A commentary on Psalm 119:129-136.
Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments. Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name. Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me. Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes. My eyes she’d streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.
Not to retread previous ground, but a sentiment of the psalmist’s that appears much earlier in this particular Psalm deserves a revisit. He declares in the second stanza, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” (Ps. 119:11 KJV) Oftentimes, this statement is used by Christians to compel their youths into rigorous Bible memorization programs, concluding that “hiding” God’s Word is equivalent to memorizing it. And while I am not doubting the benefits of such an exercise, I do believe that many of our memorization curriculums do more harm than good. That idea might surprise you, though, for how can any time spent in the Word of God be harmful?
The Problem with Programs
I believe it comes back to the manner in which these programs are regulated. Routinely, they become all about simply quoting the next verse in order to attain the next merit badge, which, consequently, nullifies the very thing you hope to instill by such a program. Investing time to memorize the gospel of unearned merit to receive merit is an ironic dilemma. Instead of being about a deeper knowledge of and relationship with the God of the Word, we’ve neutered the Word by making it all about flat recitation and pithy memorization.
God doesn’t want you just informed, he wants you intimate. God is less concerned with how many verses you’ve learned and more so with the level of attachment you have to his Word. As Henry Melvill says, “There is a wide difference between strengthening the mind and storing it with information.” (148) We can cram a lot of sentences and facts from God’s Word into our minds, but if we’re never considering what they really mean and how they should affect us in our daily lives, it’s all in vain.
Awe & Wonder
In short, God’s after our awe. He’s desirous of people who revere and wonder at his Word, knowing that the things testified therein are in the truest sense of the word “wonderful.” The psalmist begins this 17th octave by testifying to that very truth: “Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.” (Ps. 119:129) The testimonies of God concerning his Son’s redemption of fallen creation are, in every way imaginable, wonderful and extraordinary. Everything contained in the Word is wonderful because it tells us of Christ’s righteousness for us, of the “grace that should come unto you.” (1 Pet. 1:10 KJV) The words of God are wonderful in their instruction, their elevation, their strength, and their comfort. Indeed, wonderful in their majesty, mystery, purity, harmony, and might!
Those who apprehend the Word of God aright will be humbled and stupefied by what they find in it. God’s Word tells us of his plan to deliver delinquent and desperate men by his astounding grace — it speaks to us words of glory and mercy, pardon and peace, favor and forgiveness, all for the weakest, vilest, and worst of sinners! It is the publication of the marvelous news that sinful creatures can be made right with their Creator through a righteousness not their own. It’s the manifestation of the wonder of wonders that the Ruler of the heavens brings liberty and happiness and grace to those who ruined what he formed — that he saves those who spurned him.
Reflection on God’s words deepens our reverence and motivates our obedience. The more we study God’s wonderful Word the more we’ll stand to wonder at it — it’s wonder and glory grows as we grow deeper into it. Even the most studied reader of the Word has to confess to how much of it remains yet unexplored. Without question, a constant amazement for and admiration of the Scriptures will engender a devotion to it, a devotion which will then breed yet deeper amazement. The heart that is redeemed treasures the good news of redemption. The soul that is not humbled by the wonders of the gospel will never understand it’s depths, but the soul that is honest with its need for the Word will hold fast to it. Nonetheless, when thinking and reflecting upon God’s abounding grace and pardon for sin-sick souls, we cannot help but exclaim with the psalmist, “How wonderful are your testimonies!” (Ps. 119:129)
The Spirit of Light
Furthermore, we are bound to recognize that it is God himself who opens our minds to understand the things in his Word; apart from his Spirit, the gospel would remain dark to us. (Ps. 119:130) The light of the Word moves in tandem with the light of the Spirit, and we are not made to understand the one without the other. The Spirit and the Word together are the believer’s guide — the Spirit enlightening and quickening the Word, and the Word evidencing and manifesting the light of the Spirit.
The psalmist’s devotion was surely bred from his wonder. As a deer pants after the water, so his soul panted after God’s Word. (Ps. 119:131; 42:1) Such should be the demeanor of all God’s children, that they might have a more earnest acquaintance with God and his testimonies. The picture here of “panting” after God’s Word should bring to mind, though, an even more desperate image. The word “pant” in verse 131 has in mind “gasping,” “breathing heavily,” or even the idea of an animal thirsting after blood. Don’t just imagine a tranquil scene of Bambi lapping water from a cool stream. The picture is much more intense.
Think, instead, of an exhausted athlete who’s just finished his race, mouth agape, gasping for breath, desperate for water. In such a moment, nothing internally will quell those needs. Nothing in that athlete’s body, mind, or soul can quench his thirst. Only that which is outside of him can satisfy. And so it goes that the believing soul ought to never be content with that which is inside of him. Nothing in ourselves should take the place reserved for God. The heart of the Christian should ever be “seeking for larger views of the Gospel, a warmer experience of its promises, a more intense appetite for its enjoyments, and a more devoted attachment to its service.” (Bridges, 343) And it is by continual wonderment at God’s testimonies that something beyond ordinary affection is awakened. This deeper and more vigorous panting after God is stoked not by information or memorization but by news.
