A note to the reader: All but the last part of this lengthy article (Psalm 119: 169-176 ת Tav) was previously published section-by-section, each section corresponding to one of the 8-verse sections laid out in the Psalm.
Reflections on Psalm 119
Psalm 119:1-8 (א Aleph)
There are potent rewards for obeying God’s law and seeking Him earnestly, which come to all who put off the sinful nature and resolutely submit to God. These rewards are built into the creation, which indicates that God’s laws are not capricious or arbitrary ― they are the operating principles for carefully designed beings whom God planted in a highly ordered world.
“Do not completely abandon me!” (v. 8) This is the cry of a sinful man, whose predilection to disobedience cannot erase the knowledge that his sin is awful and deserving of punishment.
“If only I were predisposed to keep your statutes!” (v. 5) This must be the cry of every regenerated heart, which knows it is right to obey God but is still pulled violently away by his own wrong desires. The only answer is to come continually to God, asking for grace and mercy. The above quote is written in holy Scripture, which tells us God fully understands our predicament and has made a way of escape for us.
Psalm 119:9-16 (ב Beth)
“I seek you with all of my heart. Do not let me stray from your commands!” (v. 10) The psalmist recognizes his fundamental inability to carry out in his body the purity he desires in his spirit. Several years later, Jesus would tell his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) The language the psalmist uses here ― “Do not let me” ― conveys his confidence that he is permitted to shift his burden onto God when he is overwhelmed. He does not have to carry the burden of obedience alone, and neither do we.
Surrender begins with a heart attitude and a declaration of intent. Our part is to align our minds ― and our speech ― with God’s Word. “I will meditate on your precepts” (v. 15). “I find delight in your statutes” (v. 16). “With my lips I proclaim all the regulations you have revealed.” (v. 13). These are things we can do at all times even when our flesh fails us.
Psalm 119:17-24 (ג Gimel)
“I am like a foreigner in this land.” (v. 19) This utterance expresses the changed mind and heart of a man whose devotion to God has left him with a sense of being out of place in the world system, which runs on the fuel of idolatry and self-centeredness. As he meditates on God’s Word, he is increasingly at odds with the people who still call the world home.
“Open my eyes so I can truly see the marvelous things in your law!” (v. 18) Salvation occurs as God supernaturally enables fallen people to turn from their sins and come to Him. The psalmist’s perspective is echoed by Paul: “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Rom. 8:7) Yet through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, our hearts are softened, and our eyes and ears are opened to the truth.
Psalm 119:25-32 (ד Daleth)
“I am laid low in the dust” (v. 25). This may refer to the psalmist’s guilt for sin or crushing hardship and adversity―or both. If we belong to God, we will experience discipline when we disobey Him. But the suffering God allows in my life is not punitive; it is redemptive in nature. He knows full well how difficult it is for me to submit to Him in everything, and He is faithful to supply prodding as needed. As C.S. Lewis observed, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The principle applies to the redeemed as well.
“ I gave an account of my ways and you answered me.” (v. 26) This giving account (confession and repentance) is something that needs to happen throughout each day. I have often felt that God must sigh with annoyance when he sees me dragging myself to the throne room again and again. But that is false. It would be far worse if I were to stop fighting and give up crying out to God. He doesn’t cast out the children who have learning disabilities. To the contrary: “What I want from you is your true thanks…I want you to trust me in your times of trouble, so I can rescue you and you can give me glory.” (Psalm 50:14,15 TLB)
Psalm 119:33-40 (ה He)
“Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.” These “worthless things” may be any one of a thousand different devices we use for comfort, pleasure or the advancement of our personal goals. God created us to enjoy these things; the issue is our stepping around Him and taking what we want for ourselves. Human beings were not created with an innate source of wisdom and restraint; only God possesses these things in Himself. Separated from His counsel, we lose discernment and self-control. In time, we wind up being controlled by the things we desire.
