Showing posts with label II Samuel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label II Samuel. Show all posts

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The stones will cry out (A meditation on Luke 19:29-40)

Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms
Year C
Gospel Reading: Luke 19:29-40 

I love the film, Memento. What I love most about Memento are the little nuggets of plot-development hidden in plain sight, and how those becomes crucial for appreciating the entire story. 
    At the beginning we learn about the main character, Leonard Shelby, who suffers from extreme short term memory loss because of a severe brain injury incurred at his home, seconds before witnessing the murder of his wife. Just as Leonard witnesses his wife suffocating to death, an armed robber violently strikes Leonard on the head, and from that point forward in life, Leonard's long-term memories are haunted by that final, enduring image of his wife's suffocation. He then sets out on a life-long quest to find those who killed his wife, and to satisfy justice.
    Fast-forwarding to the end of the story, a detective named Teddy is murdered by Leonard Shelby. Leonard thinks Teddy was part of the conspiracy to murder his wife, but of course, because Leonard suffers from severe short-term memory loss many people throughout his life after that event—including Teddy—become suspects of that conspiracy accidentally, even though they aren't necessarily guilty. All Leonard wants in life is to find those who conspired in the murder of his wife, and he will do whatever it takes to bring vengeance upon them. But we come to find out in the end of the story that so much more had been going on all along, and best of all it was hidden in plain sight, right in front of our very eyes. 
    Spoiler Alert: Just before the death of Teddy, the detective, we learn some mind-blowing details about Leonard's life. First we learn that Leonard Shelby's wife didn't actually die the night her husband had his brain injury. She survived that night, but Leonard doesn't remember that because he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss after his brain injury. All he remembers is her suffocating. Every day, he still thinks she's dead. And eventually, over time, she does die; and she's even truly dead by the time the events within the film take place. However, as the plot progresses, we learn that Teddy, the detective, already brought Leonard to the real attacker, and Leonard already avenged his wife, but Leonard doesn't remember that either. Finally, as if those tidbits of information weren't shocking enough, we also learn the most shocking fact of all: Leonard actually murdered his own wife, by assisting her in committing suicide. It turns out that after his injury, his wife became so depressed with having to live with his short-term memory loss, that one day she tested him. She was diabetic, and in need of regular insulin shots, so she tested him over and over again by requesting him to give her shots, minutes apart from each other. She eventually died of overdose. That was her way of coping with what she perceived to be the loss of the real man she loved and married. But he doesn't remember ever assisting her suicide. Leonard even gets a tattoo on his hand to assist his memory about that, but the tattoo doesn't help. All throughout the film we are shown that tattoo, and the message is in plain sight, but Leonard interprets it differently. Even when you hear or see that phrase tattooed on his hand repeated over and over again ("Remember Sammy Jenkins"), if the viewer does not stop and think about it's significance, or its significance is misunderstood, it is possible to watch the entire film and walk away from it with a very different message than what the director intended. 
    This is true with the theological nuggets we find scattered throughout Luke's gospel. If we overlook or misunderstand some of them hidden in plain sight, we might walk away from the gospel story with a very different message than what Luke intended. And in today's reading, we have one of those theological nuggets. It is found in Luke 19:39b–40, which the ESV translates this way:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out."

Usually, when I'm preparing a meditation for any given day, I try to harmonize as many of the lectionary readings as possible and unite them into a common theme. But with this week's lectionary readings, something very different happened as I was studying. I became stuck on this one very brief statement.
    Do you want to know why I've been stuck on that passage all week long? It's because the Greek text underlying that English Standard Version does not say that. And I've been hung up all week on what it actually says, and why Jesus said that. What the Greek text actually says is this:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" And answering, He [Jesus] said: "I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"1

