This article has also appeared on Christ Hold Fast.
Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law. Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise! Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek your statutes. Great is your mercy, O Lord; give me life according to your rules. Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, but I do not swerve from your testimonies. I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands. Consider how I love your precepts! Give me life according to your steadfast love. The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever. (Ps 119:153–160)
One of my favorite shows in recent memory is the American law enforcement drama Law & Order. I’m sure you’re familiar with this 20-season-long series, but if not, it’s safe to say that it has basically set the standard for legal procedural television shows. The long-running show was a serious look at the U.S. criminal justice system, giving ample looks at both sides of law-enforcement: investigation and prosecution. More often than not, the plot of the current episode would revolve around other current crimes in the headlines, with names and motivations only slightly altered. The success of the show inspired multiple spin-offs, but none captured the right balance of characters as the original series. It’s the quintessential courtroom drama, to which all its successors could only wish to aspire to its outstanding production and execution.
The parts that intrigued me the most were always those that focused on the prosecution. There’s something about the way Hollywood films courtrooms that makes nearly everyone want to be a lawyer — when most lawyers are, perhaps, disgusted with the way their profession has been bastardized by the fanciful imaginations and dramatizations of screenwriters. For the sake of the show, we give it the benefit of the doubt, but in reality, not all courtrooms are that dramatic nor is every case picked up by a particular firm. Prior to any counsel being given, the attorneys want to ensure your case is worth the taking, proving substantial and profitable. There’s depositions and investigations and retainers and securities, all which parse and protect the firm from acquiring any unwanted cases. You don’t see that on Law & Order, or any other jurisprudence show.
Dissimilarly, yet divinely, another attorney rises to our aid. He comes being the perfect defense and it’s to this counsel to which the psalmist cries for deliverance in this 20th stanza of Psalm 119. This barrister performs no prior investigation nor procures any sort of retainer. Your cry for help is all that’s necessary for him to take your case.
This is your Advocate, your Attorney, the Lord Jesus Christ. As does the psalmist, so should we bring our case before divine arbitration. “Look on my affliction and deliver me,” he cries (Ps 119:153), yearning for outside superintendence — something that happens only when we’ve come to the very end of ourselves. Indeed, this is why God permits us to stumble, that in our duress, we might earnestly weep for an alien deliverance, an outside Rescuer. This is only secured by the word of our Advocate. (Ps 119:154) Nothing that we can do or say can ever sway the judge to reconsider his verdict. We stand guilty, condemned. Yet we do not stand alone. Jesus is uniquely interested in the suffering of his children. God’s hand is predisposed to relieve your troubles.
Therefore, we must let our Attorney speak for us. So often, in our pride and delusion, we want to speak for ourselves, plead our own cause, and put forth our own merit. But this is a losing endeavor, a fool’s errand for whom “salvation is far.” (Ps 119:155) The world talks as though they need no saving, and even if they did, it’d be found in themselves. So long as we seek our own comfort and counsel, peace and pardon are forever out of reach. No gun in the armory of man can win the battle for our liberation. And it’s not as though Christ has abandoned them; it’s they who’ve renounced him, refusing his arbitration. It’s our unbelief in God’s grace that keeps it from us. And so it is that sinners punish themselves by entering death without the Life applied to them.
Assurances from the attorney.
Our hearts should burn for those who have no care for God’s Word. (Ps 119:158) Grief must begin personally before we can develop passion missionally. The more we’re made aware of our deficiencies, the more urgent should be our cries for deliverance. The scanty measure of our obedience to God ought to prevent us from using it as the grounds of our acceptance. The psalmist’s appeal wasn’t the consideration of his actual performances, but his faith in God’s precepts; he didn’t say “consider how I perform” but “consider how I love your precepts.” (Ps 119:159) The law makes us conscious to the imperfection of our devotion, all the while pointing us to the perfection of Christ’s devotion to us. The believer’s cry isn’t merit but mercy! And because God is love he will give us life.
