Psalm 119 - Part 1
What is a miracle? Dr. Norman Geisler defines it well in his book When Skeptics Ask, “A miracle is divine intervention into, or interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that would not have occurred otherwise.” I wholeheartedly agree with this definition.
What does it have to do with a study of Psalm 119? Not that our study of this, the longest Psalm at 176 verses, will allow you to see a divine intervention, or interruption of the regular course of the world; however, I do think our analysis will be the borderline of a “miracle.” How so? I will attempt to cover the longest Psalm in two sermons.
Why? A couple of answers are in order. One, the main theme of the Psalm deals with how the Word of God, or the Law (from an OT perspective), will help you, the Christian, when you are knee deep in being opposed for your faith. Ostensibly, there are just so many sermons a pastor can preach on that all-important motif. Covering the twenty-two periscopes/paragraphs, all dealing with this same emphasis would, at the end of twenty-two weeks wear you (and me) out, I’m sure. After about week two, I’m sure many of you would say, “Okay, I think I’ve got how the Lord wants me to respond to tough times.” Two, the Lord calls you to be an avid student of the Word. Paul’s counsel in Second Timothy is a case in point: “15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2). When we started this study of the Psalms, it was never my intention to cover every line and every chapter of a book with 150 chapters. I have purposefully left some of them untreated so you can dig into them yourself. Our treatment of Psalm 119, therefore, will introduce you to some of the main points of the passage, while leaving many verses for you to ponder, pray over, and analyze as a student of the Word.
As a side note, Psalm 119 is one massive acrostic, wherein every nine verses begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, consisting of twenty-two letters. Hence, Aleph ( אַ ), the first alphabetical letter, begins the first eight verses, Beth ( בּ), which starts in verse 9, introduces the next eight verses and so on. What is the authorial purpose of an acrostic? For one, it indicates that everything from A to Z is covered in the Psalm in question as related to its particular theme. For another, it was (and is) designed to aid in memorization. Poetry, after all, is easier to memorize than prose. Of course, it goes without saying that this particular psalm has this type of construction because God wants to make sure we know how to live effectively in a world tainted by sin and hostile sinners.
With all of this background information in mind, permit me to set the tone of Psalm 119 by reminding you of the words of our Lord:
17 This I command you, that you love one another. 18 If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me (John 15).
Once you identified with Christ by faith (John 5:24-25), the wicked of the world placed a target, as it were, on your back. Why? Because your life will reflect everything they oppose in regards to Christ’s life. He spoke truth, and they hate truth because it challenges their tenuous, vacuous, and vain thinking. So they hated Him and they will hate you. He called sin, sin, and since they love sin and darkness, they will hate you for calling their devious activity, evil. How dare Jesus. How dare you. And so on and so forth. To be a Christian is to be a little Christ, according to the meaning of the word, and to be a little Christ is to stand in harm’s way with non-Christians. So, prepare yourself for a battle between light and darkness wherein you will be the object of the attacks because your mere presence will bother the lost. If you want a case study outside of Christ, I would direct you to read Jeremiah and ponder how he fared as God’s voice of truth to a nation bathed and in love with untruths. Study his life well and learn from him.
In sum, all throughout this lengthy passage, you cannot get around the fact the Psalmist, who must have enjoyed a high profile position because his main opponents were Israelite political rulers (vv. 23, 46. 161), constantly endured personal attacks against him for his faith. This concept is woven throughout the Psalm, so it is hard to miss (vv. 22, 23, 29, 39, 42, 51, 53, 69, 78, 85, 86, 87, 95, 110, 115, 118, 122, 134, 139, 150, 157, 158, 161). Interesting. The very ones who should have been committed to law and order stood for lawlessness and disorder and thereby, for power purposes, opposed anyone who actually sought to live by God’s Law and Word. Sound familiar?
In the middle of this personal and quite public battle, the Psalmist cries out in this psalm and details how a Christian can stand strong and true when the wicked gang up against him in an attempt to sideline and silence him. By way of a main idea, we could summarize it in this fashion:
How You Can Stand Strong And True In Tough Times (Psalm 119)
Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about.
- You’re a Christian school teacher who wants there to be racial reconciliation, but you don’t want to teach Critical Race Theory because of its Marxist underpinnings. So you are opposed.
- You’re a Christian who wants to enjoy your freedom not to receive the jab (the Covid vaccine), but the power-crazed in the public and private sectors are increasing pressure to make you do it against your will.
- You’re a Christian gym teacher who recognizes that God has only created two sexes and two genders, and you oppose having transgendered students mixing with students of the opposite chromosomal construction; however, you are viciously opposed and degraded for you narrow, “illogical,” and unloving stance.