As I perused through my biblical commentaries, I noticed that this passage is usually explained in one of two ways. It's either explained as a comparison between animate human beings (i.e. disciples) and inanimate objects (i.e. stones), illustrating somehow, some way, that Jesus deserves to be praised by His creation, e.g. "If people stop praising Jesus, surely these stones on the ground will instead!", or it's expressing a contrast of faith between the Pharisees and stones, illustrating that even stones understand their Creator better than Pharisees.2
    With either option, I'm left unconvinced. And I think it's important to convince others to remain unconvinced as well. But in order to reach any conviction about the meaning of this theological nugget (whether one agrees with me or not), it always helps to start by asking obvious questions. For instance, why does Jesus mention stones? Is it merely because they can be classified as inanimate objects? In that case, wouldn't the reference to stones be somewhat arbitrary, as though Jesus could have mentioned any other static material on this planet—such as trees, saddlebags, or belly-button lint—to illustrate the same point? He just mentioned "stones" for no essential reason, I guess. Perhaps it was the first thing that popped into His mind, someone might say. That sounds like a dubious proposal at best. 
    What if the whole point of mentioning stones is simply to point out how lifeless the faith of the Pharisees is? Although I don't doubt that the faith of many Pharisees was dead, I don't think that clarifies what Jesus actually said. Again, all one has to do to notice my contention is to simply look back at the text. Re-read it a few times. Such explanations about dead pharisaical faith hardly accounts for what Jesus actually said in context. (Besides, if you've read the previous 18 chapters of Luke's gospel, you should have already realized that their faith was dead.) So let's go back to asking obvious questions again. 
    Why must stones cry out if Jesus' disciples are silenced? That is what the text actually says.3 Is it because stones perceive God better than Pharisees? That doesn't answer the question. That begs the question. If the point, supposedly, is that Jesus is also worthy of praise by stones, then why aren't the stones also crying out at the same time as the disciples? Why wait until the voices of Jesus disciples are silenced?

I think that in order to make sense of Luke 19:39b-40, we need to review the story of Luke's gospel briefly to find other tidbits hidden in plain sight for us.
    In the close context of 19:39b-40, Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem for the first time in Luke's gospel. Toward the beginning of the Lukan travel narrative, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (9:51), and he wouldn't cease ministering to people until he was silenced in Jerusalem. Throughout Luke's travel narrative, that message of reaching Jerusalem and being killed by Israel's rulers is repeated three times for emphasis (9:22, 44; 18:31-33). Alongside that tidbit, Luke's travel narrative is also filled with allusions to soon-coming judgment upon Jerusalem for rejecting their King. Even before  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the shepherds of Israel have no excuse for rejecting him as their King, and they also have no excuse for refusing to repent of that rejection.
    In the middle of Luke's travel narrative, we find one of those nuggets hidden in plain sight. But there, Jesus does more than make allusions to Jerusalem's judgment; he emphatically declares that its temple is forsaken, abandoned by God, because they were not willing to accept His terms of peace:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Luke 13:34-35)

Now fast forward to the end of Luke's travel narrative, where Jesus is about to leave Jericho and enter into Jerusalem for the first time. There we find Jesus telling one last parable to his disciples en route to his triumphal entry (19:11-27). In that parable Luke goes out of his way to emphasize the allegorical relationship between Jesus' servants in Jerusalem and Himself entering that city as their King. By the end of the parable the "wicked servants" and "enemies" have proven themselves hostile and indignant toward their King. Not only had they perpetuated gross injustice while the King was away (similar to the claim above about "killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it"), they also would not repent or accept His terms of peace and reconciliation. They refused to let Jesus rule mercifully over their merciless kingdom. For that reason, the King decrees that they be slain upon his arrival. With the merciful, he would show himself merciful. With the blameless, he would show himself blameless. And with the crooked, he would make himself seem torturous (Psa. 18:25-26; 2 Sam. 22:26-28). Jesus saves those who are humble, but his eyes are on the haughty to bring them down. 
    After that final parable, Jesus follows his prophetic cry with more sovereign lamentations explicitly directed at first century Jews in Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44):
And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you [Jerusalem], had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation."
Much like the prophet Habakkuk's reasons for thundering woes against Jerusalem, it is this incessant rejection of Israel's King by their rulers which leads to the toppled stones of the Temple's ruin crying out against those perpetrating violence and injustice within:
You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples! You have forsaken your life! The stone shall cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" (Habakkuk 2:10-12)
I believe these nuggets of prophetic woes scattered throughout Luke's gospel are designed to clarify what Jesus said to Pharisees during his triumphal entry. The "Wisdom of God" repeatedly told Jerusalem that His prophets and apostles would be sent to them, but they would not listen. Instead, the harlot-city would silence the Lord and His servants (Luke 11:49–52). With that trajectory toward rejection and judgement, when we reach the point of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we see the Pharisees still attempting to silence Jesus' disciples (19:39b), Jesus' response makes perfect sense if its understood as a prophetic, Habakkuk-like cry toward Jerusalem and its corrupt rulers. As Jesus' disciples cry out, "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!", the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke the disciples. So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, its trajectory is directed toward the harlot-city, toward Jerusalem's rejection and consequent judgment:
"I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"

