Psalm 119 Wrapup

I want to write one final post in my Psalm 119 series, highlighting some others who are thinking about it, and asking whether there is a reference to God’s word in every single verse or not.

Psalm 119 in blogs and songs

During the last month, I noticed a couple of other bloggers tackling this Psalm. First, is Chris Wright, with an article entitled “Experiencing God” on the theology network. As always, he makes several insightful and perceptive points. Also, on the Scripture Zealot blog, which I have been following for some time has a post on Ps 119:120 and another on Ps 119 in general, which includes a link to a free PDF exposition of the Psalm from Charles Bridges.

Also, while at New Wine, I noticed that one of the new songs we sung borrowed many of its lyrics from Ps 119. The song is called “Like Incense”. I would have liked the chorus to more obviously pick up a theme from the Psalm too, but it is nice to see it being used in modern worship songs.

If you’ve blogged, preached or written a song about Ps 119, do please put a link in the comments below.

God’s Word in Every Verse?

As you are probably aware, Psalm 119 is a meticulously crafted Psalm, with 22 sections, one for each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section has 8 verses, each of which starts with the same letter of the alphabet. And almost every verse contains a synonym for the word of God. Here’s a list of the terms I noticed as I worked through the Psalm (in the ESV version):

  • Law
  • Testimonies
  • Precepts
  • Commandments
  • Rules
  • Statutes
  • Your Word(s)
  • Word of Truth
  • His / Your Ways
  • Your promise
  • Your judgments
  • A pledge of good

This left me with 6 verses that don’t have an obvious reference to God’s word. Now, it may be that the Psalmist felt at liberty to break from his pattern in a few places, but for such a carefully crafted work (did he have OCD?), it seems plausible to me that he thought himself to have referred to God’s word in every verse, even if obliquely in some cases.

The six verses are:

Ps 119:84 How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?
At first glance, there appears to be no reference to God’s word here, but elsewhere (e.g. Ps 119:120) the Psalmist uses God’s “judgments”, and here, in the more literal translations the phrase is “execute judgment”.

Ps 119:90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
Possibly God’s Word is depicted here as a manifestation of his “faithfulness” – God’s faithfulness, like his Word, endures forever. Alternatively, the Psalmist may have God’s creative word that spoke the earth into being in this verse.

Ps 119:91 By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants
This one is only an issue in the ESV, since other translations replace “appointment” with “laws”, “regulations”, or “ordinances”. Following on as it does from verse 90, God’s word of creation may be in view still.

Ps 119:121 I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors.
Here, doing justice and righteousness is the same as doing what God’s word says. “What is just and right” serves as a summary of the law.

Ps 119:132 Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name.
Here the most promising candidate is “your way”, which the NIV translates “as you always do”, and another translation “as you have pledged to do”. In other words, the gracious character of God is testified to in the word of God. The Psalmist is praying for God to act in consistency with his self-revelation.

Ps 119:149 Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O LORD, according to your justice give me life
Both “steadfast love” and “justice” could be replaced with “word”, but “justice” seems more likely to function as a synonym for God’s word in this verse. And in fact, that is the direction many other translations take, going for words such as “judgments” or “ordinances”. The NIV has “laws”.

Taw–Overflowing with Praise

Now that I’m back from Together at Westpoint (TAW), it seems appropriate that I finish off my Psalm 119 series with something about the appropriately named final section, “Taw” – Ps 119:169-176

What is the purpose of reading the Bible? Some people take a very practical view. They view the Scriptures as an instruction book for life and read it to find out how they should behave, what they should be doing, and what they need to stop doing. Others take a more intellectual view. They view the Scriptures as the definitive doctrinal handbook and read it to find out what they should believe, to nail down the correct theological framework and to gather ammunition for combating heresy.

Both uses of Scripture are valid, but if that is all we take from the Word of God, something has gone badly wrong. Surely the main purpose of coming to God’s Word is to encounter God himself. To get a glimpse of his glory that drives us to worship. Proper study of the Word always leads to praise and adoration. True theology leads to doxology. If we are left unmoved by our study of the Scriptures, we have missed the point entirely.

