Let me describe a relationship, and you see what you think. It's a relationship with no expectations, so there's no shame, and there's no embarrassment. There's no confidence that the other party will respond. That may sound a little bit like you don't care, or you don't think they do either. There's no desire, nothing you particularly like, and nothing that—on the other hand—you particularly want. There's no communication: you don't talk, they don't talk. That doesn't sound like much of a relationship, does it?
This is the way some people would describe their experience of trying to have a relationship with God: nothing very emotional, no sense of disappointment before him, or great expectations of him. There's nothing you particularly like or want. In fact, you spend little—if any—time talking to him. He, as far as you can tell, has never spoken to you.
For many people around our globe today, this would be no problem. Atheists, Muslims, and Buddhists make no claim to a personal relationship with God. In fact, most would either mock such a claim to have a personal relationship with God or condescendingly allow for people thinking they do—like how children at certain stages will have their imaginary friends. When that relationship vanishes as the child grows up, we simply understand their imagination to be maturing and them to be integrating into the world as it really is. So many people today say that no personal relationship with God is no problem.
But this is a problem for a religion of love like Christianity. Jesus Christ taught us that the most important thing we can do is to love God, and that the second most important thing is to love our neighbors. Claiming we love God without loving our neighbors is a lie, the Bible says. Claiming to love our neighbor without really loving God is hypocrisy, and it is unsustainable. It is our relationship with God that is to transform and power our loving relationships with others: where we export concern, often without sufficient returns from them. The only way we can keep loving as we're supposed to is for our relationship with God to be real and vital, so that he keeps resupplying us. But for so many people, "real" and "vital" would be the last words they would use to describe their relationship with God.
So we turn in wonder and amazement, with real interest and maybe even hope, to this longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119. It's a long treatment of exactly this topic: the individual believer's relationship with God.
Psalm 119 is composed of 22 stanzas. Each stanza has eight verses, and each line of each verse starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first stanza starts all with their "a," the second stanza all with their "b," the third stanza all with their "c," and so on. By the time we get to verses 169-176, these verses are all beginning with the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, taw. By the end of the psalm, all the letters have taken their turn in proclaiming the excellency, the unforgettableness, and the rightness of God's Word.
What we see in these eight verses is that communication, desires, and even expectations are part of the psalmist's very real relationship with God, and they should be part of our relationship with God, as well. These will be the three points of the sermon: communication, desires, expectation. I pray that as a result of our reading this psalm together, we will come to know God better.
First, let's look closely at verses 169-170. Notice first: communication. Here in these two verses, the psalmist prays, "May my cry come before you, Lord. May my supplication come before you." Those lines are parallel: they're saying the same thing with different words.
What is prayer? Prayer is talking to God and coming into God's presence. Prayer is having fellowship with God. You see the words he uses here: "May my cry come before you." That's an emphatic word. Then he says, "May my supplication come before you." That's a more humble word. Really, it's kind of funny when you think of it, because he's praying that his prayers will be heard. He's asking that God would let him ask. It's a very humble way to approach the Lord. He pleas that his pleas will be heard or, literally, "come before you."
That "come before" language is very interesting. He uses it in both those verses. It's the first time he has used this kind of language in the whole psalm, and that's interesting because this psalm has been all about his individual relationship with God: God speaking to the psalmist in his Word, the psalmist relishing that, the psalmist calling on God for help. Yet this is the first time in almost 180 verses that he has referenced this coming before the Lord, coming before his face, coming into his presence. It is intimate language of nearness and acceptance. It's striking language for us because our sins create a distance between us and God.
You might come into the Lord's presence in a fairly casual way if you don't have much of a religious background, or if you've been raised in a different religion: say, if you're from India and you're used to going into the temples there and maybe purchasing a small offering to make before one of the statues, one of the idols. But if you have a Christian background at all, you're aware that it is no casual thing for a sinful human being—and that would be all human beings—to come into the presence of this God, because this God is the God who made us and will judge us, and this is the God who is perfectly holy. To come before this God is not to be taken for granted. This is not a normal, natural place for sinners like you and me. The Bible teaches very clearly that we were all made in God's image to reflect God's image, but that we've all sinned against him, we've all rebelled against him, and because of that, we are separated from him.
