The way to wander and the way to God: Psalm cxix, part 22.
We come now to the 22nd stanza and the end of this 119th Psalm, throughout which the writer has been adamant about both God’s heart to save and man’s heart to wander. This climactic stanza is no different, with the psalmist closing his magnum opus of praise in a rather anticlimactic way: prostrate in submission and diffidence.
Let my cry reach you, Lord; give me understanding according to your word. Let my plea reach you; rescue me according to your promise. My lips pour out praise, for you teach me your statutes. My tongue sings about your promise, for all your commands are righteous. May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. I long for your salvation, Lord, and your instruction is my delight. Let me live, and I will praise you; may your judgments help me. I wander like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commands. (Ps 119:169–176)
Pleading for deliverance.
Never one to bank on whatever righteousness he perceives he’s garnered, he enters the presence of Jehovah in abject humility. “Let my cry reach you, Lord . . . Let my plea reach you.” (Ps 119:169–170) Whatever eloquence, here, may be lacking is made up for in desperation. He knows the gravity and seriousness of his depravity. He knows he needs help. (Ps 119:173, 175) There is no inherent or intrinsic power in prayers themselves, for the simple reason that all power in prayer is contained in the One prayed to. In actuality, prayer is an expression of utter weakness and helplessness. God’s not impressed by the loftiness of our incantations or the exactness of our rhetoric, nor does he care for flowery words. The condescension of the Father is most clearly seen in his willful and free acceptance of our stammering prayers and petitions, seeing that all he’s after is the dire cries of the desperate. For this reason, the psalmist opens this petition as that of a pauper before a lord, as a wandering lamb in grave need of its shepherd. (Ps 119:176)
This, by the way, is the only way God hears us. The life and acceptance of prayer isn’t at all tied up in our command of language, but only in the redeeming blood of Christ. We come before God’s throne of grace not because we’re worthy but because his blood bespatters the way, and on that account alone, we draw near. There’s nothing we possess that makes us warrantable of appearing before him. Yet, even still, the Father says, “Come.” As Joseph insists of his brothers, so the Lord says to us, “Please, come near me.” (Gn 45:4) Christ makes the way for our entrance and so we enter boldly. (Heb 4:16)
Therefore, Christ is the only way to get to God. He bids us come, and so we come, because we are in him. God the Son’s own blood unites us all as we stand in the sight of God the Father, making us as pure as he is. And just as the Father is never tired of delighting in the glory of his Son, so is he never tired of delighting in us. We are his workmanship and his masterpiece. (Eph 2:10) He has forever cleared the way for us to come before him and has forever opened our lips for us to praise him.
Praising of deliverance.
Guilt seals the lips of the sinner’s heart, but never does it bar his entrance before the throne. Rather, the throne of grace was erected for sinners like you and I. The gospel is for the guilty, deliverance is for the destitute. It’s for the wrecked and ruined sinner with no other sliver of hope. The gospel guarantees acceptance and absolution for the wanderer on the merits of Another, so that when we see how much we’ve been forgive, our hearts can’t help but sing his praises. “My lips pour out praise,” the psalmist cries. (Ps 119:171) Praise because of deliverance. Saving grace gives us a new song. (Ps 40:1–3) And where guilt makes the heart dumb, grace makes the heart sing. The love of God makes our praise come alive — worship is only truly uttered by a heart that’s been delivered.
Life naturally comes before praise. Dead souls can’t speak or offer any semblance of worship. Therefore, the psalmist cries, “Let me live, and I will praise you.” (Ps 119:175) “Fill me with life, Your life,” he pleads. The mouth that tasted deliverance craves for more exposure to the joys of his salvation. “My lips pour out praise . . . My tongue sings about your promise.” (Ps 119:171–172) The Word that delivered him is the word that’s on his tongue, and there’s nothing else he desires to sing about. Grace has become his sole melody. With that in mind, we must also note that the rescued heart that’s taught by and filled with the Spirit of Christ can’t contain itself — it must burst forth with praise and proclamation for the grace that’s rescued him.
Every ounce necessary.
“May your hand be ready to help me,” is the prayer. (Ps 119:173) Crying for God’s help isn’t only our first determination, it’s our only determination. You and I have no other recourse than to ceaselessly rest on the Father’s mercy. And so it is that we should note that the course of the Christian life is one that deepens in dependence as the years roll on. A modicum of the Word of Grace naturally induces a yet stronger hunger and higher enjoyment of it. The longer we commune with our Deliverer the more we crave his presence. Redeemed souls ought to have redemption pouring from their lips. (Ps 45:2; Col 4:6)
The psalmist, no doubt, was aware of the tendency of his heart to wander from the Lord, and so he prays for God’s swift help. “May your hand be ready to help me.” Entreating the Lord’s aid yields a right and ready mercy for the needy, and there’s never a moment that isn’t the “time of need.” (Heb 4:16) There’s never been a single second of your life when grace wasn’t absolutely necessary, nor has there ever been a moment when you aren’t reliant on God’s illimitable mercy. We need every ounce of omnipotent grace to sustain us in this life.
Let me then fix the eye of my faith, weak and dim as it may be, constantly upon Jesus. He must do all for me, in me, by me; he must “teach” me more and more of “the statutes” of my God, that my heart may be delightfully engaged with “my lips in uttering his praise.”
This is what the Savior speaks to us and, likewise, what the psalmist glories in: “Give me understanding according to your word . . . rescue me according to your promise.” (Ps 119:169–170) He’s after a clearer vision and a firmer grasp of his Deliverer. Our cry for understanding should stem out of an earnest desire to see our covenant-keeping God with unclouded eyes and with unencumbered belief.
