Psalm 119 Journal - Stanzas 19 and 20
145 With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O LORD! I will keep your statutes. 146 I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies. 147 I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words. 148 My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. 149 Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O LORD, according to your justice give me life. 150 They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose; they are far from your law. 151 But you are near, O LORD, and all your commandments are true. 152 Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever.
Heart and mind in concert – that is the imagery of this stanza – as I see/hear it.
The key to appreciating this stanza is wrapped up in the plea, “Oh LORD, according to your justice give me life” (v. 149). Obviously, the Psalmist is not asking for what he justly deserves by his own merit. Death is the just reward for sinfulness (Romans 6:23a). BUT, out of an abundant mercy and love, God has set his own rule or custom for dealing with those who earnestly seek him: “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23b).
To the faithful person, God’s law, his rule or custom of justice, is the key to life - wholeness and fulfillment according to God’s very good design (Gen. 1:26-31). And so, like a thirsty panting deer, the Psalmist cries out with his whole heart for God to draw near. The wicked are far from God’s law and God is far from them (v. 150). But, to the Psalmist, God draws near (v. 151).
The interplay between the Psalmist’s heart and mind is on full display. “With my whole heart I cry” (v. 145), “I meditate on your promise” (v. 148), “before dawn I cry for help” (v. 147), “Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever (v. 152). Perhaps this is where Thomas Aquinas grounded his observation:
"Love ranks above knowledge in moving, but knowledge precedes love in attaining: for naught is loved save what is known."
In the conclusion of his heartfelt appeal to God’s loving kindness, the Psalmist gives us a lesson in epistemology. How do I know your testimonies are true and founded forever? Because you are near, and you speak to me. Without transcendent intervention, the unfolding of God’s light to us (v. 130), human beings are trapped in exactly the kind of linguistic prison that postmodernism describes – “but you are near, O LORD” (v. 151). So near, that:
the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1: 14)
153 Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law. 154 Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise! 155 Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek your statutes. 156 Great is your mercy, O LORD; give me life according to your rules. 157 Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, but I do not swerve from your testimonies. 158 I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands. 159 Consider how I love your precepts! Give me life according to your steadfast love. 160 The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.
According to the righteous custom/rule of God’s justice, salvation is far from the wicked because they do not know or love the law of God. Though it is deserved, there is a sense in which God’s wrath is not even required to bring about the just ends of their actions. They exclude themselves from life by choosing to walk farther and farther from its source.
Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again…
This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption (Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation)
Fittingly, the Book of Psalms begins with this declaration:
1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.