Apologies for the lack of posts on this blog in recent months. Since the birth of our fifth child (Anna-Rose) in March, I have had less time than usual for reading and blogging. However, I don’t want to completely abandon the blog, so I’m going to attempt to post a series of thoughts on Psalm 119, which I have been studying recently.
Psalm 119 is of course famous for being the longest chapter in the Bible, with 176 verses – 8 for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The other interesting thing about this Psalm is that the dominant theme is God’s law. The word and commands of God are the Psalmist’s delight and obsession, the focal point around which his whole life revolves.
This poses something of a dilema as we try to interpret this Psalm though. Isn’t the New Covenant about grace triumphing over law? At first glance this Psalm can seem like a celebration of legalism. For example, consider the first four verses:
1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
3 they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
We’re told here that there is a blessing for those who are (a) blameless, (b) wholehearted in seeking God, (c) do nothing wrong, and (d) obey every one of God’s laws fully. I don’t know about you, but that rules me out of receiving this blessing. But that’s not quite the end of the story. Verse 5 and 6 is an honest prayer from the Psalmist who knows that he is not always uncompromisingly obedient:
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
He responds to this by making a personal resolution. He promises to (a) worship, (b) learn God’s rules and (c) obey them:
7 I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.
Now we might be tempted to summarise Psalm 119:1-8 like this: “There is blessing for those who obey God, but ‘shame’ for those who don’t; therefore I will try really hard to obey and hope God doesn’t abandon me.” But that would do an injustice to the Psalmist, for reasons I will hopefully get onto if this series doesn’t come to a premature end. Suffice for now to say that for the Psalmist, obedience is primarily an expression of love not a fulfilment of a duty or an insurance policy for judgment day.
But I wonder too if there might be something prophetic about the opening section of this Psalm. In verse 8, the Psalmist prays that God won’t “forsake” him. It draws my mind to Mark 15:34, where Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. The irony is that Jesus was the only one that Ps 119:1-4 truly describes. He is the only one who was completely blameless, was devoted to seeking God, did nothing whatsoever wrong, and fully obeyed every one of God’s laws. But instead of receiving blessing for it, he was put to shame and forsaken at the cross. He lived the blameless life we could not. He was forsaken in order that we might be accepted.
Psalm 119:1-4 then, is not about an unobtainable blessing, but about a blessing that has already been made available to us through God’s grace. And it does not describe a life that we are obligated but unable to live, but rather one that we are free and empowered to live by the Spirit. It is not about earning God’s favour through your blameless life, but enjoying God’s favour earned by Jesus’ blameless life.