God’s Wisdom in a Culture of Unbelief: Psalm 119:81-104 (Kaph, Lamedh, and Mem)


July 9, 2017

A note to readers: Today’s post is part of a Sunday Voice Series by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, a close friend, mentor and colleague of mine. He serves as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary among other posts he holds across the global church. This Sunday Voice Series will cover the Psalms, beginning to end, by focusing on a Psalm each Sunday. I can’t tell you how excited I am for his interest in contributing here. This will be a huge blessing to us all.

Psalm 119:17-32 (NIV)

My soul faints with longing for your salvation,
but I have put my hope in your word.
My eyes fail, looking for your promise;
I say, “When will you comfort me?”
Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke,
I do not forget your decrees.
How long must your servant wait?
When will you punish my persecutors?
The arrogant dig pits to trap me,
contrary to your law.
All your commands are trustworthy;
help me, for I am being persecuted without cause.
They almost wiped me from the earth,
but I have not forsaken your precepts.
In your unfailing love preserve my life,
that I may obey the statutes of your mouth.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
therefore I hate every wrong path.


Psalm 119, as with the psalter in general, rarely speaks about loving and following the way of righteousness without acknowledging the ever-present foes and enemies who are arrayed against us. Another way of saying this is that the psalms in the Bible are highly contextual songs, always seeking to show how our lives are interacting with and responding to the larger circle of opposition and unbelief that is around us. This is in stark contrast to many of our hymns and choruses, which are non-contextual; i.e. they are detached acts of praise, lifted up before God in what appears to be a surprising isolation from any reference to the surrounding climate of unbelief and even animosity against the things of God in the culture in which we live.

The reason for this is that most of the hymns and choruses that we sing were written by western Christians between the 18th and 20th centuries. That period often found Christians more at the center of cultural life than on the margins. Christians were more likely to enjoy political enfranchisement than disenfranchisement. In such a situation, the larger “context” of the world doesn’t seem appreciably different from the context of the church. However, in the 21st century, such a view is no longer tenable. The songs of the 21st century, therefore, will probably sound a lot more like the psalms, which were born out of the ever present reality of opposition and cultural fragility that was a regular feature of Israelite life.

The particular three stanzas that are the focus of this devotional have a stronger emphasis on foes and enemies than we have seen so far. Such references have not been absent from the earlier sections. One of the more poignant passages can be found between 69 and 71: The wicked have “smeared me with lies” and “their hearts are callous and unfeeling,” declares the psalmist. Nevertheless, he not only keeps his focus on God’s law, but even sees the redemptive nature of suffering in verse 71: “It was good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees.”

This theme begins to heighten, however, in the three sections of this meditation. The images are graphic. His enemies are like smoke which surrounds him (vs. 83). The arrogant dig pits and lay snares for him to fall into (vv. 85, 110). His affliction has brought him to the point of perishing (vs. 92). Yet, in the midst of all of this, he remembers the everlasting, steadfast purposes of God: “Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (vs. 89). Despite the afflictions, rejection and unbelief that besets him on every side, he steadfastly remembers that God’s “commands are trustworthy” (vs. 86) and his laws “endure” (vs. 91).

We live in a time of ever-increasing hostility to the clear teachings of God’s word. It is bad enough to witness the decay of the surrounding culture, but to see even the church losing its resolve to trust in God’s word can be very disheartening. There are times when you may feel like the psalmist when he declared that, “the wicked are waiting to destroy me” (vs. 95). In such times as this, Psalm 119 can be a great source of encouragement for us. It reminds us anew of the importance of loving God’s word and meditating on it all day long (vs. 97), knowing that in the end, God will vindicate and rescue those who have trusted in his word.

This section of Psalm 119 goes beyond just assuring us that God is our defense. It actually tells us that we should have confidence in interacting with our friends, co-workers, family members and neighbors who do not believe the gospel. We are encouraged that if we meditate upon God’s word, we will be “wiser than our enemies” (vs. 98). We will have more understanding than “all our teachers” or “the elders” (vv. 99, 100). With God’s revelation inside of us, we should be men and women of wisdom and insight.


Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.