The germ of sin is a distortion of right and proper affections. With man usurping God’s authority, so, too, did he adulterate the affections God instilled in him to have. Where before he loved righteousness and holiness and all that is good, now mankind is incessantly driven after perversion, pleasure, and all the things that that feel right to the senses. We have spurned the Giver in pursuit of the gifts. This misplaced and, indeed, misguided affection is what the psalmist begins describing by declaring, “I hate the double-minded.” (Ps. 119:113)
I hate the double-minded, but I love your law. You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word. Depart from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commandments of my God. Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope! Hold me up, that I may be safe and have regard for your statutes continually! You spurn all who go astray from your statutes, for their cunning is in vain. All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross, therefore I love your testimonies. My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments. (Ps. 119:113–120)
Luther and others interpret the opening verse in this octave as referring to those who have vain thoughts or are “light-minded.” Edwards, Calvin, and still more, though, observe this as the psalmist himself testifying to the trivial feelings and ideas that plague his mind.
The Mind of a Christian
Nevertheless, the point remains that the Christian mind — the mind that has been redeemed by grace — is one that cries out against idle imaginations. It does not seek to entertain or invite vain thoughts, but fights against them as they war upon his soul for the affections of his heart. (Rom. 7:23) This is not to intimate that the believer is never prone to loose temptations. On the contrary, the intensity of temptations and enticements for the believer are only heightened as they pledge their lives to the grace of God. Satan sees this as an act of war, thereby making his target your heart and his goal your destruction. Being tempted or having passing temptations isn’t what it means “to sin.” It is only when conscious attention or decision is given to those temptations that we are then breaking the law of God. A redeemed mind recoils where an unregenerate mind rests.
This is why the psalmist not only remembers his refuge (Ps. 119:114) and reinforces his campaign against the devil (Ps. 119:115), but also spends so much time reflecting upon his true and only recourse against heinous thoughts and harmful temptations in this largest of the Psalms — that recourse being, the Word of God. The psalmist ran from his own vanities to the verities of God’s Word. “You are my hiding place and my shield,” he says, “I hope in your word.” (Ps. 119:114) The Word of God rightly read and perpetually contemplated is the believer’s protection and preservation against dangers of all kinds. In it is found mercy in condemnation, compassion in sorrow, relief in temptation, strength in battle, fullness in want.
“I hate vain thoughts,” the psalmist states. (Ps. 119:113 KJV) In this very declaration, the believer can find hope, for he wasn’t boasting of his absolute freedom from vain thoughts, but of his hatred of them — he despised all the passing fancies that distracted him from focusing on the Lord’s testimonies. While here on earth and in this “body of death” (Rom. 7:24), vain thoughts and idle imaginations can never truly be eradicated; such is the torment the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 7. However, they can mostly be replaced and renewed the longer and more frequent our repose is of God and his love and his gospel. The psalmist’s affirmation isn’t that he kept the law flawlessly, but that he “loved” it, even when he failed it. The law announces you need refuge, and the gospel is the announcement of a Refuge provided, revealed, and found. (Ps. 119:114) The gospel of God is a right and ready hiding place for the weakest and vilest of sinners.
And so it is that the psalmist was able to battle the vanity of his heart, because his respite was the promises of God. We cannot rightly fight the temptations within us until we fly to God and find that we are delivered by his grace. Hating vanity and loving verity can only arise out of a relationship with Jesus. Genuine stability and steadfastness is only found in God’s Word.
Sustained & Secured
We would be utterly lifeless if God did not sustain and uphold us by his Word. “Without divine grace assisting us, we are as weak as water.” (Plumer, 1070) “Uphold me according to your promise,” the psalmist implores. “Hold me up, that I may be safe.” (Ps. 119:116–117) Lest we think he was confident in his own resolve and fortitude to fight against evil, the psalmist’s prayer is that nothing less than God himself uphold and support him from falling. The only way we can be safe and secure in this life is to be held by God’s gracious hand. “The safety of every moment depends upon the upholding power of my faithful God.” (Bridges, 301) God’s Word is his covenant to all those who would believe of his continual confirmation and comfort, which are not merited or achieved, but are ours by mere faith. Our security and strength rests in God alone. The Christian is kept forever by the unchangeableness of God’s nature and disposition towards his children.
