The Sinner’s Surety: Psalm CXIX Part 16
A commentary on Psalm 119:121–128.
I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors. Give your servant a pledge of good; let not the insolent oppress me. My eyes long for your salvation and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise. Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love, and teach me your statutes. I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies! It is time for the Lord to act, for your law has been broken. Therefore I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold. Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right; I hate every false way.
There comes a moment in every episode of Law & Order where a bombshell revelation is uttered, shattering the case for either the defense or the prosecution. You can usually tell when these moments are coming because of the insertion of the brooding, melodramatic music — that’s the cue for the “Something Big Is About To Go Down” moment. Often, what follows this revelation is what you would rightly call dead silence. The attorneys and counselors are shocked, stunned, and, for once, at a loss for words. No coy or quippy comebacks in this scene. “Dead silence” is the perfect description for that moment, an idiom which stems from other familiar phrases such as, “Silent as the dead” or “Silent as the grave” — which accurately depicts the confession being of such an astonishing nature that all parties are left dumbfounded.
In a similar way, though, the gospel silences the law. Indeed, the gospel stuns the law into dead silence.
Christ Our Pledge
It is upon this staggeringly good news that the psalmist, here, calls for righteous validation. (Ps. 119:121) Notice, however, that his appeal is not to the holiness of his person but that of his cause. He is not pleading for acceptance of his self-righteous station but for acceptance upon the merits of a righteous Savior. As surely he knew the promises of Scripture, the psalmist implores God to act as his Surety, his Advocate, his Pledge. (Ps. 119:122) The word “pledge” in verse 122 is the same word that Job uses in his plea to God: “Lay down a pledge for me with you; who is there who will put up security for me?” (Job 17:3) It is in the Hebrew `arab, meaning “to pledge, exchange, undertake for, be or become surety.” The psalmist’s plea is also similar to that of King Hezekiah’s: “O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety!” (Isa. 38:14) What the psalmist prays for is what Christ is for everyone who believes: our Surety, our Mediator, our Attorney. The Lord Christ acts as our Representative with the Father, speaking on our behalf, taking upon himself our case in the heavenly courtroom, weathering and silencing all the accusations of the law. And apart from Christ taking our situation as his own, our verdict of eternal condemnation is sealed in the bowels of God’s righteous justice.
Man’s debt of sin is forever accumulating new balances, making the prospect of payment infinitely out of reach, ever in the future. The gospel, however, announces that our Judge has not only become our Attorney but has become our Advocate, our Substitute, taking our place and swallowing the guilty verdict in his righteous grace. Our Mediating Messiah has taken our case, borne our verdict, and reconciled our debt, which now reads, “Paid in full!” “The surety is found,” writes Charles Bridges, “the debt is paid — the ransom is accepted — the sinner is free!” (314)
Jesus is our pledge of peace, for when his Word of grace goes forth, all turbulence subsides. Those who hazard the greatest of obstacles for the sake of God’s gospel will discover that he is an all the more ready refuge for those in perilous circumstances. He bears the burdens of the needy, speaking calming, pardoning, silencing words. The psalmist, here, is calling upon the sure promise of the Word of God which declares that the Son is the sinner’s Guarantor and “pledge of good” (Ps. 119:121) — the promise and “surety of a better testament.” (Heb. 7:22 KJV) With Christ undertaking for us, on our behalf, there is no adversary that should seem opposing anymore. All matters and cases can be left before him because he is a perfect Attorney, a “Wonderful Counselor” (Isa. 9:6), having an answer for every accuser and a rebuke for every barb that Satan rails against you.
