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Online Text Sermon - The Conscientious Believer, Psalm 141 vv.1-5

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleThe Conscientious Believer
TextPsalm 141 vv.1-5
Sermon ID94

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"Lord, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips. Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties. Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness; and let him reprove me: it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities" (Psalm 141,1-5).

1. A lesson about prayer.

2. A lesson concerning how we are to speak

3. A lesson concerning our own hearts

4. A lesson concerning submission

Now, I want to look here at four different lessons which come to us from what the Psalmist says in these five verses; but before I do that, let me say briefly that it is very clear that the Psalmist, here, as a man of God, is living in a time of trouble. How do we know? Well, by the references which he makes. For instance, at verse 7, he says: "our bones are scattered at the grave's mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth". He speaks in verse 9, saying: "Keep me from the snares which they have laid for me, and the gins of the workers of iniquity". Gins, of course, are traps, means for catching your feet, and ensnaring you. So, he was living amidst difficulties and troubles, trials and tribulations; and it is one of the ways of knowing that we belong to God when we find ourselves in many troubles in this life. The wicked usually have a comparatively easy passage through life, but the Lord's people go through many difficulties and disciplines. There are good reasons for that, as we shall see, but the Psalmist, here, is writing these words, which form my text in verses 1-5, he's writing these words out of a felt sense of the difficulties and the trials through which God is taking him at that time.

And if you, my friends, are going through some difficulty, or some temptation, or some affliction, then it shows that you belong to the people of God; that you are under the discipline of God's special providence, sanctifying His own children here below. Those whom God loves, he chastens (Hebrews 12,6). But He allows the others to go on in their madness and recklessness, in this life. He doesn't chasten them, He doesn't stop them, He doesn't interfere with the peace of their life: He allows them to go on, until at last, His axe comes down and He cuts them away, and they go to a lost eternity. But the Lord's people are disciplined, in this life; and all the Psalms, more or less, make reference to that fact.

Now let me, then, tell you what these four lessons are and come back and look at them with you. In verses 1 and 2, we have a lesson about prayer: "Lord, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." Clearly, he is talking there about one thing only, and that is prayer. Then, in verse 3, he talks about a different theme: "Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips." The lesson that he prays about there is the lesson concerning our speech, the use of our tongue, how to use the gift of speech that God has given to us. Then in verse 4: "Incline not my heart to any evil thing", and so on. That is a lesson about his own heart. And then the fourth lesson you find at verse 5: "Let the righteous smite me". He is praying for the ability to take a good rebuke when that is deserved. He is praying for grace that he may not be offended when the Lord's people rebuke him.

So, here are four spiritual lessons: first, concerning prayer; and then, secondly, how we are to speak; and then, thirdly, a lesson concerning our own hearts; and then, fourthly, a lesson to be made teachable, and submissive, and willing to take a rebuke when that is appropriate. Let's look at these four things.


First of all, concerning prayer: "Lord, I cry unto thee". Now this is one great reason why the Lord puts His children, in this life, through difficult experiences. God is teaching us how to pray. Now, we never pray at our best except when we're in trouble. In trouble, we really do pray, don't we. When life is comparatively easy and plain sailing we still pray, but we don't pray with the same earnestness, or with the same urgency. It's rather like one of those Proverbs, "Iron sharpening iron" (Proverbs 27,17). That's what happens to the soul. Affliction, when it is sanctified to a Christian's soul, it is like iron sharpening iron - it puts an edge to our prayers; it gives us an extra zeal to pray, to God. So, the Psalmist is in that position. "Lord," he says, "I cry unto thee". Now we have to blame ourselves, you and I, when we pray it's not really a cry at all: it's really just a pretty pattern of words; and this is a lesson, then, concerning prayer.

How are we to improve in prayer? Well, it is to walk obediently and carefully with God. It is possible to dodge the discipline of God in this life. It is possible to make life easier for ourselves than is good for ourselves. David could have compromised many a time. He could have given in many of the aspects of the Christian fight which he had to fight. The reason why David's early life was so difficult was because he walked wholeheartedly with God. He would not compromise; he would not move to the right or to the left of his duty to God. He followed the Lord with all his heart, and all his soul - as we ought to do.

So he compares the kind of prayer he wants to pray with two things. Let me show you what they are, in verse 2: "Let my prayer be set forth before thee," he says, "as incense."

