First, God is “my refuge” — the place where the psalmist hides.
Second, God is “my shield” — the place where one is protected from attack.
Third, it appears that his refuge and his shield are found in God’s Word (114b).
Fourth, therefore, since God is protecting him, the psalmist exhorts his opponents to keep their distance.
The image is rather graphic but I think fairly clear: the psalmist is under attack from enemies who oppose his commitment to follow God’s teachings. He gathers himself in trust behind God’s protection so he can follow God’s teachings and exhorts his enemies to keep their distance because his commitment is to obey.
We should not imagine a child jumping behind a parent in fear of a stranger, nor a teenager tucking himself or herself behind a strong friend when a bully arrives. Instead, we are dealing here with adults whose moral vocation is under attack, and one adult (the psalmist) publicly makes it clear that no matter how much opposition he is to face, his commitment — like Abraham’s decision to go to the Land or like Moses’ to obey God in the wilderness or Joshua’s commitment to obey God or like Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness — is to do what God has called him to do.
God, he says, will protect those who trust in him, who hope in him, and who obey him.
God supports us. Notice the psalmists words from which we can receive instruction for our day:
116 Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live;
do not let my hopes be dashed.
117 Uphold me, and I will be delivered;
I will always have regard for your decrees.
Two different words begin vv. 116 and 117: “sustain” (samak) and “uphold” (sa’ad). The image of the first is to lean against as a form of support — one might think of propping up — and the second is to hold up or sustain with supporting strength.
Contextually, of course, the psalmist is concerned with enemies who are attacking his moral fiber and commitment. In our specific verses the support is requested so the psalmist’s hope — in God and in following God’s teachings — will not be crushed and that he will live. And, he asks for God’s support so that he will be delivered.
This psalmist, who seems not to be afraid of exaggeration so it is not always clear just what is in mind, seemingly is afraid of losing his life as a result of his commitment to following Torah. We might imagine when we are tempted to abandone God’s clear ways so we can find support or acceptance or financial gain or victory of some sort.
No matter what happens, the psalmist ends this little set of verses, “I will always have regard for your decrees.”
Some may have been tempted to skip this post by because of the title. Others may have become slightly infuriated by the title. Others may think it is politically incorrect. If you read Goldingay’s summary that I posted on Sunday, I think you’ll know why I posted this: because that is what the psalmist prays.
118 You reject all who stray from your decrees,
for their delusions come to nothing.
119 All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross;
therefore I love your statutes.
I’m not sure I can say of myself that I hate those who stray from Torah teachings specifically the way this psalmist thinks, but I do know at times that I am angered deeply by what I consider the moral failings of others. And I’m not afraid to say that I think at times that I know those who are repudiated by God. (I’m not thinking of tyrants here.) What I also know is that I’m not all that convinced such assignments in my mind and heart are revealed in this world.
What I think we need to learn here is that thinking like this is not wrong; apathy about moral indiscretions and moral insensitivities and moral apathies is what is wrong. We ought to be concerned if we see sins in others and not care.
We need, however, to be careful about dwelling in such assignments. We need to be careful that our goal is not to feel triumphant; that we do not feel superior; that we do not feel “we are the only faithful left”; that we do not follow our assignments with some humility — there but for the grace of God go I — and some compassion — what could I have done? what can I do now? what will I learn?
We are nurtured to avoid sentiments like these in the psalms; there are some good reasons for not being judgmental. There are no good reasons for being apathetic about moral laxity — in ourselves and in others.
God rejects — isn’t that clear in the Bible? — those who spurn his will. Those who stray from the path, those who lie and those who deceive and those who are wicked.
It is right, the psalmist chimes in, to love God’s decrees.
“My flesh,” the psalmist admits, “trembles in fear of You; I stand in awe of your laws.” So Psalm 119:120. I could have said God “intimidates” but that normally means intent to scare. What the psalmist has in mind is this:
God’s utterly baffling and terrifying and overwhelming transcendent holiness and love confronts a sinful human being in his or her own finitude and it makes the human being’s flesh bristle and the hair to stand up in utter awesome fear of God’s utter majesty.
Like Moses before God on Mount Sinai, like Isaiah when he was high and lifted up, like the apostles before Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, like the apostle Paul when he encountered the Lord of glory on the road to Damascus and like the seer of Revelation when he saw the little Lamb on the throne.
Awe is normally used as a noun — as in “we stand in awe.” But “awe” is also a transitive verb — God awe’s and we are awed. Moutains quake and the strom clouds break and the valleys rise up to greet the coming of our great God — and when we stand before such a God, we know what awe is.
There are no human analogies: all pale before the kind of “awe” we are describing. Before God we fall flat in worship. And in that position we find we are most human, thoroughly Eikonic, and full of pleasure.