Convocation Address: Rejoicing At Jehovah’s Word

[Editor’s Note: On the evening of September 8, at our Hope Protestant Reformed Church, we had a public program in connection with our Seminary Convocation. A small, but attentive audience joined the faculty and student body for this program, led by the Rev. H. Veldman, president of the Theological School Committee. In his capacity as Rector of our school, your editor delivered the convocation address, reproduced below from notes.]

We may find what might well serve as the keynote, the motto, in all our seminary labors during the coming term in Psalm 119:162, “I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil.” This entire psalm extols the Word of God. With its several synonyms for the Word, and with its references to that Word in every verse except one, and with the twenty-two sections of what might be called an acrostic on the Word of God, it is an altogether amazing psalm. I suggest that you read it carefully sometime in its entirety, rather than a section or two at a time, as we probably are accustomed to do: you will be impressed anew by its riches. The particular section in which verse 162 is found may be said, I believe, to stress the idea of God-fearing joy at the Word of God. Now it is precisely that Word, you know, which—directly or indirectly—is at the basis of and is the object of all our studies in the seminary. And these studies are, in turn, aimed at preparation for the ministry of the Word. Hence, it is indeed fitting that at the beginning of this term’s labors at school we take this word to heart: “I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil.” 

Let me make three introductory observations of a practical nature. In the first place, I point out that this expression of the psalmist ought to be, by faith, the expression of our own attitude. We should imitate the poet in this expression. Notice that the expression of the text is very personal. It is not a mere dogmatic statement: God’s people rejoice at His Word. No, the psalmist speaks personally. He speaks of his own experience, and that, too, coram Deo, before the face of God. And the intent is that we shall follow him in this expression: by faith we shall say, “I rejoice at thy word. . . .” There may be differences of circumstances and occasion between us and the psalmist. Those differences are not essential. We ought to say—and I have in mind our labors in the Word and doctrine at the seminary in particular “I rejoice at thy word, O Jehovah.” In the second place, let me point out that this verse expresses what is the right spiritual attitude of him who comes into contact with that Word of our covenant God, namely, joy. And, in the third place, I point out that this attitude of joy should serve to furnish us with the right perspective and the proper motivation in our labors with the Word of God. Let us keep these three observations in mind while we briefly study the meaning of this verse.

The Word 

The poet says that he rejoices at God’s Word. What does that mean? 

By the Word here is evidently meant the Scriptures, or the Word of God as we have the infallible record of it in the Scriptures in their entirety. 

The Bible also speaks of the Word of God with respect to the Son of God: He is the Word. He is the Word of God as God eternally speaks it to Himself. Or it speaks of that Word of God as spoken in the work of creation: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” Scripture also speaks of the Word of God as spoken on particular occasions and to individuals. In that sense the Word of the Lord came to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and to the prophets. But evidently the psalmist does not refer to any of these. Nor does he refer here to a Word of God which had come personally to him by direct revelation. But he has in mind the Word of God in the Scriptures. This is the idea throughout the psalm, in fact. The psalmist was in possession of the Word of God recorded, and as it contained, for example, commandments, statutes, precepts, testimonies, ordinances, judgments, promises. It is that Word of God which he could read, upon which he could meditate, which he could study and contemplate, that he has in mind. 

Now what is the character of that Word of God which the psalmist possessed and which we also possess? 