If you're not a Christian, and you think this world is messed up, and maybe your life is messed up, I'm telling you this is why God says it is. This is Christianity's answer. This is the answer that, at least formally, a third of the people on the globe say they believe regarding why the world is messed up and why their lives are messed up. It's this: because we have rebelled against God. We have done what we have wanted rather than what God wants, and that means there is a distance and an alienation now, by nature, between God and us. Kids are not born good and then corrupted by faulty families, bad schools, and neighborhoods. No, kids are born bad. Kids are born in the image of God, yes, and are all valuable, but they are born servants of themselves supremely. That doesn't work real well when you put them together with people who serve others: that is, serve themselves. There is natural conflict that happens, so then life happens. That's how we understand the world as we read our Bibles. We know that our relationship with God has been broken. The psalmist knows this, and that's why he approaches God here with such humility. He knows that if he can approach God, it's only because of God's mercy and grace.
As Paul would later write to the Christians in Ephesus, it's only through Christ that we have access to the Father. We acknowledge this in our services all the time in various ways. Every time we conclude a prayer in Jesus' name or for Christ's sake, that's not a meaningless, empty, religious response: like how you might say, "How're you doing? I'm well, thanks!" and really not reflect on that or mean anything by it. No, those "empty" forms of Christian prayer are full of meaning, and the meaning is this: we have no right to be in God's presence, and we have no thought that he will listen to us and hear us, apart from the work of Jesus Christ. If we have any hope of approaching him, it is in Christ and in Christ only. Christ is all our hope when it comes to relying on God's mercy, thinking he will hear and help us. Our hope is only in Christ, so that's why when we pray, we say, "In Christ's name, for Christ's sake, in Jesus' name," or something like that. We don't have to use those words, but if anybody ever uses those words and knows what they're doing, they're not just following a form that's empty to them. There is a purpose of that form, and that form is to say, "God, I know I have no business here, and let me be real clear—and I know you don't need the clarity—but Lord, just for myself, I am doing this only in the name of Christ. I am doing this only for Jesus' sake, for his purposes, for his honor, for his glory. That's why I am asking what I'm asking. I know that naturally, I have no other business being here in your presence at all."
We are acknowledging that the only grounds for sinners like us to come into God's presence, to ask anything other than judgment from him, is the work of Christ. Being dependent on Christ is a joyful dependence. There might be some people whom you don't want to be dependent on because you think, Oh, I don't want to have to call them; I don't want to ask for this again. It never goes well. I feel bad, they feel bad, and they might not give it. It just makes our relationship bad. The dependence we have on Jesus is nothing like that. The dependence we have on Jesus is a happy dependence. Sometimes you get a hook into somebody: you're dependent on them, and you're glad that you are because it brings you close to them. You know they want to give you that, and that can become a healthy basis for the relationship.
That's the way it is with Jesus. It is a joyful dependence. We want to be dependent upon him. He wants to give to us; he wants to supply for us. He is used to giving good things to us, and he is used to us not even trusting him, us thinking he is doing something wrong. He still patiently continues to give what is good and right. He is a kind and good Lord. He invites us to be dependent upon him.
The communication in our relationship with God is not one-sided. The only way we would know how to pray, what to pray, or to whom to pray is because God has spoken to us first. Yes, religion and relationship with God has to do with us speaking to God, but that's all predicated upon the fact that God has spoken to us. If God has not spoken to us, we are standing on an empty planet yelling out into space. But he has spoken, and he does exist. He has revealed himself, and he has told us what he is like. He has told us why we are made the way we are, and he has told us how we can come to know him. On the basis of that, he asks us and he calls us to speak back to him.
You see that in the two verses we've looked at. Look at the second half of each of those verses. "Give me understanding according to your word": that's what the psalmist prays for. "Deliver me according to your promise": that's what he prays for. We pray for insight, and even rescue, because God has promised that for his people. We had all those promises laid out in the Old Testament, and we know this is what the Lord desires to do.
As we noticed in studying Psalm 119, there are various words that are used—words, statutes, commandments, etc.—that all mean God's speaking, his revelation, and his Word. This is how God speaks to us. To pay attention to God means to pay attention to his Word. To pray according to God's Word is exactly what the psalmist is modeling here. He has shaped his requests there in 169 and 170 "according to your word." We try to do everything we do at church "according to your word."
This reminds me of when God was instructing the children of Israel in the wilderness about how they were to approach him in worship, and he was giving them plans to build the tabernacle. He says again and again that they are to do it "according to the pattern shown you on the mountain" (Ex. 25:40), when he gave them to Moses to give to his people. That's the same way we come. We come as his children, with him telling us how to approach him. God's plan for us is in his Word. Thus it is good for us to pray as the psalmist does here in verse 169. Our most basic request is that God give us an understanding of his Word.
I love that when the children of Israel are in the wilderness and worried over what they're going to eat, the Lord says to them, "[M]an does not live on bread alone"—even though he had been giving it to them supernaturally—"but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." That's how we're meant to live: by feeding on his Word. This great psalm has celebrated God's Word.
We've seen how God's Word is true and good and eternal, so of course, the psalmist here will listen to God in order to find out how best to speak to him. I wonder if you do that in your own prayer life. Do you listen to God in order to find out how to speak to him? Perhaps you would have more of a relationship with God if you listened to him by reading his Word instead of just spending all your time praying.
You realize that in this religion of the neighborhood and the community, everybody will say a good thing about prayer. Prayer, to the modern American, is self-expression, so nobody is ever going to say a bad thing about prayer. A hard atheist could say you're wasting your time, but even they might think it could lower your blood pressure or something. But it's when we get the other way coming back—this idea that God actually speaks to us in his Word—that things start to be different and we begin to distinguish ourselves. We need to understand that we need the Word of God. We need to know what God would say to us. We don't want to just have an echo chamber in our brains.
What could it mean for us to have relations with someone whom we never speak to or we never listen to? Well, it would mean you don't have a relationship with them. What does it mean for you to think you have a relationship with God when you never spend any time praying to him, reading his Word, and listening to him? Your praying is basic to having a relationship with God. You only know how to do that rightly by reading his Word and spending time in his Word.
Kids, don't think that's just something your parents are supposed to do; that's something you are supposed to do. There are whole books of the Bible aimed at people who are 10 years old, 12 years old, and 14 years old. The Book of Proverbs: that's written to the young. Read the Proverbs, or ask your parents to read you the Proverbs and explain to you what it's telling you about your life. Your life is talked about in God's Word. God's Word is there for every stage of our lives, and communication is a fundamental part of relationship.
Another part of a relationship that we see exampled here in the psalm is desire. We have seen this throughout the psalm in the great praise he heaps on God's Word. Look there again at verses 171-172: "May my lips overflow with praise, / for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, / for all your commands are righteous." Because of God's righteous commands, he will sing about God's Word.
God's Word naturally gives rise to praise. Our praise is built on God's revelation of himself. That's why it's appropriate that at the very center of everything we have is God's revelation of himself. That's why it's appropriate that the longest chapter in the Bible should be about the Bible. That's why it's appropriate that this pulpit is right here in the middle of this great hall. We praise God for his Word because by his Word, we learn what God has done for us, and we know to hope in Christ. By his Word, we learn what he has made us for. By his Word, we are given the wisdom we need to teach and to admonish one another. His commandments are right. God's Word is inerrant, and it is precious.
What does 2 Timothy 3:16-17 say? "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." God's Word is a great gift. If you have lived any time away from Christ as an adult, like I did—I was an agnostic who came to Christ—you lived part of your life not knowing God and not knowing that he spoke. When you've lived any time like that and then you find that he did speak, you've been given a great gift. You realize what a wonderful thing it is that God has actually spoken by his Word. As Matthew Henry observed, "… when God opens the understanding, [he] opens the heart, and so opens the lips …"
When God speaks to us, he fills up our hearts—and as our hearts are full of his Word, we naturally speak about him. Our lips overflow with praise, like the psalmist here: we naturally talk about the one we love. How kind of God to instruct us as he does in his Word.
I was struck by the carefulness of his instruction, how much God is unlike at least some of us. For example—this may be a silly little illustration, but it makes a striking contrast—I occasionally play Settlers of Catan. I have no mercy on new players. It's a kind of sport: throw them in, and they'll figure it out as they play. I like to see them flopping around, and we can take advantage of them the first time or two. It's terrible, but it's true.
God is nothing like me playing Settlers of Catan, and that's a wonderful thing. I'm assuming people will learn, but God is so careful. He is tender. He is instructing you about things in his Word right now that you're not even asking about, but that you need to know. He has cared for you better than you could care for yourself. He has again and again—more tenderly than the best mother ever has—cared for us, instructed us, lovingly and patiently repeated himself in drawing our attention to this or to that that we would need to know in order to love him as we should. This is a good God, and when we understand something of his goodness and instruction of us in his Word, we will naturally praise him. We delight in his Word as the psalmist does again and again.
Would people around you think you delight in God's Word? Would you have given them any evidence this week, at the office, among your family, or at school, that you delight in God's Word? I wonder how they would know that.
Here at church, our songs are informed by God's Word. His truth causes us to praise him. Have you ever noticed that after the sermon is over we usually close with a hymn? When you read in your bulletin the title of the hymn before service starts your think, Not one of my favorites, but it is okay? But then having been in God's Word for an hour and having your soul freshly sensitized to certain aspects of the gospel of the truth, you begin to sing that hymn and now, all of a sudden, your soul is freshly alive to some of the truths you've just been thinking about. We want our hymns and songs to be based on the truth of God's Word. We mean them to be an expression of the things we learn about God himself from his Word. God's Word is worth singing about, so we gather on Sunday and pour forth his praise.
Here is one of the most interesting parts of this last stanza of the psalm. Praise isn't the only thing we see; there is also longing. His praises and singing in verses 171 and 172 don't mean that the psalmist has nothing left to long for.
Verses 173-175 says: "May your hand be ready to help me, / for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, Lord, / and your law gives me delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, / and may your laws sustain me." The psalmist praises God, yet he can, at the same time, say that he longs for God to save him. I think this is the deliverance he has prayed for back up in verse 170; he'll mention it again in 175. In fact, it's because God has been so good at answering his prayers that he has the courage to ask God for more. To be helped as he prays for in 173 and 175, to be given understanding in verse 169, and to be given insight and strength.
When you read through this whole psalm, you see way earlier—back in verse 19—he describes himself as a sojourner, a pilgrim, somebody who is travelling, somebody who is not at home on Earth: and so he is homesick. In verse 175, he asks for continued life so he can live and praise God. Why else would we want to live, ultimately, other than to praise God?
What you need to appreciate from this is that delight in God's Word and deep and profound longing can coexist at the same time in the Christian life. In fact, I want to make an even more pushy statement. The Christian life is impossible without unfulfilled longings in a fallen world. One of the problems of prosperity is that consumerism fools us. The billions of dollars that are spent to brainwash us all the time make us think that presently possessing something gives us happiness. This leads us to lie at work, be unfaithful in our marriages, ignore the Bible, and be dissatisfied with what we have because we're only concentrating on what we don't have. All of that stuff is against what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God, and he has given us the greatest gift imaginable in Christ, and we can be in possession of that salvation now. Yet possessing that salvation now does not mean that we have no grounds for being dissatisfied right now.
If you had the time, capacity, and empathy, you could sit down with each person here and understand why they could be sad about something today. In many cases, it would be a more profound sadness than you yourself know. As a pastor, it's interesting because many different people will talk to me about their own reasons for sadness right now, and one of the blessings of being a pastor is that with those kind of windows into so many people's souls, at least one thing you understand in consolation: no one's suffering is as excruciatingly, uniquely terrible as they think it is. It is for themselves right then, and I don't mean to be unappreciative of any suffering that's going on. That's a way to do terrible pastoral counseling for a thousand people at once: "I don't care." I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that in this fallen world, there will always be things you are desiring and longing for deeply that you will not have in this world, because you're a Christian, you're made in the image of God, and you now have his image renewed in you by being born again. Those things are different for different people.