Little did the Pharisees know that the prophets, apostles, and disciples of Jesus were living stones of God's new temple-building project (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-6), so when those stones cry out for vindication, judgement is right around the corner because their voices are heard by Jesus himself in his heavenly temple. This was the Lord's mysterious and marvelous plan all along. It is through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of God's incarnate Son that the blood of all the prophets and apostles, shed from the foundation of the world, would cry out and finally receive vindication for all their suffering. They witnessed to the truth of God and His reign over all, and their shed blood would be charged against Jesus' generation (11:49-52). That generation would be definitively judged.
    All of this brings us back around to the passage in Luke in which Jesus prophesies about disciples being silenced for their testimony of Jesus' lordship, and stones crying out as a result. I think its clear that Jesus' woe alludes to the Habakkuk woe spoken to the leadership of Jerusalem. In that prophecy, the stones of the temple walls cry out because of tremendous injustice perpetrated within its walls and upon God's people. Historically, it was during the Jewish wars (66—70 AD) that Jerusalem and its idolatrous temple were finally destroyed by the Lord's visitation. Because Jerusalem did not know the time of her visitation, and the testimonies of those who bore witness to Jesus were silenced, the stones would cry out from the wall: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" But "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
At this time, someone might be asking, What is the bottom line of all this?

That's a good question. How does this affect our understanding of the gospel story, so that we don't miss out on what the director envisioned for us? 