In the first place, it is always the Word of God, that is, the Word of which God is the subject, the Word which God speaks. Here in vs. 162 this aspect is even emphasized by the particular term which is used in the Hebrew, in distinction from the term used in the preceding verse. Both are translated by “word” in our English Bible; and both denote the same Word of God. But the terms are not quite the same. By the term in our text there is emphasized the idea that this Word is the Word which God speaks. In the second place, the Word of God is a word which God speaks concerning Himself: It is the revelation of God. Through His Word we always learn to know God. We learn to know Who God is and what God is and what God does. God is God! And when He speaks, He always speaks concerning Himself. He is the purpose of His own speech. And if I may run ahead for a moment, this is the deepest reason why that Word of God is found by the psalmist and by us to be so unspeakably rich, and therefore delightful. When you come upon that Word and are filled with joy at that Word, it is because you find God in that Word. And it is because the God Who speaks concerning Himself in that Word is the infinitely deep and unsearchable and rich and delightful God!, In the third place, and this must have the emphasis here, that Word is the Word of Jehovah, the Word of God as the God of our salvation, our covenant God, in Christ. That is the special significance of the Word of God as we have it in the Scriptures. Nowhere else does God speak of Himself as the God of our salvation in the face of Jesus Christ our Savior. Nowhere else does He speak of Himself as our covenant God than in those Scriptures. This is the significance of the Word of God here. It is God’s Word to His people, revealing to them Who He is and what He does through Jesus Christ our Lord. Such is the central content of all the Scriptures. 

There is another question: how is that Word spoken to us? 

The answer to this question is three-fold. 

In the first place, that Word was spoken by the wonder of revelation throughout the ages until it was full. The Word of God as the God of our salvation was spoken from the very beginning in paradise, Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed…” It was spoken through patriarchs and prophets throughout the old dispensation. It was spoken through types and shadows in Israel. Centrally, it was spoken through God’s Son in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the fulness of time—in all His manifestation, in all His words and works, in His incarnation, His suffering and atoning death, in His resurrection and ascension and exaltation at the right hand of God, in His reception of the Spirit and His pouring out of that Spirit through Whom He dwells in His church, and in His promised coming again to judge the quick and the dead. And it was spoken through the apostles in the new dispensation. 

In the second place, that Word is Preserved for us in the Scriptures. That is the wonder of inspiration. The Word of God—and let me emphasize: exclusively the Word of God—is preserved for us in the Scriptures through the inspiration of the Spirit Who led men and guided men to write in such a way that what they wrote was not the word of man, but the Word of God, so that in the Bible in its entirety we have the perfect and infallible record of the Word of God. 

And, in the third place, that Word of God has beenentrusted to the church. Also this belongs to the wonder whereby we have the Word of God. God entrusted His Word to the church, so that from many other books that have been written only the sixty-six books of our Bible were collected into one, while all the rest were excluded. How was that possible? Was it accidental? Was it arbitrary? Not at all. Let us use the example of a jig-saw puzzle. Who cannot tell whether all the pieces of that puzzle are there? Who cannot distinguish whether a piece is missing? Who cannot discern which are the proper pieces of that puzzle in distinction from any which do not belong to it? So it was with the church and the canon of Holy Scripture. Inwardly the church was guided by the Spirit, that is, the principle here. And the objective principle is that the church was guided by the fulness of the Christ-revelation. 

The Contents of the Word 

Notice that the psalmist speaks here in the singular. He does not say: “I rejoice at thy words.” But he says: “I rejoice at thy word.” This signifies that this Word is one. It is one organic whole. As God is one, as the Son is one, as Christ is one, so the Word is one. And it is always .essentially the same and complete. You might be inclined to say that when the psalmist writes of the Word of God here, and when we speak of the Word of God, these cannot possibly be the same. After all, the Scriptures were not by any means completed yet when the psalmist wrote. But we have the finished Scriptures. But this would certainly not be correct. There is difference of opinion as to the identity of this psalmist and as to when he lived. Some place him in the period long after the return from the captivity; others place him much earlier in history, and even identify him with David. Certain it is that he did not possess the completed Scriptures, not even the completed Old Testament, when he wrote. Yet he speaks of “thy word.” He does not say that he rejoices in a fraction of God’s Word, in a section of God’s Word, some words of God’s Word. No, he has the whole Word of God. That one Word of God was spoken already in paradise. It became clearer and fuller and richer in its meaning and brighter in its light as time went on and as God continued to speak it. But it was always that same Word, the Word of the God of our salvation. And it was revealed in all its fulness in the fulness of time, when our Lord Jesus Christ sojourned among us. And its record was completed through the apostles. Yet it was always the same Word. That Word the psalmist possessed. That Word we possess. 

