A commentary on Psalm 119:137–144.
“Righteous are you, O Lord, and right are your rules. You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness and in all faithfulness. My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words. Your promise is well tried, and your servant loves it. I am small and despised, yet I do not forget your precepts. Your righteousness is righteous forever, and your law is true. Trouble and anguish have found me out, but your commandments are my delight. Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live.”
Perhaps the quintessential example of Tolkien literature comes from none other than the story he originally wrote for his children. In what might be his most beloved and renowned work, The Hobbit remains a timeless standard for children’s fantasy novels. It also contains his most esteemed piece of writing (which is saying something).
In the chapter entitled “Riddles in the Dark,” the hobbit Bilbo finds himself in a curious conundrum. At the coaxing of the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo joins a company of dwarves who set out to reclaim the treasure of the Lonely Mountain from the control of a fearsome dragon called Smaug. The company sets out on their quest, but is soon ambushed by goblins and driven underground. Separated from the rest of the group, Bilbo makes his way through the darkness of the goblin tunnels, stumbling onto a curious gold ring, which he quickly put “in his pocket almost without thinking.” (Tolkien, 68)
Later, traversing almost blindly through the dark caves, Bilbo encounters the creature Gollum who challenges him to a game of riddles. It’s this scene which makes up the bulk of the chapter, and, I’d contend, showcases the shear brilliance of Tolkien’s literary genius. Like Bilbo, though, believers are similarly and frequently encountered with riddles — all of which are impossible to decipher on our own.
Righteous & Rigid Faith
For 17 stanzas now, the psalmist has been reflecting on and rejoicing in the Word of God and the righteousness that it expounds. As he begins stanza 18, he continues this refrain by crying out, “Righteous are you, O Lord, and right are your rules.” (Ps. 119:137) This isn’t a vainly repeated chorus — this is an adamant declaration of God’s unassailable character. Everything that God does is righteous. His Word points to this. Even in the storms and troubles of life that often unsettle or unnerve us, God’s dealings with us are never anything but righteous. An unrighteous God is a categorical impossibility.
If God could act unrighteously, that would mean he’d be capable of change — and a God that can change causes the entire Christian faith to collapse.
As such, the psalmist has committed himself to the unflinchingly faithful testimonies of his Father. (Ps. 119:138) They burn in him like a zealous, consuming fire. (Ps. 119:139) Kindled by the indwelling Spirit, the believer’s zeal both shines and warms, reflecting the image of Christ in testimony and touching others’ lives in action. Zealous Christians aren’t those that constantly rage and war against the ever-changing culture by picketing, protesting, and boycotting. This might appear zealous, but not all zeal is the same. Good and bad zeal is dependent upon the object for which we’re zealous, the end for which we’re passionate. Counterfeit zeal is selfish, expending strength and energy on subordinate and arbitrary things in the Christian faith. (Matt. 23:23)
Biblical zeal, however, is that which burns with compassion. Note the psalmist’s fervor for lost souls: “My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words.” (Ps. 119:139) He was concerned for his enemies — for their hearts, for their eternity — so much so that he was praying for them. That there are still more hearts depraved and lives undelivered should stir all believer’s to more fervent declarations of the gospel. The calamity and corruption of the unregenerate ought to engender compassion in our bellies, not condemnation on our lips. Too often, Christians look down their pious noses at the unsaved and are quick to pass judgment. Yet, this wasn’t so for the psalmist, nor should it be for us.
The truth of God’s gospel is the grand object of the saved sinner’s zeal. The truth that no one is beyond God’s redeeming reach ought to stoke every believer to the same sort of zeal on display here — a “consuming” zeal that’s compassionate and concerned for others. This is what biblical zeal and devotion looks like: trust in the truth of God’s unchanging promises and tenderness towards others’ wrongdoing. God’s disposition towards us is one of immutable and illimitable graciousness and righteousness. (Ps. 116:5) So it goes, then, that because God doesn’t change, nor does his Word. The Scriptures, God’s revelation of redemption by grace through faith, is the divine harmony of immutable mercy and righteousness. It doesn’t contain truth, it is truth.
The psalmist’s zeal stems from this Word of Promise that is “well tried.” (Ps. 119:140) It is pure, containing no mixture of truth and falsehood. God’s Word is absolute, unadulterated truth. As Bishop Horne intimates, “The more we try the promises, the surer we shall find them.” (459) The promises that form the foundation of our faith are pure and unchanging. Therefore, what God is, he always will be. The psalmist declares, “Your righteousness is righteous forever, and your law is true.” (Ps. 119:142) The righteousness of God, his very character, is beyond the possibility of change — a sentiment that was echoed some 500 years later by the prophet Malachi: “I am the Lord, I change not.” (Mal. 3:6 KJV) The righteous God is also the faithful God, treating faithless sinners with an unwavering degree of faithfulness.
