Reminders of Direction
121 I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors. 122 Ensure your servant’s well-being; do not let the arrogant oppress me. 123 My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise. 124 Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. 125 I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. 126 It is time for you to act, Lord; your law is being broken. 127 Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, 128 and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.
I read a book recently by Tod Bolsinger that noted some interesting historical information about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Meriwether Lewis was commissioned by president Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana purchase. The first thing Lewis did was to ask William Clark to join and co-lead his Corps of Discovery. Together, Lewis and Clark set about their famous adventure in hopes of finding the elusive Northwest Passage. Up to this point in pioneer exploration it was still assumed that there would be a water route somewhere through the American frontier that would connect to the Pacific Ocean. That was Jefferson’s hope in making the Louisiana purchase; and that was the ultimate goal of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
And so, the Corps of Discovery set about their way up the Mississippi River and on up the Missouri River in the assumption that eventually they would come upon the headwaters of the Missouri River and reach the continental divide. They assumed they would be able to portage their canoes and supplies over some hills that made up the continental divide and find a river that then flowed west and would lead them to the Pacific.
What Lewis and Clark did not expect was the Rocky Mountains. Their mission to explore the territory of the Louisiana purchase continued. But their assumed method of exploration by boat over a water route went out the window. Without a river to continue following, they were lost for direction. It was a young Native American mother, Sacagawea, who became their guide through this new and unfamiliar land in which they came unprepared and were ill-equipped to make their way through.
There are a few details in this story that come to Meriwether Lewis’ credit. It shows that Lewis was a man who had the humility to know when he needed help. When Lewis first asked William Clark to join and co-lead his expedition, it was with the assumption that Clark would be an equal with Lewis in the chain of command—that they would set about this task as a team. And so, Lewis requested of the army that Clark be assigned to the exact same rank as he was—that of an army captain. The army refused. But Lewis went ahead and treated Clark as a fellow-captain anyway. Everyone who went along in the army Corps of Discovery never knew the difference. Lewis always treated Clark as someone equal in rank with his own authority, and so everyone else on the expedition treated Clark with that same level of authority as well.
And once the group found themselves so far beyond the boundaries of anything they planned for, Lewis and Clark both recognized that they needed help. They put the direction for the entire mission in their dependence upon Sacagawea to guide them.
Lewis still had a very distinguished mission and task given to him by the President of the United States. But he also recognized his position of humility in seeking the assistance of others in order to accomplish that mission. Lewis and Clark’s search for direction in order to find their way was a search that hinged upon knowing their surroundings, and knowing their place within those surroundings, and knowing when they needed help to keep their direction within those surroundings.
Something like that is taking place in today’s section of Psalm 119. It is a reminder of our direction. But more than a reminder of simple direction, it is also a reminder of all the nuances that make our direction more clear. I’ve marked it out for you again by highlighting certain parts of these verses in your outline. In particular, notice that there is an opening verse, then a sequence of contrasts in the next four verses (which we will work through), then a conclusion in the last three verses.
The bookends of this passage are a set-up. I have done what is righteous and just…I hate every wrong path. Maybe it seems on those two phrases alone that the Psalmist is making a bit of an arrogant boast in this passage. But the details that come in between these opening and closing statements helps us understand the exaltation behind these statements is not pointed at himself.
Let’s look at the highlights and see the wordplay happening in these next few verses. Thankfully, the English keeps track of the a pretty similar word order as the original Hebrew so we can see the back-and-forth nature of these verses much like the Hebrew language presents it as well. The difference in Hebrew is that so many of these words in this section of Psalm 119 all begin with the same letter (ayin). It recites out loud almost like a Dr. Seuss tongue twister.
In verses 122-125 there is a call to action that is stated in four different ways. And each statement of this call to action is separated by the same identifying title. Look at the structure. It is a call to action, your servant, call to action, your servant, call to action, your servant, call to action. The repetition of the same Hebrew word between each one of these calls to action forms a foundation for this action. The Hebrew word ebed is translated into English as “your servant.” It is the declaration of the author that he knows his place before God in all of this. It is not a title of servant that is temporary or fluctuating. It is not as though the Psalmist is saying to God, I owe you one. No. This is the title for servant that is also a reference to slavery. This is the author’s way of declaring before God that he knows and remembers his place. God is always and forever the master. The Psalmist humbly pledges his loyalty to the authority of his master.
