Great are Your tender mercies, O LORD

Psalms 119:153-160
153 Consider my affliction and deliver me,
For I do not forget Your law.
154 Plead my cause and redeem me;
Revive me according to Your word.
155 Salvation is far from the wicked,
For they do not seek Your statutes.
156 Great are Your tender mercies, O LORD;
Revive me according to Your judgments.
157 Many are my persecutors and my enemies,
Yet I do not turn from Your testimonies.
158 I see the treacherous, and am disgusted,
Because they do not keep Your word.
159 Consider how I love Your precepts;
Revive me, O LORD, according to Your lovingkindness.
160 The entirety of Your word is truth,
And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.

We certainly are a strange people. In our entertainments – movies, plays, TV shows, novels – we have one vision of a judge, and in real life we have a very different one. In our shows and books, we like a judge who shows compassion, who is not strictly bound by the letter of the law, someone who uses his or her heart to come up with merciful and interesting sentences for those convicted – and someone who is wise enough not to be duped by liars and fast-talking lawyers. At the very least, we like to see a judge who sticks just close enough to the letter of the law for us to see justice done in favor of the story’s protagonist.

In the real world, we generally prefer our judges less compassionate and more strict, so that the bad guys get put away forever and the good guys are set free. However, if we are the ones accused and facing the judge, we much prefer compassion over justice. When one’s own neck is on the line, one tends to view the law a bit more loosely. If we are falsely accused, we hope the judge sees the falsehood for what it is. If we are rightly accused, we hope the judge sees that we are not really lifetime criminals.

But according to God’s standards, we ARE lifetime criminals. God’s measure and His law are absolute, and there is no grey area where we might plead for a lesser sentence.

Ezekiel 18:4
“Behold, all souls are Mine;
The soul of the father
As well as the soul of the son is Mine;
The soul who sins shall die.”

It really is that simple. “The wages of sin is death,” wrote the apostle Paul. (Romans 6:23) We who commit sin really do deserve to die for our sins. And if we are as absolutely honest as God is absolutely just, then we must all admit that we have sinned and thus deserve the only sentence God has given for sin: death. And yet, God IS merciful and He IS compassionate, and He IS both a righteous Judge and loving Father at the same time. So we hope in that mercy.

In the verses above from Psalms 119, we see the psalmist appealing to God’s mercy. There are actually two words used to speak of mercy in this passage.

• In verse 156, “tender mercies” is the Hebrew word “racham,” which is also sometimes translated “compassions” or “pity” or “tender love.” It comes from another root word that means to caress or touch tenderly – as a woman her child, as a lover his beloved. God’s tender mercies are an extension of His love for us, a gentle touch from a mighty hand.

• In verse 159, “lovingkindness” is the Hebrew word “chêsêd,” which is often translated “mercy” or “pity” or “goodness” or “favor.” That word has a root that means “to bow” – as in, to bow one’s head. “Chêsêd” is the attitude of one who condescends to do other than what one can do by right. So, God’s “lovingkindness” is mercy in a judicial sense, the kind act of a judge who takes pity and shows leniency.

As the psalmist says, every one of God’s righteous judgments endures forever. (v.160) Once God makes a decision, He cannot really back out on it and still be considered an impartial and righteous judge. After all, in heaven we don’t actually want to be sharing a table with Hitler or Stalin, do we? We want God to have standards, don’t we? But what is the standard by which God exercises His mercy? At what point does He save the sinner from the death he or she rightly deserves? The answer is in that verse I mentioned a moment ago from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here is the complete verse:

Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“The gift of God”: what a curious phrase, so full of mercy and compassion, the epitome of grace. The contrast is between what we deserve for our sin – death – and the free gift that God has given us instead – eternal life. And the key is that eternal life comes ONLY through Christ.

In today’s verses, when the psalmist seeks God’s mercy and compassion, he is basing that hope upon God’s Word. “Revive me according to Your word,” says the psalmist, and “Revive me according to Your judgments.” (vv.154, 156) In the Bible, the psalmist has seen the promised mercy of God, the Messiah who is hinted at and foretold. The psalmist is holding God to that promise, and he does so by holding fast to God’s statutes, by living according to the law of which Jesus is to be the fulfillment. Through knowing and keeping God’s Word, the psalmist sees the future that includes Christ, and so he clings to the blessed hope of God’s plentiful tender mercies.

If we are to hope in Christ, then we must also have faith in Him. It is not simply enough to have some vague notion that God is loving and compassionate. We must also understand that God’s mercy is both the loving act of a caring Father and the compassionate act of a righteous Judge. We must admit that we are sinners, that the sentence we surely deserve is death, and at the same time we must repent of that life that led us to sin, and seek God’s mercy through Christ Jesus. The gospel of Christ is the gospel of peace – peace with our past, to be sure, and peace with others, but mostly peace with God, who is both just and merciful. If we are to call Jesus our “Savior,” then we must know that He is saving us from sin that leads to death. And if we are to appeal to the tender mercies of God, we must be ready to receive the gift of eternal life in Christ that He offers in place of our deserved sentence.

Lamentations 3:22-23
22 Through the LORD’s mercies [chêsêd] we are not consumed,
Because His compassions [racham] fail not.
23 They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.

God’s tender mercies are always available to us, always renewed – and always renewing. Paul told us “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Let us seek to become new creations in Christ. Let us seek God’s mercy with honesty and humility and hope. Then we shall be renewed and revived according to God’s own measure, which is faith in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.

Merciful Father, Almighty God, I come before You today with full knowledge of my sinfulness and full faith in Your loving kindness. Knowing that You have already forgiven my sins through Christ Jesus, I seek Your mercy today as a prodigal son, as a wayward child, as a repentant sinner. Lord God, let me be Your humble servant, Your vessel of mercy upon this earth, to bring only glory and honor to You, my loving Father. Amen.


About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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