That is a reference, you will know, to what the priests had to do in the tabernacle, or the temple, in the Old Testament. May I just remind you what went on in the tabernacle and the temple. In the tabernacle there was an outer courtyard, and the worshipper went through the gate and the first thing he saw, on the right hand side, was this altar of brass with four horns, one at each corner; and here he would see sacrifices burning. As he went further along he would come to a thing called a laver, like a pedestal, and a bowl with water, and this is what the priest used for washing the sacrifices, perhaps even washing his own hands and cleansing himself ceremonially, before entering - as only the priest could do - into the Holy Place.

Inside the Holy Place the priest saw three things: on his left he saw the seven-branched candlestick, which was the only source of light inside the Holy Place. It was a true picture and type of a Christian, "Ye are the light of the world" (Matthew 5,14). On the right-hand side he saw a table; it had the name The Table of Shewbread, on which every week twelve fresh loaves were put out of unleavened bread. These symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel; and the table is the symbol of the fact that we as God's people are the guests in the presence of God. He is the Host; we are the guests. He is the Lord of the house and we are but His guests in the house. And then as he went a little further on, immediately before the great veil separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, there was a small gold incense altar. This was not for blood sacrifice, this was simply for incense, which was like a little powder, or a gum, or a resin, which was placed on top of the altar of pure gold, and the priest would then set a light to it, and it would give a smoke and a perfume. The smoke would go up and up, and it would send a fragrance throughout the whole of the tabernacle, the Holy Place.

You may well remember that the father of John the Baptist, who was a priest, was performing this very duty in Luke's gospel chapter one. It's only recently I realized what a great privilege it was for a priest to offer the sacrifice of the incense. There were thousands and thousands of priests, I recently discovered, in the Jewish nation at that time, and no priest would get the opportunity to offer incense more than once in a lifetime, and many priests would never get the opportunity even once in a lifetime. So, when Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, saw the angel at the side of the golden incense altar in the temple, as you remember, he was doing something which was the most wonderful day of his life, the highest privilege that a priest could aspire to: he was offering the incense on the golden altar in the temple.

Now, David prays that his prayer life may be like that: "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense". Why would he put it like that? Well, because incense, in the tabernacle and temple, was a type of prayer. You see this in the Book of Revelation, chapter five. The prayers of the saints go up from the altar (Revelation 5,8; 8,4). In other words, David is here praying that his prayer may be acceptable with God.

My friends, it's important for us when we pray to we pray things that are acceptable to God. That's why we must know our Bible, and our catechism, because if we don't know the things that are pleasing to God, how can we pray those things? There are many ignorant things said in prayer. The better and the purer our prayers are the more they will go up to God's presence like incense, ascending from this holy, golden altar.

The prayers of great Christians are very mighty and very powerful; and you will remember that Mary Queen of Scots said about the prayers of John Knox: she feared the prayers of Knox more than an army of a thousand men coming against her kingdom. She knew that when Knox prayed his prayers were going up to God, and his prayers were acceptable to God. So, David is praying, Oh Lord, let my prayers be holy. Let my prayers ascend into Thy holy ears. Oh Lord, he says, let my prayers bring with them refreshment and fragrance to the people of God.

I'm sure we've all had that experience. Sometimes in a prayer meeting one brother or another will pray in such a spiritual, fragrant manner that you feel refreshed, and you never quite forget that experience.

"Let my prayer be set before thee as incense"; but then he goes on, "and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." Now, here's the second illustration.

Every day the priests had to offer to God what was called 'the continual burnt offering'. Come back a little in what I said earlier. As you went through the gate into the first court (where the worshippers were), on your right-hand side you saw a large brass altar - not the one I've just been talking about which is in the Holy Place made of gold; this was brass - and here the animals were offered in sacrifice to God. The priest kills the lamb, or the goat, or the bullock, whatever it was, and cut it in its pieces, and put the pieces on the wood on the fire, and this was done by the priests every morning, and every evening; there was a continual burning of a sacrifice.

The reason for that was to show the people that their only standing, and their only acceptance with God was on the basis of Christ's sacrifice: the Christ who was not yet come, but would come; the Christ who had not yet died, but would die; the Christ who, when He came, would shed His precious blood for His people and be the sacrifice to reconcile us all to God. So, God insisted that every morning and every evening there had to be this renewing of the sacrifice.

