We don’t know who wrote Psalm 119, but we do know much about him because he mentions his circumstances many times. In Psalm 119:153-160 he is especially concerned about his situation, for seven of the eight verses in this stanza make mention of it.
There is one word that best describes the writer’s life when he wrote this psalm: suffering. He has suffered much (v. 107), so he pleads with God to “look on my suffering” (v. 153). We also know that his suffering is the result of unjust treatment by ungodly people who are persecuting him. “Many are the foes who persecute me” (v. 157). He has many enemies, and these men are described as “wicked” (v. 155) and “faithless” (v. 158), people who “do not seek out your decrees” (v. 155) and therefore “do not obey your word” (v. 158).
Hasn’t this man painted a crystal clear picture of his life?
And so what does he do?
He prays for physical salvation.
Note the repeated prayers to be saved from this situation. He asks God to “deliver me” (v. 153) and to “redeem me” (v. 154). His favorite prayer in this stanza is offered three times – “preserve my life” (v. 154, 156, 159). Isn’t it significant that this particular prayer for physical relief is prayed nine times in this psalm (see verses 25, 37, 40, 88, 107, and 149)? Take note: it could be the most often repeated prayer in Psalm 119.
This man has reason to believe that he could be killed at any moment. He’s not sure whether he will wake up in the morning.
Overall, there are at least 20 prayers in this psalm for physical safety – as mentioned above, “preserve my life” occurs 9 times, and there are 11 other prayers that ask for physical salvation (see verses 17, 77, 94, 116, 117, 134, 146, 153, 154, 170 and 175). Simple yet desperate prayers come from the depths of his being. Save me! Sustain me! Uphold me! Redeem me! Deliver me! Let me live!
Do you get the picture?
When I read a prayer for salvation in the Bible, I usually think of spiritual salvation. And there are many passages that lead us in that direction in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
I think of salvation from sin and its ultimate consequences (the wrath of God, death, hell, eternal punishment in the lake of fire, etc). I also think of salvation from the power of sin in my life (overcoming greed, anger, bitterness, etc). But I rarely, if ever, think of being saved physically, because I live in the U.S. and have had a very easy life of comfort and safety in middle-class America.
But I don’t think this man is praying for salvation from hell. The plethora of verses describing his circumstances make a strong case that physical salvation is in view here.
Regardless of the outcome, he continues to trust God and obey His Word.
The psalmist makes many statements throughout this chapter regarding his faithfulness to God in the midst of these trying circumstances. “I have not forgotten your law” (v. 153). “I have not turned away from your statutes” (v. 157). “See how I love your precepts” (v. 159).
If you read the above three verses without considering his circumstances, you might say he is bragging about himself and is guilty of prideful self-sufficiency. But I don’t think that is the case. He is simply stating his case before God – he has done nothing to deserve this unfair treatment and is reminding God of that.
We have much to learn from the writer of Psalm 119, don’t we? There are Christians throughout the world facing unjust treatment from those who are violently opposed to Christianity. Certainly this man’s perseverance in the midst of persecution is an example for the persecuted church.
But what about those of us who may never face this type of persecution? We, too, face trials of many kinds. Physical illness, long painful deaths and tragic accidents are likely to rear their ugly heads in every Christian home. Jesus said that sun and rain are given to believers and non-believers alike (Matthew 5:45); likewise calamity is given to all. It comes in many forms and in varying degrees, but no one is exempt from suffering, especially the Christian. James reminds us that trials are not a matter of “if” but “when” (see James 1:2 and note the word “whenever”).
The psalmist has unwavering faith in the sovereignty of God.
This is one of the most amazing sentences in Psalm 119 – “in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (v. 75b). Hasn’t he told us that wicked men are responsible for his suffering? Then how can he say, “God has afflicted me”? How can this be?
There is a paradox here that is found throughout Scripture – the unresolved tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. We are held accountable for everything we say, do and think. And in the end, everything happens as God intended it to happen. This side of heaven, our pea-sized brains will struggle greatly to grasp the wonder of this tension. But it is there and I think we would do well to embrace the mystery.
I am the first to admit that this is a difficult teaching to understand. And it can be even harder to accept. But it is what Scripture says. The psalmist has come to grips with it and stands with other saints in believing that God is ultimately in control of everything, even though we will be held accountable for our actions on Judgment Day.
By faith, Joseph embraced the mystery of this paradox. After being sold into slavery by his brothers, years later he tells them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
By faith, Job embraced the mystery of this paradox. After hearing that his 10 children were killed in a natural disaster, he says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). And after being afflicted with boils by the devil, he asks his wife, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10).
And by faith, the writer of Psalm 119 embraced the mystery of this paradox.