A Study of Psalm 119:37
“Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.” (Psalm 119:37)
Turn away mine eyes!
In the way of Jehovah’s precepts the psalmist longs to walk.
For the statutes of the LORD are His delight, and to order his life according to them, and to observe them with all his heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, he considers a great good.
To the very end he would persevere in the way of His statutes, so that he may be faithful and fight the good fight, even though the enemy persecute him, and make the way well-nigh impossible.
Such is the theme of this entire section of the psalm.
And realizing that he is weak, and that the enemy is strong, he casts this entire part of the psalm into the form of a prayer for Jehovah’s grace, that by it he may be preserved, and in the strength of the LORD’s persevering power he may persevere. In need of everything is he, in need of instruction, in need of understanding, in need of the LORD’s direction that he may go in the way of His commandments, in need of that positive inclination of the heart in virtue of which he may constantly love the testimonies of his God, and hate covetousness. And always he must be quickened by that persevering grace of Jehovah in the way of righteousness.
But this way of God’s commandments leads directly through the very midst of the world.
And that world is full of opposition, full of enmity against God and His holy law, full of seducing influences, that would ensnare the child of God, and allure him into ways of rebellion and corruption.
And readily that lustful, vain world finds an ally in the flesh of him that seeks to keep Jehovah’s way.
The psalmist deeply feels his weakness, and seeing himself encompassed on every side by these seducing vanities, he prays:
“Turn away mine eyes!”
Or is not the earnest request of the psalmist impossible of fulfillment?
Would it not have been far more reasonable, and at the same time far more indicative of spiritual strength and courage to pray for strength that he might be able boldly to look at the vanities of the world, without being at all affected by their allurements, and deceived by their glamorous attractions?
Or is not the world, through which he must needs travel even unto the end, full of vanities, so that it is quite impossible to turn the eyes away from them? Is it not rather thus in the world, that to turn the eye from one of its vanities is but to turn it upon another?
A vanity is a lying thing.
It is a concrete representation of the lie: “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” It is an evil that appears good, a corruption that appears desirable, misery that offers itself as bliss, death that promises life; a thing that presents itself to the eye of the flesh as full of joy and blessedness, but that is actually filled with hell; a sweet but deadly poison, a white plastered grave, full of dead men’s bones, beautifully ornamented gates of hell. . . . .
Such is a vanity!
It is the creation of the sinful heart, as well as the object of its longing and lust.
For “when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise (O, but it was not!), she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” That was the beginning: the turning of the eye to a vanity, the turning of the heart away from the Word of God, to give heed to the lying vanity of the word of the devil. And that one act was decisive. Having turned once, man could never return. His heart having loved the lie, and having rejected the truth of the Word of God, he became a liar! And ever since, he has his eye fixed on that tree, and in the darkness of his mind he always again sees that it is good for food, and that it is desirable to make one wise, and that it is pleasant to the eyes, and he craves it, and eats. . . .
And after that first, original pattern, he fills the world with lying vanities!
Constantly he creates things that seem desirable and pleasant on the outside, but that are empty of that which is good, and full of corruption, damnation and hell! And so: “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life is not of the Father, but is of the world!” (1st John 2:16)
And the more the world develops, from the principle of that first lying vanity, the more it fills itself, and corrupts itself, and destroys itself with things that are vain, and becomes a veritable vanity-fair! There are the vanity-riches, created by him, who would have his soul eat and drink of an abundance of material things, but who is a stranger to the riches of God. There is the world’s vanity-glory, the glory of self, the pride and boast of the fool who, forgetful of the fact that his breath is in his nostrils, oblivious, too, of the fundamental principle that God made all things for His own name’s sake, and will not give His glory to another, is puffed up in his own imagination, and would be “as God”! There is a world full of vain philosophy, proclaimed from platform and pulpit, in the lecture room and in the church; published, too, in ponderous volumes and glamorous magazines and pamphlets, all ambassadors for the lie that man is his own God! There is the world’s cup of vanity – pleasure, filled to the brim with sweetest poison, offered on the streets and public markets of Vanity Fair wherever you turn, in your newspaper and magazine, your opera and theatre, in music and song, in picture and act. There is. . . .
But why mention more?. . . .
Everywhere it meets the eye: the world full of the creations of beautiful lies, beautiful, that is, to the same eye that once “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise!” . . . .
But how, then, could this prayer of the psalmist possibly be heard: Turn away my eyes from beholding vanity!?
Must not one withdraw himself in a lonely cell, or, as some have done, isolate themselves on top of a high pillar in the desert, in order to escape from the vanities of the world?
Or rather, would not even in that cell the vanities of the world and of the flesh penetrate, and would not the isolated pillar itself turn into the worst vanity of all?
Turn away mine eyes!
Wonder of grace!
For it is for this that the poet is praying.
For that wonder of grace in virtue of which it is possible to see and not to see, to behold and not to admire, to view and to abhor the vanity of the world!
Turn away my eyes!