The psalmist surely knew the danger of his situation (Ps. 119:115), and sensing his peril he also knew that his only refuge was the One who was sovereign in his situation. (Ps. 119:116–117) Such is the exercise of the faith of the weak going to the Strong for strength. All the terrors of the world can never sway or sever the heart that is resolved and reposed upon God’s Word. With God promising to hold us up, we can hold fast to his promises, finding relief amidst the tumult of temptation. There was no intimation of self-confidence, rather, total dependence. “Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live,” the psalmist petitions (Ps. 119:116), undoubtedly suggestive of his faith in his upholding God. He was not standing in his own ability, but in that of his Father’s. So it is for us, that when we try to stand in our own strength, it is soon found that we aren’t standing at all.
Our lives must be defined by this cry: “Hold me up, that I may be safe.” (Ps. 119:117) Or, as it is in the Gospels: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) I would contend there is an inextricable link between both prayers, as both evince keen awareness of one’s complete weakness and God’s certain grace in weakness. What immaculate mercy that neither my life or my salvation will ever be for a single moment in my own keeping!
Fear & Hope
But not only are his promises effectual, but God’s judgments also have a vital consequence on the believer. God’s inflexible righteousness tolerates no sin at all — not even the slightest hint or speck of iniquity. His holiness is rigid and unyielding. So it is that those who reject God’s deliverance of their souls must be made to feel the sharpness of his decree. “You spurn all who go astray from your statutes, for their cunning is in vain. All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross.” (Ps. 119:118–119) The psalmist, though, follows up these frightening warnings with a curious statement. After he has cited the unnerving seriousness of God’s disdain for those that reject him, the psalmist says, “therefore I love your testimonies.” (Ps. 119:119) This sentiment will only make sense if we understand that the psalmist believed and knew that except for the upholding grace of God, he, too, would be discarded and disregarded by God because of his sin.
The psalmist can say that he loves the testimonies of God solely because they are the signpost to Christ. The rigidity and severity of God’s law is not to be feared by those who believe but gloried in, because that unflinching law was kept perfectly by the Son of God on behalf of wretched sinners — the same sort of sinners that should be spurned and discarded — like the psalmist knew himself to be, and like you and I ought to know we are. (Ps. 119:120) Only those who know the absolute freeness of God’s grace will rejoice at the unflinching rigidity of his righteousness. The religion of Christianity rightly understood is a mixture of fear and hope — fear of God’s righteousness and hope in God’s mercy.
God’s purpose of grace was to restore us to right affections: loving God, hating sin; delighting in righteousness, loathing anything that was unholy. He does this by either promising grace or passing judgment — but from both we can attain a beautiful image of Christ, as the One who dispenses the free gift of salvation and also the One who endures brunt of divine wrath for our sin. In each, the righteousness of God is on full display. The gospel of grace, while surely saving us from sin, likewise turns our hearts back to their proper center. Our lives are like a compass that is always spinning, never exhibiting true direction. Our perverted affections are fleeting and flying, from one object to the next, never satisfied. But God’s righteous grace interrupts our confusion and corruption to reorient our lives back to True North. God’s deliverance gives us direction.
Juxtaposed against our constant and varied attention and affection is God’s unwavering, uninterrupted Word of Grace. It calls us to know the seriousness with which the Father treats unrighteousness, but also the sympathy by which his Son bore all judgment for our sin. Our unstable passions are met with Jesus’s uninterrupted affection, and in that we are safe.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002).
William Plumer, Studies in the Book of Psalms (Philadelphia: Lippincott & Co., 1872).