This section of Psalm 119 assigned to this week in Lent interacts perfectly with Sunday’s Gospel of the Canaanite woman whose faith was tested by Jesus. Here the Psalmist teaches us that this kind of testing comes to all of God’s children. This is part of how our faith grows and is strengthened. But by this Psalm we are given the words to pray when the testing comes, a prayer that God would give us His grace to endure the testing and the grace to be an example to others of trusting in God, even when it’s hard to do.
Psalm 119 in general is a Psalm that gives thanks to God for His Word, often translated as commandments or law. We shouldn’t hear those words as simply referring to the Ten Commandments. In Psalm 119, when we hear Law or Commandments, we should think of God’s Word as a whole. This Psalm rejoices in God’s revelation of Himself in the Word. This is where He is known and where His will is revealed. Through His Word He comes near to us and dwells among us, and we ask that we would rightly interact with that Word, gleaning from it all the comfort and instruction that it gives.
The eight verses at hand tonight ask for God’s help when times of testing and difficulty come. There are two ways to respond to testing and difficulty. One is to acknowledge this time as sent by or allowed by God for our ultimate good, even though it’s difficult to understand why at the time. The other is to retreat and turn to anger and bitterness, thinking God has either turned His back or, at worst, hates us and enjoys what we’re going through.
That second response is not at all the truth. The times of difficulty or of chastening are proof that God loves you. Remember what the Proverb says and as it is explained in Hebrews 12: “Do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening…then you are illegitimate and not sons.” In other words, God allows times of difficulty to strengthen our faith. The cross we bear teaches us to cast our burden upon the Lord because it is too much for us to bear alone. Our difficulties teach us to see the Lord in the trenches with us, not apart from us. God is alongside us when we suffer, when we are tested, and when we are disciplined. He teaches us not to look inside, to stew in anger, but to look to Him at our right hand, because where we are in trouble, there He is to comfort and to cheer.
These times of difficulty are not proof that your faith is nonexistent or weak or that you have made God mad and deserve what you’re enduring. Poverty, affliction, disease, whatever it is, is are part of God’s right judgments. Remember what the Psalmist said: “In faithfulness You have afflicted me.” God is proving His love to you by causing your faith to grow, to become laser-focused on Him instead of any other earthly thing. God strips away all the false gods in which we trust so we learn to trust in Him alone.
So it is that the Psalmist teaches us to pray: “Those who fear You will be glad when they see me, because I have hoped in Your Word. In other words: give me grace to endure this testing with patience and trust. Keep me from despondency and anger, from fits of rage and cursing. Help me to be like Job, knowing that what You have allowed is good for me, even though I may not understand right now why it is good for me. Help me be a godly example to others of how to bear the cross and follow You.” That’s a hard prayer to pray. When we are in the midst of hardship the last thing we want to do is publicly keep it together, to keep the anger internal, the despondency in check. We want to be like toddlers, having tantrums and griping to everyone about how mean God is. But we ask that He would cause us to understand that He is doing this for our good, to show His love to us, to strengthen our faith. Even in difficulty we need that admonition of St. Peter, to be always ready to give a reason for the hope we have, even if it seems like we shouldn’t have hope or that our hope is running low.
When our hope is running low and we want to lay out all our grief in all its ugliness, we are taught to pray, “Let, I pray, Your merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to Your Word to Your servant. Let Your tender mercies come to me, that I may live.” Those words “tender mercies” come from one of the biggest words in the Psalms. That word is hesed, which carries with it God’s faithfulness in our faithlessness, God’s love when we do not deserve it, His grace when our cup runs dry. In New Testament terms, this would be the forgiveness, life, and salvation given by Jesus’ death and resurrection. So we pray, “Let Jesus’ saving work come to me, that I may live.” We live and move and have our being in Christ alone. We see what He has done to save us from sin, from the devil, and from ourselves. He has opened heaven to us by His Blood. He has defeated all our enemies by His Word, “It is finished.” Teach me to meditate on that word, that promise, that purest Gospel! Teach me to say “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Teach me to lean on Your mercy, not my own strength.
It’s not fun or easy to learn that lesson, no matter how many times we are taught it. But when we learn to pray with the distraught father, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief,” God answers it. He places His cross before our eyes. He speaks into our ears and into our hearts: I have done all things well. I have defeated your enemies. I will carry you through this in my nail-pierced hands. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to be strong, because I am your Strength. God be praised for His unfailing love, His grace as He strengthens our faith.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.