This is something that the author of Psalm 119 understood well. Not only did he write a very substantial song all about the glory of God as revealed in his Word, but he also shares his intention to go on singing about what he sees and discovers as he meditates on the Scriptures. For him, time spent in the Word is anything but a dry, academic exercise. The goal of reading the Bible is not to fill our notebooks with interesting observations, but to fill our hearts with such a love for God that we cannot help but overflow with songs of praise.

May my lips overflow with praise,
   for you teach me your decrees. 
May my tongue sing of your word,
   for all your commands are righteous. (Ps 119:171-172)

Sin and Shin–Motivations to Obey

There are several possible motivations for obeying a command, whether a positive command (“do this”) or a negative one (“don’t do that”). First, we might be motivated by fear of punishment. Now clearly we would prefer if someone obeyed the “thou shalt not murder” command for nobler reasons than simply to stay out of jail, but nonetheless, it is both logical and appropriate to fear judgment, especially the judgment of God. Though the believer need not fear final condemnation, there are plenty of New Testament passages reminding us that the fear of the Lord remains just as important in the new covenant era (e.g. 1 Pet 2:17, Acts 9:31).

A second possible motivation is desire for reward. This is the inverse of fear of punishment. A person can be persuaded to obey a command they might otherwise ignore if sufficient incentive is offered. Like fear of punishment, this is hardly the most noble of all motives for obedience. And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to see a problem with holding out rewards as encouragements for us (e.g. Matt 6:4,6,18).

A third possible motivation is a sense of duty. It may be that you do not particularly want to obey a command, but you do so out of a sense of obligation, because of the authority of the one who gave it. But a sense of duty is not a bad thing; and obeying God because it is your duty finds scriptural support (e.g. Luke 17:10). In fact, one of the main ways the New Testament presents the believer’s relationship with Christ is that of a slave and master. We belong to Jesus, and it is our duty to obey him.

So all three of these motivations are in one sense appropriate and biblical. Yet they fall short of being the highest and most noble motivations for obedience. I want to consider two final motivations, both of which crop up in Psalm 119.

The first of these is that we sometimes obey because we are in agreement with the command. If someone commands you to do something you already want to do anyway, or forbids you to do something you don’t want to do, obedience is effortless. In fact, we hardly perceive it as being obedience. If our goals are perfectly aligned with the one we need to submit to, then submission is not a burden, but a delight. The Psalmist expresses this in several places. For example in Ps 119:128 he says “I consider all your precepts right”. In other words, he has become fully convinced of the rightness of God’s commands. He has reached the place where he genuinely wants to do what God commands, not because he is being told to do it, but because he is convinced it is the right thing to do.

However, I would say that the highest and greatest motivation for obedience is love (in fact, I have previously blogged that obedience is one of Jesus’ “love languages”). Ultimately, the Psalmist obeys God because he loves God. It is this love for God that has led him to love God’s commands. He delights in obeying God because he desires to please God. This theme crops up a few times in the delightfully named “Sin and Shin” section of Ps 119, but most notably in verse 167:

I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly.

All five of the motivations I have listed are valid, but it seems to me that love must come right at the top of the list. The believer should be able to agree with all five of the following statements, and not just stop after the first few:

I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who lovingly disciplines me when I disobey
I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who graciously rewards me when I obey
I obey your statutes, for I know that you are my Master and I am your servant
I obey your statutes, for I am convinced that they are the best and most blessed way to live
I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly, because I love you greatly

Resh–The Word of Salvation

As my series on Psalm 119 draws to a close, I want to return to a theme that crops up repeatedly throughout the Psalm, and that is of salvation. The psalm is filled with petitions for rescue, deliverance, salvation. Here’s a few from the Resh strophe (Ps 119:153-160)

  • “deliver me” (v153)
  • “defend me” (v154)
  • “redeem me” (v154)
  • “preserve my life” (v154, 156, 159)
  • “salvation”(v155)

Holistic Redemption

As I pointed out under the Lamedh section, the salvation he is seeking is a holistic salvation – body and soul. He wants to be rescued from his persecutors and delivered from physical harm, as well as to be saved from God’s final judgment on the wicked.

