Travelers and immigrants seek accurate direction. In Psalm 119:17-24, the Psalmist confesses that he, a stranger, desires that God will reveal the wonders of his law. He contemplates the statutes of God’s word as carefully as a modern traveler might ponder alternate routes on a map app or, if using an old school method, an atlas. He prays,
“Be good to your servant while I live, that I may obey your word. Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me” (Psalm 119:17-19).
The motif of the stranger surfaces throughout the Bible. After killing his brother Abel, Cain fears that he will “be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:14). Abram (Abraham), already a stranger in Harran in what is now Turkey after immigrating there from Chaldea, followed God’s instructions to go to Canaan. Later, his grandson Jacob would emigrate to Egypt. Still today, as millennia of his descendants have done, Jewish worshippers recite,
“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression” (Deuteronomy 26:5-7).
In the New Testament, the stranger motif surfaces most strongly in the book of Hebrews. In chapter 11, sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith,” the writer emphasizes that these faithful heroes were spiritual pilgrims, or strangers. To paraphrase an old gospel song, this world was not their home, they were just passing through:
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth…Instead they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13, 16).
This status as exiles, aliens, travelers for Christians underlines the urgency of Christians keeping “our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). This awareness fits well with the outlook of Psalm 119’s prayer. Because he is a “stranger,” he needs God’s guidance. His “soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times” (verse 20). He prays that God will be good to him and reveal to him the good in his commands. He asks God to rebuke those who arrogantly stray from the laws of God and to remove their “scorn and contempt” from him. He concludes with a declaration of his allegiance to God whatever may happen,
“Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees. Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:23-24).
Not everyone that travelers meet is an enemy. And travelers can be “ugly” and arrogant themselves. The Psalmist does not assume that he always is right or that those he encounters are wrong. He confesses his need for guidance and understanding. He listens to the counsel of God’s message. We who seek to understand God’s will also must pray with humility and a willingness to admit our own failings. The prayer underscores the interplay between prayer and attentive reading of the Scriptures, the responsibility of God’s followers to meditate on His message and to obey him. If we follow Christ, lets remember that we are migrants and worry less about our rights. Lets focus more on staying in step with God’s Spirit and staying on course with Jesus.
God who blazes a path for us to follow, open our eyes so that we may follow the road that you have marked out. Forgive our stubbornness, arrogance, and selfishness. Help us to discern correctly when we stray from your commands. We pray that those who govern us will act wisely. If we suffer, may it be because we are faithful to you, and not because we are self-centered and rebellious. Help us to keep our focus on Jesus, in whose name we pray, amen.