We are quick to want practical solutions and speedy resolutions to our afflictions. Instead, God often makes us wait, depriving us of what we want, and of the power to achieve it. Why? Simply so that he can gives us himself. Is this enough?
What follows is a short theological and ethical meditation on the ninth stanza of Psalm 119 (vv. 65-72),1 focusing on the theme of goodness. It aims to persuade us that the goodness of God is what we truly need, and deep down what we truly desire, when our instincts don’t mislead us. It’s also a small attempt in an ongoing campaign to persuade us of the benefit of attending to the theos in theology and the theo-logic in theological ethics.
My translation is clunky, because I have tried to approximate the Hebrew word order (initial tet words are indicated by italics). Doing so gives some sense of how the stanza emphasises the theme of goodness,2 as does my decision to translate tov uniformly as ‘good’, even when both commitments lead to less than idiomatic English.
65 Good you have done to your servant,
Yhwh, according to your word.
66 Good sense and understanding teach me,3
for in your commandments I trust.
67 Before I was wretched, I was going astray,
but now your utterance I keep.
68 Good you are, and good you do;
teach me your statutes.
69 They smear me, the arrogant, with lies;
I with my whole heart observe your precepts
70 Thick like fat their hearts;
I in your teaching delight.
71 Good to me that I was humiliated,
that I might learn your statutes.
72 Good to me the instruction of your mouth,
more than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
The theme of the stanza is clearly goodness (Heb. tov x6, five of which are the first word of a line): God’s goodness, the goodness of his works, the goodness of his Word, the goodness of his dealings with the psalmist.
Let’s begin by noting the psalmist’s situation, which seems far from good. The arrogant (haughty, proud, insolent) are smearing him with lies (v. 69a). It’s as though they’re covering him with plaster, so when everyone else sees him, all they see is the lies, which utterly contradict the truth of his heart (v. 69b). A false public persona has been created for him by their lies.
In reality, the psalmist is wholehearted in observing Yhwh’s teaching, in which he delights (v. 69-70; cf. Ps 1:2). This contrasts starkly with the arrogant; their hearts are thick, as if coated with a coarse layer of fat: insensate, unfeeling, atrophied. The structure of verses 69-70, which combines parallelism and chiasmus, emphasises the contrast:
my (whole) heart
Their hearts (like fat)
The final verse, in which Yhwh’s instruction is contrasted with large financial resources, perhaps implies that the arrogant have access to great wealth (cf. Ps 4:7), and so to power, security and influence.
Things look bad. But the psalmist’s great comfort is the goodness of God, which is the source of all goodness, and which reframes the psalmist’s painful situation as, ultimately, for his good.
The theological heart of the stanza is verse 68a: Good you are and good you do. It takes remarkable maturity to pray this in the middle of painful trials. And yet it is the only solid bedrock when we are buffeted by afflictions.
The source of all the psalmist’s comfort is contemplation of God in himself. (This contemplative knowledge is what God’s redemptive revelation of himself in his Word and his works in history is designed to give us.) God has done good to his servant because he is good. As Christ teaches, no one is good except God alone (Mk 10:18). So we should not be surprised when we encounter evil and tragedy in this life. But wonderfully—whatever our circumstances seem to tell us—God, the One who transcends all the contingencies of life in this world, is good a se, good in and of himself. He is good essentially, perfectly, infinitely, immutably. He is the good of all good, the cause of all goodness, a vast ocean of goodness far beyond our imagining or our need. In and of himself, God is preeminently delightful, honourable and desirable. Contemplating his perfect goodness is therefore the antidote we need to the stressful, painful wickedness of the insolent.
But God’s goodness a se is not ‘self-enclosed or self-revolving’.4 Good you are and good you do. In the words of John of Damascus:
Since, then, God, who is good and more than good, did not find satisfaction in self-contemplation, but in his exceeding goodness wished certain things to come into existence which would enjoy his benefits and share in his goodness, he brought all things out of nothing into being and created them.5
God is good and more than good, and his goodness is exceeding goodness. Therefore, he is gracious towards us. Having no lack or need in himself, in his sheer goodness, he freely brings us into being that we may share and take delight in his goodness.
Because he is good, all God’s works are good. Creation is from nothing, meaning that all things owe their being exclusively to him. Therefore, all that God created was good and very good (Gen. 1). Similarly, as God governs his creation, he sustains it in goodness insofar as it exists and is directed to the end he has ordained for it in his Son.
But before they had fully enjoyed the good God and his good creation, our first parents wrongly evaluated a created good (Gen 3:6). They desired it above the good God. They stole it, and they declined God’s gift of himself in his surpassing goodness. And so, in Adam, we turned from goodness and declined into evil and corruption. Our foolish hearts were darkened and hardened: thick like fat.