A few responses immediately come to mind:
    First, because there is a pervasive tendency among Christians to "proof-text" scripture into emotional and spiritual nonsense, it's always important to remember that the gospels are about real life, flesh and blood, pus and guts, historically documented events. Even the prophecies of Jesus were not some kind of gnostic, esoteric, mystical future cataclysm. Certainly they were about future events. However, Jesus was addressing historical events which would come upon his own generation (Luke 7:31; 11:29,30,31,32,50,51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32). This is often missed, and the gospels misinterpreted, because the fulfillment of those divinely imposed judgments within his generation are not taken into account by the average, run-of-the-mill Christian. It is absolutely vital to the understand and acknowledge that the destruction of Herod's idolatrous temple is the most significant historical event in Israel's history. And that was clearly on display in Jesus' mind throughout Luke's gospel. That event is the definitive end of the old covenant, and the decisive action which vindicates all the disciples of Jesus Christ in the first century. The entire course of history dramatically changed after that cataclysmic event.4 And it's not a mere coincidence that Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension strike the match and light the wick leading to that cosmic judgment. So it's important to familiarize yourself with those events, and to read scripture through the lens of those concrete historical promises.
    Second, remember that because every statement within the gospels is part of a much larger story, we need to search, discover, and meditate upon the nugget-like tidbits scattered throughout the story. Those tidbits are not tertiary details. Just like in Memento, if they are overlooked or underestimated, the director's vision behind the story can be misunderstood. If Jesus' explicit promises regarding Jerusalem's destruction in that generation are overlooked or underestimated, then the first century Jewish-Christian context of New Testament theology can be misunderstood.
    Finally, but just as important as the previous points, this brief tidbit of Luke's gospel teaches us something significant about the character of God. Throughout evangelical circles, Jesus is often mistakenly portrayed as the "light" version of the old testament God. Just like Budweiser has their light beer, Jesus is the old testament Father's light-bodied persona. He's low on calories, while still offering the full-bodied flavor of the original Divine recipe, which we all love. As such, the Church mistakenly thinks of Jesus' character differently than the Father's, and that is a mistake. Both Jesus and YHWH are love (Deut. 7:9; Psa 36:7-10; Joel 2:13; I John 4:8,16). Both Jesus and YHWH are a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). Jesus' gospel was about consuming fire and love. It is our God, Jesus, who considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict his children, and to grant his children relief through affliction by inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know Him and on those who do not obey the good news of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 1:6-8). 
   In fact, it is precisely because Jesus is love, that we must heed Jesus' warnings and not reshape the love of God into our own American idol. When we see Jesus loving all those around him, we also need to see that love as an expression of warning his own generation of consuming fireof tangible, down-to-earth judgment upon flesh and blood because of their exceedingly great wickedness. It's also important to see Jesus as the son of man coming to judge them (Matt. 10:23; 12:40-42; 13:37-43; 16:27-28; 24:30-34). As the son of man, part of the way he loves the world is by waging war upon its evil every day; and that is a good thing. It is good that Jesus must continue waging that war until he has put all his enemies underneath his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). Only then will true peace cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Jesus was indeed the most loving human in history, and yet his love did not violate the free will of those whom he loved, and so he warned them about how destructive their idolatry had become, and he waged war against those who refused to accept his rule. In an thoroughly corrupt and evil generation, there can be no peace without war. Thankfully, though, most people throughout the world are not destroyed. Instead, many are confronted by the heinousness of their own sins and destructive tendencies, and are brought to their knees before King Jesus. God graciously makes Himself available to them, and when they sincerely repent and surrender to him, they are shown mercy, and they receive new life in Him. 
    Another way to look at Jesus' prophetic warnings is like this: Jesus loved the world so much that he gave his life for it, but there comes a point in time when an entire generation needs to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings and he knows our needs better than we do. He knows how to establish and cultivate peace on earth better than we do. If parts of his creation become rotten to the core, he knows best, and he knows how to uproot and plant something new and healthy in its place if need be. In a world where the ground is cursed and humanity is exiled from the presence of God, the whole process of uprooting, tilling the soil, and planting new is an expression of love. The fact that the Gardener even draws near to his fields all over the world and tends to their needs worldwide is a good and beautiful thing. 
    Within the exhortation of our Lord about disciples being silenced and stones crying out, is his decree to tear down the diseased house of the old covenant in order to build an exceedingly glorious temple in us. And his temple-building project isn't over yet. His global gardening project is not over yet. There still is a lot of work yet to be done. Don't be bashful about that, and don't be afraid to walk in the way of Christ's suffering for that. Rather, walk humbly in the way of his suffering that you may also share in his resurrection. Believe that, witness to that, and proclaim that. That is true, just as God's love for the world is true, and his warfare against evil every day is true. 
   If you start thinking about how gloomy and corrupt our current generation is in comparison with the glorious future promised for God's kingdom, don't be worried about it. Continue witnessing to the good news of King Jesus and his terms of peace for the world. He is always far more willing to give mercy and extend favor than we are to receive it. He is called the King of Peace for good reasons. 
   And if you ever become anxious about these temporary, mortal bodies of ours returning to the soil, leaving the fruitful praise of our lips silenced, don't worry about that either. Other stones of God's temple will continue that proclamation. Blessed indeed is our King, Jesus. He is the reason why there is any peace on earth and in heaven. Glory to Him in the highest!