From the point of view of its contents the oneness of that Word consists in its being the revelation of God in Christ—our Savior, our Sanctifier, our Perfecter, our Lord and our God. You may distinguish various aspects of that Word. You may distinguish many and varied words in that Word. The poet does that in this very psalm when he employs all the various synonyms for the Word of God which you find in this psalm. In the main, you may distinguish that Word as the revelation of the promise: the good news of our salvation and all that is connected with it. And you may distinguish it as the revelation of the will of the God of our salvation concerning our life and walk as His covenant people in the midst of the world, as this is so often emphasized in this psalm. But centrally that Word is the one revelation of the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ. That is its content.

And that Word is rich! It is like great spoil! When you come upon that Word, it is like coming upon rich spoil. Such is the implication of the figure and the comparison here. We will return to that presently. 

But for the moment I want to emphasize that that Word is rich. This is the reason for the poet’s joy. 

And if you ask why that Word of God is so rich, I would answer, in, the first place, that it is rich simply because it is the Word of God, the speech of God Himself. What a wonder this is! What a wonder it is that God condescends to speak to us! What a wonder it is that we possess that unmixed unadulterated speech of God Himself in the Scriptures, on our level, in our human language—and yet so that it is indeed the Word of God! In the second place, it is rich, as I have already pointed out, because—and this is the deepest reason—it always speaks of God, Who is Himself infinitely rich. This is the deepest reason why that Word is always new. Its riches are unending as God is unending. This is why you can read that Word and study that Word and exegete that Word and preach on that Word, and never be finished! You always find new riches—much spoil—in that Word. In the third place, that Word is rich because it speaks of infinite riches of grace and of never-ending and unfathomable blessings of salvation through sovereign grace—of things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, and which have never arisen in the heart of man. How wonderful! In the fourth place, that Word is rich because it reveals to us the knowledge of Him Whom to know is life eternal, through Jesus Christ Whom He has sent. It reveals to us that knowledge of God which is the knowledge of friendship, of covenant fellowship! How delightful! 

Joy At God’s Word 

It is this objective riches of the Word of God that is subjectively reflected and echoed in the psalmist’s confession here: “I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil.” And the language of the text is such that the poet emphasizes that this is his constant attitude. Literally, he pictures himself as constantly leaping for joy. And he describes that joy concretely by way of the comparison which he adds: “…as one that findeth great spoil.” 

You see, there are various possible attitudes which one may assume towards these Scriptures, the Word of God. 

One can assume a coldly calculating, critical attitude when he takes the Bible in hand. And then he may attempt to maintain in various ways and various degrees that that Word is everything but the Word of God. That is principally the attitude of unbelief. A person who assumes this attitude has no joy at the Word of God. The attitude of joy, such as the psalmist expresses, is a spontaneous and naive attitude which excludes that shrewd and calculating criticism. And let me emphasize, because this critical attitude is so common today: there is no joy, no real joy, in such criticism. Another possibility is the assumption of a mechanical, coldly intellectual attitude. I often think that this constitutes a real danger for seminary students and theological professors and ministers. They are constantly busy with the Scriptures. That is their work,—and rightly so. But when they are busy with that Word of God day in and day out, sometimes plodding along and laboring hard, sometimes laboring under a certain compulsion; under the necessity of an assignment, or under the necessity of preparing a sermon by a certain deadline, there is a certain danger that you come to look upon your work as a job rather than a calling, as a task rather than a pleasure and privilege. You can labor with the Scriptures as a man on an assembly line labors at his machine. Sometimes before one realizes it he can get into such a frame of mind. This is at least one of the reasons why our attitude in our labor with the Word should always be a prayerful one. 