But God is unchangeably good, impassibly surpassing any damage or change from our sin. And so the good God continued to display his goodness in his love for his creation—faithfully sustaining it in being, governing and directing it towards its good end in his Son, through the history of the covenant as it climaxed in our redemption.
The coming of the Lord Jesus was the appearing of the goodness (chrēstotēs; the same word as in Ps 119:65-72, LXX) and loving kindness (philanthrōpia) of God our Saviour (Titus 3:4). As Very God of Very God, the incarnate Son simply is the goodness and loving kindness of God. As Very Man, he is the perfect embodiment of human goodness. Christ’s appearing was not just another, greater, external work of God’s goodness; rather, it was the appearing and presence of the good God himself, full of grace and truth. This appearing was in the midst of, and in stark contrast to, the folly, malice, envy, hatred, disobedience of the world, which once was also ours: the evil that dominated and governed our lives in Adam (Titus 3:3).
But God saved us, not because of any works done by us in righteousness, but because of his mercy (v. 5), which is his goodness reaching out and down to sinners. He washed us with the regeneration and renewal of his Holy Spirit, so that rising from the waters, we might be a new creation in Christ. He justified us, not because of our goodness, but graciously, in the righteousness of his Son, which is his goodness as it conformed perfectly to God’s perfect righteous law. And so, in his Son, by his Spirit, we hear the Father’s declaration regarding us: behold, my son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased (cf. Matt. 3:17)—God sees what he has remade, from the nothingness of wickedness and corruption, and because it is his work, and his alone, behold, it is very good.
God is good. Therefore, all his works are good. More specifically, though, in this stanza of Psalm 119, within the circle of fellowship established by God’s good works in creation and redemption, he continues to do good to us.
First, he does good to us by teaching us. Scripture is not merely human words; it is his Word; it comes from his mouth (v. 72). There’s something vivid about this—to hear Scripture is not just to read words on a page, it is to be in the presence of Christ our Teacher as he talks directly to us by his Spirit in his inscripturated words. In the reading and preaching of Scripture we are hearing words directly from our Saviour’s mouth. As the Word of the good God, God’s Word is good, and not just in the abstract: read and received in faith, it is ‘good to me’ and utterly delightful (vv. 72, 70). The good Word of the good God is an incomparable treasure (cf. Ps. 19:11): far better than millions in a bank account, financial stability and security, large church budgets and staff teams, friendship with wealthy donors, power and influence through trusts and patronage.
Money, in its right place, is a genuine creaturely good: necessary and useful. But as Christian ethics has always known, goods of the body (health, strength) are far better and more desirable than external goods (money, power). And goods of the soul (virtue, holiness) are far better and more desirable than goods of the body. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? (Mk 8:36). But infinitely surpassing even these is the good God himself, who is the sum of all good and the source and end of all created goods. For from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom 11:36). And therefore, his good Word is greatly to be desired, for by it God communicates his goodness to all who receive it in repentance and faith.6 And so, in his afflictions, the psalmist delights in God’s Word with all his heart.
Secondly, God is good to us in afflicting us (v. 71; cf. 67). It’s good to be made weak and wretched, to be humiliated (cf. 2 Corinthians!). This is a hard lesson to learn, one entirely counter to all our instincts, and mostly lost on those who lust for power and influence and success, and for the company and esteem of those who have these things. But without affliction, we are prone, in Cranmer’s words, to err and stray like lost sheep, following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. In God’s goodness, affliction faithfully received changes this (NB: ‘Before’ v. 67). Humiliation, including being plastered with lies by the powerful, is God’s goodness and loving kindness in action, because it re-shapes our hearts. It trains us not to value the insolent, haughty proud, and the things they value—their wealth and power, their patronage and friendship and favour—and instead to delight in, cling to, learn and keep God’s commandments.
And so, God’s goodness, available to us in his Son, enacted for us in his works, delivered to us by his Word, finds its terminus—via our recreation and re-ordering away from the paths of evil into his good paths—in trusting, loving and hoping in the triune God and his perfect goodness, rather than the ways, the respect and the company of the insolent.
1 Psalm 119 is an acrostic, with 22 stanzas of eight lines each. Within a stanza, each line begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in this case the letter tet.
2 My attention was drawn to this, and to some of the themes in this post, by Oliver O’Donovan in his lecture ‘Good, Doing Good, and the Goods’.
3 More idiomatically: ‘Teach me good sense and understanding…’; it is a request to Yhwh for teaching, not a statement that good sense and understanding are the psalmist’s teachers.
4 John Webster, ‘Life in and of Himself’ in God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume I: God and the Works of God (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 24.
5 John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II.2, quoted in Webster, ‘Life’, 24.
6 ‘communicates’ here bears its fullest sense: not simply the giving of information, but the actual imparting, bestowing, and sharing in common (communion in) God’s goodness.