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SUFFERING AND PSALM 119
I would have perished in my affliction if your words had not been my delight.
When you hear the words "Psalm 119," what are your first associations?
I suspect that your heart does not immediately come up with the following: "Psalm 119 is where I go to learn how to open my heart about what matters, to the person I most trust. I affirm what I most deeply love. I express pure delight. I lay my sufferings and uncertainties on the table. I cry out in need and shout for joy. I hear how to be forthright without self-righteousness. I hear how to be weak without self-pity. I learn how true honesty talks with God: fresh, personal, and direct; never formulaic, abstract, or vague. I hear firsthand how Truth and honesty meet and talk it over. This Truth is never denatured, rigid, or inhuman. This honesty never whines, boasts, rages, or gets defensive. I leave the conversation nourished by the sweetest hope imaginable. I hear how to give full expression to what it means to be human, in honest relationship with the Person who made humanness in his image."
Such a response reflects that Truth has grappled with everything you think, feel, do, experience, and need, changing the way you process life. And you have grappled with Truth. Imagine, now you can say what you're really thinking and feeling, because insane self-centeredness has been washed away! Such honesty is what Psalm 119 intends to work in you. It is about life's painful realities, the gifts of God, and how those two meet to find life's highest delight.
But most people's immediate reaction to Psalm 119 is this: It's long. If you're reading through the Bible, you take a deep breath before you trudge through it. It's the same length as the books of Ruth, James, and Philippians. Reading Psalm 119 is too often like watching scenery along an interstate highway. You glimpse lots of things, but you mostly remember the long drive.
Here's a second reaction: It's repetitive and general. The verses seem to say the same thing over and over, with few details. In contrast, Ruth tells a moving story. James sparkles with practical application and metaphor. Philippians links wonders about Christ with details of Paul's experience, and then with direct implications for how you and I live. But Psalm 119 seems to drone on in generalities.
Here's another common reaction: The parts seem unconnected. There is no story line or logical progression. Ruth's surprise loyalty to the Lord connects her to a mother-in-law, to a village, to a new husband, to her great-grandson, to the Savior of the world. But Psalm 119 seems like a random collection of disconnected bits.
Or perhaps this Bible fact is one of your associations: Psalm 119 is not random; it's a tightly structured acrostic. Twenty-two sections, eight lines each, every line beginning with the same letter, proceeding through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, beth, gimel ... tav. The A-to-Z no doubt helped the memory of Hebrew speakers. But it has little relevance for us who read in English, where the alphabetic arrangement gets lost in translation. To us, it is little more than a curiosity.
This association is probably on everyone's list: It's about God's Word. Scripture discusses Scripture in almost every verse. It is a classic text on the importance of Bible fidelity, knowledge, reading, study, and memorization.
One common negative reaction is that many people feel burdened by it. The seemingly relentless read-your-Bible-memorize-Scripture emphasis can come across as moralistic. Your relationship with the Lord seems to hinge on the dutiful performance of "quiet time," but somehow you never get it right. Unlike the warm, intimate promises of favorite psalms like 23, 103, 121, and 139, this psalm can seem biblicistic—that is, it has a reputation for substituting devotion to the Bible for devotion to God. This is a bad rap, but it reflects how Psalm 119 is often misread, mistaught, and misused.
More positively, perhaps you think of a beloved verse or two. Maybe verse 11 is on your list of memorable Scripture: "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you." Maybe verse 18 shapes your prayers: "Open my eyes, LORD, that I might behold wondrous things out of your law." Maybe verse 67 summarizes the good that came out of suffering: "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word." Or verse 105 might be a song in your heart: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path."
Each of these associations is plausible. But most don't lead to the candid conversation described earlier. Psalm 119 itself does lead in that direction. Let's see how it gets there so that we can follow along.
THE HEART OF THE PSALM
Let's begin with a question: "What words are most frequently repeated in Psalm 119?" The answer that usually comes to mind? "It's about the Word of God. Almost every verse contains a word describing what's written in the Bible: word, law, commandment, precept, testimony, statute, judgment."
But when you look more closely, the words describing Scripture run a distant second. Far and away the most common words are first and second person singular pronouns: I, me, my, mine, and you, your, yours. Psalm 119 is the most extensive I-to-you conversation in the Bible. Only the first three verses talk about people-in-general, about God, and about the Word, stating propositions and principles in the third person: "Blessed are those who observe his testimonies, who seek him with all their heart." The fourth verse begins to personalize things: we stand accountable to you. After that, for the next 172 verses, I, your servant, talk to you, LORD, who speaks and acts, whom I need and love.