- You’re one of the lone Christian’s in your office, your commitment to truth-telling and honesty aren’t going over well with those who see value in some deception and misdirection. So, you are opposed.
- You’re a Christian student sitting in a science class at a major university, and while everyone else is thoughtlessly embracing evolution as pure fact, you know better from your exposure to great thinkers like astrophysicist Hugh Ross; hence, you speak up. So, you are opposed.
- You’re a Christian wife you got saved five years into your marriage. Now, your husband doesn’t know what to think or do with you as you want to go to church and Bible studies. Nor can he fathom why you’d ever bother reading a Bible at home, and he certainly can’t process why you are committed to the moral structure of the Bible. So, you are opposed.
- You’re a Christian who speaks truth on a given subject while you’re on Facebook and Twitter, and the next thing you know you are de-platformed, canceled, and de-friended.
If you are a believer, it is not a matter of “if” you will be opposed for your faith, but “when.” And when the lost of the world comes against you, how will you fare the onslaught, which is typically mean-spirited, intolerant, and highly hypocritical? Two answers are intertwined throughout this passionate and practical poetical piece. You must be in the Word of God, meaning you must study, read, ponder, meditate over, and memorize it, and two, you must be all about obedience to the Lord and His word no matter what. You might need to hear that last sentence one more time because it is so important.
Why should you be in the Word? It trains the mind, it prepares and calms the heart, it deepens your thinking about the ways of God, it shows us our sin (Heb. 4:11-12), and it enables us to know how to respond to those enshrouded in darkness. Why should you be about obedience? Because knowledge without obedience is hypocrisy (1 Sam. 15:22). James, therefore, rightfully commands us to be doers of the Word, not just hearers (James 1:22). Doers of the Word not only honor God (John 14:15, if you love Jesus you will keep His commandments), they gain strength for daily living, and they also grow up in the faith (1 Cor. 3:18).
From Psalm 119, we, therefore, unearth numerous life principles about how to stand sure-footed in fierce times. All of them are intrinsically wedded to, as I have said, knowing the Word of God and living the Word of God. I can’t emphasize this enough. We should always, like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), be expectantly and thoughtfully pouring over the Scriptures seeking God’s truth; however, this, as we see in the psalm before us, is extremely true when you’re in the proverbial furnace of affliction for your faith. The Devil, of course, will want you to pull back and read the Word less. He’ll reach in his bag of tricks and use disappointment, discouragement, and disillusionment to achieve this godless goal. Just ask Elijah how this all works (1 Kings 19:1ff). Don’t give in, but dig in . . . into the Scriptures that is with your interpretive shovel, looking for God’s Spirit to speak in a profound fashion so you will be equipped to hold onto your faith while also holding up the torch of truth in truth-less times.
Let the Psalmist be your model. While enduring great opposition for his faith, he forged ahead by gleaning great insights from the truths of the Word of God. What did he learn? Allow me to cherry-pick a few of them as we move through the powerful passage.
The Word Shows You How To Stay Undefiled (Psalm 119:1-2)
First, let’s read the opening verses, and then circle back and make some comments.
1 How blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD. 2 How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, who seek Him with all their heart. 3 They also do no unrighteousness; They walk in His ways. 4 Thou hast ordained Thy precepts, that we should keep them diligently (Ps. 119).
The opening word in the Hebrew text, blessed, is placed first for emphasis to underscore how to have a blessed life in messed up, mean-spirited times. Answer? Live a blameless, morally unspotted life by actually giving moment by moment attention to obeying the law of God, the Torah. Of course, this denotes the entire Pentateuch, or first five books of the Old Testament; however, for the New Testament saint, who enjoys the rest of God’s progressive revelation, the law points to all of God’s laws, rules, and commands as articulated from the pens of divinely inspired men like Peter, Paul, James, and so forth. God has given us His law, or how He, who is holy, desires for us to live so our practical holiness matches our positional holiness (1 Cor. 1:30). The saint who, therefore, studies the Word and obeys the Word is happy and blessed by and before God because he is living as he should.
All of this is so important when it comes to living as light among those who embrace darkness. The last thing they want is someone around them who is so morally sound it is difficult, if not impossible, to bring a viable accusation against them to silence their voice. While the wicked have no Word, no Law which is absolute governing their lives, they, by default are a law unto themselves. The result is, as we read in Judges, personal and societal chaos (Jud. 21:25). The result is, also, they, as Isaiah shows us in chapter five of his prophecy, turn the real Law on its head, while devising new laws which espouse and entrench moral darkness.