We use very generic terms like "perfection," and we're all in on that one. But short of that, when you start breaking it out, you'll see people around you who have this thing and that thing that you don't have what you think you want most deeply. Some of them will be very spiritual: some of them will have victory over certain temptations. Others of them will be much more normal, ordinary: just things you want, like a job. Is there anything wrong with having a fulfilling job where you're actually appreciated, where you can get ahead? For some people, it's their marriage, or it's having a family, or it's what some of their kids are doing, or it's your health, or it's … the list could go on and on and on. There are an unending number of things that are unfulfilling.
All of our desires will not be met in this world. Our most profound desire for reconciliation with God: that can be met. But even that will not be as fulfilling as we want it to be. Even for that, we long for heaven. If you're here as an unemployed person, or you're here as a widow, or you're here as somebody with a terminal illness, or whatever it is, and you think, I am in a position that seems unendingly bad: that's why we sing, "Jerusalem, my happy home." That's why we have the hope that we do. We have a better hope than anything we can fix up this life with.
God will give you other blessings in this life. I don't mean to down-talk God's blessings. He's very kind, and he gives us amazing blessings. But you know what we're all like. It doesn't matter how many blessings we're given and how much we have to praise him for. Like the psalmist here, we still have longings. We have longings that aren't met. Sometimes people will even justify their sin by saying, "Ah, but if I don't sin or do what God's Word says is sin, I will never fulfill this longing." But they're operating on Satan's lie that all their longings are going to be met in this life. They're just not. Go ahead and sin and try to fulfill that longing, and then just watch what happens. All your desires are not going to be met if you're a Christian in a fallen world. It's just not going to happen. What you need to do is trust that God is better than all your desires that are attempting to be met in a fallen world. You need to trust him and trust the wisdom he gives here in Psalm 119 and in his Word. Follow him and trust him to lead us to a time and a place when he will fulfill our deepest longings more than we could ever even imagine in this fallen world. This is not the time and place for that, so like the psalmist here, we praise him and we delight. Yet at the same time, we desire.
Trip Lee has a line in one of the songs that says, "I feel thorns where my crown was." The album is pretty autobiographical at points, and he explains some of his own experience of this: of how the world can look and think, Oh, he's succeeding, that's pretty cool, that's glitzy. No, listen carefully: he's telling you about his pain of unfulfilled longings and following Christ in this world.
That's not just Trip Lee—that's all of us. That's what it is like to be a Christian in a fallen world. That's why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." There is much better stuff than this life—this fallen world—that God has in store for us. If you're here today and you're not a Christian, I would ask you: what do you long for? Consider carefully what it would mean for those longings to be fulfilled. Maybe explore that in a conversation with a good friend.
If you're here as a Christian, what are you struggling with? Loss? Grief? A job? Health? Satisfaction with the gender God has made you? Desire for a child or for a spouse? There will be no perfectly fulfilled life in a fallen world for someone who loves God and loves what he loves. But it is good, even in the face of all that, for us to delight and to praise God for what he has given us. It is good for us to long for what he will give us and to trust him for that. These very desires are part of what it means to have a relationship with God.
Let me get to my third point: expectations. I mean that in a couple of ways. First, we see the confession of his sins in verse 176: "I have strayed like a lost sheep." That's not what this psalmist sounds like very much in these 176 verses. Back up in verse 67, he mentioned he had strayed in the past, but the request here—of God to seek and save him—makes it sound like he's not simply confessing some sin in the past, but a sinfulness gone astray: like he is astray or wandering. It's a sinfulness he has recognized in himself, and even more than that, a helplessness that he can do anything about it.