Chris Wright makes a similar point in his superb book, “The Mission of God”, where he notes that Israel’s “redemption” from Egypt through the exodus was primarily being them delivered from the sins of others, rather than from bondage to their own sins (the return from exile is a better example of that). He goes on to argue that this should inform our understanding of mission – without in any way wanting to minimise the spiritual aspect of salvation (being forgiven from our sins), there are political, economic and social implications to God’s redemption that cannot be overlooked.

The Word of Salvation

As we would expect in a Psalm that never leaves the theme of the Word of God for a moment, the Psalmist forges a strong link between God’s words and his saving activity. Ultimately, of course, the Psalmist is looking to God himself for salvation, but his confidence that God will save him comes as he meditates on the saving God he sees revealed in Scripture.

In fact, we can say that God always saves by means of his Word. It is his Word that contains the message of salvation and the promise of salvation. It is when his Word is preached that we hear the call of salvation that brings about faith (Rom 10:17). But it is deeper than that. God’s word actually effects our salvation. When he says “you are forgiven”, a real change of status takes place – our guilt is removed and we are justified. When he says “you are my beloved son”, we acquire a new status as children of God. When he sees us kicking about in our blood and says “live” (Ez 16:6), new life enters into us and we are born again. God’s words are “declarative speech acts” – when he speaks, things happen.

Qoph–Day and Night

In the Qoph section of Ps 119 (v145-152) I want to pick out another recurring theme, and that is that the Psalmist focuses his attention on God’s Word all the way through the night (see for example Ps 119:55,62). So for example in verses 147 and 148 he says:

147 I rise before dawn and cry for help;
   I have put my hope in your word.
148 My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
   that I may meditate on your promises.

Through the night

Both of these verses suggest he is foregoing sleep to meditate on God’s Word. This may be due to his great personal discipline – he is making time to be with God alone by waking in the night. But verse 148 suggests a sleepless night, perhaps because of fear of those who are out to get him. Verse 147 implies that he is in some kind of trouble and is rising early to cry out for help from God at the start of a day he is not eagerly anticipating.

There is something about the night that can make us feel more vulnerable, and fears that we might suppress in the light of day can prey upon our minds when the lights are out. But the Psalmist knows that the word of God is a refuge he can turn to for hope and encouragement. This again highlights the importance of having key promises of God’s Word memorised, in order that we can draw on them to fill us with faith when we are tempted to fear.

All the time

He may also be using the contrast of “early in the morning” and “late at night” as a poetic technique (a “merism”) to simply mean “all the time”. In other words, all day long, from breakfast to bedtime, he wants God’s Word to be filling his thoughts, guiding his actions and inspiring praise:

164 Seven times a day I praise you
   for your righteous laws.

97 Oh, how I love your law!
   I meditate on it all day long.

Again, I don’t see how that is possible unless we are people who know God’s Word really well. In some ways, I think this is why it doesn’t necessarily matter if you felt you “got something” out of your daily Bible reading. It might have seemed quite dry. But the more we simply read the Word of God, the more familiar with its contents we become, and the greater the chances that its teaching will shape the way think, inform our decision making and govern our emotions. It is often pointed out that the Holy Spirit is said to “remind” us of what Jesus said (Jn 14:26), but unless we know what he said in the first place, we are not going to be able to “remember” it. We need to fill up on both the Word and the Spirit in order to maximally benefit from the transformative power of God’s Word.

Tsadhe–Righteousness of the Law

The key word in the Tsadhe section of Ps 119 (verses 137-144) is “righteous”. Twice God is called righteous and three times God’s laws are called right or righteous:

137 You are righteous, LORD,
   and your laws are right.
138 The statutes you have laid down are righteous;
   they are fully trustworthy.

142 Your righteousness is everlasting
   and your law is true.

144 Your statutes are always righteous;
   give me understanding that I may live.

This theme of God’s laws being righteous regularly surfaces throughout the Psalm (see also verses 7, 62, 75, 106, 123, 160, 164, 172). But while it may make sense for us to speak of God being righteous, or of a person being righteous, what does it mean to call God’s law righteous? I’ll consider two possibilities briefly:

Law as the standard of righteousness

First, we could say that the law is righteous in that it defines a standard of righteousness. It reflects the nature and character of the righteous God. This fits in with the general observation that in this Psalm, the writer more or less conflates God with his law – the things he says about God’s law are also true of God. For example, when he says he delights in God’s law, he is also delighting in God. When he says God’s law is righteous, he is saying that every word that proceeds from a righteous God must by nature be righteous.