God addressed this issue directly through the prophet Jeremiah: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer. 2:13) There is much more compassion than judgment in this indictment. It isn’t as though God gains anything from our obedience (although He is pleased by it). We are the ones who stand to gain ― or lose. The choice is ours.
Psalm 119:41-48 (ו Waw)
“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” Submitting to God’s commands would seem to take away our freedom rather than increase it. But while human beings have freedom to choose, we don’t have an unlimited array of options in front of us. All of our crucial decisions are moral ones, which leaves us with two options: God’s way or the devil’s. There is no Switzerland, and every disobedient path can be boiled down to narcissism ― self-will ― which was Lucifer’s downfall. Satan’s rebellion is embodied in the “me first” philosophy that has been successfully sold to countless billions down through the ages, many of whom doubtless believed their self-indulgence made them intrepid adventurers. But it only made them sheep in the wrong fold, without a future or a hope.
Freedom doesn’t imply the absence of rules. Without rules, the world would be a formless, colorless, featureless stone. Rules are simply God’s created order, which brings forth beauty, honor, peace, kindness ― and a hundred other things that are found much less often, and in degraded form, in the narcissist’s camp. The disobedient find themselves crashing into divinely established boundaries, but the redeemed learn to walk the path of life. Jesus spoke of this life: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
Psalm 119:49-56 (ז Zayin)
“Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope.” (v. 49) God doesn’t need to be reminded about the promises He has made. I suspect this verse is included for our benefit. Surely God is pleased when we stand confidently on His promises. Furthermore, it releases Him to work in our behalf (Jas. 1:5-7, Matt. 13:58). Jesus illustrated the same principle when he told his disciples the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). Are we to persist in prayer because God might otherwise forget about our situation, lose interest or perhaps lack the inclination to help us? We might come to such a conclusion if we aren’t paying attention to the rest of Scripture. Whatever the reason, we can be sure that if the psalmist recited God’s own promises back to Him, we ought to do the same ― and expect a loving response.
Psalm 119:57-64 (ח Heth)
“You are my portion, Lord.” (v. 57) Sooner or later in the Christian life, there has to come a disavowal by the believer―the forsaking of all rights and expectations. Jesus minced no words when he told his followers: “Whoever does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)
Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything He has not already done. Paul reminded us of this in his letter to the Philippians: “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped [used to his own advantage]; but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, making himself nothing. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8) During His earthly ministry, Jesus was approached by a man who declared, “ ‘Lord, I will follow you wherever you go,’ to which Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ ” (Luke 9:57-58)
Particularly in places like America, there is little likelihood that believers will have to live in crushing poverty (at least for the time being). I believe Christ’s imperative that we give up everything is for the purpose of shattering our idols and and helping us to attain a single-minded dedication to one thing―knowing, seeking and serving Jesus Christ.
Psalm 119:65-72 (ט Teth)
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” Comfort and material success tend to dull our awareness of God and our need for Him. Conversely, suffering―whether a consequence of disobedience or just garden-variety adversity and hardship―help us adjust our priorities and acquire humility, but only if we respond correctly.
In the lopsided economy of this fallen age, suffering not only gets our attention, it can be turned to great spiritual benefit. (Rom. 8:28) The Scriptures tell us Jesus “learned obedience through the things he suffered.” (Heb. 5:8) This Scripture used to puzzle me. How could Jesus―the second person of the Trinity, all-knowing and possessing all wisdom―ever learn anything? He already knows all there is to know. Except that God had never before experienced being human, clothed in the frail garb of humanity, asked by His Father to walk intentionally into the most cataclysmic pain anyone has ever gone through.
