My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word.
My eyes fail longing for your word, saying, When will you comfort me?
For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke; yet I do not forget your statutes.
How many are the days of your servant? When will you judge my persecutors?
The arrogant dug pits for me, which are not according to your Torah.
All your commandments are faithful; they persecute me wrongfully; help me.
They had almost consumed me on earth; but I have not forsaken your precepts.
In your loving kindness spare my life; so I shall keep the testimony of your mouth.
I’ve been thinking about writing a book about Psalm 119 building off of the devotions I’ve been writing. I wanted to take the title from the psalm itself. This section’s opening line is in the competition: “My soul languishes for your salvation.” I want to write it in Hebrew because the economy of the original language makes the phrase more beautiful: כלתה לתשועתך נפשי. This phrase is exemplary of the way Hebrew theological anthropology does violence against the dualities and black and white categories we have inherited from Greek thought (or perhaps the Kantian appropriation of Greek thought).
Let me explain. First of all, נפש (nefesh), the Hebrew word for soul, does not have the abstract “spiritual” connotation that we have inherited from the Greek body/soul duality. נפש is derived from the Hebrew word for throat. It means breath, and thus vitality by extension, because to breathe is to be alive. So when we read that someone’s breath is languishing for salvation, we can appreciate that this is very much an integrated psychosomatic experience, unlike when we think of the soul as a psychewhich is put in a wholly separate category of experience than the soma, or body.
Because body and soul are not divided in two in Hebrew thought, there is likewise not a thick line separating God’s salvation from particular problems in a day-to-day sense and His salvation in an eternal sense. It’s all ישוע (yeshua). Thus it doesn’t bother the psalmist to write a phrase that would make systematic theologians in our day scramble for qualifiers to snap down on top of it.
I’m not allowed to “languish for salvation” if my theology says that I’m “once saved, always saved” or if the fruit of my regeneration is “blessed assurance.” John Wesley was perpetually haunted by the lack of assurance that he was told he had to have in his heart to count as being “saved.” Probably the easiest resolution to this “problem” would be to say that there’s eternal Salvation and there’s day-to-day salvation (which is then translated into a different English word as many ideologically fixated, exegetically dishonest English translations do). Trouble is that Hebrew doesn’t have capital letters and only one word for all forms of salvation.
I find it far more fruitful to allow this phrase to speak a truth about our walk with Christ: that it’s actually evidence of our faith that we languish for salvation. As Paul writes, all of creation is groaning for God’s deliverance. When we are given ζωή, the life that Jesus came to give us, we languish, we struggle, we are filled with pathos rather than apathy. We weep when we look at Jerusalem rather than pleasantly going about our entirely self-centered obliviousness.
What we are saved from is the comfort that isn’t really comfort so much as it is layers upon layers of spiritual fat, a whatever-ness so thick that we can feel nothing. The comfort of a life without God is like the gentle cool of a morgue. Life in relationship with God is a perpetual languish that is simultaneously filled with excitement and joy the higher we climb up the Lord’s mountain. When you read Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Teresa of Avila, the desert fathers, and spiritually mature Christians throughout our history, you see that their struggle becomes more and more intense the closer they get to the heart of God. They mourn what seem to us to be the tiniest of sins, because they want so badly to exist perfectly in Christ.
I know I am saved because I languish for Your salvation. This doesn’t mean that I don’t “hope in Your word.” It means only that I am dissatisfied with how well I know You now. I want to know You perfectly and the only way to keep wanting that with every ounce of my being is to know that I haven’t gotten there yet. Help me never to stop languishing; make my desire increase all the more the closer I get.