* * * * * * *

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

1. This is my translation of the Greek text: Διδάσκαλε, ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου. καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν· Λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἐὰν οὗτοι σιωπήσουσιν, οἱ λίθοι κράξουσιν
2. Darrell Bock, a reputable Lukan scholar, offers a variant of this, claiming that inanimate objects—like stones—"have a better perception of God than the people He came to save." Even though that is a clever and truthful way of spinning what Jesus actually said, I still think that greatly misses Jesus' point. See Darrell L. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1996), p. 1,547
3.  A few other technical details are worth noting. As I have argued here and elsewhere on my blog, I think mainstream english translations of the New Testament are based on an interpretation disconnected with the destruction of Jerusalem as foreshadowed in the consistent typological messaging of Israel's prophets. To me that disconnect seems clear for grammatical reasons as well. For example, in the ESV we find the insertion of "very" into the text (which isn't even implied in the Greek). In English, the insertion of "very" could be construed as connoting an idea of contrast between animate and inanimate objects, which is unnecessary if Jesus is actually prophesying future historical events related to Jerusalem and its temple. Another disconnect is seen in the confusing translation of "were silent" and "would cry out" like it's a conditional subjunctive, which it's not in Greek. Both verbs are future-active-indicative. The ἐάν with a subjunctive verb would express a probable or hypothetical future condition (which is why the conditional conjunction is translated "if" in the ESV), but the indicative verbs remove that probability and instead express certainty (which is why ἐὰν here is better translated as "when").
4.  See Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2008, eighth ed.), pp. 23-46

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Prayer of a Living Sacrifice: Psalm 119:169-176

There are two translations below. The first comes from an ESV Bible. The second is my own "wooden" translation of the same verses, organized according to its own literary structure (without verse numbers). Following that is my commentary on this portion of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119  (ESV)
169  Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
give me understanding according to your word!
170  Let my plea come before you;
deliver me according to your word.
171  My lips will pour forth praise,
for you teach me your statutes.
172  My tongue will sing of your word,
for all your commandments are right.
173  Let your hand be ready to help me,
for I have chosen your precepts.
174  I long for your salvation, O Lord,
and your law is my delight.
175  Let my soul live and praise you,
and let your rules help me.
176  I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
          for I do not forget your commandments.

Psalm 119:169-176
A)  Let my cry draw near before your face, O Yahweh.
B)  According to your commanded-word, give me discernment!
A’)  Let my plea enter before your face.
B’)  According to your spoken-word, rescue me!

C)  My lips will burst forth a song of praise because you instruct me in your written-laws!
C’)  My tongue will shout jubilantly of your spoken-word because all your regulations are just!

D)  Let your hand be to my succor, because I have chosen your directions.
E)  I long for your deliverance, O Yahweh, and your Law is my delight!
D’)  Let my soul revive so that it can praise you, and let your judgments succor me.
E’)  I have wandered like a lost sheep; so search for your servant because I do not forget your commandments

The first line of the first verse (in the ESV) says, "Let my cry come before you," whereas the first line of the second verse says "Let my plea come before you." Clearly those two statements parallel each other. And at first glance, the only noticeable difference between the two is the word cry and the word plea. But the ESV translation is actually misleading. According to the more "wooden" translation above, what King David actually wrote in the first verse (and yes, I do believe King David wrote this Psalm) was "let my cry draw near...". In the second verse, David wrote something different. He wrote, "let my plea enter...". And so, the difference is not merely between crying and pleading (as the ESV suggests), but also between drawing near and entering.

At a second glance, you might be thinking that there still isn't much of a difference between drawing near and entering; but according to the culture in which King David was raised, such distinctions were profoundly important. The word for "drawing near" is קרב (qrb), and has a peculiar importance within the Law of God, particularly because it is frequently used throughout the book of Leviticus. Just to show a small sample of how frequent qrb is, below is another "wooden" translation, only this one shows the first few verses of Leviticus. Notice the frequency of the qrb root: 
Now he called to Moses. Yahweh spoke to him from the Tent-of-Congregation, saying: "Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: 'When anyone among you brings-near (qrb) a near-offering (qrb) for YHWH, from domestic animals, from the herd or from the flock you may bring-near (qrb) your near-offering (qrb). If an ascension-offering is his near-offering (qrb) from the herd, then a male, without blemish, let him bring-it-near (qrb) to the entrance of the Tent-of-Congregation, let him bring-it-near (qrb) as acceptance for him, before the presence of Yahweh.'"

