Is Psalm 119 a Love Poem About the Bible? (Part 2)

studyingMy job requires that I leave my home in Pennsylvania to spend part of each week in the Washington metropolitan area. While away from home, I miss my wife. We stay in touch through phone calls, text messages and email. But on the long drive home each Thursday, my greatest desire is to be physically present with her again. Now imagine this. (Disclaimer: The following scene is purely fictitious.) On Thursday night, I walk through the back door into our house. The frantic barking and jumping of our dog has announced my arrival, so Sharon knows that I am there. But she barely acknowledges my presence. She stays seated on the sofa, staring at her iPad, studying a short email message that I had sent her that morning. She is poring over my every word, trying to guess all the thoughts and intentions behind my message. In her creative imaginings, she projects her own thoughts into my words and conjures up some hidden meanings that I never intended to convey. She starts to craft a lengthy, detailed written response that will probably take her several hours to complete before she emails it to me the following morning. I’m thinking, “What the heck is she doing? She’s stressed out and tired, but she still looks incredibly beautiful. Why won’t she stand up and give me a hug? Why won’t she look at me? Why won’t she talk to me?” And she keeps looking down, her eyes glued to that darned iPad…

Some centuries after Psalm 119 was composed, Yahweh burst through our back door. He entered our world to physically insert himself into our history and experience. Our understanding of Psalm 119 will be sub-Christian unless we hold in the forefront of our minds the fact that it was penned in the B.C. era. That was before the shockwave named Jesus started reverberating through the cosmos. That was before anyone could imagine that someone would write (Hebrews 1:1-3):

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

In the centuries before that momentous advent, Yahweh prepared some people for his coming. He communicated with them in their own language. He interacted with them in ways that were culturally appropriate and understandable to inhabitants of the Ancient Near East, through human mediators and laws and rituals (and sometimes even through wars). The most enduring product of this awkward divine-human interaction is a set of diverse literature that, down to this day, shows amazing depth and wisdom and ability to inspire people from all backgrounds and walks of life. By any fair measure, the writings of Scripture are remarkable. Yet they were only a foretaste, a shadow, of the future reality. So when the Apostle Paul was describing Old Testament writings, practices and rituals, he wrote (Colossians 2:17):

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

As the Old Testament was being complied, the descendants of Judah were engaged in an intense struggle regarding their history and purpose. Yahweh had chosen them. The Creator had made his home with them in ways that no other nation could boast. Yet the narratives that shaped their identity – the stories of the patriarchs, of Egypt, Sinai and the wanderings in the desert, the conquest of Canaan, the war and social chaos of Judges, the brief glory of David and Solomon, the turbulent period of kings, the sacking of Northern Israel , the tragic fall of Jerusalem, the exile to Babylon, the anticlimactic return to Judea – were stories of dashed hopes, failure, humiliation and pain. The Psalms provide a remarkable window that into this centuries-long process of national introspection, the wrangling and haggling of a people trying to understand who they were in relation to God

Imagine that you had a radio that allowed you to tune in to the airwaves of Judaism in the centuries before Christ. As you turn the knobs and play with the buttons, you can’t pick up any talk, but you hear plenty of music. What you hear is a mixture of new tunes (new for that time), recent hits, alternative tracks, and golden oldies. One of the first things that you notice is that, unlike our broadcasting stations, theirs don’t classify themselves as religious or secular. There are no stations devoted just to politics, or just to entertainment, or just to news and current events, or just to popular music, or just to worship music. The spheres of human activity that the modern western world likes to keep strictly separate are all mixed up and running together, and the songs that you hear seem to be addressing all of these areas at once. The songs come in a wide variety of styles and genres by artists with various points of view. They are the songs that people sing at home and in public worship, the lyrics running through their heads, the tunes that they whistle as they go about their daily work, the soundtrack that captures the nation the ethos of those times.

That’s what we find in the Psalms.

As N.T. Wright notes in his recent book on the psalms, many of these songs celebrate God’s presence among his people in his Temple at Jerusalem. He writes (chapter 4):

The Temple turns out to be an advance foretaste of YHWH’s claim on the whole of creation. We are to see the Temple as establishing, so to speak, a bridgehead for God’s own presence within a world that has very determinedly gone its own way. It is a sign that the creator God is desiring not to provide a way to escape from the world (though it may sometimes feel like that) but to recreate the world from within, to set up a place within his creation where his glory will be revealed and his powerful judgments unveiled.

