Read Part 1.
An Urgent Petition: “seek your servant”
Basically, this is a prayer for spiritual restoration. The psalmist has strayed from the “paths of righteousness,” and he cries out for the Great Shepherd to rescue him. He wants forgiveness, and he wants to know again the joy of his salvation. As he makes his petition he’s conscious of at two realities:
He Needs Grace
He’s pleads for God’s gracious intervention: “seek your servant.” He not only acknowledges his wayward heart, but he confesses his own inability to do anything about it (cf. 33-37). Taken together, the psalmist’s confession and petition are very similar to a prayer of Saint Augustine: “Lord, to sin I am able. But I am not able to return.” This is the prayer of a man who puts no confidence in the flesh but whose trust is in the Lord.
He Knows God
At the same time, he’s conscious of an abiding relationship with God: “seek your servant.” In spite of his sin, he still views himself as God’s servant. Keep in mind that this is not a new Christian. This is a mature saint who in spite of all his knowledge and experience has fallen once again into sin. But he does not conclude from his waywardness that he mustn’t be a Christian. He doesn’t conclude that since he has fallen again that he must not be saved. Apparently, the psalmist believed that it was possible to be a genuine saint, and yet commit sin. Though he’s gone astray, yet he remains God’s servant.
A Bold Argument: “for I do not forget your commandments.”
The Psalmist uses this last phrase as an argument to strengthen his petition. Why should God have mercy and restore him to paths of righteousness? “For I do not forget your commandments.” What’s he saying?
What he’s not saying
To begin with, he’s not making contradictory statements. He’s not saying, “I have gone astray; but I have not gone astray.” He’s not a spiritual schizophrenic. Second, he is not weighing his good deeds with his bad deeds. That is, he’s not arguing that God should restore him because his righteousness outweighs his sinfulness. He’s not suggesting that he somehow deserves to be restored. Third, he’s not merely referring to retentive memory. He’s not saying, “Lord, even though I’ve disobeyed your word, I still remember the verses I memorized in Sunday School.”
What he is saying
The Psalmist is simply asserting that he had not apostatized from God and His covenant. Several OT passages indicate that “to forget God and His commandments” is to break covenant with the one, true God, and to go after false gods. Consider, for example, a passage from Psalm 44:
All this [judgment] has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way; yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God discover this? (Ps 44:17-21; see also Deut 6:12-16; 8:11-20; Pss 44:17-21; 103:17-18).
Similarly, the Psalmist is in no way trying to deny or to minimize his sin. To the contrary, he’s honestly confessed his sin. Yet in spite of his sin, he still views himself as God’s servant, and he still views himself in covenant relation with his God. In doing so, the Psalmist reminds us of a biblical reality: Genuine saints are still real sinners.
What are some lessons we can draw from the teaching of this text?
A Call to Realism
After his famous stand against the Pope and the Emperor at the Diet of Worms, Luther had to go into hiding. For several months he remained hidden away in the Wartburg Castle, where he worked on translating the Bible into German and writing books. While Luther was in hiding, his good friend Philip Melanthon wrote a letter to him, praising Luther for his great service on behalf of the church. To which, Luther made the following reply:
You elevate me too high, and fall into the serious error of giving me too much credit, as if I were absorbed in God’s cause. This high opinion of yours confounds and racks me, when I see myself insensible, hardened, sunk in idleness, alas! seldom in prayer, and not venting one groan over God’s Church [This is the man who sometimes spent the first three hours of the day in prayer!]. My unsubdued flesh burns me with devouring fire. In short, I, who ought to be eaten up with the spirit, am devoured by the flesh, by luxury, by idleness, by sloth, and by sleep.
That’s the real Martin Luther—a great Christian man, and yet a man who sometimes had to confess that he had gone astray. Of course, we’re tempted to explain away such confessions as mere pious expressions of humility. Like Migel Cabrera who won the Triple Crown batting award saying, “I’m not that good of a baseball player.” Or, more to our point, like Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15, where he claims to be the “Chief of sinners.” We read that and say, “Yea, right, Paul. You’re really not that bad.”
But if Luther or Paul were here today, they’d look us in the eye and declare, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death.” They wouldn’t deny the reality of grace and a changed life, but they would also remind us that genuine saints still commit sin. As Bridges puts it in his comments on this text: “And thus will our Christian progress be chequered until we reach the regions of unmixed praise.”5 Oh that we might have such a passion for God’s Word!6
A Call to Humility
This reality calls us to an ongoing dependence upon God’s grace, as we work out our salvation. It does not matter how long we’ve been a Christian, how well we know our Bible, how many resolutions we’ve made—we will never get beyond the reach of temptation and sin. We will never rise above the need for God’s grace. We will always have to confess with Saint Augustine: “Lord, to sin I am able. But I am not able to return.” There’s no room for pride or self-sufficiency. “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). No one is a saint by his own doing. We are what we are by the grace of God.
A Call to Graciousness
This verse not only assures us that genuine Christians do sin. It reminds us that even godly Christians can go astray. Therefore, when we see one another’s sins, let’s make sure that’s not all we see. Let’s remember that every true Christian can be viewed as a covenant-keeping servant of the living God though at times he may “go astray like a lost sheep.”
In my experience as a Christian and as a pastor, I’ve found that Christians often have an easier time doing this with themselves than with one another. When their sins are in view, they would have others view their sins as “struggles,” “immaturities,” and “shortcomings.” However, when someone has sinned against them—it may be the very same kind of sin they’ve committed—but it’s viewed in a whole different light! “Oh, that’s terrible what he’s done to me. It’s unthinkable! How can he be a real believer!”
I’m not suggesting that we lower God’s standard for holiness. I’m simply urging us to remember that we should be more gracious and patient with others since we sometimes fail to meet up to God’s standard too.
A Call to Prayer
The teaching of this text invites all sinners to come to God’s throne of grace in time of need. Psalm 119:176 is part of special revelation. As such it reveals, in the language of the Catechism, not only “what God requires of us,” but also “who God is.” According to our text, God is a God who listens to sinners. He is a God who’s in the business of forgiveness and restoration. God is the Good Shepherd who in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, calls unto sinners like you and me, and says, “Come unto Me all you that are weak and heavy laden with guilt and misery, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
5 An Exposition of Psalm 119 (Banner of Truth, 1987), 481.
6 I develop this theme at some length in my analysis of the patriarchal narratives in Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with a Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2009).
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.