So, he prays: "Let my prayer be as the evening sacrifice". What did he mean? No doubt it was this - a reviving! You see, when the lamb was cut in its small pieces with its fat, and its inward parts, and its meat, and placed on the wood, the flame! which was then dying down, would leap up high! many yards into the air and could be seen at a great distance. Fat burns very fiercely, and so as they placed the fat and the inwards upon the fire - suddenly it revived! and the people would be excited! to see this renewal of the promise of God to be their God.

And that's how our prayers are to be, says David. Oh! that we might have this fragrance! this reviving influence in our souls. "Let the lifting up of my hands be as the evening sacrifice."

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, these are the kind of prayers God requires from us, and prayers we should study, then, to offer to Him. I hope you're one of those who come to prayer meetings, when you can (which we can't always do), and I hope you pray in such a spirit as David does.


Now, secondly, David prays here, in verse 3: "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth: keep the door of my lips." He's talking here about the lesson relating to speech.

Now, God has given us eyes to see, and ears to hear, and a mouth to speak; and He has given us ways and means of shutting those three things. We shut our ears by putting our hands over them. We shut our eyes with our eyelids. And we shut our mouth with our lips. The lips are the gates that God has built into our face to close our mouth from speaking. So, David says, keep the door of my lips, set a watch before my mouth.

Now, a watch is a sentry, and a sentry is a soldier who is armed. When you go to a military camp or some important military installation it's never unguarded. Always, there's a soldier with a gun, and if you come too close he will challenge you-'Who goes there?'-you have to answer for your identity. He is the sentry. He needs to know who is coming and going. It's the same at 10 Downing Street, and important political buildings: you have a policeman on either side of the door. You can't just walk into 10 Downing Street. You have to declare your business. You have to be some important person with business. The same, of course, at Buckingham Palace: there's a guard and a sentry, and you can't just walk in.

Now then, that's what David uses as an illustration: Oh God, set a sentry, set a policeman, at the door of my mouth. Now, that might seem a strange thing to say. What has David got in mind? Well, he means, of course, to say that we can do a terrible lot of harm with our lips, and with our mouth, and with our tongue, and with our speech. You remember how the Bible puts this? The tongue is like poison, says the Bible; the tongue is deadly. The tongue is like a spark that can set a whole world ablaze (James 3,5-10). A lot of great fire can be caused by a single spark in these Highland regions in the summer when the trees are dry, and the heather dry. It only takes one thoughtless camper to create a spark, and you can have square miles of trees and heather burnt, and burnt for years before they recover again. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles, says the Bible (James 3,5b).

Now, my friends, your tongue and mine are capable of tremendous harm. He is referring to gossip, backbiting, and dropping ideas into people's minds. It can do tremendous harm, and we've all been guilty of it. So David says, Lord, set a watch in front of my lips. Keep my mouth from speaking guile, from speaking evil. It's so easy to hurt one another, so easy to upset somebody. We don't even always mean it! Sometimes thoughtlessly and unmeaningfully we say something and it creates endless harm. It takes us ten seconds to say it, and ten years to get over it.

Now that's what David means: Oh, Lord, set a keeper, set a watchman, at the door of my mouth. Well now my dear friends, there's a lesson for us all here: for me, and for you. We're all capable of using the tongue for good. And the positive side of this is that when we gather together in our fellowships - let us try to talk about what is good. Let us respect men's reputations. Let us respect people's judgements and leave them to God. Let us talk about heavenly things, and holy things, and high things, and stir one another up in the ways of righteousness, and love, and unity and harmony. Be more ready to have somebody speak evil of you than for you to speak evil of them. If they curse you, how do you behave in return? You bless them. If they say something unkind to you, your response should be: Well, my friend, I wish you nothing but good.

We get that perfectly exemplified in the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you remember that incident when our Lord was in the high priest's palace; He was put on trial, and these wicked men, these Pharisees and others, they were putting Him on trial and you remember our Lord said something quite ordinary, quite quietly to the high priest in answer to a question, and this man who was an attendant and a bystander, he came up to Christ, and He hit our Lord across the face. And what did Jesus Christ do? He simply said this, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: and if not why do you smite me? (John 18,23). See the gentleness, the kindness of the Lord. He didn't 'fly off the handle', as we say. You and I would, perhaps, but He did not. "Oh, set a watch in front of my mouth". It is a prayer for us all. We shall all be much wiser when we have learned to pray this prayer.


