If the perception of the Lord's merciful dealings with my soul is obscure—Teach me good judgment and knowledge. Give me a clear and enlarged apprehension, that I may be ready with my acknowledgment, "All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth." Or even with an enlightened assurance of His wise and faithful dispensations, still would I urge this petition before Him, as needful for every step of my path. Indeed this prayer illustrates the simplicity and intelligence of Christian faith—always desiring, asking, and expecting the most suitable blessings. For what blessings can be more suitable to an ignorant sinner, than good judgment and knowledge: knowledge of ourselves, of our Savior, of the way of obedience—and good judgment, to apply this knowledge to some valuable end? These two parts of our intellectual furniture have a most important connection and dependence upon each other. Knowledge is the speculative perception of general truth. Judgment is the practical application of it to the heart and conduct. No school, but the school of Christ—no teaching, but the teaching of the Spirit—can ever give this good judgment and knowledge. Solomon asks it for himself—Paul for his people. Both direct us to God as the sole fountain and author.
We cannot fail to observe a very common defect in Christians;—warm affections connected with a blind or loose judgment. Hence, too often, a lightness in religion, equally unsteady in profession and in practice—easily satisfied with a narrow compass in the vast field of Scripture, instead of grasping a full survey of those truths, which are so intimately connected with our Christian establishment and privilege. Much perplexing doubt, discouragement, and fear; much mistaken apprehension of important truth, much coldness and backsliding of heart and conduct, arises from the want of an accurate and full apprehension of the scriptural system.
This prayer has a special application to the tender and sensitive child of God. The disease of his constitution is too often a scrupulous conscience—one of the most active and successful enemies to his settled peace and quietness. The faculty of conscience partakes, with every other power of man, of the injury of the fall; and therefore, with all its intelligence, honesty, and power, it is liable to misconception. Like a defect of vision, it often displaces objects: and, in apparently conflicting duties, that which touches the feeling, or accords with the temper, is preferred to one, which, though more remotely viewed, really possessed a higher claim. Thus it pronounces its verdict from the predominance of feeling, rather than from the exercise of judgment—more from an indistinct perception of the subject presented to the mind, than from a simple immediate reference "to the law and testimony." Again—matters of trivial moment are often insisted upon, to the neglect of important principles. External points of offence are more considered, than the habitual mortification of the inward principle. Conformity to the world in dress and appearance is more strongly censured than the general spirit of worldliness in the temper and conduct of outward non-conformists; while the spirit of separation from the world, is totally disregarded. Thus are non-essentials confounded with fundamentals—things indifferent with things unlawful, from a narrow misconception of what is directly forbidden and allowed. Conscience, therefore, must not be trusted without the light of the word of God; and most important is the prayer—Teach me good judgment and knowledge.
The exercises of this state of feeling are both endless and causeless. In the well-intended endeavor to guard against a devious track, the mind is constantly harassed with an over-anxious inquiry, whether the right path is accurately discovered; and thus at once the pleasure and the progress of the journey are materially hindered. The influence therefore of this morbid sensibility is strenuously to be resisted. It renders the strait way more strait. It retards the work of grace in the soul. It is usually connected with self-righteousness. It savors of, and tends to produce, hard thoughts of God. It damps our cheerfulness in His service, and unfits us for the duty of the present moment. What however is more than all to be deprecated, is, that it multiplies sin; or, to speak more clearly, it superinduces another species of sin, besides the actual transgression of the law of God. For opposition to the dictates of conscience in any particular is sin, even though the act itself may be allowed by the law of God. We may therefore sin in the act of doing good, or in obedience to the liberty and enjoyment of the gospel, as well as in the allowed transgression of the law. Indeed, under the bondage of a scrupulous conscience, we seem to be entangled in the sad necessity of sinning. The dictates of conscience, even when grounded upon misconception, are authoritative. Listening to its suggestions may be sinning against "the liberty, with which Christ has made us free," and in which we are commanded to "stand fast." No human authority can free from its bonds. Resistance to its voice is disobedience to God's viceregent, and therefore, in a qualified sense at least, disobedience to God Himself. And thus it is sin, even when that which conscience condemns may be innocent.