But even so, look at the boldness, then, in these four calls to action. Ensure your servant’s well-being, deal with your servant according to your love, teach me your decrees, give me discernment. For the guy who is the slave addressing the master, he certainly seems to be coming before God with a pretty absolute list of demands. This might not be the typically expected behavior from the servant towards the master. Or is it?
Perhaps this whole section of Psalm 119 is more of a declaration concerning the servant/master relationship. Or better yet, the servant/master contract. What exactly is the Psalmist asking God to do for him in this rather bold list of demands? It seems like he is asking God to remind him of his own place as the servant. He is returning to an awareness of his surroundings. He is saying to God, do the things that masters should do for their servants. Masters should ensure the well-being of their servants. Masters should deal with their servants gently and according to love. Masters should teach their servants what their decrees are. Everything about this section of Psalm 119 reinforces that master/servant relationship. Everything about these verses shows a declaration from the author in which he affirms that he knows his place, he is mindful of his surroundings. He knows that without the aid of his master, he is lost and without direction.
And so, going on to verse 126, the author says it is time for God to act. His law is being broken. God, it is time to do something about this. It is time to show up and make good on your promises. He wants God to act. It is true enough that in other Psalms the author asks for victory over his enemies. Or maybe the author asks God to wipe out and defeat all of his enemies. And although the Psalmist here in these verses makes a reference to those who oppress him, the specific actions he is demanding of God in these verses are not actions of vengeance against his enemies. Rather, he wants God to take action now by doing all of the things highlighted in verses 122-125.
He looks around and sees violence and oppression all around him. Everywhere he sees people who have no regard for the decrees of God. And his plea to God in all of this is an appeal for God to remind him of his place as the servant of the Most High God as his master. He needs to be reminded of the direction to which God has called his people in the face of a world which has lost its ways while trying to be our own masters.
We can trace this trajectory all the back to the garden of Eden to the temptation which led to the very first sin. The temptation was to eat the forbidden fruit so that Adam and Eve could be like God in the knowledge of good and evil. You can read all about that in Genesis 3. It was an attempt on the part of Adam and Eve to step out of their role as servants of the creator and instead take over as masters for themselves.
This is a much-needed reminder for us today. We all bump into this same situation today in our world. We all face times in our lives—in fact, we probably face times every week, if not every day—when we want to be the master instead of the servant. I imagine that for many of us this may be rather unintentional. We likely do not have many moments of shaking our fists at God and declaring, I’m in charge now; I’m making my own rules now! We just sort of do it without fully realizing what we are doing. We are bombarded by the temptations every day to make myself the master and to make life about whatever I want it to be.
We lose direction. We lose sight of our surroundings. Maybe we want to hang onto Jesus as savior and hang onto Jesus as friend; but we lose sight of Jesus as master, as rabbi, as Lord.
Today’s reminder from Psalm 119 is a reminder about finding our way back to the direction of a servant.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent we see those reminders coming from Jesus himself. It was Jesus—the master—who stooped down to wash the feet of his own disciples during the last supper. It was Jesus—the Son—who followed the will of the Father all the way to the cross. It is Jesus who reminds us the we are servants of God by serving the needs of others. We are reminded in Lent that the way Jesus chose was the way of a servant. We are reminded of our own direction in this world as a servant.
And our direction as a servant of God begins with a bold call to action lifted up before our master. It is the same call to action that this Psalmist uses to remind him of his own place as the servant of the master. Our call to action should be no less.
God, remind me that I am not my own master. God remind me that I do not make up my own rules. God, remind me that I am not the center of my own universe. God, remind me that I am a servant and that you are the master.
Ensure my well-being. In other words, guide my path that I may not stray from my role and my place as your servant. Keep me from straying.
Deal with me according to your love. In other words, mold and shape my heart and my life in the pattern of your grace.
Teach me your decrees. In other words, reveal your will for our lives through your Word.
Give me discernment to understand your statutes. In other words, let your Holy Spirit speak wisdom into my heart to know how I can follow you.
It is time for you to act, Lord. I want your Word to be more precious and valuable to me than anything else in this world. So, Lord, do this now; do this today. Enfold my life today into all that it means for me to be your servant and for all that it means for me to use every gift and ability that I have for you. Reveal yourself to me and remind me of my place as your servant in this world.
Jesus never turned away from his journey to the cross so that you and I will never be turned away from being received by our master. So, we pray with boldness. We pray that God would act today. We pray with assurance that each one of us comes before God with something meaningful to offer in service to him. We pray with certainty that it is in fact the will of God that he embraces us right now today as his servants in love. God does this for you today so that you may take steps right now today in the direction of a faithful servant to our loving master.