“Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them” (Psalm 119:129).
It is not uncommon for Christians today, especially older Christians, to bemoan the rebellion of our culture. In its purest form, it is grief over the moral death of a nation, and is well expressed by the words that close out this stanza: “Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law” (v. 136; cf. Jer. 13:17). Amid such darkness, what is the Christian to do, especially with the threat that such a culture poses to personal safety? This stanza teaches that the Christian needs to move from light to light–from the light of God’s word to the light of God’s face.
Let us consider these two lights in reverse order.
Second Light: The Christian should supplicate the light of God’s face (v. 135). In the context of the stanza, this light is the counterpart to perpetual sadness:
“Make thy face to shine upon thy servant; and teach me thy statutes. Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law” (vv. 135-136).
My face is dark with sadness; therefore, shine Your face and bring me gladness. Such a light is the assurance of personal attention coupled with favor. God is looking at me and smiling; therefore, I know that eventually good will come (cf. Psalm 80:3, 7, 19, where salvation is the result of God’s shining face).
What solicits God’s gracious gaze? According to the psalmist, it is a deep desire for God’s commandments, which is a reflection of love for God’s name (vv. 131-132; cf. Isaiah 66:1-2). The description here is almost shocking. As a runner panting for breath after his race, or a mother-to-be forced to open her mouth to pant for breath during labor, so deeply does the psalmist pant after God’s commandments. No wonder God turns His head to favor such a person! No wonder such a person has confidence to ask God for outward liberty from vain trouble and oppression, in order to walk obediently for the rest of his life (vv. 133-134; cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2). (Note the subtle echo of the last psalm with “oppression” followed by a reference to “thy servant”.)
Here is a missing link for today’s Christian. While many of us rant about the culture, how many of us pant after the commandments of God? Perhaps this is why we lack confidence in our prayers, when we ask God for safety concerning the future (cf. 1 John 3:21-22). Moreover, in considering the culture, are we more maddened than saddened, shedding angry words more than grieving tears? Part of the reason may be our subtle concern over personal loss more than a concern for God’s name and His law. After all, if we deeply love His name and pant after His commands, we will be deeply grieved when His law is not kept. This truth does not discount a place for anger, as the “zeal” of the next stanza will show (v. 139), but it does present us with a word of caution. It would be wise for us to imitate our Lord, who first wept over Jerusalem before His zeal cleansed out the temple.
How is such a deep desire for God’s law fostered? After all, if it is so important to gain God’s gaze, and if He turns to gaze upon one loving His name and desiring His law, then how do we gain such a desire and love? The opening lines of this stanza give the answer, bringing us back to the first light.
First Light: The Christian should appreciate the light of God’s word (v. 130). The opening two verses are resplendent with glory and ripe with application:
“Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them. The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (vv. 129-130).
Literally, the opening line states plainly: “Your testimonies are wonders” (v. 129a). In other words, whatever God testifies to in His word is full of wonder, being beyond our natural capacity to ascertain or master. It is only those who hold the words of the Bible in reverent awe, who then obey those same words with detailed observation. A truly high view of Scripture breeds a deep desire for more understanding. Therefore, if we are lagging in our desire, we must examine our true doctrine of Scripture. We may say that these are God’s words, but do we really believe that these words are wonders, which is what we would expect when God speaks?
But if His words are wonders, exceeding our capacity to understanding, why should I give them any attention? After all, many people find the Bible confusing. Is this verse also not an affirmation that the Bible is confusing, and that it is discouraging to consider its contents?
Obviously, the psalmist did not think so. He tells us point-blank that his soul obediently observed God’s testimonies precisely because they were wonders. How then did he understand what he was observing? He tells us in the next verse:
“The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (vv. 130).
In the Hebrew, the word “entrance” is found only here, meaning not a static doorway, but a dynamic, active process of opening the words of God, making them clear to our minds (as the Greek translation indicates). Coupled with an earlier verse in the psalm, that God not only opens His words, but also opens our eyes to look at wonders from His law (v. 18), we learn that there is hope, even for the simplest and naïve among us. Truly, as one earlier psalm states, “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7b).
In applying this hope, it is important to note that God commonly uses the hand of another believer, often a preacher, to open His words to us, rather than opening them directly unto us. The apostle Paul, as one minister of the word, actually requested prayer on his own behalf, that he would “make [the mystery of Christ] manifest [lit. clear], as I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:4). This clarifying purpose for the ministry is especially useful to us when we are “simple,” that is, immature and naïve in our faith (Ephesians 4:11-14). Therefore, we should be careful not to despise church or treat the ministry of the word as somehow separate from the Spirit’s working. By paying close attention to Spirit-empowered ministers, who open the word of God to us, we receive light and gain discernment.
This hope is also a strong encouragement to ministers of the word, prodding them to solicit prayer and to spend more time expositing the Scriptures, expecting light to break forth again and again (as the Hebrew participle indicates). It is as if we hear Pastor John Robinson, speaking to the departing Pilgrims, “The Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy Word.” Indeed, He has more light to give us!
May God grant us all grace to appreciate the wondrous light of His word and thus to solicit the turn of His gaze and the joyful light of His face, even in the midst of a dark culture! Amen.