Other psalms express the dismay and agony of God’s people as they saw Solomon’s Temple sacked and destroyed. We cannot overstate how deeply the destruction of Jerusalem, and the subsequent exile to Babylon, was etched on their national psyche. These events shook them to the core and made them wonder if God had removed his presence from them. Although they returned after 70 years and rebuilt the city, the Second Temple was a mere shadow of the first, and foreign oppressors made it difficult to imagine that Israel could ever return to its former glory.

Jewish theological reflection in the Second Temple period led many to believe that God was setting up a different kind of presence that would accompany them wherever they went, whatever their political situation might be. That “portable temple” was the Torah. Wright continues:

By prayerful and obedient study of the Torah, the blessings that one might have had through the “sacred space” of the Temple could be obtained anywhere at all.

By study and practice of the law, the Jewish people themselves would become the sacred dwelling place of God in the fallen world. Songs inspired by this Torah-as-Temple tradition include Psalm 1 (“But his delight is in the law of the Lord…”), Psalm 19 (“The law of the Lord is perfect…”) and, of course, Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 expresses a Jewish person’s heartfelt affection for the Torah. When the psalmist embraced the written word as his lifeline to God, I have no doubt that he was heard by God and experienced genuine encounter with his Maker. By joining the psalmist in praying Psalm 119, we can honor and celebrate the One who, though sometimes distant, has never abandoned his people, but continues to reach out to them and interact with them in all sorts of circumstances.

However, if we stand Psalm 119 against the wider backdrop of biblical history, we cannot ignore all that has happened since then. We must not forget those revolutionary events that the psalmist could never have imagined: Jesus’ birth and life, the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. Yahweh’s arrival and presence in this world have shifted our paradigm for interacting with God. If we continue to read Psalm 119 as though God hasn’t entered the room, he will stand awkwardly beside us, wondering why our eyes are still staring down at the written word instead of looking up into the beautiful, penetrating eyes of the incarnate Word.


  1. Thanks Joe for writing these two essays on Ps 119. I fear that it may not resonate with many, for they might think of this as an irrelevant piece of esoteric, arcane and impractical prose. Some might wonder, “How does this help us to feed sheep, make disciples and conquer the world with the gospel?”

    Your writing brings to mind what Jesus himself said about Scripture in Jn 5:39, Lk 24:27, 44, and what Peter said in Ac 10:43. Scripture was never meant to become bibliolatry, bible-only-ism or biblicism, as you mentioned. Perhaps this is rather simplistically stated, but I think that Scripture was and is the way that enables any person to personally and intimately experience the very presence of God himself in the Person of His Son by the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • Joe Schafer

      Ben, I would say that Scripture is not *the* way that we experience the presence of God; it is *one* way that we experience him. And I think that Scripture itself abudantly testifies to this. There is a lot more to say on this. I’ve started to write a Part 3.

    • Joe Schafer

      Ben, as you know, this website has been characterized as a place where people just bash ubf ad nauseum. Many have expressed a desire for UBFriends to move on to other topics that would be more positive, more constructive, more helpful, more welcoming, more friendly, and so on. This series of articles is partly a response to that. I’m trying to foster discussion on things that might be relevant and inspiring and helpful to the UBF community. It will be interesting to see if anyone new joins the discussion. If anyone truly thinks that this discussion is esoteric, arcane, or impractical, if they think I am wrong, or if they think it’s just boring and a waste of time, I won’t be offended at all if they say it here. Honestly, I would much prefer that people say that than to say nothing at all. Let’s see what happens.

    • What a striking analogy! I am afraid that often I am more involved with the “email” than God himself. It’s thought-provoking that you say Scripture is not *the* way to experience God. I thought it was the only way. I really would like to know the other ways to experience God. I’m looking forward to Part 3.

