If we want to see a journey of faith through highs and lows, a heart that chases after God despite its faults and failures, the bible has several examples. Of them, we probably gain the most insight from the life of the writer of Psalm 119. These prayers are intimate, transparent, sincere, desperate and inquisitive. This person’s journey, while likely unique to him in many ways, is also common to the believer who struggles through the things that our faith guarantees: temptation to sin, opposition from the enemy and the allure of what the world has to offer.
In the last line of this section, the writer asks for God’s assurance that He will not abandon him. This request comes only after some deep spiritual reflection. The Psalmist first confesses his belief that those who follow God’s laws are blessed. He talks about God’s desire that his precepts be obeyed. The writer is recognizing God’s instruction, which is to follow all that He commands, and is also recognizing that those who do so will reap the benefits of the obedience that they sow. And here is where the introspection begins
The writer then confesses that he has wavered and expresses his wish to be steadfast in keeping God’s commands. He wants to be one of those people who obeys faithfully, but he is not there yet. As a result of this revelation, he makes a new dedication to obey God. And in spite of the difficulty that the writer may face in remaining obedient, he promises to praise God with an upright heart through the process. It is this confession of faith and re-dedication to God that anchors his ultimate request that God remain on his side. The affliction that is to come will test and prove that pledge of faithfulness.
We do not get too far into this chapter before the Psalmist begins to encounter opposition in his journey of renewed dedication and obedience to God. In the prior section, he speaks of rulers slandering him. He then begins this section by stating that he is “laid low in the dust”, which could mean many things. He could be hiding from his enemies in low places, feeling like he is not worth more than the dust of the earth, or down on his hands and knees as he seeks after God. Whatever the situation, he falls back on one thing: seeking to learn more from God.
It is the Lord who heard his previous prayers and answered him. It is the Lord who gave him strength and kept his path straight. It is the Lord who freed his heart. In his pleading, he asks for God not to put him to shame for following his decrees. This is not the request of a proud man who has a reputation to uphold. This is the request of a righteous man who is concerned about God’s reputation. This is what we desire, that following Jesus Christ would produce the fruit that shows others we have chosen the correct path for the sake of proving God. That which proves our faith proves that God is who his word says He is.
This section opens with a request for God to remember what He has promised. This is not doubt that God will come through. This is a statement of dependence in which the Psalmist is reminding God that he is relying on his promises. He is waiting for God to deliver him from that which oppresses him. As he wrote in the first section, he knows that following God’s precepts produces his protection and comfort. He knows that God does not abandon those who search for him and obey him. This may be why he reminds God repeatedly that he is following his laws and his instruction.
A statement of transparency indicates that the writer has become indignant at the wickedness that surrounds him, but he assures God that he has not reacted or responded in any way that goes against God’s laws. He has remained faithful in spite of his environment and circumstances. It is not boasting in himself but boasting in God’s faithfulness to give him what it takes to remain obedient, which is what he requested in prayer. The writer’s obedience is the result of God keeping his promise to comfort and keep his servant. And in the process, it proves God.
This section addresses one of the common faith pitfalls of the Christian. The Psalmist describes his current condition as an affliction. He confesses that he was not faithful prior to this issue, meaning that he did not have the faith required to seek God and ask for increased knowledge and wisdom. There was a time when he merely gave in to disobedience, but that time has passed. He seems to indicate that his current affliction may have come as a result of his prior disobedience. This is where the pitfall lies.
The writer has the option to be angry at God for his current circumstances, but his struggle instead has driven him to the throne of grace. He states that his affliction is a good thing because it has caused him to seek to learn more of the Lord. This is a response we do not always have when God allows trouble for the sake of building our faith. We are more inclined to ask God to change the circumstance instead of asking him to use the circumstance to change us. The truth is that we cannot grow in faith without the troubles that are intended by the enemy for our destruction but allowed by God for our transformation. As we encounter our own afflictions, we should seek to understand the purpose behind the pain.
There is a conflict brewing within the Psalmist. He has waited for God to deliver him, and he has remained obedient in the process. His expectation is for the Lord to show up now and deliver him. The writer thinks that the time has arrived for the affliction to be dealt with; he thinks that this process of learning through the struggle should come to a close. He has been near death but still remains faithful. And as the situation gets more and more dire, he is literally holding on for dear life. What he cannot understand is why his God cannot be found.