Obedience is of little consequence when it isn’t costly. When it is, think of what is produced through it: discipline, identification with Christ (1 Peter 4:13), and the display of God’s glory―not to mention the eternal reward. Leave it to Paul to capture this concept in a soaring pronouncement: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Co. 4:17)
Psalm 119:73-80 (י Yodh)
“Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands.” (v. 73) Modern man’s understanding of biology and the natural sciences tends to paint a picture of children forming in the womb as a strictly physical phenomenon, as though God had set the natural laws in place and now stands back watching it all happen. This is deism, and it isn’t Scriptural. The truth is that God is personally and intimately involved in our development. David declared, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13) We are all custom-designed by God. He alone knows what our families, social sets and the events of our lives will demand of us, and He has equipped us to withstand the challenges. God’s knowledge of my unique makeup and temperament makes Him the best possible source of guidance and help as I approach various gauntlets.
Psalm 119:81-88 (כ Kaph)
“My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word.” (v. 81) This pining may be a desire for several different things at once: 1) Face-to-face communion with God. This will take place after sin and death have been put away for good and the entire Church has been resurrected and brought into God’s presence. This event will automatically usher in the second desired end: 2) Complete deliverance from the flesh and all sinful desires. Jesus said famously in His Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt. 5:6) Every follower of Christ has to fight against the sinful nature, which, for reasons we don’t fully understand, continues to plague us for the rest of our lives. This may mean decades of carrying what Paul referred to as “this body of death” (Rom. 7:24). I once read that in ancient times, one of the punishments for murder was strapping the victim’s corpse to the body of the offender, who had to smell the putrescent carcass and suffer the burden of carrying it around everywhere he went. This is actually a good picture of what the Christian must go through after conversion, when the newfound longing for holiness is constantly beset by the intrusion of unwanted passions that still fester. 3) Removal from the world system. Living in this broken, violent world becomes a source of sorrow for the believer, who is forced to watch God’s commands ignored, His creation trashed and the created order corrupted and perverted. Add to this the pain of seeing loved ones grope along on benighted paths, often after having prayed for them fervently.
Being a Christian isn’t a picnic. These things ought to move the believer to fight and pray with increasing vigor ― and to “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:1-2)
Psalm 119:89-96 (ל Lamedh)
“Your faithfulness continues through all generations.” Everything in our lives depends on God’s faithfulness ― particularly our salvation. Many of us often say (truthfully) that we are not saved by good behavior, but do we believe it? If we examine all of Scripture, we find that God took the initiative to save fallen humanity, which was not even seeking Him. “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me.” (Is. 65:1) If God reached out to save us when we were ignoring him, will He not carry us through everything after we have received Christ? Paul wrote: “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13) and reminded us “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Rom. 9:16) These truths are not in Scripture merely for our comfort. Knowing that my spiritual condition is completely dependent on God’s mercy is absolutely pivotal. Without knowing this, we can’t properly live out our faith. Hence, Jesus’“Apart from me, you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Psalm 119:97-104 (מ Mem)
“O how I love your law!” This exclamation doesn’t mean that the Christian must always feels an easy affection for God’s commands. If we ever come to an unflinching reckoning with who God is, it would be unusual if we never felt a little intimidated. When we look at the vastness and intricacy of the universe and ponder what gargantuan power it must have taken to construct it, we ought to tremble a bit. Nevertheless, those who have put themselves in Christ’s care can take a lavish comfort from His kind promises.
“Your words are sweeter in my mouth than honey!” The believer who has made his peace with God will often find that, where there was once alienation from God because of rebellion, there is now a sense of celebration and a well-settled joy at how perfectly God has made the world―and us. God’s commands will often cause us discomfort and inconvenience, but this is the process by which degraded things are gradually replaced by godliness. “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Psalm 119:105-112 (נ Nun)
“I claim your rules as my permanent possession” (v. 111) Whether or not we agree with God’s policies, we can take comfort in the permanence of His unyielding order. We all desire permanence; the problem is our squirrelly sinful nature, which chafes against rules and is constantly looking for loopholes (Rom. 7:8). But God’s precepts undergird all of creation. Neither they ― nor God Himself ― are subject to change. “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a human being, that he should change his mind. Has God said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it happen?” (Num. 23:19)
One of those everlasting precepts is God’s compassion and faithfulness. Judgment is a last resort for a God who “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) We can trust that God’s disposition toward us ― His readiness to help and forgive ― will never change.