  2. In addition to your final paragraph I also recall the environment between Martha and Mary. When Jesus was there teaching Mary just sat there before Jesus but Martha was busy. Both wanted to please Jesus, but only one was full attention – fixed on him. The other was too concerned about formality and presentability according to human standards. It is possible even with the right motives in our heart to be truly wrong in our approach. Jesus is much simpler than we think. The beauty of many psalms is the simple and intimate worship and expression of love for Jesus. The author(s) usually do not speak of their works, but only of God’s.

    • gc, the Mary/Martha contrast/compare is perhaps overused and oversimplified at times, but I would agree with you that it provides a rich event that could give us some insight.

      I’ve been thinking that perhaps the ubf lectures and bible study became more of a Martha-like busy task to present ourselves to Jesus than an act of worship or a chance to interact with Jesus Himself and be with Jesus. I recall so much preparation to “present myself”, but now I feel so calm to simply be in His presence.

      It is easy to imagine things as Joe portrays it– so many “bible studies” where we look so intently into the bible, but didn’t realize Jesus was standing right there!

      I wonder if any of the ubf teachings have ever considered these things. For many years now, I really wished I could understand what these ubf staff videos are teaching. …or not. Maybe those videos are better left in a language I’ll never comprehend.

    • The thing that strikes me more and more with my own personal faith is in times of crisis. Many churches and certainly UBF demand so much from people. They do so in such a manner that leaves people feeling guilty when they cannot perform to expectation. Of course there are close friends who are supportive – but basically the order of things is to keep the status quo. When someone has some sort of struggle senior people most often tell them to pray.

      This is where you discern who your friends are and who your fellow congregants are. A friend will sit by you and listen and also pray with you. They will generally show an interest in what is going on with you. They do so with sincere and real interest that you are okay. However, there are also those who do so only so that you might resume testimony, fishing, attending meetings etc……There are also those who just don’t show direct interest at all.

      I thought of the Mary and Martha story because I have faced serious difficulties in my life not once but many times. In the end I found many years ago that the church community and demands left me feeling more isolated from God and exhausted. I also wondered why my secular or non-UBF friends were the most supportive of ‘me’ getting back on my feet – for the sake of my well being in comparison with UBFers who showed more interest that I could attend something. My attendance of activities immediately meant that I was “okay” – which couldn’t be further from reality. The end result was a natural line in the sand that has truly aligned me with the “outside” world.

      I do agree that prayer is the best, but if I am to shut up and pray than I really do not need others at all. I only need God. If I am to pray and form my own personal relationship with God instead of depending on people for imperfect human support than okay again. The psalms encourage direct dialogue to and with God – therefore works are insufficient and so are the rituals placed upon us by others.

    • gc,

      “My attendance of activities immediately meant that I was “okay” – which couldn’t be further from reality.”

      This is an important point to consider further. Why is “showing up” the test of “ok or not okay”?

      One of the first things I learned from our new Christian pastor is the difference between priority and centrality. Exhaustion comes form trying to make Jesus #1 in our priority list.

      Our pastor made this point strikingly well in a sermon last year. He asked the congregation to shout out priorities. Then he asked where is Jesus in your priority list. Where should Jesus be in our ranking of daily activities? People shouted out #1 of course. Then he said (paraphrase)… First of all you’re all lying. Jesus is not #1 all the time. And furthermore Jesus does not intend to be #1 on your priority list. Often your family comes first. Often your health must come first on a daily basis.

      He taught us that Jesus and the gospel is about making Jesus centrally important not to merely create a priority list where every day and every action has some church activity as #1. I learned a valuable lesson from that sermon, a lesson I’ve since confirmed with various sources. Guilt, shame and fear come from a ranking system of priorities and has nothing to do with the gospel. Love, grace and joy come from Christ-centric thinking and living.

      Be centered on Jesus, not prioritized around Jesus.

    • Joe Schafer

      Brian and gc, this discussion is really fascinating. I think the tension between giving priority to Jesus versus giving priority to (apparently) non-religious activities comes from a deficient theology of the incarnation and the kingdom. The distinction between sacred and secular, which is so deeply ingrained in modern culture, is artificial and alien to the gospel. If Jesus is the Lord of all, of every sphere of human life, then it really is possible to be Jesus-centered (as Brian says) as we go about all of our daily and weekly activities. But that requires a fundamental shift in our way of thinking, in our worldview. It takes significant time and effort to cultivate such thinking and put it into practice. We need mentors who can show us by example how to do it. But where to find these mentors? UBF doesn’t have them, as far as I have seen,nor do most evangelical communities.

