“Let my cry come near before Thee, O LORD: give me understanding according to Thy word” (Psalm 119:169).
You are now at the end of the longest song in the Bible, having heard the voice of this psalmist again and again cry out to God in intense fervor. What would you expect to hear as the grand finale? In light of this psalm’s messianic application, what would you expect to hear as a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ? More personally, what is this psalm saying to you and to me about the nature of an authentic walk with God?
Three pairs begin this stanza, followed by a summary line and then a mysterious ending that breaks up the cadence:
First, the psalmist pleads for his prayer to reach God, asking for understanding and deliverance (vv. 169-170).
Second, the psalmist pleads for his mouth to praise God, knowing he will be taught and be saved (vv. 171-172).
Third, as Maclaren has noted, the psalmist pleads for help on the basis of choosing God’s word (vv. 173-174).
Prayer for salvation, praise in salvation, and the word behind salvation–in other words, the means of, the result of, and the motive of salvation–all reappear in the summary line, as if to reiterate their importance: “Let my soul live, and it shall praise thee; and let thy judgments help me” (v. 175). Then, as stated earlier, the mysterious ending appears.
Before addressing the ending, let me speak a bit about the significance of prayer, praise, and the word. The preacher of Ecclesiastes once wrote, “Two are better than one;…and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 12). What we have here in this stanza is the threefold cord of an authentic walk with God–prayer, praise, and the word. All three complement each other. If we are in prayer, we are asking on the basis of His promises in His word (vv. 169-170). If we believe these promises, we will pray with thanksgiving, find peace, and praise Him throughout (vv. 171-172; cf. Philippians 4:6-7). If we experience prayer, praise, and salvation, we will learn of His word in the context of living in His world, for true learning cannot occur without real living–a truth that is woven throughout this psalm (e.g. v. 71). These three strands make a strong cord.
Please note: If we lop off one or two strands, we will miss out on all, for the cord will not hold. It is not enough just to pray, or just to praise, or just to love the word. Such imbalance leads to barrenness, as we have probably tasted in certain individuals or in certain churches. A strong individual and a strong church grabs all three and interweaves them so tightly, they can hardly be separated, but form the streamlined cord of spiritual strength. Moreover, a truly strong individual and a truly strong church makes each strand radically intense. Listen closely to the literal language of the psalmist, somewhat muted in our English translations:
“Let my ringing cry draw near to Your presence…” (v. 169). The focus here is on sound, not content.
“Let my lip gush out Your praise…” (v. 171). Think open fire hydrant.
“I strongly long for Your salvation, O Jehovah; and Your law is my sporting delight” (v. 174).
Oh, that God would once again fan the flame of spiritual intensity in the lives of His people, and do so in such a way that each strand of authentic spirituality would be strengthened proportionate to the other two! Three strong strands make a very strong cord.
Such a strong cord tied Jesus to His Father. Listen to the writer of Hebrews:
“In the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that He feared…” (Hebrews 5:7).
The prayer-life of Christ was fuelled by strong crying, godly fear, and tears, indicating an intense desire for salvation–not salvation from sin, for He had none, but salvation from death, which He suffered on account of our sin. Such was the prayer-life of Jesus. As for praise, the writer of Hebrews quotes the voice of Christ in the Psalms:
“I will declare Thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto Thee” (Hebrews 2:12; cf. Psalm 22:22).
Can you imagine Jesus singing? He will, when the great church is assembled someday. Oh, the solemnity of that moment when millions of redeemed souls are silent to hear the Messiah Himself sing solo the praises of God His Father! Oh, I want to be there for that day! And then, as for the word, in a life of learning by living, the writer notes:
“Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered; and being made perfect [that is, mature], He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him” (Hebrews 5:8-9).
So you see? Do you see how Psalm 119 embodies the aspirations, the longings, the delights of the suffering Son of God, as He matured in His human nature into our Source of Eternal Salvation?
But if Christ embodies this psalm, what are we to do with its final verse? In broken cadence, the final verse reads: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant; for I do not forget Thy commandments” (v. 176). After one hundred and seventy-five verses of obedience, are we to assume that the final verse ends with a confession of sin? Only one other verse lends possible support to such an assumption (v. 67), but even there, the word “astray” is a different word, which may allow for innocent ignorance. Therefore, is this psalm the testimony of a sinner, or the words of the sinless Savior?
In one sense, it does not matter, for even if this psalm were the words of a sinner, Jesus would fully embody its righteous aspirations; however, three reasons incline me to say that the final verse is not a confession of sin. First, the word “lost” refers to perishing, which would be the opposite of the “salvation” mentioned earlier (v. 174). If the salvation is salvation from death, then “lost” refers to dying, rather than going to hell. Second, the verse ends with an affirmation of fidelity as the reason why God should search for him: “I do not forget Thy commandments.” Third, the only time this word “astray” appears elsewhere in the psalm is when the psalmist testifies, “I erred not from Thy precepts” (v. 110). Therefore, the psalmist is roaming about as a lone sheep in danger of dying; but he has not strayed from God’s law, but is ever mindful of His commandments, and on that basis, he asks God to find him and to save him.
It is this isolation that indicates a unique fulfillment to this psalm. Yes, those who fear the Lord are out there (as in vv. 63, 74, 79), but the dominant note of this psalm is an intense communion with God in the presence of evildoers, who are quite near (v. 150). Jesus fulfills this vision. While we, like sheep, wandered from God, in that we each turned to our own way, the Servant of the Lord, Jesus Christ, wandered from life, in that He was “oppressed” and “afflicted” due to our sins (Isaiah 53:6-7). Instead of crying out to His oppressors, He remained silent as a sheep before its shearers, and cried out to God, “Seek Your servant” (v. 176). God did. And our hope of eternal life is forever sealed in the living hope of Jesus’ resurrection.
A cord of three strands–prayer, praise, and the word–pulled the Savior from the jaws of death. Christian, do not neglect your hope.