Mercy & Amazement
Our dependence upon God is stoked by his deliverance of us. Our devotion to and trust in God is stirred to new and greater depths by our recurring amazement at the mercies of God in the gospel. And there is only one way and one expression from which we can enjoy the mercies of God: it is the look of Christ on us. “Turn to me,” the psalmist prays. (Ps. 119:132) “Turn to me and look upon me,” he cries; “look upon me in favor, in the promised light of Your Son’s redemption.” The eyes that turn and look upon the psalmist here are the same eyes that would one day see the distraught publican (Luke 18:9–14), the bereft apostle (Luke 22:61), and the promiscuous woman (John 8:1–11), and have outrageous mercy upon them all.
God the Father can only look on us as we are found in his Son. We are found in the light of God’s grace as we stand in the shadow of the cross — “hidden in Christ.” (Col. 3:3) Therefore, we must ever be praying for God’s look of favor, for we cannot forget our most basic nature: a sinner needing mercy for every moment and grace for every duty. Apart from God’s direction and discipline, our steps would be scattered and scurried, wandering to and fro upon “every wind of doctrine.” (Eph. 4:14) Thus the psalmist’s cry for God to order his steps and to keep them steady. (Ps. 119:133) The Word not only cheers and encourages our way but “orders our steps,” enabling us to walk in all the ways ordained by God.
The prayer of the redeemed soul must be for the way to be cleared that the affections of the heart might be united under the direction of the Word. Our sinful selves will struggle against us for dominion till the end of time. But looking to and living on Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, we are made the victors. “The more clear our view of Jesus, the more complete is our victory,” Charles Bridges says. (350) Prayers for acceptance will naturally lead to prayers for holiness. (Ps. 119:134) Our deliverance from the dominion and curse of sin is inextricably linked with our acceptance in the eyes of God — you cannot have one without the other. But seeking holiness only comes after we’ve been accepted and approved on account of Another. The rhythm of the gospel is acceptance before obedience.
The Luster of God’s Grace
The psalmist prays, furthermore, for God’s face to shine upon him. (Ps. 119:135) This is a continued cry for God’s favor and mercy upon his life. As he prays for the Heavenly Father’s turning and looking, so the psalmist prays for his shining face, his smile. This prayer ought to be considered as one that is forward looking to the appointed time in which the Messiah would deliver God’s children from the chains of sin into the arms of grace, for it is Christ who clears the way for God’s shining face to beam upon his children once more.
Pleading for God’s look is a plea for God’s assurance, a blessing which can only be found by resorting to the words and testimonies of Christ who promises assurance to the feeble and strength to the weak. By Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, those who believe are given unobstructed views of God’s smile. Our righteous standing is found in the twinkle of Christ’s eyes. The luster of God’s grace shines through whatever cloud of sin may try to darken its rays.
Those who put their faith in the gospel of God find that it satisfies every claim laid against them, supplies every want of their heart, and secures permanent rest for their troubled soul. The believer finds his eternal security in an everlasting covenant of grace. Those who look for comfort in life apart from the sunlight of God’s countenance fall victim to their own delusions of peace and safety. And as it is God’s heart, the psalmist expresses his deep compassion for those who die in their sins and do not know God. (Ps. 119:136) It is here that we ought to understand that those who study the testimonies of God are driven to compassion and concern for others. The gospel of God is, indeed, missional and relational, causing us to see the unsaved as souls needing to be “pulled out of the fire.” (Jude 1:23; Zech. 3:2)
The gospel of grace is the gospel of compassion. The more we know of God and the wonderful things testified in his Word regarding his Son, the more tender we will be towards the transgressions of the unsaved. God takes no delight in justice (Ezek. 18:23, 32), but delights only in mercy. (Micah 7:18) God’s people, therefore, should be marked not by judgment but by mercy in the midst of immense ruin and rebellion. Just as Christ weeped over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44), so the psalmist weeps over sinners (Ps. 119:136) — and so might we have a burden for the least and the lost. God’s wonderful Word informs us that none are too far gone for Christ to rescue them. For the grief of the world there is the grace of God; abundant sorrow for abounding sin. There is no mind so knowledgeable that it is not blind to its need of God’s grace, nor is there any mind so blind that it cannot be made knowledgeable to God’s gospel.
God’s Word of grace is adaptable to every level of human need. (Ps. 119:130; 19:7; 25:9) Notwithstanding your proficiencies or deficiencies in life, it meets you where you are, perfectly evidencing God’s superbly divine condescension. The wonderful words of God inform us of Jesus’s merciful intimacy with fallen mankind. It is a miracle beyond comprehension that this high and heavenly Word should be opened and understood by hearts and minds so feeble, so frail, so filthy.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002).
Henry Melvill, Sermons, edited by C. P. McIlvaine (Swords, Stanford, & Co., 1838).