Affliction in Psalm 119
R. V. Court, Bristol, England
It is not known who wrote this psalm, but clearly the author was a man who loved God's law. He revelled in it: he could speak of his delight in it, vv. 16, 24, 35, 47, etc., his love for it, vv. 47, 48, 97, 113, etc., his determination to obey it whatever the consequences, vv. 44, 57, 69, 101, etc., and his conviction of its complete trustworthiness, vv. 138, 144, 152, 160, etc. He could also speak of enemies who were enemies because of his faithfulness to God's law, vv. 51, 61, 69, 78, etc.
It is likely that the compilation of this psalm covers a long period, and embraces many different experiences. There are times when the writer is spiritually on the top of the mountain and times when he is in the valley of testing and disappointment.
In the study of the psalm there are many lines of truth which can be followed but our purpose in this article is limited to the psalmist's references (there are seven of them) to affliction. It is important to notice that faithfulness to God's Word, which was definitely manifested in this man, does not guarantee exemption from this. We are reminded of the words of the Lord Jesus to His disciples, "In the world ye shall have tribulation".
We shall not consider the references to affliction in the order in which they occur in the psalm, but try to answer some questions about the whole matter of the vexed question of affliction by the child of God. We may not get a full answer to all our questions, but it may be that in our meditation we shall discover and gladly acknowledge that our God "doeth all things well".
The First Question.Why should there be affliction for one who is seeking to obey the laws of the Lord? Why is it permitted? The psalmist gives three answers: (i) "I went astray", v. 67. (ii) "Thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me", v. 75. (iii) "It is good for me", v. 71. Let us look closer at these verses. "Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now I have kept thy word", v. 67. It is interesting that in v. 65 the psalmist had written, "Thou hast dealt well with thy servant". So it is extremely unlikely that v. 67 was written in a spirit of criticism. Let us bring the verses together, "Thou hast dealt well with me-I was afflicted". Does the second part of v. 67 indicate why the affliction had come? "Now I have kept thy word" : does the word "now" imply that there had been a departure from the word?, that is, a going his own way, or, to use his own words, "I went astray". We are justified here in referring to David's experience recorded in Psalm 32. 3-5. He kept silence; he would not acknowledge his sin in relation to Bathsheba and Uriah, and in consequence the hand of the Lord was upon him physically, and this persisted until "I acknowledged my sin unto thee ... and thou forgavest". Psalm 32 ends with, "Be glad in the Lord and rejoice". So David also could say, "I went astray, but now ... ".
Verse 75 again traces the affliction back to God. "I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me". There was a "must" about it, and this man, in his attempt to find an answer to his "why?" looked at the "judgments" of the Lord. As he thought of the character of God, he had come to the conclusion that there was nothing else that his Lord could have done. He had obviously departed from His right judgments, therefore they must be vindicated. He saw that the character of God was such that He could not close His eyes to his own defection. He realized, too, that God's faithfulness to him demanded that some action to check him must be taken. In the day of a clearer revelation, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews could say, "whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth", Heb. 12. 6.
"It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes", v. 71. It is an evidence of spiritual maturity when the believer can look back over a period of testing, a period of darkness and perplexity, and say, "Thank You, Lord, that was good for me". Spiritual growth has been the outcome as it was intended. The hymn writer expressed it well when he wrote, "for in love and not in anger all His chastenings will come". Why do they come? "That I might learn thy statutes". When we sing, "Teach me Thy way, 0 Lord, teach me Thy way", are we ready to accept that in order to answer that prayer it may be necessary for the Lord to lead us into strange and difficult experiences? Of course the psalmist is looking back as he pens these words, for the affliction was past. In the midst of the experience, he probably found little enjoyment, but he is now looking back, grateful for what God has done for him through it, and strengthened for the days ahead.
The Second Question.From whom does the affliction come? We have already considered verse 75, where the writer plainly states "thou ... hast afflicted me". He is speaking to the Lord. In verse 107, he speaks in general terms, "I am afflicted very much", but there is little doubt that the truth that he had uttered in verse 75 is still with him. The affliction may be of such a nature, or of such frequency, that the description "very much" is justified. But however great it may be it is well to recognize that underlying it all is God's purpose of grace, and over it all is God's control. Let us look beyond the circumstances to the One who works "all things after the counsel of his own will", Eph. 1.11. God may use the most unusual agents, but never at any time are they allowed to go beyond the limits imposed by His sovereign will. This may be illustrated by Paul's experience spoken of in 2 Corinthians 12. 7. To keep Paul humble after amazing revelations, God gave him a "thorn in the flesh", described as "the messenger of Satan". The context makes it plain that God was in supreme control, even as He permitted the malignant power of the evil one to afflict His child. The psalmist, for one, had learned a great and valuable lesson: "thou ... hast afflicted me".
The Third Question.What support is provided, in the day of affliction? Verse 50 replies, "This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me", and verse 92 states, "Unless thy law had been my delights, I should then have perished in mine affliction". "Thy word", "thy law". Is he thinking of God's promises as he speaks of "thy word" ? Is he confident that God can never break His word? As he speaks of "thy law", is he remembering that what God has enacted must be fulfilled? We at any rate can take the Word of God in our hands, and know that whatever may come to us by way of experience, that Word contains all the guidance and comfort that we need to see us through. How often the child of God in a perplexing situation has turned to the Bible, and through it has discovered God's word for the need of the moment, and as the psalmist said, "thy word hath quickened me". Surely in verse 92 this man of God is simply saying, "Lord, if I had not had Your word to rest upon, I should have been completely shattered". Yes, God (in His love) may send the affliction, but it is through His word that He strengthens us in the experience.
The Fourth Question.How long will the affliction last? There can be only one answer: as long as a loving God deems necessary, and not one moment longer. In v. 153, the psalmist says, "Consider mine affliction, and deliver me". We cannot doubt that this is just what God does, He considers the affliction. Without arbitrariness, the affliction is balanced in the light of the need for it. We would say that the affliction is weighed exactly. We rest assured that the One who does not "willingly afflict the children of men" will adjust the affliction, when it comes, to that which His child is able to bear, 1 Cor 10. 13, and will terminate it immediately His purpose is accomplished. When the Lord of the church says, "thou shalt have tribulation ten days", Rev. 2. 10, no power on earth can make it eleven.
Though He may send some affliction,
Twill but make me long for home,
For in love and not in anger
All His chastenings will come.