Now, thirdly, a lesson about the human heart, at verse 4: "Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties." Now, the heart, in the Bible, means the real you; not the you that I know, but the you that you know, and God knows. You see, we're very complicated, aren't we? We don't really know one another. What we are at home is what we are. It's the person that our wife or our husband knows, or our closest friend knows. We can all put on what we call 'a public face', as against 'a private face'. You say to me, we ought not. Very well, we ought not; but that's what men do. But the real you and the real me: that's what's meant by the heart - the secret of human personality, the mind, the will, the affections.

The way to judge of a person is to judge of the things they love, because the things that people love show where their heart is placed. Of course, everybody who owns a public house knows this. What you do if you're the owner of a public house or a drug dealer is you do your best to get people's heart addicted to what you're selling them. If you're selling strong drink then, of course, you want to achieve for people to come in and you give them a free glass of this or a free glass of that. You can afford to spend that amount of money because once you've got them hooked on this stuff, they'll come back for it every day of life and they'll be paying you handsomely for it. It's the same with drug dealing - any form of addiction - you want to catch their heart. Once you've got their heart then you've got their money as well, because they'll pay for it. It's the same with drugs and everything else. Once you've captured somebody's heart, then you've got everything that really matters. They'll be ready to give you everything to get what they want.

So, says David, "incline not mine heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works".

Now this must be a prayer, surely, for the twenty-first century: a century when there are so many temptations of so many kinds - wicked things to read, and to see, and to do; places which are very dangerous for us. He's praying that God will not incline his heart to these things. You see, God has the power to keep our hearts from desiring wickedness; or, again, God has the power to give us over to do wicked things. Now, God never pushes people into doing wicked things, but then He doesn't need to because our hearts are so wicked that they will naturally be attracted to wicked things - unless He stops them. So, what God does when He inclines people's hearts to wickedness is He doesn't give them a push in that direction, He simply takes away the grace of His Holy Spirit. He takes away the restraint from them, and the effect of that is that they go down the hill and the power of sin leads them on to desiring what is wicked. "Incline not my heart to any evil thing".

Every one of us, sadly, have many times seen people who are ruined in their lives through drink, and drugs, and lust, and filth; and they can't get out of it, they're locked into it, their hearts are mastered by it. Their hearts are enslaved with a thousand chains through all the lusts and passions of this world. We don't have to go far in Inverness to see poor souls like this. Well, my friend, it could be you! or me! There's plenty of failed ministers who are in the gutter - plenty of them. And there's plenty of failed lawyers, and plenty of failed doctors, and plenty of failed everything. You can be right at the top of a profession and come crashing down to the bottom. It all depends on this one prayer: that God should keep us from lusting after evil things to practice evil works. Listen! "Let me now eat of their dainties", he says. Now, dainties means: sweet sins, which people enjoy in secret. Dainties. Bread eaten in secret. "Stolen waters are sweet" (Proverbs 9,17). Do you know, there are people even in churches and they do things in secret that they would never wish anyone else to know. Secret sins. Secret lusts. Things they think about, talk about, and read. Things they entertain themselves with, feed their minds on; and they are filth and putrid. If you have any of these secret lusts, and secret sins, my friend, don't let the sun go down today, but deal with it in your own life. "Incline not my heart to any evil thing." Your heart is to be given to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ. Your heart is to be given to holiness and the service of God in this world. Oh, no wonder David says, "Incline not my heart to evil."

Are you taking seriously the lesson of this passage: our need to be taught how to pray; our need to be taught the lesson concerning prayer; and the use of the lips in speech? You see how prayer - prayer enters into everything! We must pray about all these things. We have to pray for ourselves, and our soul, and our sanctification. We have to pray about our prayers, and pray about our speaking, and pray about our hearts, and our affections, and our passions, and our sins. All of these things we have to bring to God in prayer.


And then the last thing, the fourth thing, is in verse 5: "Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness; and let him reprove me (or rebuke me, if you like): it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities" (text).

This is a prayer for a teachable spirit.

I don't know you, perhaps, very well (in some cases, though I do know others quite well), but I do know this about every one of us: we don't like to be rebuked. Most people when they get a rebuke, they get very angry. I would go this far: the way in which you and I take a rebuke proves how sanctified we are. A real saint can take a rebuke.

It was said about Archbishop Cranmer, at the English Reformation, something which can't be said about many. It was said about Cranmer: the best way to become his friend, and to make him your friend, was to do him a bad turn, and in return for that he would show you all the kindness he could. Oh, what a Christian. Oh, what a lesson.

