How to Get Over Your Fear of Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is a bit like a Munro on the Isle of Skye. Any Christian can look from a distance and recognise the beauty and majesty of the Psalm. However, when we actually try to read the Psalm, or appropriate its sentiment, we often wear out quickly and end up giving up. If we actually make it all of the way through the Psalm, we feel fatigued at the end, having trodden one ridge after another without taking in much of what we have passed.

Yet, length and repetition are not the only difficulties that we encounter as we read the longest chapter in the Bible. There is also the challenge of knowing what to do with the Psalmist’s intense passion for laws, statutes, precepts, and commands. Very few of us relish the seasons of our Bible reading plans when we are led into the wilderness of Leviticus or Deuteronomy. We cannot sincerely say that “I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies as much as in all riches” (Ps. 119:14). Although we can appreciate the personal devotion of the Psalmist to God, this intimate love often appears tediously bundled with an appetite for laws and commands that – if we are honest – not many of us share.

What should we do with such struggles? How can we imbibe the spiritual passion of Psalm 119 without our joy feeling somewhat suffocated by the rigidity and formalism of a relationship defined by law?

The Power of Seeing Christ as Mediator

The shift between the old and new covenants is a shift of mediation. Whereas under the Old Covenant, the people of God had Sinai standing between God and them, under the New Covenant we now have Christ in the middle. No longer is our relationship with God depicted by tablets of law; rather, we now know God and relate to Him in and through the person of His Son. Jesus himself is our prophet, priest, and king. All of our devotion to God now has Christ in view. Every command, as it were, is now a command from the mouth of Jesus. To obey God is to obey Christ. In each step of faithful obedience, we serve the one who served us. Our king and lawgiver is also our redeemer and high priest.

This covenantal shift is significant in terms of transposing the spirituality of Psalm 119. As we read the Psalm, we need to take all of the devotion that an Israelite would have directed toward the Torah and redirect it toward the person of Christ. We still live under authority just as they did. There is no such thing as “autonomy” or “independence” in our relationship with God. Yet, our submission is not focused on a set of rules, but rather on a living Saviour. Even the commandments now lead us to the pierced feet of our commander. We don’t just worship the God who redeemed us from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; we worship a God who redeemed us from Hell with arms outstretched on a cross and hands fixed by nails.

Reading Psalm 119 with Christ in View

Now, in my experience, Psalm 119 takes on fresh beauty and life when we begin to read the Psalm, not just as a script of general devotion to God, but as a script of particular devotion to Christ. The way to do this is by inserting the name of Christ each time we read of testimonies, of laws, or of statutes. In others words, don’t let the law of God be the primary object in sight as the Psalm is read. Let each mention of the law lead you to the mediator of the new covenant, Jesus himself.

Here is a sample of what I mean. Imagine reading Psalm 119 in the following way: 

Blessed are the undefiled in the way [of Christ],

Who walk in the law of the LORD!

Blessed are those who keep the testimonies [of Jesus],

Who seek [the Lord Jesus Christ] with the whole heart!…

[Jesus] You have commanded us

To keep Your precepts diligently.

Oh, that my ways were directed to keep your statutes!

The power of this method of reading the Psalm is that, rather than the emphasis on law distracting us from Christ, the emphasis on law now leads us back to Christ. We are reminded that, if Christ is king, we are indeed under his authority and owe him obedience. Yet, all of such submission and obedience is aimed toward the one who shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Psalm 119, in effect, becomes a love poem to Christ. We don’t just rejoice in the law of God as distinct from Jesus; we rejoice in the law of God as an opportunity to show love and gratitude to Jesus.

Do you struggle to maintain a sense of close and intimate communion with Christ? If so, try reading Psalm 119 – not as an expression of love for the law of God – but as an expression of love for the Son of God. You may find that familiar words take on a whole new world of meaning. You might just discover that, rather than looking at the Psalm as if it were a beautiful but intimating mountain in the distance, you feel reinspired to go out and experience its lofty peaks of devotion yourself.

By Joe Barnard