches over you.” “Watches over you, watches over you, watches over you…”
One of the old hymns goes as follows:
I trust in God, I know he cares for me,
On mountains steep or on the rolling sea;
Though billows roll, he keeps my soul;
My heavenly Father watches over me.
It’s a simple, helpful, wonderful reminder of God’s vigilance and his care.
But as I suggested last time, it is possible for verse 8 to kind of induce in the reader a sort of dreamy thoughtlessness or carelessness. And verse 9 comes like somebody grabbed a tumbler of water and pitched it right in our chin, waking us up and causing us to think very seriously about things. Verse 8 could make us, perhaps, stop thinking, and verse 9 is a reminder to us that we daren’t stop thinking.
So that brings us to the final point out of the four that we had—namely, that this instruction is not only vital and practical and watchful, but it is rational. Rational. The notion here in verse 9, I think you would agree, is that of confronting us with the horse and the mule, with the issues of irrationality or a form of stubborn willfulness—a reminder of the need for pressure and constraint if we’re ever going to bring these massive creatures under control.
I know that somebody will come afterwards to talk to me about the movie The Horse Whisperer and various books that they have read, but the reason that movie was as striking as it was and those insights are as meaningful as they are is because they are actually against the run of play. I know that those of you who have horses know that your horse will come to you if you call it, and without constraint, and without a bit and a bridle. But that has come over a long period of time, and you’ve been able to do that. The picture that we should have in mind is not so much The Horse Whisperer, but it is those pictures in the old western movies where the colts are just jumping and bucking all around the corral, and eventually some poor soul is given the responsibility of going in and breaking the colt. And I’ve seen a number of those movies, and I have not as yet seen anybody go in and say, “Excuse me? Um, I… I just wanted to give you a little word of counsel. You seem to be bucking and jumping just a little bit too much.” No, apart from Robert Redford, nobody really has been trying that. Everybody else knows—everybody else knows—that if you don’t go in there and constrain that thing and restrain that thing and break the spirit of that thing, then the chances are that it will be an absolute impossibility for anybody to get any benefit from it at all.
That is exactly the picture which Jeremiah uses when he describes the condition of the people of God not paying attention to the requirements of God. Isaiah describes it in terms of sheep who are going astray. In Jeremiah chapter 8, he describes us as those who are like horses plunging into battle. I think that’s the phraseology he uses. Jeremiah 8:6:
I have listened attentively,
but they do not say what is right.
No one repents of his wickedness,
saying, “What have I done?”
Each pursues his own course
like a horse charging into battle.
Even the stork in the sky
knows her appointed seasons,
and the dove, the swift and the thrush
observe the time of their migration.
But my people do not know
the requirements of the Lord.
And the picture that he uses for this willful waywardness is that of a horse that is unconstrained and untamed.
“Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and [by] bridle.” In other words, instead of acting emotionally or subjectively or even irrationally, we are, says the psalmist, to be those who are, in Pauline terminology from Romans 12, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. So that the Christian experience is a call to think. It is not a call to the disengagement of our minds. It is not a call to some kind of subjective journey whereby whatever we feel moving us and stirring us is sufficient to constrain our activities. That is a dangerous road to go.
So let me end our time by starting our thinking in a direction, and I will leave you to finish it yourselves. If we are not to be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding, and we are to act rationally, sensibly, thoughtfully, and if we are to be put in the school of God’s instruction, what is it that God uses to bring rational constraint on the minds of those who are his own? Or, if you like, putting it in a series of questions: How is the child of God to be revived, or made wise, or experience joy, or live in the light? How do I become wise? How do I experience joy? How are my eyes lifted in light? How am I converted and revived? The answer in every case, in Psalm 19, is the same:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The [commandments] of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
Do you get it? How is the child of God, then, not to be like this kind of silly animal but rather moving in the direction of God’s purposes?
I think we’ve spoken in the past about the notion that is alive and well in our generation that the reason that men particularly are no longer enjoying all that God has for them is because they have not been given permission to live from their hearts. I’m quoting now an author; I don’t need to give you his name. But he suggests that the reason that men in contemporary America are not as effective as they might be is because no one has given them permission to live from their hearts. I’m not sure just exactly what that means, except that he goes on to say that instead of having been given permission to live from their hearts, they are simply living in the light of what they should do or what they ought to do, and that the call to “should” and the call to “ought,” says the author, has left these men simply tired and bored.
Well, do you think that’s really the answer? Or would you rather go with the one who said the root cause of our moral flabbiness is that we have neglected God’s law? In other words, the very thing that the author says we need to get away from is the thing that another says we need to draw close to.
Now, let me remind you that the catechisms can help us when we’re finding difficulty in getting our way around. So, for example, in the Shorter Catechism, we’ll very quickly get to this answer. Question 1 we know: “What is the chief end of man?” We know the answer to that: “To glorify God.” Question 2—most of us don’t know question 2: “What rule has God given to us to direct us as to how we may glorify and enjoy him?” The answer to that is, “The Word of God in the Old and New Testament.” Question 3: “What do the Scriptures principally teach?” “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” The thirty-ninth question picks that up: “What is the duty which God requires of man?” Answer: “The duty which God requires of man, is obedience to his revealed will.” “Is obedience to his revealed will.”