But the psalmist says: “I rejoice, I leap for joy…” 

That presupposes, of course, that he comes into contact with that Word. That Word is the object of his contemplation and his meditation, and that, too, constantly. It means, in the second place, that the Word of God finds receptivity in his regenerated heart. For we must remember that this is the language of a regenerated child of God. This joy is the reaction only of a heart that has been gripped by the power of God’s grace, not the reaction of a totally depraved nature. And in and from that regenerated heart originates his joy. That joy is the opposite of a morbid and gloomy and critical and belittling attitude. From that heart springs a delight of the mind to know and to search and .to probe and to understand that Word of God and its riches. From that heart springs a delight of the will to heed and to walk in the light of and to do that Word of God. And from that heart springs a delight of all our desires, so that they all concentrate around that Word of God. And this implies, of course, that we study that Word, those Scriptures, diligently and prayerfully. For through the Spirit of Christ that Word must enter our heart and mind and our entire being, so that we apprehend its riches and taste them. 

In characteristic language of the Old Testament and of the psalms, the poet reinforces what he says here by a comparison: “…as one that findeth great spoil.” 

You recognize the picture. It is the picture of the battlefield after the battle, when the spoils of warfare are discovered and divided. The point of the comparison is not that of the way in which one attains to this great spoil, but that of the joy of one that findeth great spoil. If I may point to a couple of Scriptural illustrations: this is the joy which the mother of Sisera and her wise ladies are imagined as anticipating in the song of Deborah and Barak,Judges 5:29, 30: “Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself, Have they not sped, have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera a prey of divers colors, a prey of diverse colors of needlework, of divers colors of needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take the spoil?” Or it is the delight of those lepers, in the time of Elisha, when the Lord miraculously delivered Samaria from the siege of the Syrians, II Kings 7. You can imagine their excitement when they came upon the abandoned camp of the Syrians, as they are described in verse 8: “And when these lepers came to the uttermost part of the camp, they went into one tent, and did eat and drink, and carried thence silver, and gold, and raiment, and went and hid it; and came again, and entered into another tent, and carried thence also, and went and hid it.” You can sense their amazed excitement. And then they come to their senses, and they realize that they must share these good tidings and go and tell the king’s household. This is the idea of this comparison in our text. Notice that this joy is not something simply subjective. The reason and occasion for the joy is the finding of objective riches, much spoil. And thus it is when we come upon that Word, the Word of God. The result is excitement, ecstasy, delight at coming upon the depth of the riches of that Word of God! It is the excitement of one that returns and comes upon new and unending riches and depths every time again. It is the kind of rejoicing that makes the psalmist leap for joy! No, indeed, this joy is no shallow and unfounded and momentary emotion. It is a deep-seated and well-founded joy and an excited and ecstatic joy of one who has tasted the riches of grace and the depth of the riches of the knowledge of God.

Let me conclude where I began. 

Let that fundamental attitude of joy fill us and guard us against ever under-estimating and under-evaluating the Word of God, or even beginning to criticize it. I assure you that its riches are beyond our boldest comprehension. For that Word is the revelation of the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God, of Whom, and through Whom, and unto Whom are all things! You as students might be said to stand at the beginning of your contacts and your labors with that Word of God. From that point of view you have only begun to probe its much spoil. I, as one of your professors, have a good many more years of experience in this respect. But I, too, have not begun to reach that end of the riches of that Word. And if the Lord gives us many more years in these labors, we shall never reach the end of those unending riches. I say again: its riches are beyond our boldest comprehension. There is ample reason to rejoice continually. 

And, in the second place, let the fundamental perspective and motivation of that joy move us and encourage us in our work. When we might be inclined to think that our labor is drudgery and that our load is too heavy, that the effort is not worthwhile, that the struggle is too great, or to imagine that with all the exegesis in the world we cannot find much riches and cannot mine much gold from the Word, cannot find much reason to leap for joy—then let us consider again and learn to say anew, as we go back to that Word: “I leap for joy at thy word, as one that findeth much spoil.” 

May God grant that this may be our attitude.