Have you ever had your back to the wall? Ever wonder if you were going to make it? Ever wonder if the enemy would do you in? Ever wonder if you would live another day? The psalmist knows the experience, and the Resh section (119:153-160) reveals how the psalmist faced the future when his back was to the wall.
The theme of the Resh section is an old one: the psalmist is being opposed and persecuted and chased, and he appeals to God for deliverance and anchors his appeal in his own faithfulness to the Torah. Old themes sometimes reveal fresh light. I hope this one does this week for you.
The psalmist’s back is against the wall — opposed by those opposed to God — and simply faces God and petitions God and pleads his case:
“Look on my misery and rescue me,
for I do not forget your law” (119:153).
He asks God to look; he then asks God to rescue; he then argues his case on the basis of his obedience to the Torah.
Seek the face of God, seek deliverance through God, and keep your integrity. That’s how to face the future when our back is against the wall. He did not plot; he did not scheme; he did not appeal to powers. He faced God, asked for rescue, and kept on going on with what was right.
The psalmist’s back is against the wall. He has faced God, he has asked God for rescue, and he has appealed to his own integrity — that’s 119:153. In v. 154 there is a subtle, revealing development.
“Plead/defend my cause and redeem me” is largely the same as 153a — he faces God, he asks God to redeem (or rescue) him. But notice the following:
“Give me life according to your promise” (154b).
Rescuing and redeeming is understood as “life.”
More importantly, instead of appealing to his own integrity, as he does in 153b, in 154b he asks God to preserve his life “according to your promise.” The uttered word of God, the promise that God would be Israel’s God (as Israel remained faithful), is the foundation of his longing for life.
Covenant faithfulness is what he appeals to with God. He thinks his life should be preserved in order to demonstrate to the world that God is faithful to his covenant words of promise.
Are we this theological? This protective of God’s glory? This protective of God’s reputation? This protective of God’s covenant words of promise? Do we want deliverance in order to bring glory to God or to save our own skin?
When your back is against the wall you know have to know not only where to look (to God) but also where not to look — and the psalmist explores that in vv. 155, 157-158. Here are his words:
155 Salvation is far from the wicked,
for they do not seek your statutes.
157 Many are my persecutors and my adversaries,
yet I do not swerve from your decrees.
158 I look at the faithless with disgust,
because they do not keep your commands.
He names them for what they are: “wicked” (reshaim), “persecutors” and “adversaries,” and he sees them as “faithless” (from bagal — treacherous, deceitful).
He knows their behaviors: “they do not seek your statutes” and “they do not keep your commands”.
He knows what he must do — stay the course by looking to God, trusting in God, and observing the Torah and avoid the course of action his enemies have chosen.
As with vv. 153, 154, the psalmist’s plea is very simple and clear. We find it in vv. 156 and 159:
156 “Great is your mercy, O LORD;
give me life according to your justice.
159 Consider how I love your precepts;
preserve my life according to your steadfast love.”
He wants to live; he wants to survive; and he is begging God for life.
Now his life is under threat evidently because he was faithful to the Torah and probably not a little courageous in pointing out that others were not faithful to the Torah. His compassion for his enemies is well known.
Perhaps our backs are against the wall because of health or because of age or because we’ve done something unwise; maybe we are asking God to bail us out. We may even think we deserve our backs to be against the wall.
Still, the one committed to God is encouraged by this psalm to face God, petition God, and appeal to God’s saving mercies on the basis of God’s covenant faithfulness. And to do so not only that basis but also because we have ourselves been faithful.
The psalmist wants to be delivered because God is just — which means God will render judgment in favor of the weak and oppressed and poor and faithful. And because of God’s steadfast love … for the same group. Those who love the precepts of the Lord, who delight in his will and long to do it.
The focal point of this psalmist, a fella who has his back against the wall and is surrounded by those who want to do him in, is this:
The sum of your word is truth;
and every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever.
It is no wonder that the rabbis love this psalm; it is Torah-centric.
The “sum” or other ideas connected to this term (rosh): tip of a mountain, top of the tower, top of the mast or tree, the ears of a corn, the chief of a nation or group, the best… etc..
The whole is put together into this one word: God’s Word is Truth; everything God says is eternally true. God can do no other.
For that reason, the psalmist faces God with his back against the wall, pleas with God, and asks God to preserve his life.