Now, says John Murray, the old now-in-heaven Scottish theologian of some significance,
The statement of [this] position is exceeding distasteful to many phases of modern thought both within and without the evangelical family. It is [agreed] that the conception of an externally revealed and imposed code of duty, norm of right feeling, thought and conduct, is entirely out of accord with the liberty and spontaneity of the Christian life. We are told that conformity to the will of God must come from within, and … therefore any stipulation or prescription from without in the form of well-defined precepts is wholly alien to the spirit of the gospel. It is inconsistent, they say, with the spirit or principle of love: “Don’t speak of law, nor of moral precepts, nor of a code of morals. Speak of the law of love.”
Now, I was struck by that quote—and I know the quote—when, in the course of my preparation for Psalm 32, I turned to a volume that I don’t often go to, but it was lying on the floor along with a number of others, and that is the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. And I decided, “Well, why don’t I just look and see what the interpreter has to say concerning this statement here, ‘Do not be like the horse or the mule’?” And this is what he says: “Mere rules and regulations, sourly obeyed, are not enough; hencefor[th], we are not to be ‘under … law, but under grace’”—quoting Romans 6:14.
Now, there are a number of things to notice, and it’s not my purpose to take that apart; but one of the things is to note the very negative way in which the notion of obedience is addressed. Do you notice that? “Mere rules and regulations sourly obeyed.” Well, let’s drop the “mere,” and let’s drop the “sourly obeyed.” For there is no sense in which the rules and regulations are mere rules and regulations, and there is no call in the whole of the Bible to obey those rules and regulations with a disposition that is sour or is tainted. A careful reading of our Bibles—and I urge that upon you—makes it very, very clear that God’s law is the rule by which we as Christians reshape our lives after the image of Christ. We know our Bibles well enough to know that the law of God is such that it cannot justify us; therefore, as Christians, we are not under the law as a way of justification. Nor are we, incidentally, seeing the law as the dynamic for our sanctification.
But Samuel Bolton, in an earlier era, helps us when he says, “The law sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified; and the Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty in being justified.” I’m gonna say that to you again. Some of you are saying, “Well, I don’t really know that I care much about this.” Well, if you don’t tonight, you may in another evening. “The law sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified.” Because if you read the Ten Commandments, you’re a lawbreaker, right? And the harder you try to obey the law, the worse it gets. And people tell you, “Come on, now, try a little harder. Confess your sins and try a little harder.” As if, somehow or another, the Ten Commandments was a ladder up which we climb, and when we finally make it to the top rung, then we can be sure of going into heaven. But every time we start up the ladder, we find that we can’t get beyond number three or number five, and then we’re back down again, and we’re stuck.
And that is purposeful. Because the law cannot set us right before God. And so when we realize that we’re in this predicament and we say, “Where do I go now?” the answer is, “I go to the gospel: that Jesus has kept the law in its perfection, that Jesus has died for the fact that I am a lawbreaker and a sinner, and that Jesus promises to credit those who believe with the very righteousness of his perfect life and the benefits of his atoning death.” But having been sent to the gospel in order to be put right with God, we’re not then left just to wander willy-nilly around the universe, deciding what to do on the basis of how we feel, but we are sent back to the moral law as the means for showing us what it means to live as justified.
You see, if the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and our discovery of its significance does not fulfill in my life, in your life, a passion of righteousness, then we have actually misinterpreted the complete scheme of divine redemption. Those whom God justifies, he sanctifies. He conforms us to the image of his Son. And the mechanism that he employs under the Spirit of God, unless we’re going to be stubborn and irrational likes horses and mules, is none other than the law of God.
Calvin referred to the third use of the law, or the—for my Latin teacher who’s here tonight—usus tertius, and this is what he said:
The third and principal use [of the law] … finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God …, that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law.
Now, for those of you who say, “Well, I’m not sure I fully grasp all of this,” let me try and put it to you as simply as I can. If you go around with your ears open, you will very, very quickly come up against somebody, perhaps even in Parkside in the next hour or two, who will suggest to you that really all that we need to do—what needs to be done—is to go with the judgments of our own hearts, and just whatever our hearts prompt us to do. After all, we’ve been given a new heart.
Yes, we have been given a new heart. But when the writer to the Hebrews describes the nature of that new heart in Hebrews 10, he quotes Jeremiah 31, and he says that the new heart that we’ve been given is perfectly shaped to take the law of God. And in the seventeenth century, a fellow by the name of Anthony Burgess said if we substitute the judgments of our own hearts for the law of God, then that is “to have the Sun follow the Clock.”
Now, you see, the Interpreter’s Bible says that the “mere laws and rules and regulations sourly kept.” Well, they’re not to be sourly kept. The Puritans told us that the way that we keep the law is on the basis of an evangelical ability. In other words, the Spirit of God subdues us and enables us to do freely and cheerfully what the Bible demands of us.