Psalm 119: 113-120 (ס Samek)
“You are my hiding place and my shield. I find hope in your word.” (v. 114) Clearly, we can’t literally hide from our combatants. Otherwise, we could sidestep all the major battles we would otherwise face in life. What is meant here is that we can rest in God, knowing His opposition to evil is complete and leaves nothing up to chance. He’s got it covered, including every one of us, once we have committed ourselves to Him.
However, resting in God is a double-edged sword, so to speak. We can find in Him protection from our gravest enemies, but on the other hand, resting in Him requires that we cease our own striving and forfeit our personal agendas. Otherwise, God is nothing more than the proverbial Cosmic Bellhop. It’s like joining the Army: you’ll be housed, clothed and fed, but you won’t get to do whatever you want anymore. But that’s a plus, too. Truly, my greatest enemy is my own sinful nature.
Psalm 119: 113-120 (ע Ayin)
“My eyes grow tired as I wait for your deliverance, for your reliable promise to be fulfilled. Show your servant your loyal love!” (v. 123-124a) The psalmist understood that he was allowed to express (in his very prayers) his doubts and fears about God’s intentions toward him. Many of us often hesitate to say such things to God, believing that we have some obligation to always express complete confidence in Him. It isn’t as though God isn’t aware of our doubts. Our unbelief is actually greater when we are silent about it.
Many of us will go through periods of utter darkness in our lives, where nothing inside us or around us shows a hint of God’s presence. This is where genuine faith is tested. Part of passing the test is bringing our anguish before the Father and telling Him everything we are thinking and feeling. We are not just encouraged to do this; we are urged to. “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) “All your cares” includes fear, doubt and unbelief, for the child of God will be concerned about these things. The author of Hebrews shouts: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Psalm 119: 129-136 (פ Pe)
“Your rules are marvelous. Therefore I observe them.” (v. 129, 130a) This declaration speaks to the changed mind and heart of the disciple, which is a process. For many people, the moment of surrender to Christ is like fleeing a burning building. Those people know they must abandon their own way, but they may not glimpse the beauty and goodness of what they are running into, which is God’s much better plan for their lives.
A central principle of true discipleship is the idea of replacement. It isn’t enough to simply stop doing wrong things. We must replace them with right things. Giving up our vices (idols) is a necessary start, but it leaves a hole that must be filled with something ― or some idol or another will fill it. The hole, as has often been observed, is a God-shaped one.
Scripture contains far more positive commands than negative ones. If we weight them accordingly, it would seem God is much more concerned with our doing the right things than our stopping the wrong things. Of course, we must do both, but the real power is in the transfer of focus (and our affections) from the world and the flesh to Christ. We ought to say along with Him, “My food…is to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 4:34)
Psalm 119: 137-144 (צ Tsade)
“Distress and hardship confront me, yet I find delight in your commands.” (v. 143) This is the very definition of joy ― rejoicing in spite of discomfort and the disruption of our plans. Happiness is contingent on the realization of our personal goals, but joy is based solely on what God is doing and especially what He has done. If we ever need refreshment, we need only review the long list of God’s accomplishments ― a Creation that is vast and marvelous beyond our wildest dreams; God’s plan of salvation, which was set into motion while Adam’s face was still sticky with the fruit (Gen. 3:15); God’s patient nurturing, which has endured a billion acts of treason and still forged on; the testimony of the saints down through the ages, which will say for all eternity: “He did it all.”
Psalm 119: 145-152 (ק Qof)
“I am up before dawn crying for help. I find hope in your word.” (v. 147) Man’s relationship with God is to be one of worship and surrender. Our attendance to God ought to regularly displace our comfort and convenience, and in fact it must, or our faith will be ineffectual. Particularly in the prosperous West, many people take up Christianity with a certain offhandedness, as though Jesus were a snappy garment they are adding to their wardrobe.