Enter you, the saint. You are a stone in their sandal they can’t extract. They will, therefore, tempt you to sin with them (so they can feel good about themselves and their immoral choices masquerading as morality), but you don’t because you are loyal to God’s Word. So, they will bring false accusation against you, as they did against Jesus (John 8:48, you, Jesus, are demon possessed), in a vain attempt to sully our name and reputation. What, then, should you do? Know what the Word teaches and then go out and live it consistently before those who hold the Law and the Word of God in contempt. Your morally upright, blameless life will be a problem to them which will ultimately silence them, and it might even lead to the salvation of some of them because they know their lives are not, in fact, blessed, but cursed for they do not have the happiness you possess.
Think of the Word of God and His laws as life-giving advice. They are, in a sense, like the safety gate which closed one night on the Black Bayou Drawbridge in Texas. With the bridge split in two to allow a tall boat to pass through, the safety gate blocked access to the bridge. Two Texans, one thirty-two and the other twenty-three, decided they’d open the gate, floor their Chevy Cruze and shoot the gap, while landing gloriously on the other side. Since it was 2 a.m. and quite dark, their submerged car was not seen until the next morning. What appeared to be a good idea, a progressive concept not many thought about, turned into their last joy ride. They should have stayed put on the right side of the safety gate.
Is this not a metaphor of our culture? They weekly think of new reasons for opening the safety gate of God’s laws in relation to a plethora of subjects, and blazing new, exciting trails to places no man has thought of going before. Yet, to disregard God’s laws is a deadly game, and one which will never end well. The wise man knows this and lives accordingly. If the Word says to flee sexual sin (1 Thess. 4:3), he doesn’t lift the gate and drive with the pedal to the proverbial metal on a road which is divinely forbidden. No, he chooses to live a blessed life, a blameless life while the rest of the world mocks him as they drive on to “glory.” And how does he know how to live this kind of joyous life? He has read and studied God’s Law and Word.
The same emphasis is encountered in verses 9 through 11:
9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Thy word.
10 With all my heart I have sought Thee; do not let me wander from Thy commandments. 11 Thy word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against Thee (Ps. 119).
Is not verse 9 the question of life for a saint, especially when they are young and so many temptations abound? “His way” is just a Hebrew idiom denoting all of the activities and opportunities of life. “Pure” is from zacah which, again, denotes moral purity. Young Christians are hammered with so many temptations: to go with the carnal crowd to be accepted, to sexually follow your desires, to go out and party while deceiving your parents that you’re involved in a study session with a small group, to experiment with drugs (what will a little pot hurt? It’s legal, isn’t it, thus, it can’t be that destructive), to cheat in order to get ahead in college placement, to put things on your phone which shouldn’t be there, and, well, you can fill in the blank.
How does a young person remain pure in a world which praises and idolizes, even codifies, wicked, sinful behavior? Answer? They stay in the Word. Better yet, they plant the Word deep in their heart by means of memorization. Concerning this interesting statement in verse 11, I like the observations of Allen Ross, my former Hebrew professor at Dallas Theological Seminary:
The verb has traditionally been translated “hidden,” but it has more the sense of “laid up, stored up,” or “treasured,” indicating that it is so valuable it will be preserved in the heart (that is, the mind) for any appropriate use. The psalmist has done this so that the word will be continually at his disposal to determine his actions.
Think of the stored Word like the user’s guide for your new car stored on the computer in your dash. On my 2019 Volvo XC 90 if you encounter a problem all you have to do is swipe on the screen to activate the guide. Then you just highlight what you need to know to rectify your issue, and bam, there it is to give you insight, wisdom, and direction. Such is how the memorized Word of God is to a young person, and really, to any saint for that matter. But it is far better because whereas the car guide is static, the Word is living and dynamic. Hence, if I have any questions about whether it’s wise to have mostly non-Christian friends, the Holy Spirit speaks to you and causes you to consider Proverbs 1, which you just committed to memory:
10 My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. 11 If they say, "Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood, let us ambush the innocent without cause; 12 Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, even whole, as those who go down to the pit; 13 We shall find all kinds of precious wealth, we shall fill our houses with spoil; 14 Throw in your lot with us, we shall all have one purse," 15 My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path, 16 For their feet run to evil, and they hasten to shed blood. 17Indeed, it is useless to spread the net in the eyes of any bird; 18 But they lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush their own lives (Prov. 1).
Simply put, godless friends will influence you to engage in godless living. A young Navy submarine engineering student called me one day. “Pastor, should I go as the designated driver with all my friends on the weekends when we get leave. You know, I want to keep them safe.” Knowing him, and knowing Proverbs 1, I told him I didn’t think that would be a good idea. Do you think he listened to me or the Spirit? No. He became the DD all right, the Designated Drinker. His intense desire to be inebriated washed him out of a career which would have changed his life. The last time I saw him he was flipping burgers as a short-order cook in a bowling alley.