You see, before you’re a Christian, when you come up against all of that stuff, it’s just a complete aggravation, isn’t it? “Oh, goodness gracious, what do you mean you can’t tell lies? I need to tell lies! How am I going to be a successful salesman if I can’t lie about the delivery time on my product?” “What do you mean you can’t commit adultery? That’s some of the things that I’ve been hoping for,” says somebody. “What do you mean you can’t covet your neighbor’s car? I just love looking out the window and just…” And the law condemns and condemns and condemns. And then we discover in Jesus the transforming power, and suddenly the law, kept from an evangelical ability, is now our delight.
Jesus said, “I delight to do your will, O Lord.” And the genuine Christian reveals the fact of the genuine nature of regeneration in a life of obedience. Remember, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. If a man loves me, he will keep my commandments, and I too will love him, and the Father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him.” You can read all of that in the Upper Room Discourse in John 14 and 15.
Now, let me draw this to a close with a couple of quotes. Samuel Rutherford, another good Scot, writes, “The Law of God, honeyed with the love of Christ,” has “a Majestie and power to keep from sin.” “The law of God, honeyed with the love of Christ,” has “a Majestie and power to keep from sin.” Or, in the words of John Owen, a “universal respect to all God’s commandments, is the only [preservation] from shame.” Think about that: a “universal respect to all God’s commandments, is the only [preservation] from shame.” Our continuance in a relationship with God does not take place irrespective of our persevering in God’s commands. It is as we heed the warnings and rest upon the promises that the Holy Spirit works in our lives a supernatural principle which cannot be acquired by the fulfilling of our duties but which is preserved by them. Now, for those of you who like phraseology, that is good, and that will help you and steer you in the right direction: a supernatural principle, worked in us by the Spirit of God, which cannot be acquired by the fulfilling of duty but is preserved by them.
Think about any time that you have fallen into temptation and failed, and then set it against Owen’s observation. If I’d had a universal respect for all of God’s commandments, then I would not face the shame that I now face.
Says John Murray, “It is one of the most perilous distortions of the doctrine of grace, and one that has carried with it the saddest records of moral and spiritual disaster”—what is that?—“to assume that past privileges, however high they may be, guarantee the security of men irrespective of perseverance in [the] faith and holiness.” Did you get that? In other words, it doesn’t matter if you have been a pastor for thirty years. It doesn’t matter if you have success and giftedness and usefulness in your career and in your Christian testimony. No matter how high you may have gone, none of that guarantees your security irrespective of perseverance in faith and in holiness.
“Oh,” says somebody, “well, I don’t know about all of that.” Well, let me just say to you, “Do not be like the horse or … mule, which have no understanding.” Do you want to be free? Do you want to live in complete freedom? Do what God says. Do you want to be free from the shame that will attach to your moral or material collapse? Do what God says. Do you want to live to the end of your days being able to walk in your community and keep your head high? Do what God says. A universal commitment to the commandments of God is the only secure preservation from shame.
And the final word to the psalmist:
I will always obey your law,
for ever and ever.
I will walk about in freedom,
for I have sought out your precepts.
If you’re a young man here tonight, you oughta write that down, and then write it behind your eyes. Write it on the backside of your eyelids: “Lord Jesus, I want to walk about in freedom. Help me, Holy Spirit of God, to obey your precepts.” Do not be like a horse or a mule. Do not be ridiculous and think that you can persevere to the end without taking heed according to every warning in this book and resting on the strength of every promise it provides.
Father, we think of the hymn: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” And we do ask for grace to trust you as our heavenly Father, as the loving provider of your dictates, as the enabling power of the Spirit works within our lives. Save us from silliness, flippancy, cluelessness, dreamy carelessness. Help us to pay attention to the striking exhortation of verse 9, so that we might live to the praise of your glorious grace and that we may stand before you unashamed at the day of your appearing. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Bit and Bridle: How to Escape Them,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 37, no. 2190, 101.
 Psalm 121:1–5 (NIV 1984).
 William C. Martin, “My Father Watches over Me” (1910). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Isaiah 53:6.
 See Romans 12:2.
 Psalm 19:7–8 (NIV 1984).
 J. I. Packer, “Our Lord’s Understanding of the Law of God,” Campbell Morgan Memorial Lectureship, no. 14 (Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate, London, 1962), https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_law_packer.html.
 See the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 198.
 The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951), 4:172.
 Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (London: Banner of Truth, 1964), 71.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 2:260.
 See Hebrews 10:16; Jeremiah 31:33.
 Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining: Or a Treatise of Grace and Assurance (London, 1652), 360.
 John 4:34 (paraphrased).
 John 14:15, 21, 23 (paraphrased).
 Samuel Rutherford, The Trial and Triumph of Faith (London, 1645), 122.
 John Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers (Philadelphia, 1793), 60.
 John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (London: Tyndale, 1957), 199.
 Psalm 119:44–45 (NIV 1984).
 John H. Sammis, “Trust and Obey” (1887).
 See Ephesians 1:6.
 See 1 John 2:28.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.