The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
All Scripture references are to the New International Version UK edition of 1984.
HIS PSALM IS divided into 22 parts of eight verses each, 172 verses altogether. In almost every verse the psalmist refers to God’s laws, word, precepts, statutes, decrees, promise, or their equivalent. The divisions follow the letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, He, Waw, Zayin, Heth, Teth, Yodh, Kaph, Lamedh, Mem, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Pe, Tsadhe, Qoph, Resh, Sin, Taw.
Throughout this psalm we encounter the aggrieved perspective of one who loves God’s precepts and decrees and strives to obey them. On this basis he submits his claim to the LORD for relief from his persecutors. His enemies accost him, he says, because they do not acknowledge the Most High and he does. He is bewildered at his predicament: that in spite of trying to do the right thing, he is nonetheless maltreated. In contemporary language the question might be ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ Or why do these things happen to me?
Created in the image of God, the human species evinces reflective thought, a trait by which he or she is capable of looking at oneself as a outside observer might: the Second Self. That is, we can evaluate our own virtues and vices in the privacy of our own mind. In this internal dialogue we may simultaneously accuse and excuse ourself, weighing the angles and trying to balance the scales, in order to arrive at a decision about ourself, favourable or unfavourable. This inner debate is prompted by that most remarkable faculty, Conscience, which is in itself an evidence that humanity is stamped with a notion of right and wrong by their creator. Without this inner voice we would not learn how to modify our behaviour nor learn the relative values of righteousness and sin, which is the most important lesson God intends us to grasp, and is the divine rationale behind the permission of evil from which the whole world will ultimately benefit.
Ever since humanity’s fall from virtuous perfection in Eden, there has persisted a vague sense of guilt which sticks in the thoughtful mind, and many have attempted to expiate it in one way or another. The atonement may either be national — as at ancient Israel’s annual Day of Atonement; or personal — as with the individual trespass offerings made by Jews at the gate of the Tabernacle or (later) at the Temple.
The writer of Psalm 119 would have been familiar with these practices. As an observing Jew, he would no doubt have been careful to make his own offerings according to the Law’s prescriptions. But it is not to his punctilious observance in this regard to which he appeals. For even the most scrupulous observer would come to realise that imperfection and clumsiness runs through everything in this life. No, righteousness in God’s sight does not consist of dutifully ticking all the right boxes. The thoughtful Jew would have seen above and beyond mere legal regulations. As we read in Micah 6: 8:
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
The Apostle Paul, himself formerly a rigid practitioner of and zealous advocate for the law of Moses, writes (Heb. 10: 3, 4; emphasis added):
Those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The literal offerings of Israel pointed as types to the true means of salvation: faith in Christ, the antitypical bullock. However, for most people today this is no more a satisfactory solution to the guilt of sin than are the sacrifices of animals. Indeed, the idea of ‘sin’ is itself seen as outdated and quaint. The idea of killing animals to atone for sin would be regarded by many as barbaric and pointless. Just so it is with Christ. His bloody death on the cross is, for most, not only too unpleasant to contemplate but unnecessary, and they mock the notion.
The image of a goatskin-leather bag in which wine was stored and carried in Old Testament times suits our analogy better than does the ‘bottle’ of the Authorised Version, which to the modern mind suggests a glass container, unavailable to our psalmist. In our subject text (Psa. 119: 83) the ‘smoke’ referred to evokes the fire which produces it. The imagery is that of a dried out, brittle leather sack which has been stored carelessly by the kitchen stove. Its stitchings are broken and it is no longer fit for purpose.
By way of illustration, see Joshua 9: 3-6, with its account of the resourceful Gibeonites who rode into Joshua’s camp leading donkeys ‘loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended’, in a ploy to appear destitute and, therefore, of no threat to the Jewish invaders. They added to their dishevelment by donning old clothes and patched-up sandals — as scruffy as they come. Many men of an older British generation — before tennis shoes or trainers became standard footwear — will remember the dried-out leather soles, full of holes, that desperately needed repair (‘soles and ’eels’). The picture gives us some idea of the general appearance and of the wineskins carried by the wily Gibeonites. [An aside: Although the deception saved their lives, the Gibeonites were pressed into service by Israel as — in the language of the Authorised Version — ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ (Joshua 9: 21).]
In Matt. 9: 16, 17, Jesus makes the point that just as tattered garments reach a point beyond which they cannot be repaired, so do wineskins which have passed their supple life:
. . . Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.
[We digress here to remark that in the symbology of wine — the holy spirit — neither can the secular mind contain the spirit of righteousness and truth, being unable to understand spiritual things, because they are understood only through faith (1 Cor. 2: 14; ‘spiritually discerned’).]
Applying the figure to oneself, the Christian, how often might we feel empty, all the spirit drained out of us? Sometimes it is because we have sinned against conscience, damaging our character graces in the process, and rendering ourself vulnerable to errors of judgement. Perhaps we have hardened our heart against repentance of a particular sin — what the Apostle refers to as an ‘entangling’ or besetting sin, one which recurs and is so ‘familiar’ to our routine that we coddle it and fail to tackle it head on (Heb. 12: 1).
Or, through no fault of our own, we may find ourselves put on the shelf, discarded as worthless by others, subjected to the heat of unfair criticism and evil-speaking, like a dried-up useless thing. Perhaps we no longer thrill to the joys of salvation as ecstatically as before. In such circumstances we must take hold of God’s promise to us and revitalise our faith in him, trusting him to preserve us for his name’s sake (Psa. 119: 49, 50):
Remember your word to you servant, for you have given me hope. My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.
To have a conscience for sin, but with no avenue for repentance would be a sad condition. But Christ has been set forth for our justification, and all who accept him as Saviour are justified — reckoned righteous, clean, and the believer may rest in this assurance (Rom. 8: 1):
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
In the process of character development it will happen that we stumble and discover that we are not so holy as we thought. We will confront situations in which our faith is not up to the job. Ten, twenty, or more years into our Christian walk we will find that it’s harder than we expected. We may be tempted to give up, and on occasion we might do so. By lovingly chastising us, the Lord might allow heavy trials to come into our life. Perhaps we need to undergo a ‘second’ conversion, rejuvenating our first love for the Lord, reforming our ways, clearing out all the accumulated rubbish from our soul’s attic and starting anew — stronger than ever (Psa. 119: 67):
Before I was afflicted [humbled] I went astray, but now I obey your word.
A case in point is the Apostle Peter who, having literally denied the Lord thrice, for which he reproached himself bitterly with tears, was restored to Christ’s favour, Jesus going out of his way at that scene on the beach to underscore Peter’s forgiveness (John 21: 15-19). Peter went on to exemplary service for the early church and, through his writings, for the church throughout the Gospel age.
Are we sometimes a Peter? Perhaps we have not verbally denied the Lord, but we might have cast aspersions on his name or set a bad example for others by renouncing the principles for which he stands and which we, as ambassadors for Christ, represent. Like our psalmist, we can be assured that Christ is able to rescue us without fail (Heb. 7: 25): ‘He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’
Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us:
All our weakness thou dost know;
Thou didst tread this earth before us,
Thou didst feel its keenest woe;
Lone and dreary, faint and weary,
Through the desert thou didst go.
Spirit of our God, descending,
Fill our hearts with heavenly joy,
Love with every passion blending,
Pleasure that can never cloy:
Thus provided, pardoned, guided,
Nothing can our peace destroy.
— J. Edmeston (1821)
May 2015. Author asserts all usual rights, but you are free to reproduce this article without express permission. Please acknowledge the source.