Knowing that, then, we are encouraged and invigorated to find our solace in God’s unchangeable character and covenant, understanding that even in the face of our present circumstances — however grim, however dark — God’s dealing with us in unimpeachable righteousness. Despite all the affliction we might endure, all the suffering we might see, there’s not one blemish or injustice that can be linked back to God. His dealings with man, whether good or I’ll, are righteous and completely congruent with his character and person. This ought to be the first ground of comfort for troubled Christians. It ought to be the glory of the believer to confess God’s unwavering faithfulness despite all around them suggesting otherwise. (Ps. 119:138, 141) God’s Word stands unquestioningly true — past, present, and future — as his message of righteous faithfulness. And it is on this Word the psalmist rests, knowing that his Father’s character is changeless and constant. It is God’s indefatigable name and nature to which the psalmist clings . . . and so must we.
Riddles in the Dark
The world’s a dark and sinister place — a cruel world whose grace has been wrung dry in favor of justice. We demand payment for wrongs endured and not one offense can escape our outrage. Our indignation demands answers; in all our algebraic sensibilities, all problems have a solution and, in this case, all atrocities have someone to blame. The unfortunate truth is that God’s people are often the first to take the brunt of the world’s incrimination. Man’s innate knowledge of a God makes it easy for them to blame God when things don’t go according to plan. If he’s all he’s cracked up to be, where was he when my mom had cancer? Where was he when my classmate committed suicide after too many bouts of depression? Where was he when I was being raped by a dad who said he loved me? Where was he when my parents divorced because of infidelity? Where was he? Where is God in moments like these?
To be sure, hardships such as these would be nearly impossible to endure without the Spirit and Scripture present to comfort and counsel. Apart from an understanding of original sin, suffering and sorrow will appear as puzzles that need solving, as “riddles in the dark” that must be deciphered. But the glory of the gospel isn’t that it gives answers or solutions, rather, it just points to the Answer, to the Solution. The travesty most Christians commit is in assuming that their religion contains the missing piece to solve the world’s problems. This results in many believers approaching the topic of suffering with so much pride and conceit that we come across cold and heartless. The truth is, Christian’s don’t have all the answers — they just know the One who does.
I won’t try and fool anyone here: the problem of suffering and all its manifestations is a ruthless riddle that’s disconcerting at best. But, as Thomas Manton quips, “the whole business of Christianity is nothing else, but a contradicting of sense.” (356) The first notion of true Christian religion goes completely against the tide of human reason, so much so, that its deemed a threat to human flourishing.
But, returning to our present stanza, even enduring the brunt of marginalization and belittlement for this type of belief, the psalmist wasn’t swayed from his commitment to God’s Word. (Ps. 119:141) Such should be the mindset of every believer, that regardless of how accepted or successful they are, they’ll remain true to Christ’s gospel, not forgetting his precepts and promises. Even though our conditions will change and our circumstances may see us become small and despised in the eyes of men, we’re never so small that God can’t see us or too hated that God can’t love us. “Small and despised” is not unlike what our Savior endured for us. God’s deliverance runs low — so low, in fact, that unless we too feel ourselves as “small and despised,” we have no claim to Jesus’s redemption. When we’re despised in man’s estimation, let our thoughts run to him who was despised for us!
Manton, though, continues: “God’s dealing seemeth often to make against his promise, and his way is contrary to the judgment of the carnal mind. Where would religion be were it not for faith?” (356) Where would we be if not for faith? Not your faith, mind you, but the faith of Christ — the faith that stands staunch and steadfast throughout all the quandaries and mysteries of life’s catastrophes. God’s testimonies have been appointed “in righteousness and in all faithfulness.” (Ps. 119:138), a truth which the apostle enlarged upon when he said, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful.” (2 Tim. 2:13) This is the faith of God, that despite our ever-changing situations, attitudes, desires, and passions, God is faithful to us.
You see, unless we’re resting on God’s gracious and righteous promises, we’ll be captives of distress and despair. The psalmist was enduring such a season. He openly admits that “trouble and anguish” have found him out. (Ps. 119:143) Trouble from without and anguish from within torment his soul. This is the riddle of redemption, that God’s children are made to delight in trouble and revel in anguish — not because believers are masochists but because their strength, their success, their life isn’t up to them, it’s up to God.
