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Psalm 119 - A New Testament Perspective

Psalm 119

by Dennis Pollock

It is vital that we understand how to read the Old Testament correctly. Without seeing the Old Testament through a New Testament lens, we will surely go astray. For example, when we read David in the Psalms asking God to wipe out his enemies we cannot assume that this is the model for our own prayer life. In Psalm 139, David prays, "Slay the wicked… Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred…" If we were to start hating all our enemies with "perfect hatred" we would quickly find ourselves in opposition to the express commands of our Lord Jesus, who tells us to love our enemies and to bless those who curse us. Our true enemies are "principalities and powers" not men and women.

 To read the Old Testament properly, we must know Christ, we must look for Christ in every book and every chapter, and we must remember His teachings. With this in mind we are going to do a brief study of the longest chapter in the Bible – Psalm 119. This Psalm is an alphabetic acrostic poem. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two stanzas, one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Within each stanza there are eight verses, and each of these verses begins with that letter (in the original Hebrew).

It is a psalm which centers around a love and respect for the law of God. In theological terms it is considered a "torah psalm;" a psalm which overflows with love for God's holy laws which are found in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Throughout the psalm, and in nearly every verse there are various words used to speak of God's law, such as precepts, word, promises, statutes, testimonies, commandments,  judgments, and so forth. Psalm 119 is poetry – thoroughly Jewish poetry which was written by a Jew for Jews, celebrating the holy laws and statutes that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob gave to His servant Moses. It is an incredible work – beautiful, eloquent, and passionate.

 Yet for the Christian it requires a bit of understanding and translation before it can be acceptable for us. The essential understanding we must gain is this: what the Torah was to this Old Testament believer, Jesus Christ is to us today. As much as we love and respect the laws and precepts of our Holy Creator, we must recognize that apart from Christ they have no life-giving ability, and will end up condemning and cursing us rather than blessing and uplifting us. 

God's Law is My Delight 

The first major theme of Psalm 119 we will consider is this: "The Law of God is my delight and reason for rejoicing." In verse 47 we read: "I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love," and in verse 103 the psalmist declares, "How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth." Anything that springs from our God must be beautiful and worthy of great admiration. Yet as beautiful and holy as His laws are, the fact is that they condemn everyone of us as guilty sinners. Although, theoretically, they could be the source of life (if any of us were ever to keep them all), in actual fact they are dealers of death to the human race. As Paul puts it, "And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death" (Romans 7:10).

 For the Christian our rejoicing is not in the law, but in Christ the Lord. The Bible says, "Rejoice in the Lord always," not rejoice in the laws of God always. At one point the psalmist rapturously declares, "My hands also I will lift up to Your commandments, which I love…" (verse 48). This is not the posture of the redeemed believer. We do not lift up our hands to the stories of Abraham in Genesis or the teachings about animal sacrifices in Leviticus, or even to the gospel of John or the book of Romans. Our worship is aimed straight at a Person, the Savior of the world and our own personal Savior, the Lord Jesus.

 A passion and love for God's laws is commendable, but it brings no power to keep those laws. Paul explains this in Romans 7, where he declares, "I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." For the Christian, Jesus Christ is the source of our rejoicing, as we read in Philippians: "For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh…"  (Philippians 3:3).

A Reason for Blessings 

Another theme of Psalm 119 is: The Law Is My Reason To Expect God's Blessings. In verse 22 the psalmist prays, "Remove from me reproach and contempt, for I have kept Your testimonies." In verse 31 he cries, "I cling to Your testimonies; O LORD, do not put me to shame!" This is the essence of the law: if you will keep all God's commands and follow all His precepts you will be blessed, you'll have victory over your enemies, and everything you touch will succeed. And it is true! These were not idle promises made by God. He was fully prepared to live up to His word. There was just one problem: nobody ever kept all His laws –  or even came close! Not this psalmist, not Moses, not Joshua, not David, not Daniel, not Isaiah, nor you or I. As the Bible puts it, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

 The New Testament tells us that those who try to earn God's blessings by their own good works and attempts to keep God's law bring about the opposite effect of what they desire. In Galatians we read, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them" (Galatians 3:10). Under the New Covenant we too can seek God for blessings, but we do so with our confidence not in our own ability to keep all God's commandments but in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We approach the throne of God boldly for help in our time of need, clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus. 

Evangelist for the Law 

The psalmist's love for God's law is so great, he desires that all might know and keep it. In verse 46 he writes, "I will speak of Your testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed," and in verse 136 he laments, "Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep Your law." Certainly it is tragic that most men and women in this world do not follow the laws of God, but that is not the great lament of the Christian. We see the world's great need as a need for Christ. Let the ungodly receive Jesus and be born again, and they will start obeying their Master.

preaching in AfricaI minister as an evangelist in Africa. When I go there my number one priority in preaching is to lift up Jesus Christ. Imagine an "evangelistic" meeting where you never mention the name of Jesus. On Monday night you preach on the evil of stealing, on Tuesday the wickedness of murder, and on Wednesday night you deal forcefully with adultery. You preach ten evening meetings based on the ten commandments and thoroughly convict your audience of what terrible sinners they are. After your final message on covetousness, you leave and go back home. What good have you done? Do you suppose that a wave of godliness and holiness will sweep through the community? In all likelihood you will leave that area far more wicked and hard-hearted than they were before.

 The law can indeed be useful to break up stubborn and hard hearts, but without the gospel of Christ it does more harm than good. "Rivers of waters run down from our eyes" because men and women refuse to put their trust in Christ. Our Lord's command is that we preach the gospel to every creature, not recite God's laws to every creature. 

A Wife in Love 

 When we read Psalm 119, we are reading the rapturous passion of a wife in love with her husband (figuratively speaking – I know the author almost certainly was a man!). In the first four verses ofRomans 7, Paul tells us that before receiving Christ we were married to the law. It was not an especially happy marriage! The law of God makes a quite attractive husband from a distance. After all it is perfect in every way. As the psalmist gushes over the beauty of God's law, he is like a bride boasting of her handsome husband. But as a husband to humanity, God's law has a couple of rather annoying attributes.

 First, he constantly reminds his wife of her failures and mistakes. Imagine a new bride who suddenly realizes that her husband carries a little book around with him at all times, making a record of all her shortcomings. Every night he goes over the list with her, carefully noting each transgression and rebuking her for them. It would not make for marital bliss!

 The other negative attribute of the law as a husband is the fact that he never assists his wife in any of her chores. He will live up his own responsibilities, but he will never lift a hand to help her with her own. His requirements are fair, but there is not much mercy with him. Such is the case of men and women married to the law of God. God's holy laws are indeed useful, but their usefulness is in the fact that they show us how desperately we need a Savior. They rebuke our every fault, condemn us of every sin, and lash our consciences continually with the realization that try as we might, we can never satisfy the expectations of our holy God. As the Bible puts it, "The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24).

 Divorce is not possible. The only way out of this terrible marriage is death. And that is exactly what happens when we turn to Christ. Paul writes, "You also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another --- to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God" (Romans 7:4). When we are born again we die to the law of God and are reborn, married to a new and far superior husband – the Lord Jesus. This new husband, unlike his predecessor, freely forgives us for our misdeeds. He keeps no record book of our sins, but instead assures us over and over of His love and commitment toward us. Free from condemnation and guilt we find ourselves wanting to do far more for him than we ever wanted to do for our first husband.

 But there is another interesting thing that happens to those who are joined to Christ. That first night of our new life together, He asks us to do the dishes. We prepare for a long time of it when suddenly He appears in the kitchen with an apron on. When we ask Him what He's up to, He replies that He has come to help us. We are in a state of shock. Our first husband never came near the kitchen. But now we find Christ not only helping, but doing the bulk of the work. And not only does the work get done quicker and better, but He jokes with us and says sweet things to us as we work, making the task seem like a joy rather than a burden.

 Such is the relationship between Christ and the Christian. By His grace He forgives us; by the power of His Holy Spirit He enables and empowers us to do all He calls us to do. With such a Husband, we cannot hold our tongue. We will travel to the ends of the world, and tell kings, peasants, and all who will listen of this wonderful Savior. And unlike our marriage to the law, we shall no longer be barren. Jesus declares, "He who abides in Me and I in Him bears much fruit" (John 15:5).




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