Such a confession doesn't contradict his earlier statements. Look at verse 168, where he says, "I obey your precepts and your statutes." Or even in verse 110: he specifically says, "I have not strayed from your precepts." In verse 176, the last verse in the psalm, he says, "I have not forgotten your commandments." I don't think there is any contradiction there. It is striking that this comes at the end of this long psalm. He has been meditating on God's Word.
Maybe you've heard this psalm and you've thought the psalmist to be kind of self-righteous because of all the things he said he did and all the things he delighted in. These things were true of the psalmist, but I think they would have all been incomplete without this closing statement. This closing confession of his sinfulness confirms how we are to read all the other statements. Yes, he was innocent of the wrongdoing he may have been being accused of; he was generally marked by doing what God would approve of, having good purposes, and knowing and believing the truth. All those are significant statements. They let us know that the psalmist belongs to the Lord.
But now, the psalmist comes into the very presence of God here at the very end, the end of his journey in this long psalm. It's kind of like when the clothes you may be wearing in the twilight appear fine, but you don't notice the barbecue stain. Then you walk into the bright light in the house, turn the lights on, and you see it clearly. I think it's that way: when we compare ourselves with others in the twilight of moral respectability, we look fine. We look pretty good. There's nothing gashingly wrong with what I'm looking like right now. But then we step into the bright light of God's perfection, and we begin to see the truth.
I think the psalmist here knows his own sins too well—whether explicit and acted out—or just the desires he has had, that he has dreamt of. Those too are sins. He knows that in his heart, he too often and too easily strays. Because of the real relationship he has with God, he confesses it here.
It is interesting that in the Book of Psalms, there are three great psalms on the Word of God: Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119. That's very easy for us to remember, isn't it? Psalm 1 concludes with two ways to live: "For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, / but the way of the wicked leads to destruction." Psalm 1 opens the Book of Psalms kind of like it's the Book of Proverbs. Psalm 19 ends with the famous prayer, "May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart / be pleasing in your sight, / Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer."
But here at the end of Psalm 119, the longest meditation on the Word of God in the whole Bible, the psalmist—who has maintained throughout the psalm his affection for and even delight in God's Word—confesses his sin, and he calls himself a straying sheep. Surely here is the effect of studying God's Word and of long meditation upon it. We begin to have more moral clarity in viewing ourselves. We begin to see things more accurately, more as God does. In coming to know God better through his Word, we come to know ourselves better.
The psalmist confesses to fail and to disappoint expectations of his obedience. The Lord's people are actually marked by such humble confession of sins. That may be one thing that sets you apart in your office. You may be the one who admits, "Yeah, it was my fault. I did that. I'm sorry—I shouldn't have done that." You may be the one who is honest about mistakes. That may be a distinguishing mark of you as a Christian.
So the psalmist has this humble confession, and at the same time, there is this confidence that pervades the very request. How can he know himself to be in the presence of this kind of God and confess his sin, and at the same time call himself God's servant and ask him to seek him? How can he do that? How can he think God would honor that? That really pervades this psalm, even in this stanza. In verses 171 and 172, he is using the future tense. He says, "May my lips overflow with praise" and "[m]ay my tongue sing of your word." He knows himself ultimately to be the Lord's servant who will not forget the Lord's commandments. When we come to the end of this great chapter, we find ourselves dealing again with God's own expectations, of the big picture of what is God doing in creation.
I naturally think back to the Old Testament, to the riddle of the Old Testament. In Exodus 34, Moses, in frustration and anger, has destroyed the two tablets that have the Ten Commandments on them. He goes back up to the mountain, gets another set, and comes back down. But when he goes up to get these new tablets, the Lord reveals himself in his mercy and grace again to Moses: "And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished'" (Ex. 34:6-7a). You think, How can that be? How can God be merciful and yet make it clear that he is just and holy, and no sin ever committed will go unaccounted for, unaddressed? You think some terrible criminal has died and gotten away with his crime? Oh, no. He is about to face the court who makes no errors, in whom there is no bias, in whom there is no mistake made in sentencing, who has no facts in question, before whom even the motives of the heart are open and plain. We face that Judge and his verdict. His sentence will never be reversed.