Peace in the midst of chaos is only possible with the powerful and paradoxical grace of the gospel.
The enigma of the Christian religion is that despite being cast down by what we see in ourselves and see around us, we’re lifted up by what we see in the Word. Zeal for the gospel is driven by deep need for the gospel. (Ps. 119:139) Those who are most passionate about God and his Word are often the most in agreement with what his Word says about them. The more we are aware of our need for deliverance, the more zealous we’ll be for our Deliverer. Indeed, the riddle of Scripture is that no more than in times of affliction are the delights of the Word more acutely known. Heartache “finds” those who put their faith in Christ. So it was for the psalmist who admits that “trouble and anguish have found [him] out.” (Ps. 119:143) The image in the Hebrew is that like dogs tracking and fervently hunting their prey, so too does suffering afflict those who put their faith in the Savior’s Word. It comes after them.
Christ reiterates this solemn truth throughout his ministry, unafraid of the foreboding fact that persecution and suffering are natural and normal ingredients of a belief system that’s predicated on proclaiming a message that goes against all that is deemed acceptable and correct. (Matt. 10:22; 24:9) In fact, the apostle Paul even goes on to say that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12) But notwithstanding the certainty and presence of suffering, the lone, sovereign, unchanging support through it all is God’s Word. Only the man who’s readily acquainted with the struggle of the spiritual life will savor the sentiments of Scripture in suffering.
It is here that we must come to realize the vast disparity in suffering. Where the believer is enabled to look up to his all-sufficient Guardian and find rest and security in the peace that passes understanding, the one who doesn’t call Jesus “Savior” or believe on his name for deliverance from sin looks only around him on all the calamity. He has no refuge to run to — no strong tower to call his own. Indeed, the unregenerate suffer trouble without support, anguish without relief. Yet, God afflicts his children that we might find our joy only in him. Our sufferings bear abundant testimony to the inexhaustible resources of the gospel that support God’s children.
These resources serve to remind us of all the gladsome delights that await us in eternity. Whereas earth is filled with a commingling of joy and grief, happiness and sorrow, heaven sits forever as a place untainted by time, sin, or darkness. It is God’s dwelling place of uninterrupted and unadulterated joy. Our first breath of heavenly air will counteract all bitterness and anguish of this world. The riddle of redemption, though, is that the greatest resource of the gospel isn’t our escape from suffering, but our enduring it. Irrefutably, “the sweetness of God’s word is best perceived under the bitterness of the cross.” (Abraham Wright, quoted in Spurgeon, 306) The cross of Calvary brings to our eyes a simultaneous view of God’s most appalling and most encouraging attributes: his wrath and his love.
On that cross, God’s Son put on the most visceral display of grace and truth known to man. There the Eternal Enigma himself — the God-man, the heavenly-made-earthly, the divine-in-the-flesh — set the world aright, establishing the grounds on which his Father’s creation could be redeemed. Truth alone is found perfect and unsullied in the bloodstained brow of Christ.
You see, just as Jesus’s righteousness is immutable and irrevocable, so is the Christian’s who has put his life and his all in Christ’s person and work. If you are justified on the terms of the gospel, you are justified forever — your forgiveness is an everlasting forgiveness and your peace is an everlasting peace. (Jer. 31:34) You become a mystery, an enigma, one who is simultaneously saint and sinner.
The salient truth, then, is that God’s Word increases in significance the longer we’re in it. The more we study the Word, the more we can say about its meaning and beauty. Our spiritual life is intricately tied to our intimacy with God. The more readily we’re relating with the truths in his Word and yearning to know and be known by him, the deeper our trust and the greater our faith will be. A recurring sentiment of the psalmist’s is that as our knowledge of the Word grows and deepens, so too will our reliance. The more intense our study, the more obvious our need. There never was and there never will be a Christian who has graduated from his need of the faith, wisdom, and life that only God’s Word can impart. (1 Cor. 1:30; Acts 17:28)
The psalmist’s prayer for understanding is not unlike our own. (Ps. 119:144) He, too, was confronted with the puzzle of pain in the lives God’s children. Likewise, his refuge is ours as well.
The refuge of the Word is the riddle of redemption, not always telling us why, but pointing to the One who was, and is, and is to come.
George Horne, A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (New York: Robert Carter, 1845).
Thomas Manton, Complete Works, Vol. 13 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1873).
Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988).
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (New York: Random House, 1997).