Persisting in deliverance.
The salvation of God of sinful souls ought to inspire constant freshness and impart infinite meaning. Jesus’s deliverance leaves nothing to fill or improve. It is all finished! God’s gospel leaves no room for hedging or hesitation, but brings immediate peace and joy to the troubled soul upon the great grounds of Christ’s atonement. Feelings aren’t the foundation, because a religion of feeling is a delusion. The Father guarantees his grace for you by his Son, notwithstanding your current feelings towards it. The most religious and “Christian” feelings have no place at the foundation of our faith. But amid the constant fluctuation of heart and soul, Christ can always trusted. We can stay upon our God while walking in darkness only because of the unchangeable gospel upon which we rest and hope and stand and believe. It’s this perfect, unchangeable salvation that the psalmist longs for. (Ps 119:174) He’s desirous of the full effect of God’s redemption and restoration — not only of his own soul but of all creation.
Too frequently the offering of gospel-proclamation has been taken up and dropped by those who deem the accusing and scoffing voices of the world too unbearable. Abiding and persisting in the mission of evangelism necessitates abiding in the Savior, in the truth of his gospel, which says “without me you can do nothing.” And so it is that we’re made to see that weakness isn’t a hopeless position. For it is only in our weakness that we’re able to understand more acutely God’s supporting, sustaining, and strengthening grace. (2 Cor 12:9–10) Blessed be our helplessness that forces us to rest on the Savior’s strength! Blessed be our emptiness that stokes our dependence on the Son’s fullness!
Our emptiness, his fullness.
This is where the symphony of faith crescendos. You see, faith is the harmony of our insufficiency and God’s all-sufficiency. We realize the actual perception of our emptiness only in the contemplation of his unbounded fullness. And there is true worship. There is true religion. True evangelical religion is found not just in duty but, more so, in delight. When we contemplate and consider this glorious salvation, we will delight in the law that informs us of it. Salvation is through the law, through it’s keeping, and though we can’t perform this on our own, our hope is found there. For One better than us has kept it for us. The testimony of the Lord tells us of the demand-Maker who became the demand-Keeper for you, the demand-breaker. This is why the psalmist can delight in God’s law. (Ps 119:174)
It’s only after we’ve been made to see the Fulfiller of the law that we’ll recognize the duties of the law for what they are. Apart from Christ, the law is hard and an affront us, sparking sin and rebellion. Consequently, when Christ becomes the source and life of those duties, they transform into privileges. “Without this perception, all is weariness, toil, and travail of soul in his service,” says commentator Charles Bridges; “duty, not privilege; constraint, not delight; conscience, not love.”Obedience in service to God isn’t rigorous but rejoicing, provided that Christ has rescued the soul.
The heavenly beauty and glory of the religion of the gospel shines on us in the simple faith of obedience. The clearest measure of faith is “trust and obey.” Peace is only truly found when the cross overshadows and overtakes whatever dreams and ambitions we might’ve had for our lives. If everything in Christ you need you have, then the world’s “all” becomes nothing. We find our truest happiness when we lose our will and surrender to his, which is, in other words, what “progressive sanctification” is all about. That is, not ascending holiness, but gradual happiness at the construct of losing your life to find it in Christ.
Seeker and sinner and servant.
The psalmist closes the stanza with an intriguing confession. “I wander like a lost sheep,” he exclaims; “seek your servant.” (Ps 119:176) What’s interesting about this confession is his testimony just prior. In verse 168, the psalmist declares, “I obey your precepts and decrees, for all my ways are before you.” How does the psalmist obey yet wander? How does he follow the Father’s precepts and at the same time go astray? Can these two natures coincide in one life? Yes, and, as a matter of fact, this is the standard. The writer’s vulnerable expressions, here, reiterate the life of every believer, the life of simul justus et peccator: simultaneously just and sinner.
Until we enter the unmixed, unadulterated air of praise in glory, our lives will continue to vacillate between hope and despair, virtues and vices. Until then, we must say, “But for the interposing, interrupting, invading grace of God, I wander ‘like a lost sheep.’” (Ps 119:176) The intimation of this cry is that he has and he continues to wander. This isn’t the first time he’s strayed, nor will it be his last. The psalmist knows his heart. He understands that he’s predisposed to wander from the Lord’s will, but he also knows the gospel. He’s read the promise that the Shepherd’s grace will cover all the guilt of the sheep’s incessant wanderings. “For this is what the Lord God says: See, I myself will search for my flock and look for them.” (Eze 34:11)
Because of his indwelling impulse to wander, he implores his Father, “Seek your servant and come after me! Never stop pursuing me!” Such should be our confession. We continually fall away from the Lord and, so, we have an incessant need for prayer and humility. When we wander from God, we can’t even find our way back; we need God to find us. The gospel is deep and wide enough that we may be clear of all offenses and at the same time grieved over persistent wanderings, which beckon God’s gracious hand.
The highest flights of human devotion must end in this confession: “I have wandered, but You have found me. Seek thy servant.” The sincerest professions of fidelity must give place to the acknowledgment of utter helplessness and, further, the loftiest human declarations of love to God’s law must come down to the mournful acknowledgment that we have fallen short of it. It’s then that we will praise God as we ought.
God’s chiefest delight is for us to lose ourselves in himself. So, then, let us bury ourselves in the Father’s mercy that pardons rebels and redeems sinners, and let us think much on God’s rescuing grace. Such should be our motto and, moreover, such will stir our hearts to worship. If we “think much on grace,” our praise will be bubbling and pouring forth like a fountain.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 464.