The evil of a scrupulous conscience may often be traced to a diseased temperament of body, to a naturally weak or perverted understanding, to the unfavorable influence of early prejudice—to a lack of simple exercise of faith, or perception of the matters of faith. In these cases faith may be sincere, though weak; and the sin, such as it is, is a sin of infirmity, calling for our pity, forbearance, prayer, and help. In many instances however, willful ignorance, false shame that will not inquire, or a pertinacious adherence to deep-rooted opinion, is the source of the disease. Now such persons must be roused, even at the hazard of wounding the conscience of the more tenderly scrupulous. But as the one class decidedly sin, and the other too frequently indulge their infirmity, the excitement will probably be ultimately useful to both. Both need to have the conscience enlightened; and to obtain "a right judgment in all things"—by a more diligent "search in the Scriptures"—by "seeking the law at the mouth of the priest"—and, above all, by earnest prayer with the Psalmist—Teach me good judgment and knowledge. Thus they will discern between what is imperative, and what is indifferent; between what is lawful, and what is expedient. If "whatever is not of faith is sin," then the only prospect of the removal of the doubt will be increase of faith—that is, a more full persuasion of the Divine warrant and instruction. "Howbeit there is not in everyone this knowledge:" yet the exhortation speaks alike to all, "Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Indeed the most favorable symptoms of scrupulosity (except where the disease originates in external causes) partake of the guilt of willful ignorance; because none can be said sincerely to ask for good judgment and knowledge, who do not diligently improve all means of obtaining it. If therefore, the scrupulous shrink from honestly seeking the resolution of their difficulties in private conferences (where they are to be had) with Ministers or experienced Christians, so far they must be considered as wilfully ignorant. We would indeed "receive them," "bear with their infirmities," and encourage them to expect relief from their hard bondage in the way of increasing diligence, humility, and prayer. While their minds are in doubt concerning the path of duty, their actions must be imperfect and unsatisfactory. Let them therefore wait, inquire, and pray, until their way be made plain. This done, let them act according to their conscience, allowing nothing that it condemns, neglecting nothing which it requires. The responsibility of error (should error be eventually detected) will not be—the too implicit following of the guidance of conscience—but the want of due care and diligence for its more clear illumination. Generally, however, the rule will apply, "If your eye be single, your whole body shall be full of light."
But, besides the scrupulous conscience, the imperfectly enlightened conscience presents a case equally to be deprecated. Often does it charge to a sinful source those incessant variations of feelings, which originate in bodily indisposition, or accidental influence of temptation. Sins of infirmity are confounded with sins of indulgence: occasional with habitual transgressions of duty. Only a part of the character is brought under cognisance: and while short-comings or surprisals are justly condemned: yet the exercise of contrition, faith, love, and watchfulness, is passed by unnoticed. Thus the gospel becomes the very reverse of the appointment of its gracious Author. It brings ashes for beauty, mourning for the oil of joy, and the spirit of heaviness for the garment of praise. If this evil is "not a sin unto death," it is "a sore evil under the sun," which may often give occasion for the prayer—Teach me good judgment and knowledge; that, in the simplicity of faith, I may be blessed with a tender conscience, and be delivered from the bondage of a scrupulous, and from the perplexity of an unenlightened, conscience. Let my heart never condemn me where it ought not. Let it never fail to condemn me where it ought.
But, alas! the perception of our need of this good judgment and knowledge, is far too indistinct and uninfluential. We need to cry for these valuable blessings with deeper earnestness, and more diligent and patient waiting upon God. Divine wisdom is a treasury, that does not spend by giving; and we may ask to be enriched to the utmost extent of our wants, "in full assurance of faith." But this faith embraces the whole revelation of God—the commandments as well as the promises. And thus it becomes the principle of Christian obedience. For can we believe these commandments to be as they are represented, "holy, just, and good," and not delight in them? "In those is continuance"—said the prophet, "and we shall be saved." Convinced of their perfection, acknowledging their obligations, loving them, and living in them, we shall "come to full age" in the knowledge of the Gospel, and, "by reason of use have our senses exercised to discern both good and evil."
"Teach me good judgment and knowledge." Again he begs for teaching, as in verse 64, and again he uses God's mercy as an argument. Since God had dealt well with him, he is encouraged to pray for judgment to appreciate the Lord's goodness. The gift of good judgment is a form of goodness which the godly man most needs and most desires, and it is one which the Lord is most ready to bestow. David felt that he had frequently failed in judgment in the matter of the Lord's dealings with him: from want of knowledge he had misjudged the chastening hand of the heavenly Father, and therefore he now asks to be better instructed, since he perceives the injustice which he had done to the Lord by his hasty conclusions. He means to say—Lord, you did deal well with me when I thought you hard and stern; be pleased to give me more wit, that I may not a second time think so ill of my Lord. A sight of our errors and a sense of our ignorance should make us teachable. We are not able to judge, for our knowledge is sadly inaccurate and imperfect; if the Lord teaches us knowledge, we shall attain to good judgment, but not otherwise. The Holy Spirit alone can fill us with light, and set our understanding upon a proper balance: let us ardently long for his teachings, since it is most desirable that we should be no longer mere children in knowledge and understanding.
"For I have believed your commandments." His heart was right, and therefore he hoped his head would be made right. He had faith, and therefore he hoped to receive wisdom. His mind had been settled in the conviction that the precepts of the word were from the Lord, and were therefore just, wise, kind, and profitable. He believed in holiness, and as that belief is no mean work of grace upon the soul, he looked for yet further operations of divine grace. He who believes the commands is the man to know and understand the doctrines and the promises. If in looking back upon our mistakes and ignorances, we can yet see that we heartily love the precepts of the divine will, we have good reason to hope that we are Christ's disciples, and that he will teach us and make us men of good judgment and sound knowledge. A man who has learned discernment by experience, and has thus become a man of sound judgment, is a valuable member of a church, and the means of much edification to others. Let all who would be greatly useful offer the prayer of this verse: "Teach me good judgment and knowledge."