The End of Ourselves
Feeling oppressed and downtrodden, the psalmist implores his God to step in on his behalf and be his “pledge of good.” This appeal only comes from those who both know the Word of God and the weight of their situation. The psalmist is feeling crushed by the contemptuous and insolent. His need is desperate — he longs for deliverance and the fulfillment of God’s promise. (Ps. 119:123) He is, as you might say, at his wits’ end. But that’s good news, because that’s precisely where God want us. God is chiefly known by those who have nowhere else to turn. In “steadfast love,” God stoops to us, condescendingly communing with his children. (Ps. 119:124) He comes down, meeting us in mercy, tendering grace to the weary. Christ, our only barrier between life and death, intercedes and invades our mess, interrupting our rebellion with his redemption. The old adage is true, that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity — indeed, when we come to the end of ourselves, that is God’s time to work. (Ps. 119:126; 107:27–29)
We may not always enjoy it, we may not always understand it — and more often than not, we don’t — but regardless of the season you are in right now, Christ is your faithful Friend who promises to be with you in the very moment of your calamity and chaos. The believer’s life is filled with ceaseless seasons of change, ebbs and flows of devotion and desperation. But the assurance of God’s Word is that even if/when our eyes fail to see God’s salvation, even if our waiting proves futile and we are not made to escape our turmoil or oppression, God is still the God of unfailing love. The sun comes and goes, taking its light with it, but never does the sun go down upon God’s mercy for his people. His grace flows freely and inexhaustibly, enveloping his children in an atmosphere of unmerited favor and unilateral love, in which they live and move and have their being. (Acts 17:28) Those whose trust is in God and his Word have a hope that is unchangeable and fixed.
God will never disappoint those who wait on his righteous deliverance. To them he gives a special word, “a word in season” (Isa. 50:4 KJV), a word which prompts the remembrance of his undertaking for them. (1 John 2:2; 4:10) You might be oppressed like the psalmist was — you might be feeling the weight of the world and its aversion for you and your God. But notwithstanding the severity of your situation or the immediacy of God’s deliverance, the prayer and patience of the believing soul is never in vain. (Ps. 119:123; Dan. 3:17–18) For that is, in fact, what faith is: Faith is the waiting and hoping of a weary soul upon a merciful God. The psalmist was waiting, longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises in his life. And even though his circumstances were grim, because his hope was fixed in that which is immutable, he could go on saying, “I love your commandments.” (Ps. 119:127)
God Working in Us
Do notice, that the psalmist was not boasting in the fact that he always kept the law or fulfilled all its commandments. But he loved the law, and such is his declaration and determination — such, too, is the heart of all redeemed souls, wherein that which they loathed becomes their love. The slaves of sin are made servants of righteousness by the free grace of God.
“Therefore I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold. Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right; I hate every false way.” (Ps. 119:127–128) No one can ever say that they love God more than anything, even if that’s their heart’s desire. That’s not even the psalmist’s intent by these words. What we can say is that God loves us more than anything, and that’s all that matters. The psalmist’s sentiment — and our own — of loving God and his law more than anything is a vow to God and self more than anything else — a vow that doesn’t save in and of itself, but sets the heart’s direction and determination as God’s servants. It is these servants that are then made to say, “I love your commandments . . . I hate every false way.” (Ps. 119:127–128) Three times the psalmist refers to himself as God’s “servant.” (Ps. 119:122, 124-125) And so it is that the happiest people are those who are the servants of God. Happy not always in their present circumstances but in the presence of God’s consolation. Sometimes that consolation looks different for each of us. For while the means of God’s grace are the same for everyone, the manifestation of that grace is unique to each life. Indeed, God’s time to work is our time to love his working in us, regardless of what that looks like.
The full consolation of the Gospel is therefore the fruit of patient, humble waiting for the Lord. (Bridges, 317)
Your salvation is independent of your situation — regardless of what you’re enduring right now, God’s arm isn’t weakened or his hand “shortened, that it cannot save.” (Isa. 59:1) If God’s behind the work, deliverance is surely on its way, in this life or the next. The psalmist is keenly aware of what will allow him to weather this oppressive season. He cries, “Teach me your statutes . . . give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies!” (Ps. 119:124–125) He is entreating the Lord for a deeper sense of his mercy, which he knows will bind him all the more ardently to his Word. And, as is its nature, the Word will humble him with a deeper sense of sin, causing him to see his consequent need of the Lord’s mercy.
God’s Word drives us back to himself with both the revelation of our putrid standing and the revelation of a perfect Surety. It is simultaneously an exposing and encouraging Word, a portraiture of both desperation and deliverance. The believer in God is a reader of his Word, and the holier he becomes, the louder he cries: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24 KJV) — “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for [my] iniquities have risen higher than [my] head, and [my] guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6) — “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) — “Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love.” (Ps. 119:124)
“For my best performances I need an immeasurable world of mercy — pardoning — saving — everlasting mercy,” declares Bridges. (320) This mercy is promised to you, pledged to you in God’s Word. You have a Mediator, an Attorney who’s already taken up your case and stunned the law into dead silence by drinking your iniquity. You have a Surety and Savior whose prime suspects are sinners with nowhere else to turn.
- Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002).