Never before in the history of the world have men achieved such mastery over the material world. We have cars, summer homes, pharmaceuticals for every ailment and machines to do our work for us. Our spiritual pursuits have become like yet more consumer products for many of us. We have fallen prey to the “God is dead” philosophy, although we can’t altogether silence the nagging voice that reminds us of our bankruptcy. So we have found ways to customize the gospel so it won’t cramp our style. But there is one Gospel, one God, one Christ. If we don’t make Him Lord of our lives, He will be our judge.
Psalm 119: 153-160 (ר Resh)
“See my pain and rescue me! For I do not forget your law. Fight for me and defend me!” (v. 153, 154a) I often feel like I am clawing through life on my own ― that I must shoulder the burden of bringing about a good outcome, both in my earthly and spiritual endeavors. On days when I falter in some of my commitments to God, I picture Him standing above me with a slightly irritated expression because of my bunglings.
None of this makes any sense, mind you. The Book of Psalms (which I’ve read through more times than I can count) is full of soaring proclamations that speak of God’s lovingkindness, His faithfulness, His constant readiness to protect those who love and reverence Him. How have I not more completely internalized these truths? This is the God who defended Israel against three huge armies after King Jehoshaphat called for a nationwide fast and cried out to God. (2 Chron. 20:1-25) God did this sort of thing many times, but this is a particularly compelling story. After Jehoshaphat prayed, a prophet named Jachaziel declared, “…the battle is not yours, but God’s.” (v. 15) Jehoshaphat appointed musicians to stand on the front lines praising God but ordered no military maneuvers. (v. 21) The three armies attacked and destroyed each other. There were no survivors among Israel’s enemies, and not a single casualty was inflicted on them. (v. 24) It took them three days to carry off the plunder! (v. 25)
God’s attitude toward His children hasn’t changed. His declarations are quite current and applicable. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isa. 41:10)
Psalm 119: 161-168 (ש Shin)
“I rejoice in your instructions, like one who finds much plunder. I hate and despise deceit.” (v. 161-162a) It’s all about truth. If we ever get a glimpse of it, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can run back into our self-made delusions to protect our egos and pet sins, or we can stop and really look at our lives in light of the crucifixion. It won’t take long for most of us to discover that we are morally and spiritually destitute. Then ― and only then ― are we able to receive the gospel and run with it.
If we ever get a taste of it, truth becomes a purifying fire in our lives. Sometimes it burns, because even the necrotic parts of our being (our attachment to various sins) hurt when they are being cut off of us. But all the while, we ought to experience an ever-growing love for truth and for the Author of it. Eventually, if we refuse to turn back, truth eclipses everything we thought we couldn’t live without, and we are left with one thing at the center of our lives ― Jesus.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:9)
Psalm 119: 169-176 (ת Tav)
“I have wandered off like a lost sheep. Come looking for your servant, for I do not forget your commands.” (v. 176) Notice the apparent contradiction in this last verse: “I have wandered off…I do not forget your commands.” Either the psalmist has a very short memory or he is bluntly conveying one of the greatest dilemmas of Scripture: God is judge, lawgiver and full of wrath for sin, but He possesses unfathomable compassion and mercy toward His creatures. These two opposing attributes ― wrath and mercy ― are impossibly entwined in the Person of God in a way that makes Him seem to vacillate. In the Book of Isaiah, heartfelt expressions of steadfast love are sprinkled throughout the promise of impending disaster for the wayward Israelites. Similarly, the prophet Hosea spoke of a coming storm while, in the same breath, God can’t restrain Himself from expressing His undying affection for Israel: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?…My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” (Hosea 11:8) The Scriptures don’t apologize for what seems to be divine schizophrenia. God communicates both wrath and mercy in His Word and leaves it up to us to choose whether we want Him to be our Judge ― or our Savior.