  3. Joe,

    Your story is fantastic! I love the imagination expressed here. I’ve not yet processed the content, but so far this stands out to me:

    “However, if we stand Psalm 119 against the wider backdrop of biblical history, we cannot ignore all that has happened since then.”

    That is exactly what I did for so long- ignored what has happened. I did this not only with regard to the bible, but to my own life and the lives of those around me. Context means a lot to any given situation, and the more people’s viewpoints we have, the more we begin to discern facts and events.

    By the way, is that a picture of you or your son? It looks like a real picture to me, as opposed to something random. Any meaning there?

  4. @Joe, “The distinction between sacred and secular, which is so deeply ingrained in modern culture, is artificial and alien to the gospel. If Jesus is the Lord of all, of every sphere of human life, then it really is possible to be Jesus-centered (as Brian says) as we go about all of our daily and weekly activities.” – See more at:

    This brings to mind what I once heard an older senior Christian say (paraphrase): “When I am at home in my kitchen I feel guilty and bad, but when I am at the Chicago center, I feel spiritual, holy and faithful to God.”

    For decades, I also felt likewise. I felt that I was more spiritual if I am on the UIC campus then if I am visiting my aged mother in Malaysia. So I refused to visit my own mother for over two decades (she is 95 years old), which hurt her badly, and which greatly offended my only sibling, an older brother. Only by God’s mercy and grace, I no longer feel so and I have decided to visit her every year over the past decade.

    • Ben,

      “When I am at home in my kitchen I feel guilty and bad, but when I am at the Chicago center, I feel spiritual, holy and faithful to God.”

      These words describe the “E” in the B.I.T.E. model perfectly.

  5. Joe,

    “We need mentors who can show us by example how to do it. But where to find these mentors?” – See more at:

    Perhaps those mentors are in the “secular” world :) For me, the secular is sacred. Katy Perry, for example, has much to say. More thoughts here: When the secular is sacred.

    Or perhaps those mentors are dead. I relish the mentoring I’m learning from Spurgeon! Charles still has much to say :)

    “To a man who lives unto God nothing is secular, everything is sacred.

    He puts on his workday garment and it is a vestment to him.

    He sits down to his meal and it is a sacrament.

    He goes forth to his labor, and therein exercises the office of the priesthood. His breath is incense and his life a sacrifice.

    He sleeps on the bosom of God, and lives and moves in the divine presence.

    To draw a hard and fast line and say, “This is sacred and this is secular,” is, to my mind, diametrically opposed to the teaching of Christ and the spirit of the gospel…

    Peter saw a sheet let down from heaven in which were all manner of beasts and four-footed creatures, which he was bidden to kill and eat, and when he refused because they were unclean, he was rebuked by a voice from heaven, saying, “What God hath cleansed that call not thou common” [Acts 10:15; 11:9].

    The Lord hath cleansed your houses, he has cleansed your bed chambers, your tables… He has made the common pots and pans of your kitchens to be as the bowls before the altar –

    if you know what you are and live according to your high calling.

    You housemaids, you cooks, you nurses, you ploughmen, you housewives, you traders, you sailors, your labor is holy if you serve the Lord Christ in it, by living unto Him as you ought to live.

    The sacred has absorbed the secular.”

    -Charles H. Spurgeon (source)

    • About sacred and secular I remember when Ben wrote about Tim Tebow I thought that it is absolutely impossible to be a Tim Tebow or to have Tim Tebow in ubf. Why? Because what he is busy with is absolutely secular according to ubf. He is a gifted football player but in ubf he would have to be a 1:1 Buble teacher for campus students and to literally deny himself. When Tim says, “We have 30 minutes for the rest of our life!” then he just want to “waste” his last 30 minutes of life for this secular sinful game of football and motivates others to do the same. Is he a Christian at all? :) But this “secular” young man is called a most influencial Christian in the US and the whole of absolute “Bible-centered” ubf is labeled as “a cult”.

