This section of Ps 119 (subtitled ‘Teth’ – Ps 119:65-72) contains one of the most theologically controversial verses in this Psalm. We get a hint of what is coming in verse 67:
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.
The psalmist seems to be describing a period in his life when he was far from God, but some kind of suffering brought him to a place of obedience to God’s word. We don’t get the details we would like – was the ‘affliction’ a direct consequence of his sin that brought him to his senses, or was it some other type of trouble? Now comes the bit that can provoke quite a debate amongst some Christians:
71 It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.
The psalmist now views the suffering he went through (an possibly is still facing) as “good”. It is good not because suffering is good, but because God used it for good. But if God can use our suffering to fulfil his good purposes, does that mean he sometimes causes our suffering? It’s a question this Psalm doesn’t answer. Instead, he affirms that despite it all, he is convinced of the goodness of God, and that God’s purposes for him are intended for good:
68 You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees.
Like many Psalms, the exact nature of the ‘affliction’ is kept hidden from us. This is part of the appeal of the Psalms – they contain an abundance of comfort for people going through all kinds of difficult situations. We also don’t get to find out if this particular ‘affliction’ has come to an end. We’ve already seen that the Psalmist faces considerable mocking and slander (see Ps 119:69 for yet another example), so that may be the nature of it. I wonder whether it also contains a financial dimension:
72 The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.
My tentative reconstruction then is this. The psalmist was far from God, popular and wealthy. But something happened, that poisoned people against him, and resulted in him losing friends, position, and money. With no where left to go, he returned to God and found himself more content than ever. This gave him new perspective on his (ongoing) affliction – it was a good thing, because through it he had been rescued from the emptiness of life without God.