Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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The Great Psalm (2)


This Psalm gives us principles as well as commands and exhortations, and by principles I mean ideas and truths that transcend time and circumstance. They apply generally and universally, so that wherever they appear in Scripture they apply to us all, irrespective of cultural or dispensational differences. In this essay on the Great Psalm I will name some of these with attending comments.

Grace and Obedience are Compatible

We correctly recognize, especially in the light of New Testament teaching, that grace and works are incompatible. The apostle makes it clear that “For by grace have you been saved through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9), and “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). And yet Paul twice in Romans refers to “the obedience of faith.“

The author of Psalm 119 repeatedly confesses his reliance on the grace of God, and yet he extols the blessedness of obedience. But the reader never gets the idea that the writer believed he was made right with God by his own works or his own worthiness. For example, in 119:176 he readily confesses that he has “gone astray like a lost sheep,” and then asks God to “seek Your servant.” Like Frances Thompson, who in his poem. The Hound of Heaven, has the God of grace seeking sinful man like a pursuing hound, the psalmist asks God in his grace to pursue him, not that he might pursue God. Similarly in 119:132 he pleads, “Look upon me and be merciful to me, as your custom is toward those who love your name,” and again in 1119:124, “Deal with Your Servant according to Your mercy, and teach me Your statutes.”

And yet he is emphatic about the essentiality of obedience as a response to God’s grace and mercy, as in 119:2 “Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart,” and 119:129, “Your testimonies are wonderful, therefore does my soul keep them.” Like our Lord who concluded the Sermon on the Mount with “Therefore whoever hears these words of Mine and does them, I will liken him unto a wise man who built his house on the rock,” the psalmist attests “I made haste and did not delay to keep your commandments” (119:60).

We do not have grace and works in Psalm 119, which would be incompatible, but we do have the principle of grace and obedience, which are compatible, and it finds expression throughout Scripture. The grace of God, by its very nature, is in its presence and availability unconditional, but for its enjoyment it is conditional — that is, conditional upon the appropriate response. It is true throughout nature. Rain falls on just and unjust alike, unconditional, but for its enjoyment it is conditional in that we have to contain it by building dams and lakes, by piping it into our homes, and at last making it a blessing. Likewise the psalmist writes of the blessedness of obedience. Obedience is the response to mercy and grace, making their enjoyment a reality.

This places baptism in its proper place, not a work by which we save ourselves, but a response to the gospel, an act of obedience. Or as 1 Peter 3:21 puts it baptism is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” The gospel of the grace of God calls for a response — faith, repentance, baptism. These are not works, but “the cultivation of grace,” as Alexander Campbell put it. The author of Psalm 119 would love that phrase, for that is what those 176 verses are all about, the cultivation of (or the work of) grace.

It is the Whole Heart that Matters Most.

There are numerous references that point to the importance of the heart in our relationship to God, such as “God looks upon the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38), but less frequently do we read of the “whole heart” or “all your heart.” One exciting instance is Jeremiah 29:13, which Laura Bush chose to go on a White House Christmas card one year: “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for me with all your heart.” It is also included in the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:39). It is a daring superlative! Who can claim to love or serve God with wholeness of heart? But our psalmist uses the term almost with abandon, as in “Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with the whole heart,” (119:2), and “With my whole heart I have sought you" (119:10), and “I entreated your favor with my whole heart” (119:58), and “I cry out with my whole heart, hear me, O Lord!” (119:145).

Whole-hearted devotion is an ideal beyond the reach of most of us. Those who see themselves as having fallen far short of such a goal are the ones most likely to have attained it. Our psalmist appears to have seen wholeness of commitment as a two-way experience, God’s as well as his own. When he says, “I have inclined my heart to perform your statutes forever to the very end,” (119:112) he indicates that his own desire and determination are part of the equation, and yet when he insists that he is “small and despised” (119:141) and “trouble and anguish have overtaken me” (119:143), and goes on to ask God to save him, and teach him, and to revive him, he makes whole-heartedness the work of God.

What this teaches us is that we must guard against a casual commitment to God, a “lukewarm” attitude as it is described in Revelation 3:16. It is a matter of what we desire most of all. We can be thankful that the fourth beatitude reads “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” rather than “Blessed are the righteous.” It is those who have a strong desire to be righteous who are blessed.

If, like the psalmist, we “incline our hearts” to righteousness or whole-heartedness, we can look to God, who is eager to show mercy, to do the rest. A black preacher may have said it best, “We have to get our “want to” fixed.”

God loves us, absolutely and unconditionally.

This is the good news that the world longs to hear — there is a God who created us and he loves us. Considering the mess that we have made of ourselves and our world, with all its terror and violence, it would be understandable that if there is a God who created us he would be angry and judgmental toward us. But God not only loves us, he is eager to show mercy and to forgive us. We don’t have to be good and worthy for him to love us. He loves us as we are, absolutely and unconditionally. In fact, his loving pursuit of us puts the ball in our court. His grace calls for a response on our part.

This too is the message of the Great Psalm. As we have seen, its author was in a bad way. He had a poor mage of himself — insignificant, unworthy, troubled, anxious, persecuted, despised, even like a “wineskin in smoke.” One might wonder if he did not have a problem with the likes of what we call porn, considering such a childlike prayer as “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things” (119:37). Or was he talking about TV?!

But in all this he never doubts that God loves him, absolutely and unconditionally, and that God’s mercy was abundant toward him. His prayer can be our prayer:

Consider my affliction and deliver me,
For I do not forget Your law.
Plead my cause and redeem me;
Revive me according to your word.
Great are your tender mercies, O Lord.

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