It is too easy for us to look at God as a man and forget that there is much more to him than meets the eye. We think that the times when we cannot see him or his movement indicate that He has simply stopped working on our behalf. We think He has gone somewhere else and left us to wait just for the sake of waiting. We fail to understand that God does nothing without intent. Even when He appears to be still, there is a pure motive and purpose behind his stillness. Our finite vision tells us that we have moved beyond the eleventh hour, and we cannot fathom how we can continue. God’s infinite vision sees the entire picture and the glorious work that He is doing through the silence. We cannot let our limited vision affect our obedience during these times, and the Psalmist tells us why in the very next section.
The physical things of this world all exist within boundaries. God, however, exists outside every boundary we can observe. He is not only infinite in time but exists outside of it. His size is immeasurable, the light of his glory too overwhelming to view. The Lord is everything we desire, standing firmer than any mountain and more reliable than the tides. His laws and decrees are an extension of him and an extension of that which he possesses and uses to sustain us. As Jesus stated, man does not live by bread alone but by every word spoken from the mouth of God.
The Psalmist, who just asked for revelation of God’s apparent absence during a near-deadly time, now praises God for sustaining him. He credits the preservation of his life to one thing: God’s law. His surviving this affliction is the result of him finding delight in God’s precepts. What he is saying is that he survived because he was able to understand the purpose of and need for his obedience. He understood planning his own steps to deal with this affliction would not have led to survival. God’s instruction exists for a reason, and that is to sustain and maintain us. His commands bring life, but we must obey them to see it. In the face of imminent destruction, he sets his eyes on God’s statutes. He is sustained by focusing not on the circumstance but on the one who will guide him to overcoming it.
Desperation has grown, and God appears to remain in hiding. The writer’s faith may seem to be wearing thin, but I believe the opposite is true. In his desperation, he asks for greater understanding of God’s purposes. He knows that God is faithful and just. He knows that his dependence on God is not in vain. He has already confessed that it is God who has sustained him to this point. If he questions why his affliction remains, it is not because of God but because of his lack of understanding. He could accuse God of forsaking him and breaking his promise, but he knows that is impossible. God has not left him, and he merely needs to understand how that can be.
There will be many times in our lives when it appears that God is not doing what He said He would do. I would venture a guess that this is most often the case when we are required to wait on God during difficult times. We have our own ideas of when and how God should do things, and that can interfere with our trusting him at all times. When we do not understand what God is doing, there is nothing wrong with going to him with our questions. But we must come from a place of accepting that the break in the chain is not God’s faithfulness but our understanding of that faithfulness. We share a common affliction of only knowing in part at this time. We must remember that when our understanding does not bring us to the answers we seek. The remedy is seeking God for greater understanding.
The humble heart persists. Reading through this chapter may seem repetitive. The writer says very similar things over and over. He revisits ideas and promises. He tells God of his same affliction many times. This repetition speaks of persistence. He has not stopped seeking God for deliverance, and he will keep seeking God. He has not stopped being obedient, and he will keep being obedient. His faith in the midst of God’s silence has strengthened. Absence has made the heart grow fonder.
My heart hurts when I read the last sentence of this chapter: “Seek your servant for I have not forgotten your commands.” The desperate search for God’s face has led to the writer begging for God to seek him as well. He cannot find God, but perhaps God can find him. These are the words of a man who has done what God requires and now will simply continue in obedience and wait for God to complete his work. He knows that he is not alone, but he may feel as though he is. He knows that God is there, but he wants is to feel that God is there.
The irony of the process is this: when we think that God has walked away and forgotten us, that is when He is drawing us near. Our faith determines our response to what we think is his absence. The true lover of God notices, mourns and seeks after him. The true lover of God desires to understand the purpose behind the dry season. The true lover of God desires to remain faithful even when he feels alone because that is what pleases our Lord. Let us ponder the writer’s affliction in light of our lives and seek to understand God’s purposes in the afflictions that He allows us to endure.