God, conversely, is looking for us to live morally pure and holy lives so that our lives become an apologetic for the gospel. Granted, a godly lifestyle will meet with godless opposition, but it is the truly blessed road to walk on. How do you stay on this road when the road gets rough? You stay in the Word, you know the Word, you plant the Word deep into your heart, and then you let it guide and guard you.
The Word Gives Precise Insight (Psalm 119:17, 18, 24)
Yes, God will use His timeless, inexorable Word to give you flashes of much needed insight as you deal with godless opposition.
17 Deal bountifully with Thy servant, that I may live and keep Thy word. 18 Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Thy law. 19 I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Thy commandments from me. 20 My soul is crushed with longing after Thine ordinances at all times.24 Thy testimonies also are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps. 119).
Here you can’t miss the fact that the beleaguered Psalmist is asking for God to show him how the Law and His Word applies to his current combative situation. It’s as if he is saying, “God, show me how all these disruptive dots in my life connect. Give me wisdom about how I should live in my current problematic situation by studying how other saints in bygone days have lived as victors.”
Let me be candid. When, not if, the Devil comes after you like he did with Job, when the so-called protective hedge is removed and your life goes south as non-Christians come at you, your first impulse should be to run to the Word, asking God to specifically teach you how to think, respond, and live in the current skirmish. I don’t know how many times in my Christian walk I’ve poured over and scoured the book of Jeremiah and Daniel for wisdom and insight in how to life before lawless, thoughtless, and agenda driven people. Once when I was complaining before God as things really heated up in my professional pastoral life, I ran into this verse:
5 If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of the Jordan (Jer. 12)?
These words hit me like a laser beam. God rebuked me and taught me all at the same time. It was as the Spirit said, “Marty, if you can’t handle the spiritual battle while you’re dealing with just foot soldiers, how will you ever function effectively when the war horses arrive?” I quit complaining, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and I threw being negative to the wind, and started living in a joyous, positive fashion, knowing the Lord wanted me to learn from the small stuff so He could then use me in bigger times of opposition. As an athlete, God’s words to the floundering prophet sounded a lot like once my coach taught us early on: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. I’ve been going ever since, and it’s all because of the power of the Word of God.
I am not alone in gaining insight into my situation from the Word.
Hassan John, a Christian pastor from Jos, Nigeria, is regarded as an "infidel" by Muslim extremist Boko Haram insurgents and has a price on his head of 150,000 Naira (about 800 American dollars). He goes to his church each day not knowing whether someone will murder him in order to claim the price on his head.
As an Anglican pastor and as a part-time journalist for CNN, the 52-year-old Hassan has often been surrounded by violence and bloodshed in northeast Nigeria. He's seen friends shot dead or injured in front of his eyes. As a reporter, he has often rushed to the scene immediately after bombings. He has narrowly escaped death himself. Hassan said, "You see it again and again and again. You get to places where a bomb [planted by Muslim extremists] has just exploded. There are bodies all over the place. You visit people in the hospital. You go back and meet families, you cry with them, you console them, you do the best you can with them all the time."
But this violence and hatred has not stopped him from reaching out to his Muslim neighbors who need Christ. After he helped a small Muslim girl who could not go to school after her father had been killed in the violence, he started to reach out to other orphan children. Soon he was helping 12 Muslim women, then 120. Young Muslim men in the area are starting to ask if they can find help as well.
Hassan's evangelistic outreach involves eating meals with Muslims. Hassan explained, "Now in Nigeria that is a big thing. You don't eat with your enemy because you are afraid that you will be poisoned. Now [in an attempt to share the gospel,] Christians build friendships with Muslims; it is just so marvelous.
Even when attacked, Christians like Hassan know that we are called, by God, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Again, God’s Word enables us to know exactly what we need to do when the world is against us. We seek to reach out to them because this is what the Word tells us to do.
Is our nation more hostile than it was a year ago? I think so. Sure seems that way. Are laws being passed to harass the law-abiding? Yes. Does it seem like wickedness is running wild and unchecked, while believers and moral Americans seem to win few battles to maintain law and order? No doubt. But in all of the societal upheaval, we should all be asking ourselves one big question, “What now?” Yes, “Lord, what do you want us to do now to advance your kingdom and gospel?” I know where we’ll find our new marching orders for tough times. They’ll be buried in many biblical texts and stories the Lord is waiting for you to discover. May you be ready to dig in and discover what God wants you to specifically do to be light in the darkness.
The older I get the more I think about two things. One, living well for God in tough times, and, two, finishing well for God tough times. Psalm 119 teaches me, as well as you, how to do this, doesn’t it? We need to be in the Word and about the Word. May the Spirit of God move you right now to make this your life commitment until you see the Lord face to face:
Lord, I will be in the Word and about the Word . . . regardless of what the world throws at me.
 Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (90–150): Commentary, vol. 3, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2016), 477.