How can the psalmist think such a good God could be loving to a sinner like him? How could this God reveal both his mercy and his love at the same time? The answer is in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the perfectly holy God took on flesh and lived a perfectly holy life: a life better than you've lived and better than I've lived. He has lived that life in complete trust of his heavenly Father. The end of that life was not the worldwide recognition and crowning popularity and evident success of this man, but instead, he was killed cruelly and publicly. He was killed cruelly and publicly not because of anything wrong he had ever done, but because of the wrong that had been done by you and by me, by everybody who would trust in him. He took the punishment as a substitute on the Cross for all the people who would ever confess their sins, like the psalmist here, and trust him for his mercy and grace. God raised him to show his victory over death and sin. He ascended to heaven, and he presented that sacrifice to his Father in heaven, and it was deemed acceptable.
Can you follow the psalmist's example and confess your sins today? How can you believe all of this good news? Pray like that father in Mark 9. When Jesus tells him about his son, he says, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). What a good prayer. I wonder who you know yourself to be this morning. In the most fundamental sense, it doesn't matter what the people around you think: it matters what God knows and what you know.
When he was questioned as to why he ate with sinners, Jesus responded, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). He was saying to them, "Look, if you don't think you're a sinner, you don't hear what I'm saying. But if you realize you're a sinner, I've come for you."
Perhaps you're thinking, Well, yeah, that's interesting, but that's not me, I'm not a sinner. The Bible says you are. The Bible says, "[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). It also says, "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, / each of us has turned to our own way; / and the Lord has laid on him / the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6).
I pray you will come to understand what the Bible means when it calls you a sinner. It doesn't mean some cartoonish, petty rule-breaker. No, it means you have a heart that is deeply ruled by your own self-interest, regardless of what God wants to tell you is the truth about that. You want to do what you want to do, regardless. If you begin to see that that's the truth about you, then there is hope for you in Christ. Is Christ the Good Shepherd seeking you this morning? What would it mean for you to follow him as you are?
Here in Psalm 119, the psalmist confesses of himself that he is straying like a lost sheep. It's how the Lord later characterizes the whole nation of Israel. Then, in one of the most extraordinary passages in the Old Testament—as if in answer to this psalmist's confession here—the Lord says in Ezekiel 34:11-12, "I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness." So the Lord Jesus comes, and we read in Mark 6:34: "When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."
Imagine the deep echoes in people's minds when Jesus began to teach, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … . I am the good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me" (John 10:11, 14). Not only do the sheep hear the shepherd's voice, but the shepherd hears the sheep's and will come for each straying one. "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10)—and what he seeks, he finds. His is the joy of the shepherd who finds the lost sheep, of the woman who finds the lost coin, of the father who receives back his lost son from the dead. Jesus loses none of those he finds: none of those the Father has given to him. Christ seeks, and he finds, and he keeps.
Do you know what he does with those he keeps? He prayed in John 17:24, "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world." That's why he seeks us, and that's why he'll keep us. He would not only have us forgiven from the sins we confess, but he would have us reconciled to himself so that his presence becomes the most natural place in the world for us to be. He would not only let us go from the deserved punishment, but he would call us to a renewed relationship of love with him.
Let's have our brother Martin Luther have the last word. He taught on all 150 psalms, and this was his last paragraph:
"I have gone astray," namely, in Adam, in whom all have sinned. "Like a sheep," he says, because it goes astray in the most dangerous way, since it is an animal that is weak, timid, and the prey of many beasts, especially wolves. Therefore at the end of the psalm he especially calls to mind the divine pity out of the greatness of his wretchedness. For if he strayed like a lion or a wolf, he would not need to be grieved, but because it is a little lamb that goes astray, it is a wretchedness that needs a shepherd, pasture, watchmen, a sheepfold, and many other household cares, and the straying one lacks all of them. Indeed, what is most wretched of all is that it does not know how to come back on the way but (the Shepherd) needs to seek it. Thus this verse is extremely emotional and full of tears, for truly we are all thus going astray, so that we must pray to be visited, sought, and carried over by the most godly Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God blessed forever. Amen.
Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks.