July 30, 2017
A note to readers: Today’s post is part of a Sunday Voice Series by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, a close friend, mentor and colleague of mine. He serves as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary among other posts he holds across the global church. This Sunday Voice Series will cover the Psalms, beginning to end, by focusing on a Psalm each Sunday. I can’t tell you how excited I am for his interest in contributing here. This will be a huge blessing to us all.
Psalm 119:17-32 (NIV)
Look on my suffering and deliver me,
for I have not forgotten your law.
Defend my cause and redeem me;
preserve my life according to your promise.
Salvation is far from the wicked,
for they do not seek out your decrees.
Your compassion, LORD, is great;
preserve my life according to your laws.
Many are the foes who persecute me,
but I have not turned from your statutes.
I look on the faithless with loathing,
for they do not obey your word.
See how I love your precepts;
preserve my life, LORD, in accordance with your love.
All your words are true;
all your righteous laws are eternal.
May my cry come before you, LORD;
give me understanding according to your word.
May my supplication come before you;
deliver me according to your promise.
May my lips overflow with praise,
for you teach me your decrees.
May my tongue sing of your word,
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 law gives me delight.
Let me live that I may praise you,
and may your laws sustain me.
I have strayed like a lost sheep.
Seek your servant,
for I have not forgotten your commands.
Psalm 119 brings us to a stunning close, one that is crucial for understanding the larger message of the psalm as a whole. As Christians, we learn to “look back” from the perspective of the New Testament as we read the Old Testament. In the same way, it is important to read Psalm 119 by looking back at it from the perspective of the final verse in the psalm which stands as a kind of final testimony, closing statement, or interpretive witness for all that has preceded it. Psalm 119 closes with this verse: “I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (vs. 176).
We must first observe how unusual this verse is. This psalm is filled with dozens of strong affirmations concerning the faithful determination of the psalmist to follow God and his way of righteousness without wavering. A few representative verses taken from throughout Psalm 119 underscore the point: “I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (vs. 16). “My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times” (vs. 20). “I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws. I hold fast to your statutes, O Lord” (vs. 30, 31). “I will always obey your law, for ever and ever” (vs. 44). “This has been my practice: I obey your precepts” (vs. 56). “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (vs. 97). “My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (vs. 112). “I have done what is righteous and just” (vs. 121). “Many are the foes who persecute me, but I have not turned from your statues” (vs. 157). “I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you” (vs. 168).
Suddenly, and perhaps unexpectedly, the psalm ends with the striking admission: “I have strayed like a lost sheep.” There is no verse quite like this in Psalm 119. However, quite powerfully, as we have turned this “diamond of the psalter” over and over looking at its various facets, we are suddenly struck by a final, powerful ray of light emanating from this remarkable psalm. It is the final word of grace. This is like that powerful moment in Isaiah when, after a series of exalted, unparalleled revelations, he says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid upon him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). As it turns out, the final word is the reminder that obedience, singlemindedness, and determined love of God’s commandments are all made possible through his grace, without which we are those who have “strayed like lost sheep.”
Jesus himself draws upon texts like Isaiah 53:6 and Psalm 119:176 when he tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). In the parable, as in Psalm 119, God himself is the one who must act. After the psalmist declares he is a lost sheep, he prays, “seek your servant.” God himself is the one who takes action to search for the lost sheep, find it, place it on his shoulders, and bring it home.
How remarkable that Psalm 119 concludes with a final word of grace, anticipating that day when the Father sends his only Son into the world to rescue the human race who have all strayed like lost sheep. The Christian message should never be reduced to mere obedience to God’s law, though it is never less than that. It is about becoming captured by the grace of God and being brought, through the power of his grace, into an obedience deeper than we could ever have imagined; and, more importantly, a love for God and neighbor, which is the truest sign of our adoption.