The eye is here mentioned as the chief representative of all the senses that place our inmost soul into intelligent connection with the outside world.
How wonderfully is man formed!
From the inscrutable depths of his inmost soul, he beholds and experiences, interprets and understands, through the “light of his body” the world about him. Through the windows of his body the light of the world streams into his soul, so that he becomes aware of that world, perceives it, interprets it, and subjects it unto himself. These windows are his senses. And among them the eye is chief: “the light of the body is the eye.” But there are five of them, and with each of them man perceives the outside world, as well as himself in that world, from a special aspect, while again all these different aspects unite harmoniously into the one world of his perception: the world of sight, of hearing, of touch, of taste, and of smell.
But he was originally so formed, that in this world of his perception and of his interpretation, this world of his “natural light,” he might behold the higher light of the glory of God, and, letting that light stream into his heart, to dedicate all things unto that glory of the living God!
That was his true light!
His heart was directed to the praise of the Most High, and his eye was “single” unto God’s glory, and so his whole body was full of light!
But his heart became corrupt, his mind became darkness, his will became perverse, his eye became evil, and so his whole body was filled with darkness. And now he still has light, and still the outside physical world streams into his soul through the fivefold window of his body, and still he perceives and interprets, but from a corrupt heart, and with an evil eye, motivated by enmity against God. . . .
And the very light that is in him is darkness!
“If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23)
And thus he creates his own world, a world full of the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, a vanity-kingdom!
In that world lives also the child of God. To that world he belongs by nature. In the sphere of that world he is born. That world he loves, for also his heart is by nature corrupt, and his eye is evil, and with that evil eye he greedily gazes at the vanities of the world about him. But the wonder of grace took hold of him, changed his inmost heart, called him out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. And having thus become a new creature in Christ Jesus, “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” A new light illuminates his eye, the light of the Spirit, and in that light he rejoices in the things of the kingdom of God, hears the Word of God, delights in the statutes of Jehovah, and, loves righteousness; and in the same light he now passes a radically different judgment upon the vanities of the world, so that he hates and abhors them. . . .
From them he turns away his eyes!
Not, indeed, as if it were possible for him to avoid seeing vain things, hearing vain words, coming into contact with vain things. For then he must needs go out of the world.
But while formerly, in his natural state of darkness, he would behold them with delight, and stop to gaze at them in wonder, and imbibe the lying sweetness of them, he now turns away his eyes in disgust at their corruption, overcoming their seductive power by the strength of the new life that is in him.
And yet. . . .
While walking in the midst of the vanities of the world, he realizes his weakness.
Perfect, a new creature, he is in principle only. Only in as far as he is in Christ, and that means, too, as far as Christ lives in him, does he love righteousness and abhor evil; and is he able to condemn and overcome the lying vanities round about him, and even within him.
But the “old man” is still there. And this old man has the old motions of sin in his members, the old greed and craving for the vanities of the world and of the flesh in his soul.
And so, it is not a bold resolution the psalmist utters.
He does not boast of his own strength.
He is not at all confident in self, but rather feels that he must needs suffer defeat, and turn anew to the vanities of corruption, if in his own power he must overcome them.
But he has the victory in prayer!
Deeply conscious of his weakness, but knowing the strength of Jehovah’s grace, he cries from the depth of his regenerated heart:
Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity! Always turn me, and I shall be turned!
Preserve me, and I shall persevere!
And quicken thou me!
That is but the positive aspect of the same preserving operation whereby our eyes are turned away from vanity.
Quicken thou me in thy way!
“Thy way” is the way of Jehovah’s statutes. It is the direction of our whole life, inward and outward, our thinking and willing, all our desires and inclinations, our seeing and hearing, our speaking and acting, in every relation of this present life,—the direction of all our activity as indicated by the word of the LORD.
In that way quicken thou me!
Cause me to live, constantly cause me to live, cause me to live more and more in that way! Give me the light of life that I may see thy way; give me spiritual knowledge that I may know thy way; give me wisdom that I may discern and approve of thy way; instill into my will the desire to walk in thy way; bend the inclinations of my heart that I may yearn after thy way; give me strength always to choose for, and to turn into the direction of thy way; give me joy that I may delight in thy way! And always give me this life, for in me is only death, my life is in Thee; and increase the measure of this life, and light, and knowledge, and wisdom, and delight, and joy, and spiritual discernment, and strength, in order that, with all my heart and mind and soul and strength, I may run the way of Thy commandments!
Day by day quicken Thou me!
Such is the positive aspect of the preserving grace for which the poet prays.
And there is a close relation between this and the turning away of our eyes from beholding vanity.
They cannot be separated. Together they are one power of the preserving grace whereby we are enabled to keep the precepts of Jehovah in this world, and in our present state of imperfection, to fight the good fight even unto the end, that no one take our crown!
And the prayer is our victory! For in the way of prayer we are preserved.
And being preserved we shall persevere.
Even unto the end!
Herman Hoeksema – 1943