According to God's Law, certain boundaries were set by God for worshiping-laymen such as David. David understood that once he entered the courtyard surrounding the Lord's house (the tabernacle), that would be as far as he could "draw near." If he desired to draw near further, and enter into the Lord's holy presence, he would die. And not by his own choice, of course, but because God's Law taught him so. God's Law taught him how polluted he was because of sin, how holy God was, and how pure one needed to be in order to enter the very presence of God. But the Lord, full of grace and mercy, placed Himself in a covenant with man and allowed an animal without blemish to represent everyone who desired to draw near. In order to draw near, that animal would have to die in his (or her) place and be carried by a priest before the altar. In doing so, that animal-representative would draw near before Yahweh. If David were offering an animal without blemish, that animal would die and draw near before the face of Yahweh in David's place. And so, when King David asked Yahweh for his cry to draw near before His face, David was using sacrificial terminology. David was, in essence, saying, "Let this cry of mine be received as a sacrifice, brought near before you according to your Law."

Similar but distinguishable terminology is also used in the second verse, when David describes the entrance, the בוֹא (b'wa), of his plea. Just as Moses alone entered (b'wa) the cloud of Yahweh at the top of Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:18) and the cloud of Yahweh covering the Tabernacle (Ex. 33:9), so the High Priest only entered (b'wa) the Most Holy Place of Yahweh in the Tabernacle (Lev. 16:17). David's plea, therefore, is distinguishable from his cry. David wants his cry, his wailing, to draw near as a sacrificial offering without blemish, and he wants his plea to actually enter the most holy presence of God. While acknowledging the holy boundaries of access to God, David embraces God as one to whom he can draw near and actually enter before. Through faith, David embraces the gracious character of God revealed in his Law.

But for what does David cry? And for what does David plea?

Again, we find another misleading translation in the ESV. The ESV doesn't distinguish what "word" David trusts in. In the second line of the first two verses, the ESV says "according to your word," with no distinction between either verse. But in Hebrew, the first verse says "according to your commanded-word" (דָבָר  dbr), whereas the second verse says "according to your spoken-word" (אמרה  imrh). The first "word," dbr, is very common. It's most familiar use is with the ten commandments, the ten commanded-words, the ten dbr's. The other word, imrh, refers to that which God has spoken, which is why it's often translated as God's "promise" throughout the Scriptures. Elsewhere in this Psalm, it is translated as "promise" (119:38, 41, 50, 58, 76, 82, 116, 123, 133, 140, 148, 154; ESV). I have only translated it as God's spoken-word to distinguish it from God's commanded-word.

And so, what David cries out to Yahweh for is understanding, or discernment, according to Yahweh's commanded-word.  And what he pleads for is deliverance, or rescuing, according to Yahweh's spoken, or promised, word. Two important principles for Christian living can be deduced from this: First, it teaches us not to presume upon God's deliverance in all circumstances, but to find assurance in those promises which God has spoken. And secondarily, it teaches us David's priorities in prayer. 

Let's look at both of these principles in more detail.

According to the first principle, we learn that David was not pleading for deliverance apart from something God had spoken to him--something God had promised him. Such a promise, in the context of David's life, is obviously that which was spoken in 1st Samuel 16, when God provided for Himself a king among the sons of Jesse, David by name. From that time on, David was the Lord's anointed, not Saul, and Saul treated David's anointing as a threat to his own throne. This means that within the historical setting behind the scenery of Psalm 119:169-176, David is pleading for the Lord to rescue him at a time when David felt his life and throne was in jeopardy. God had anointed him and filled him with His Holy Spirit, yet David was on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him and keep him from ever ascending the throne of Israel. This time is generally understood to be around the events recorded in I Samuel 23. 