It poses an interesting question. Is something right because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is right? Similarly, is something wrong because God forbids it, or is it forbidden because it is inherently wrong? The fact that some of the Old Testament laws have been explicitly abrogated under the new covenant suggests the former is the case. God himself is the standard of what is right. If he forbids something, then doing it is not right. If later he permits the same thing (e.g. eating pork), the moral status of that action has changed.

Law as a means of attaining righteousness?

The relationship between the law and righteousness is something that Paul reflects on at length in Romans. If the law is the standard of righteousness, does it not follow logically that law-keeping is a means of attaining righteousness?

In some places Paul seems to suggest that this might be at least a theoretical possibility. For example:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:13)

But he goes on to make it abundantly clear that this never happens. In reality, the law simply reveals how far short we have fallen, highlighting our sin, and effectively condemning us.

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

We might expect that the gospel would make us righteous by enabling us to keep the law. But that isn’t how Paul explains it. We have a righteousness that is by faith, completely disconnected from our personal success at law-keeping.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom 3:28)

So though we agree with the Psalmist that the law is righteous, because it is the words of the righteous God, we cannot look to it as our source of righteousness. Simon Ponsonby says that the function of the law is “SOS” – “Shows our sins” and “Shows our Saviour”. And this surely is the most valuable facet of the law of God – it points us to Christ (through the symbols and types of the ceremonial law), an it drives us to Christ (by revealing the full extent of our own shortcomings). In the New Covenant, delighting in God’s law means delighting in Christ.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4)

Pe–Streams of Tears

I’ll just focus in on a single verse in the “Pe” section of Ps 119 (verses 129-136), the final one:

136 Streams of tears flow from my eyes,
   for your law is not obeyed.

The reason this verse is important is that it puts all the “hate” verses of the Psalm into a fresh light. The Psalmist has said in v104 and v128 that he hates every wrong path, then in v113 that he hates double-minded people, and later on declares that he hates falsehood. We might be tempted to think that he has a judgemental, bigoted outlook. But his tears tell another story. They reveal a deep love for God and a compassion for both the sinner and those sinned against.

Of course it is Jesus who sets the example for us in how it is possible to love the sinner while hating sin. Ps 45:6-7 (c.f. Heb 1:8-9) prophesies that Jesus will both “love righteousness” and “hate wickedness”. There is nothing wrong when the evil and injustice in the world causes godly anger to rise within us. But if there are no tears, it reveals that the love of God has not taken root in our hearts, and what we attempt to pass off as a passion for righteousness is more likely a symptom of self-righteousness.

Check out a recent post from John Piper applying this verse to a recent gay pride celebration in his city.

Ayin–It is time for God to Act

The verse that grabbed my attention in Ps 119:121-128 is verse 126:

126 It is time for you to act, LORD;
   your law is being broken.

There are many possible reactions we might have to the ungodliness we see in society, ranging from indifference or isolation, to anger and condemnation, to positive campaigning and working for change. But this verse shows that the Psalmist has recognised the heart of the issue – we need God to break in and move if things are really to change.

If God’s laws are being broken the ultimate solution will not be found in stricter rules and more police, but in transformed hearts. As much as I believe the church has a crucial role to play in hands-on social and political action, our first instinct must be to cry out to God to move in revival power. If we don’t, it is likely we are either guilty of self-reliance (attempting to fix society in our own strength), or self-absorption (not being troubled by the evils in society so long as they don’t affect me).

The Old Testament prophets understood this. They didn’t just speak out against evil and call God’s people to action, they called God himself to action:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
   that the mountains would tremble before you! (Isa 64:1)

LORD, I have heard of your fame;
   I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.
Repeat them in our day,
   in our time make them known;
   in wrath remember mercy. (Hab 3:2)

You who call on the LORD,
   give yourselves no rest,
and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem
   and makes her the praise of the earth. (Isa 62:7-8)

Samekh–Missional or Monastic?

