You Become What You Behold (A Meditation on Psalm 119:36-37)

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. Psalm 119: 36-37 

The Psalmist reveals his utter dependence upon God in the fifth stanza of Psalm 119, labeled with the Hebrew letter “He”. Every verse in this stanza is marked by a request for his covenant God to do in him what he cannot do for himself: “Teach me…”(verse 33); “Give me understanding…”(verse 34); “Lead me…”(verse 35); “Incline my heart…”(verse 36); “Turn my eyes…”(verse 37); “Confirm to you servant…”(verse 38); “Turn away the reproach…”(verse 39); “…give me life!”(verse 40). These are the cries of one who understands his inability to live a God-honoring life in a broken world apart from God empowering him to do so. It is no different for us. The same temptations that sought to divert the Psalmist’s gaze and capture his heart beckon us to behold them with an awe that is, by design, meant only for our Creator. We are desperately dependent upon the Holy Spirit to keep our gaze fixed on the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and live in a manner worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).

In verse 36, the Psalmist’s plea of “incline my heart” is an acknowledgement of the potential for his heart to be divided. If he felt perfectly in control of his resolve to remain true to God’s commandments, this request likely would not have been articulated. He confesses the inclination of his heart to be “selfish gain.” The Hebrew word used here is “betsa,” which means “dishonest gain.” It can also be translated “material gain” (HCSB), “dishonest profit” (CSB), and “covetousness” (NKJV). The Psalmist understands that in order to resist his natural bent toward pursuit of selfish gain as a means to satisfaction and fulfillment, he must remain in God’s Word to remind him of all God provides and promises to His people. He appeals to God to change his affections so that instead of turning to seek life in things that cannot satisfy, he will instead find life in God’s Word. 

The depth of his dilemma is made even clearer in verse 37. He asks God to turn his eyes from ”looking at worthless things.” The Hebrew word for worthless here is “shav,” which denotes “emptiness, vanity, evil, ruin, uselessness.” These worthless things are likely what have tempted him to seek selfish gain. The more he looks upon them, the more enticing they are, and he begins to covet them. Yet because he has abided in the Word of God, he recognizes that they have no eternal value and no ability to give life to him (Luke 12:15) – in fact, they could lead him to destruction (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The Psalmist petitions God, “give me life in your ways,” expressing his need to be revived from the spiritual deadening his desire for selfish gain has induced.

The Psalmist’s struggle with coveting is as ancient as the Garden yet just as relevant to life in a broken world today. Our natural bent is to pursue that which seemingly offers us pleasure, comfort, security, or status. The “selfish gain” spoken of in verse 36 refers to a material gain or profit, which is of timeless appeal to our flesh, but anything we pursue outside of God’s will for us and motivated by a heart that seeks to benefit ourselves alone can be considered selfish gain. Wanting what we can’t have to the point of not being content with what we do have can cause us to lose a Godward focus. We can become so focused on what we want (and perhaps are convinced we need) that we become dull to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Our focus then becomes a “beholding”; the verb “behold” as defined in the Oxford Dictionary means “to see or observe someone or something, especially of remarkable or impressive nature.” It follows then that our hearts are engaged when we behold something – our affections are stirred as we admire what we perceive to be remarkable or impressive. We can believe the lie that if we are denied whatever it is we are beholding, our lives will be incomplete and we will lack something essential to our well-being.

Such was the scene in the Garden of Eden. Eve entertained the Serpent’s observation of God’s command concerning the only tree in the Garden she and Adam were forbidden to eat from: “’You shall not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…” (Genesis 3:4-6). Despite having lived in perfect fellowship with God and with Adam, Eve allowed the Serpent to introduce doubt about God’s motives in forbidding them to eat from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Serpent twisted God’s command, which was intended to preserve them from destruction, and made it appear to Eve as though God was withholding something good and essential from them. The tree and its fruit then became the object of Eve’s desire, and as she beheld it, her desire grew and she perceived it to be necessary to partake of it in order to gain wisdom. As a result of beholding what God clearly forbade her to eat, her heart was inclined away from His command and she instead acted on her selfish desire. Rather than gaining life and well-being, Adam and Eve gained shame, guilt, and spiritual death as a result. 

The natural inclination of mankind’s heart ever since that day has been to stiff-arm our Creator’s good design for us and long for the self-rule that seeks to rival God’s rightful rule over our lives. But by God’s grace, we who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ can resist the temptation to behold anything that attempts to capture our awe and displace God from His rightful throne in our hearts. By the power of the Holy Spirit, our minds can be renewed, and our desires transformed as we abide in God’s Word (Romans 12:2). Like the Psalmist, we must pray that God would incline our hearts to turn to His testimonies and not to the things our sinful hearts covet and prioritize above Him. Rather than looking upon worthless things, we must plead with Him to fix our gaze on Christ, our greatest Treasure. Only in Him will we find grace that is sufficient for every temptation and trial (1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10). May we be transformed as we behold Him (2 Corinthians 3:18). 

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace. - Helen H. Lemmel

Ellen Melnick

David AubreyComment