Theme: Our Constant Need for God’s Grace
In this last section of Psalm 119, we are reminded of our own need as poor sheep, and learn how the Lord will answer our prayers to supply what we lack.
Scripture: Psalm 119:169-176
There is a tremendous difference between this stanza and the last, in fact, between this stanza and the entire preceding psalm. The last stanza was all assertion, chiefly about the poet’s obedience to God’s Word and his rejoicing in it: “I rejoice in your promise” (v. 162), “I hate and abhor falsehood” (v. 163), “I wait for your salvation” (v. 166), and “I obey your precepts and your statutes” (v. 168). In this stanza, all is petition, and there is little confidence at all. Instead, there is humble recognition of the writer’s lost condition and his constant need of God’s grace:
I have strayed like a lost sheep.
Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments.
One thing this tells us is the author had not become self-righteous by his study, despite his repeated claims to have obeyed the Bible’s teachings. This is what Derek Kidner saw in these verses:
The note of urgent need on which the psalm ends … is proof enough that the love of Scripture … need not harden into academic pride. This man would have taken his stance not with the self-congratulating Pharisee of the parable, but with the publican who stood afar off, but went home justified.1
Verse 175, the next to the last verse, is a good biblical statement of what the Westminster Shorter Catechism calls “the chief end of man,” namely, to glorify God and enjoy him forever: “Let me live that I may praise you.” But verse 176, the last verse, reminds us that this praise comes from poor, weak, lost and straying sinners like ourselves.
In saying this, I have to take issue with some of the writers on this psalm, who argue that the psalmist cannot be thinking of himself as a lost sheep in the same sense as the sheep in Jesus’ parable, since he is “one who does not forget God’s commandments.”2 They think that the issues here are not spiritual, that the psalmist is not writing about sin and salvation. They argue that he is thinking of himself as a lost sheep only in the sense of being exposed to enemies and thus being always in need of God’s care.
But if that is the case, why does he speak of himself as having “strayed,” rather than as merely being weak? Or asking God to “seek” him, rather than to strengthen or protect him?
This is not the language of mere temporal distress. It is spiritual language, the language of Isaiah who wrote in his great fifty-third chapter,
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,each of us has turned to his own way (v. 6).
What the writer of Psalm 119 is saying is that this is the only right description of himself as he is apart from the grace of God. He is a poor, lost sheep. So what is needed—what he needed and what we need too—is what Isaiah wrote about in the second half of the verse I just quoted. He needed that One upon whom “the Lord has laid … the iniquity of us all.”
Let me put it like this. What we have here is an example of what Martin Luther meant when he spoke of believers in Christ being simul justus et peccator, that is, of being at once “both justified and a sinner.” Luther wrote of verse 176, “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.”3
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 429.
2J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), p. 367. Original edition 1878-1879.
3Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 2, First Lectures on the Psalms, II: Psalms 76-126, ed. Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1976), p. 534.
What is the striking difference between this stanza and the preceding ones?
How do we know that the psalmist has not become self-righteous?
What is our purpose and chief end?
Why is it not true that the psalmist sees himself as a lost sheep only in terms of needing care?
Reflection: Think about the various relationships in your life, and the differing roles and functions you have. How do you glorify God in every aspect of your life?
For Further Study: As we have made our way through Psalm 119, we have seen how wonderful and essential the Word of God is. If you would like to add James Boice’s three-volume set of studies on all 150 psalms, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is offering it for 25% off the regular price.