Well, we're not talking about bad turns; we're talking about rebukes. David prays for the ability to take a rebuke. Now, the Bible is full of rebukes. A rebuke is a 'ticking off' for doing what is wrong. Take one or two examples.

Aaron had allowed the Jews to make a golden calf in the camp while Moses was up in the mountain. When Moses came down, you remember, judgement was executed and thousands of the Jews were put to death for what they had done worshipping an idol. And this is what Moses says to his brother: What did this people do unto thee that thou hast caused them to sin so great a sin? (Exodus 32,21) What a rebuke. Now that was a timely word. That was a well-deserved rebuke. You see, if ministers do what is sinful and wrong they bring sin and wrong into the people, and they bring judgment on the people; and in cases like that we have to rebuke this. We have to say, what did these people do to make you sin so great a sin? The rebuke is deserved.

You get a similar case, don't you, in David when he sinned with Bathsheba. You recall the incident when Nathan the prophet came and told him a parable, and David thought the prophet was talking of somebody else; so he gave a very stern rebuke: Let this man be killed for what he's done. Then, said Nathan: "Thou art the man" (2 Samuel 12,7). David said, "I have sinned" (2 Samuel 12,13); his conscience was stirred. That was a rebuke.

Take another case. Hezekiah, the king, was a great man; and he, on one occasion, forgot himself and he showed the Babylonian ambassadors all his treasures of gold, and silver, and so forth (2 Kings 20,13-18). And then Isaiah the prophet came and said to him, what did you show these ambassadors? Hezekiah said, I showed them everything. A day is coming, said Isaiah, when they'll all be carried away to Babylon. That's the judgement of God upon you. It was a terrible rebuke.

Or you get it in the New Testament. Peter was rebuked by Paul. Paul said, I withstood him to the very face, because he was to be blamed (Galatians 2,11). He went wrong. And Peter took it well.

My friends, do you and I take it well when we are rebuked? You know, this is the most difficult thing in the ministry. It would be very easy for a minister to make himself popular with people: he would always say nice things to you - that's the way to be popular in the ministry. If you stroke people the right way - like a cat isn't it - even children know this: if you stroke a cat the right way, it will purr; if you stroke a cat the wrong way, it will growl. If you stroke people the right way then, of course, they'll purr: 'wonderful minister we have; always says nice things'. But if you tell people the truth that they don't want to hear, that proves whether they're really sanctified or not; because the sanctified and the spiritual will take it; and we're all the same.

So, David prays, oh God I pray that I may not be so proud that I cannot take a well-deserved rebuke. Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness; let him reprove me: it shall be an excellent oil. Isn't that interesting? An excellent oil - what does it mean? Well, oil is put on the head for anointing; kings used to be anointed with oil: they poured it on the head. In other words, surely, he means that if we get a well-deserved rebuke from a man or a woman of God - it will not break our head! it won't do us any harm! A well-aimed rebuke by a man of God is like oil poured upon our heads: it will sweeten us; sanctify us.

It's like bringing up children. You know we have this government talk today about stopping 'smacking'; and if ever they really bring that in our nation will plummet down to the very depths. Parents who love their children chasten them, betimes; it doesn't mean to say that they hurt them, or harm them, but when they do what is sinful and wrong the kind thing to do is to correct them (Proverbs 22,15). A child left to itself will bring its father and mother to shame (Proverbs 29,15). Thou shalt chasten with the rod, says the Bible, and thou shalt deliver his soul from hell (Proverbs 23,14). Not that we'd hurt them, but we have to make them cry for their own good so they'll learn the lesson. And God loves his own children too much to leave us un-rebuked.

That's part of the work of the ministry. You see it says, "rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith" (Titus 1,13). If you want a sound congregation, then, you have to have a minister who will rebuke you, when you go astray. And he doesn't like that any more than you do, because he knows that people resent it; but it is the sign of faithfulness to God.

Let me not resent it, oh Lord, when a good man rebukes me, justifiably. It will not break my head; it will be like oil to sweeten and sanctify my life. And not only that, he says, but the day will come when I shall have to pray for them, when they are in trouble; just as now they pray and rebuke me, when I go wrong.

Four lessons: a lesson about prayer, in the first instance; then, a lesson about speech; a lesson about the human heart; and a prayer for a teachable spirit. These are very spiritual things, but, then, the Bible is a spiritual book. Oh, let us pray that God will make us such Christians as will excel in all these things.

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