Psalm 119 — Real wisdom for real life

What does the best kind of life look like? And how can we live it? If there are any questions worth pursuing, it’s these.

Psalm 119 has an answer. This massive, 176-verse wisdom psalm is an acrostic. It walks through each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each letter getting eight verses. Acrostics give a sense of completeness and here we have the ultimate A-to-Z on the wisdom of God expressed in the Torah and how it shapes the best kind of life in us.

In some ways, Psalm 119 comes across as overly simplistic: “Do what God says and everything will turn out all right.” To our modern sensibilities, which hate easy answers, this feels too nice and neat. It can’t be so easy. This has got to be a religious version of a get-rich-quick scam.

But Psalm 119 itself points both to the simplicity of following the wise ways of the Lord and to the complexities that come with it.

First the complexities.

Following the way of the Lord isn’t easy. But the main difficulty doesn’t come from within us. It comes from outside of us. The psalmist struggles with the resistance that others put in the way of those who follow the way of Yahweh.

“The arrogant godless try to throw me off track, ignorant as they are of God and his ways.” “They harass me with lies …” “They’ve pushed and they’ve pushed — they never let up — but I haven’t relaxed my grip on your counsel.” “Don’t let them mock and humiliate me …” “Bad neighbors maliciously gossip about me …” “Deflect the harsh words of my critics …” And so on.

This world is not kind to those who follow the way of our Lord. It has its own “wisdom” that speaks a contrary word to the Word of the Lord. But this “wisdom” is no wisdom at all. Rather than seeking real engagement, it merely mocks and jeers and dismisses with misrepresentations.

The second complexity comes in the waiting. The psalmist recognizes that following the way of the Lord is no quick fix. This is a “long obedience in the same direction,” where the “waiting is the hardest part” (nods to Eugene Peterson and Tom Petty).

At the same time, the psalmist points out that the reason for so many of his struggles is his departure from the path God has laid out for us. This is the inward part. Sin leads to moral and literal bankruptcy. Wandering from the road leads to lostness. In fact, following the way of God is how he sees his life coming back together again.

“My sad life’s dilapidated, a falling-down barn; build me up again by your Word.”

Here’s where the simplicity kicks in. Getting on God’s road gets us to God’s destination.

We see this in all of life. Things are a lot less complicated than we make them out to be. Simple changes in our actions lead to significant changes in our lives. Stop drinking soft drinks and your health will improve dramatically. Exercise for 20-30 minutes five days a week and the benefits to physical, mental, and emotional health are manifold. Set aside money for retirement and you won’t go broke. If you want to write a book, sit down and write every day. And so on. There is no lack of good advice out there that is nodded at and then ignored by the masses.

It has been said that the gospel is good news, not good advice. But that is a false dichotomy that doesn’t take the whole the biblical revelation into account. The Torah is the way of Yahweh. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow his teachings and his ways.

That Jesus took up his cross for our salvation is good news. That we are to turn the other cheek and to forgive 70 X 7 times is good advice. There is no conflict between the two. In fact, the two have always gone together.

Psalm 119 is gospel. It thrills in the fact that God has loved us so well and saved us so thoroughly that he has shared his wisdom on how to live the best kind of life with us.

Is there a salvation that is merely good news and doesn’t include wisdom on how to live from this point on? No! We aren’t just saved from something. We are saved to something.

Psalm 119 loves a word that we self-worshipers hate: obedience. Every single verse of the psalm includes one of the following words: laws, statutes, precepts, ordinances, commands, ways, decrees, words, promises. These are words that call for obedience from us. But they can only do so if they are reliable, trustworthy, true.

We know that we can obey the words of our God because the one who spoke them is himself reliable, trustworthy, and true. Psalm 119 banks on the God who speaks these words. His counsel is wisdom. He doesn’t lead us down dead-end alleys. He doesn’t run off when the bullies show up. He doesn’t abandon us when he breaks his promise. He doesn’t go out of business when his plans fall through.

The one who offers us his laws, statutes, precepts, ordinances, commands, ways, decrees, words, and promises stands behind them. He did before. He does now. He always will.

So, in the spirit of Psalm 119 and as Eugene Peterson often says, read your Bible and find something to obey.

God has given us real wisdom for real life, the best kind of life, the kind of life he created us to live in the first place, the kind of life he’s saved us to in Jesus.

Prayer: Gracious God, you have saved us so thoroughly and so well, help me to live in the light of your salvation by following your wise ways. Shape in me an obedient heart that hears your words, your commands, your statutes and gladly walks in them. And sustain me in the face of the world’s mockery, my own wanderings, and the times of waiting. Through Jesus our Lord. Amen.