Only God our Advocate is able to plead the case which leads to our acquittal. Jesus’s defense always leads to our deliverance. When the cries for help are uttered and God considers your case, he takes you under his wing and engages the arraignment with a right and ready defense. “Plead my cause and redeem me,” the psalmist says, “give me life according to your promise!” (Ps 119:154) He certainly knew he needed redeeming. His state was one that demanded a rescue. Thus we might say the psalmist’s hope was born, not in himself, but in simultaneous knowledge of his own guilt and of a righteous defender of the guilty. Christ is such an Attorney, one who’s not afraid to take your case. Who needs an advocate more than the afflicted? Who needs a remedy more than the ailing? Who needs a Savior more than the sinner? There’s no circumstance too guilty, too far gone, too marred by sin for Christ to intervene and take up as his own.
See to it, that your resources are drawn, not from your own resolutions, or from the sincerity and ardour of your love; but from the fullness that is treasured up in Jesus for your present distress.1
Dependence and devotion.
The reason for our frequent bouts of despair and discouragement is too great of reliance upon our own wits and merits. It is “the Lord, your God who pleads the cause of his people.” (Is 51:22) Though we may be sorely oppressed, our help is ever near and present in the Spirit’s presence. Though the accuser persists, we have an Advocate who pleads our case. The ransom for redemption and the price for our release was found in our Attorney’s blood. This is the good news of the gospel, an announcement which flips the traditional script of judgment, putting your culpability on your Representative and revealing the Judge to be your Father. In a moment of unforeseen mercy, Jesus took our world of sin and replaced it with his worlds of righteousness. “It is finished,” he cried, thereby establishing forever a fountain of free grace, streaming from his side. By your Attorney’s words, your exoneration is founded. The voice of deliverance cries all the louder over the voice of condemnation.
Such is the largeness of God’s mercy and the immensity of his love in which the psalmist trusts. (Ps 119:156) Every moment’s perseverance is utterly dependent upon the Savior’s mercy. It is that by which he mitigates and mediates. It is by his promise, his rules, his testimonies that life is found. (Ps 119:154, 156–157) We’re no better than they who are far from God, but for the Savior’s mercy. It is to God’s free grace and rich mercy alone that we trace the distinction between the living and the dead. And when our minds are stayed on God’s testimonies, our lives will be steadied by his dependence and devotedness to us, despite our perpetual undevotedness and independence from him.
Christ is the embodiment of God’s closeness, the full representation of truth and love. He is the mercy of God both tender and great — great enough for the meanest of sins and tender enough for the deepest of wounds. “Great is your mercy, O Lord.” (Ps 119:156) This mercy knows no bounds, has no stipulations, has no fine print. It is free and boundless. The only estimate to the greatness of God’s mercy is the debt which it pardons, the ruin from which it saves. As soon as we’re able to count the stars in the universe, we’ll be able to grasp the greatness of God’s grace.
The psalmist didn’t deviate from the truth of God even as he was mocked for following it. (Ps 119:157) The urgency of the his prayer reveals the closeness of those that sought to destroy him. It was as though he could hear their feet hitting the ground, pounding and pressing closer. But the gospel ensures us that there’s enough strength in the testimonies of God to incline all to fly to his presence and seek his counsel, despite the opposition, despite the loudness of the adversary’s prosecution.
Our sweetness in sorrow is the sureness of God’s gospel. The steadfast truth of Christ’s grace is our continual comfort in all calamity. The truth and love of God are the pillars of the Christian faith, and these are, like his very person, unfailing and unending. (Ps 119:160) We stand before God condemned, yet not condemned, owning the righteousness of the law through faith. The glory of the gospel and the mystery of grace is that the very righteousness demanded is the very righteousness provided.
Our monstrous sins required nothing less than the steep stoop of deity in order to bridge the gulf between a holy God and an unholy creature. This is what our true and better Lawyer does for us. God made and met the demands of the law in his Son, Christ Jesus. The life of the Christian is one of sensible helplessness in himself but assured confidence in Christ. Confidence that arises out of the echoes of our Advocate’s counsel. Confidence that’s built upon the sure words of the Father. Confidence that endures the storms of earth and hell. The rock of our assurance is the eternality of God. The words of our acquittal roar from our Attorney’s blood.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 412.