In other words, Psalm 119 is personal prayer. It's talking to, not teaching about. We hear what a man says out loud in God's presence: his joyous pleasure, vocal need, open adoration, blunt requests, candid assertions, deep struggles, fiercely good intentions. The various words for the Word appear once in each verse, but I-you words appear about four times per verse. That's a 4:1 ratio and emphasis.
So Psalm 119 is actually not about the topic of getting Scripture into your life. Instead, it is the honest words that erupt when what God says gets into you. It's not an exhortation to Bible study; it's an outcry of faith.
This makes a world of difference in how you relate to Psalm 119. A topic is abstract, informing the intellect to influence the will. It can be interesting, informative, and even persuasive. But Psalm 119 springs from a man already persuaded. He simply talks, fusing his intellect, will, emotions, circumstances, desires, fears, needs, memory, and anticipation. He's keenly aware of what he's really like and what's happening to him. He's keenly aware of the Lord and the relevance of what God sees, says, and does. This makes his heart tumble out in passionate requests and affirmations. He persuades us not by argument, but by infectious faith.
Psalm 119 is torrential, not topical. It's relentless, not repetitive. It's personal, not propositional. Yes, the form of Psalm 119 is regular. But why this tight discipline of aleph to tav, the arithmetic regularities that pattern the vocabulary, the unvarying reference back to Scripture? These provide the crucible that contains, purifies, channels, and pours forth molten, living gold. Psalm 119 is the thoughtful outcry that rises when real life meets real God.
It's not just naked candor. Raw honesty is always perverted by the insanity of sin. Should you "get in touch with your feelings and say what you really think"? You do need to face what is going on in yourself and your world. And the opposites of honesty are other madnesses: indifference, busyness, stoicism, niceness, ignorance, self- deception, or denial. But how will you interpret what you feel? Where will you go with it? Honesty in the raw is always godless, willful, opinionated, self-centered. And personal honesty never actually faces reality if it does not simultaneously face God: "A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions" (Prov. 18:2). Psalm 119 demonstrates the salvation of honesty. When you truly face yourself, your circumstances, and God, even painful honesty takes on the sanity of Jesus.
Reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible are legitimate implications of Psalm 119 when they aim for this desired result. But this passage really aims to rescript the inner logic and intentionality of your heart. That profound result is not an automatic consequence of rubbing shoulders with the Bible. We have a tendency to mishear what God says, to misapply it, and to mistake means for ends. This psalm demonstrates the radical end.
So this is what we hear in Psalm 119. A person who has listened opens his heart to the Person who has spoken. A person who has listened opens his heart to the Person who has spoken. A person who has listened opens his heart to the Person who has spoken. And this is what he says:
He boldly asserts who the Lord is.
He lays his life on the table, both his inner struggle and what comes at him from the outside.
He pleads for God's help in life's fundamental troubles.
He asserts his core convictions, affirming his identity, his hope, and his delight.
These four components of what-I-say-to-You are the intertwining strands that form this psalm's inner logic.
STRAND 1: "YOU ARE ..., YOU SAY ..., YOU DO ..."
This speaker describes God to his face: what you're like, what you say and do, who you are. Many psalms develop one memorable theme. Psalm 119 scatters truths with abandon.
Imagine Psalm 119 as a crowded wedding reception, held in a vast banquet hall from which numerous doors lead to other rooms. People you mostly don't know are sitting at tables for eight. The seating arrangement is odd. The bride's grandmother is sitting next to the groom's college roommate, simply because their last names both start with S! How will you ever get to know all those individual faces, names, stories? But stop at each table. Ask questions, listen, and get acquainted.
You discover that a rich confession of faith is strewn throughout Psalm 119. Its form is startling. It's not phrased as the faith you profess: "I believe in God the Father. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the Holy Spirit." It's faith heard in the act of confessing: "You are my Father. You are my Savior. You are my Life-giver."
The Lord has arranged the conditions of my existence.
You established the earth, and it stands.
All things are your servants.
The earth is full of your lovingkindness.
Your faithfulness continues through all generations.
Your hands made me and fashioned me.
I am your servant.
I am yours.
All my ways are before you.