In several places in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, the godly person is counselled to keep away from the wicked who are corrupting influences. In Psalm 119:113-120 (the ‘Samekh’ strophe), the Psalmist expresses his desire for them to leave him alone.

115 Away from me, you evildoers,
   that I may keep the commands of my God!

There have been many groups throughout church history who have emphasised the wisdom of avoiding close association with the godless. Verses such as 1 Cor 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character.” or 2 Cor 6:17 “Come out from them and be separate” are often cited as evidence that as Christians, we are to keep our distance from the ungodly.

But there has been a marked shift of emphasis in recent years. Now the desire is to be “missional”, to develop good relationships with those who don’t know God and to be a “friend of sinners” like Jesus was.

Are these two incompatible perspectives? Or can they be integrated in some way?

We need to begin by acknowledging the fact that it is possible for us both to be an influencer of those around us and to be influenced by them. Becoming a Christian does not make us magically invincible to temptation. Jesus touched the unclean leper and it made the leper clean. But if we are honest, we don’t always find the transfer works that way for us.

Going into situations where you regularly succumb to temptation and blend in with those around you is not being missional, it’s being foolish. But completely withdrawing from unbelievers around you is not being spiritual, it’s being disobedient to the great commission.

So how did Jesus do it? I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive answer, but here are a few brief thoughts. He brought the presence of God with him into every situation, shining light into dark places rather than hiding his light away. He loved and accepted others, but he wasn’t a people pleaser; he was willing to confront where necessary. He  chose to mix with sinners in contexts conducive to meaningful conversation, such as shared meals.

We do need to beware being influenced by evil, but the solution is not monasticism. For an example of how to live a holy yet missional life, we need look no further than Jesus.

Nun–Promise Keepers

God’s promises is a recurrent theme in Psalm 119, but in the “Nun” section (Ps 119:105-112), we see the Psalmist making a solemn promise to God:

106 I have taken an oath and confirmed it,
   that I will follow your righteous laws.

A few verses later he expresses his determination to obey God not just in the present, but for the rest of his life:

112 My heart is set on keeping your decrees
   to the very end.

This theme of making promises and commitments is also prominent in the Heth section (Ps 119:57-64). For example:

57You are my portion, LORD;
   I have promised to obey your words.

In our commitment-averse society, making vows or promises is something we are less and less inclined to do. Some even want to insert get-out clauses into their marriage vows.

I know there are some churches that make a big deal of promises. They have baptismal vows where they pledge loyalty to God, and “commitment Sundays” where they pledge loyalty to their local church. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life begins by asking you to commit to reading it daily, and his church training program involves signing up to a series of “covenants”. The “Promise Keepers” movement has seven promises or commitments they want men to sign up to. Some preachers include making promises as part of their altar call – people need to come down to the front as a sign that they have definitively committed to some kind of response.

On the other hand, some churches have backed off this kind of language. It can be viewed suspiciously as a kind of guilt-inducing entrapment, manipulating people into making promises they can’t or don’t want to keep. To compound it all, didn’t Jesus tell us not to make promises at all in Matt 5:34?

It is easy to find plenty of examples of “pledges”, “vows” and “oaths” made by the people of God in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament they are few and far between. Apart from Paul vowing to cut all his hair off in Acts 18:18, examples of believers making promises or being asked to do so are hard to find. Some cite 1 Peter 3:21 as evidence of the practise of “baptismal pledges”, which do seem to have been a feature of the early church.

So should we be making vows? For the psalmist, it was very clear in his mind that he had devoted his entire life to knowing and obeying God. As we do with marriage vows he wanted to express his irrevocable decision to live for God – “I’m in this for life, no backing out”. Rather than necessarily making fresh “vows” in some kind of special ceremony, I think he made a habit of regularly reaffirming and articulating this commitment to God. Whilst I agree that our primary focus should be on God’s faithfulness, and his promises to us, I do believe it is appropriate for us to respond to his grace with songs and prayers affirming our own commitment to him.

I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.