  6. Experience as per UBF is an often disappointing aspect of spiritual awakening and understanding. Sacred and secular (profane) are a combination of our total life and experience. You cannot separate them well, but many have and will continue to try. For example, you graduate from school after a long period to study. Of course everyone will applaud you for a job well done and even celebrate with food and gifts. But if you announce an engagement with an outsider than it is met with many 1>1 meetings insisting that such an occurance is from the devil.

    I could even comment on the fact that some do extra reading of Biblical resources that are non-UBF materials. This is always met with some difficulty, as though to say that anything not UBF is unspiritual. (But keep in mind when a senior leader recommends something from the top down it is spiritual and beneficial.)

    Being a steward over your family and maybe even your job. This is not acceptable practice. Do you think you can kid yourself that by expanding and growing in those areas of life that it means you are growing spiritually? Think again. Where is your reporting on fishing? Just how many table 1:1’s did you have? Who are you raising up as a disciple? How about your basic spiritual life – You know, Daily Bread, testimony writing, morning prayer? How often do you pray at the church (because prayer at home is not spiritual)?

    Sadly, we are trained to disregard the mundane aspects of our daily life but in my experience talking with others and personally there is much more there than in UBF activities – especially when most of the time we are not even coming close to fulfilling the expected goals on the list of to do’s.

  7. John Martin jr.

    Great articles Joe Christ has burst in and I believe you are starting a very important conversation on what it means to manifest Christ and have a relationship with him. I like your honesty in a comment above “We need mentors who can show us by example how to do it. But where to find these mentors? UBF doesn’t have them, as far as I have seen,nor do most evangelical communities.” I would actually agree for the most part with this statement. In other words I didn’t see the power of someone who’s “mind was renewed” from the ways of the world into being kingdom minded around me. My search ended with finding a few hidden and not so hidden church leaders (who are still alive today). My favorite being a hidden Christian gem Dan Mohler. He preaches very direct with the point that Christ did not die just to take away our sins but Christ died to get sin out of us for us to actually become love. I am rambling but I think this relates somewhat to what Joe is getting at.

    • John, I took your recommendation and listened to Dan Mohler last weekend. I kept thinking how much he reminded me of Brother Lawrence in the way he rests and lives with such simple and complete confidence in Jesus love. I loved his story, too, about going out to evangelize with a group of Christians who were confronted with a man who told them, “I believe Jesus loves me, but I’m not convinced that you do”. The man wasn’t impressed with being the target of an evangelical project rather than the target of simple, pure love. The group walked away saying to each other, “Wow, that brother’s heart is really hard, let’s pray for him. Dan Mohler responded to them saying, “Wait, let’s go back to church and pray. But let’s pray for ourselves. This man was God’s voice to us. We need to learn how to really love as Jesus loves.” This is the message I want to hear. As you said, Jesus died to get sin out of us so that we can actually become love. Though at one point he seemed a little too impatient with Christians who are having trouble believing in the power of God’s love, I still really liked him a lot. Thanks.

  8. Terry Lopez


    The idea of secular vs. sacred is one that I have come to my own conclusion. All of life belongs to God and He speaks to us in EVERYTHING. God is the God of life! God speaks to me through His Word, He speaks to me through a dog… He speaks to me even when I look at trees or the ocean. I also communicate to him in all that I do. Whether it is obeying my boss (it says, I do this for you Father), or preparing breakfast for my children or even taking a nap or even watching an amusing movie and laugh out loud. I have truly thought at times like this, God you really are funny. I absolutely love the movie Fiddler on the Roof and my favorite scene is where Tevye speaks right before singing “If I were a Rich Man.”

    “Oh dear Lord. You made many, many poor people. I realize of course, it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either. So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune.”

    That to me sums up what a real relationship with God should look like and what I try and practice. I tell my sons again and again, “Seek realness. Be real with God and be real with yourself.”

  9. Terry Lopez

    Talking about Sacred vs. Secular,

    I believe that the YouTube video I posted of Rick Barry shooting free throws has a marvelous message that transcends basketball and in my mind is most definitely sacred. At least to me. :-)