The second principle we learn involves David's priorities. Here we see a pattern of thought in David. If these historical circumstances are true, as I have argued them to be, notice carefully that David does not simply plea for God to rescue him. Nor does David plea for rescuing first. Ordinarily, when a Christian finds himself in extremely stressful and even dangerous circumstances (like David's), the first desire of the heart is for God to get us out of trouble. Ordinarily, we don't want any more stress, which means we don't want the headaches of learning to endure trials. We want out! We want deliverance from our troubles. We don't want to learn what to do next as we endure trials. But that was not David's first priority. David's first priority was to learn discernment according to God's commanded-word. David's first priority was to learn more about what he could do to please God through his trials. David's first priority was to understand what he ought to do (and not do) through in his present trial, as he awaited deliverance. David's other priority--his plea--was for deliverance, and that was a secondary priority because he trusted, by faith, in God's promise; which means he trusted God's faithfulness. He trusted in God's faithful character because he learned God's holy character from His Law. It was God's holy Law which gave him hope and taught him to fear God and His holy boundaries. It was the work of God's Holy Spirit that ennobled his heart to trust and obey faithfully, and maintain such holy priorities, even through such difficult trials. 

David's great confidence in the Lord is made clear in the central section of this Psalm (sections C and C'). David knows the day is coming when his own lips will burst forth with a song of praise. David looks forward to shouting jubilantly before all of Israel about God's spoken-word, i.e. God's promise to him. Yet notice carefully that David's confidence is grounded in God's written laws (section C). David knows that all of God's regulations for living are just (C'), and therefore he has nothing to fear. If God is for him, who would be so foolish as to be against him? Historically we know that King Saul was that foolish.

In sections D and D', David refers to God's "hand" and His "judgments" succoring him. This brings us back to David's first priority--David's cry. David is being hunted by Saul, but David knows that God has spoken to him, promising him the throne of Israel; and David cries for discernment according to God's commanded-word. David cries for such discernment because he doesn't want to displease the Lord and foolishly presume that God's hand would not be against him too, especially if he chose a path of lawlessness and sinful behavior (like Saul did) to get out of his troubles. David understood that God's covenant involves both blessings and curses--blessings of God's hand for faithful obedience and the curses of God's hand for disobedience. And here we learn that David sees God's hand of judgment as a good thing for him. It's a good thing for him because his first priority is to discern God's commanded-word and obey it. Why should David fear God's hand of judgment if he is doing those things which please God? David should have nothing to fear because he had chosen Yahweh's directions and his delight was in Yahweh's Law (sections D and E).

Finally, David closes with these words: "I have wandered like a lost sheep; so search for your servant..."

Many commentators suggest that David is confessing his private, and even ignorant, sins. That is to say, David is pouring out his heart and soul, confessing every possible sin imaginable, even secret sins which caused him to wander away from the faith. This, allegedly, is what he meant by wandering like a lost sheep. But is that really what's being taught here? Is David acknowledging that he has wandered, however slightly, from the faith? Such an interpretation would be odd and unnecessary. It would be odd because David's final words are "search for your servant because I do not forget your commandments." If David was confessing that he had wandered from the faith, however slight, that would seem to conflict with his confidence that he has not forgotten God's commandments. It also would conflict with the many other repeated statements about loving and keeping God's commandments. 

Instead, what I believe David is expressing is his vulnerability. David is describing a familiar scene to shepherds like himself. The scene is of a "lost" or "perishing" sheep in unfamiliar territory--a territory where enemies surround him and where he is not safe. Therefore David cries out, "I have search for your servant." This fits well within the historical setting described above. David is in distress and danger, on the run for his life from king Saul. Nevertheless, David trusts in God's promises concerning his kingdom. David finds comfort in the Lord's anointing. David draws near before the face of God in prayer, and because his pleading actually entered the Most Holy Place, the Lord sought his servant. That God of peace and Great Shepherd of the sheep made him complete in every good work to do his will, working in him what was well-pleasing in his sight. To Him belongs the glory for ever and ever. Amen.