You are near.
The Lord speaks wonders.
Your law is truth.
Your testimonies are wonderful.
Your word is pure.
Your word stands firm in the heavens forever.
The unfolding of your words gives light.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
The Lord destroys evil.
You rebuke the arrogant.
You reject those who wander from your statutes.
You will execute judgment on those who persecute me.
You have removed all the wicked of the earth like dross.
Yet the Lord is merciful to me.
You are good and do good.
In faithfulness you afflicted me.
Your mercies are great.
You comfort me.
You are my hiding place and my shield.
You answered me.
You have dealt well with your servant.
You have revived me.
You will enlarge my heart.
You yourself have taught me.
How did the psalmist learn to be so outspoken to God? He listened to what God said in the rest of the Bible, and lived it. The Lord says who he is, and is who he says. The Lord says what he does, and does what he says. Faith listens, experiences what is true, and talks back in simple sentences.
We tend to be busy, noisy, distractible people in a busy, noisy, distracting world. This psalm teaches us to say, "I need time to listen and think if I'm ever to converse with God." In a culture of instant information, this psalm rewards the slow. If you speed-read, all you get is, "Psalm 119 is about the Bible." But if you take it slow and live it out, you find yourself saying things like this: "You are good and do good." Or this: "I am yours." Learning to say that out loud and mean it will change your life forever.
Here's another implication. Our self-help culture is preoccupied with "self-talk." Does what you say to yourself cheer you up or tear you down? Do you say, "I'm a valid person and I can stand up for myself," or "I'm so stupid and I always fail"? Entire systems of counseling revolve around reconstructing self-talk so you'll be happier and more productive. But Psalm 119 gets you out of the monologue business entirely. It gets you talking with the Person whose opinion finally matters. The problem with self-talk is that we aren't talking to anyone but ourselves. A conversation ought to be taking place, but we repress our awareness of the Person who threatens our self-fascination. The Bible says radical things about the stream of consciousness that talks inside us: "Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the days" (Gen. 6:5); "All his thoughts are, 'There is no God'" (Ps. 10:4). This does not only refer to vile lifestyles. It includes the everyday ways our minds operate without reference to God. Functional atheism is our most natural state of mind.
Our self-talk is usually like the people who talk to themselves on the subway. Their world is real to them, but it's disconnected from everyone else. We talk in our sleep. The dreams might be pleasant. They might be nightmares. But either way, it's a dream. The vocal faith of Psalm 119 is what happens when you wake up. The stream of false consciousness becomes a stream of conscious awareness, love, trust, and need. Sanity makes clear affirmations to the Person whose attitude and actions are decisive.
I've likened Psalm 119 to a wedding reception full of guests. But notice also the doors leading to other rooms. Psalm 119 breaks out toward the rest of Scripture. How did this man learn to say with all his heart, "You are good and do good"? Where did he learn, "I am yours"? Psalm 119 carries you to the rest of God's revelation and to all of life. Eight summary words for his words, each used about twenty-two times, act as pointers.
Two of the eight words simply mean word, everything God talks about. His words are all he says and writes. Understand this and you'll never treat Psalm 119 in a moralistic way. What is contained in all these different words? We hear stories, commands, promises, a worldview interpreting all that happens. We witness who God is, what he is like, what he does. He promises mercies. He warns of consequences. He tells us who we are, why we do what we do, what is at stake in our lives, what he made us for. He identifies what's wrong with us. Through story and precept, he teaches us the meaning of sufferings and blessings. He tells us exactly what he expects from us. His words reveal his lovingkindness. And so forth.
So what does it mean then to say, I "keep your word" (v.17)? The obvious example is obedience to specific commandments. You keep "Do not commit adultery" by not committing adultery. How do you keep other sorts of words, like, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"? You keep them by believing, remembering, and changing how you look at everything. Our psalm keeps Genesis 1 by affirming to God, "You established the earth, and it stands. All things are your servants." That's faith in action. You keep Genesis 1 by remembering that you, too, are a dependent creature whose purposes are accountable to your Maker. You are not merely your résumé, your feelings, your relationships, your bank account, your plans, or your experiences. Our psalm says, "Your hands made me and fashioned me. I am yours."
Excerpted from SPEAKING TRUTH IN LOVE by David Powlison. Copyright © 2005 David Powlison. Excerpted by permission of New Growth Press.
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Posted January 20, 2014
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