In Psalm 119: 113-20, the Psalmist declares that he hates those who are doubleminded (113), and demands that evildoers depart (114). He observes that the Lord has rejected all those who wander from his statutes (118) and has removed all the wicked of the earth like dross (120), all the while professing a love for the Law, word, and promise of God. Then in v. 120, he strongly states,
My flesh trembles for fear of You, And I am afraid of your judgments.This short statement is striking, especially after the contrasts of the previous verses. There are doubleminded men, but he loves God's Law. The wicked have wandered from the Lord's statutes, but he waits for his promises. The thought of departing from the ways of the Lord has struck terror deep in the Psalmist's soul. He knows that the Lord rejects those who wander from his statutes and removes the wicked like dross. "Dross" is worthless or harmful material that has to be removed, from metals for instance. The way that dross is removed is by the extreme heat of fire. This process in Scripture is associated with the scolding fury of God's wrath (cf. Ezekiel 22:17-22). The wicked that are removed in this manner are parallel to the ones who have wandered from God's commands. The Psalmist feels the full force of this imagery, because this imagery is a reflection of the ultimate reality. This causes his body to tremble and quake for fear of the Lord. He is clearly and rightly terrified of this judgment.
Longing For His Judgment
It seems strange, then, that the next section of this Psalm describes the Psalmist longing for God's judgment. In v. 120, he is trembling because of God's judgment, and in the next section he is longing for it. Now, the Psalmist pleads with God regarding his accusers. He wants God to be the one to judge him, not his arrogant oppressors. The natural question that arises is, "How can you long to be judged by the one you fear?" On the one hand, he is afraid of his judgments, and on the other, he longs for them. In fact, his eyes fail with longing for the Lord's salvation (v. 123). He sums up this desire in v. 124 as he requests,
Deal with your servant according to your lovingkindness and teach me your statutes.The Psalmist longs to be "dealt with" by the Lord. He hates "every false way" (v. 128), including any false way that is within him. It seems that this fact is what drives him to continually request that the Lord enable him to know, observe, follow, cling to, and love God's Laws and ways.
Here we have a curious state of affairs: The Psalmist fears the Lord and longs for his judgment. This is a real fear, and a real longing. It is difficult to temper the fact that someone's flesh is trembling and heart is afraid. This is genuine fear, rather than even the deepest reverence. This is also a genuine longing. One's eyes do not fail due to half-hearted desire. He both fears and longs for the same thing, namely, God's judgment.
The Logic of Lovingkindness
In my understanding, these alternating desires seem to be at odds. However, in the logic of the lovingkindness of the Lord, they are at peace. For the one the Psalmist fears is also good. The Lord's lovingkindness does not temper the terror that should be felt from his judgment. The disconnect here is real and must be felt, and only those whose judge is also their father are in a position to understand the beauty of this tension.
The one who loves the Law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night can anticipate the mercy and lovingkindness of the Lord as his body is trembling. But the one who wanders from God's statutes faces the wrath and holiness of a righteous judge without the hope of rescue or redemption. God's wrath devoid of mercy is a truly terrifying prospect indeed.
This truth deepens my affection for the God who has saved me, and spurs me on to tell others of this rescue. I tremble at the thought of his wrath without his mercy. My grounds for complaint significantly lessen when I consider these things. If I truly understood what the Psalmist is teaching, my prayers would look more and more like his: