Mem–True Wisdom

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

A key theme of the “Mem” section of Psalm 119 (Ps 119:97-104) is the wisdom the Psalmist gets from his continual meditation on the word of God:

98 Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies.
99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
100 I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.

This might comes across as a bit arrogant. Reading the Bible has turned him him a know-it-all. He thinks himself wiser than his enemies, his teachers and the elders. Shouldn’t reading the word result in humility not pride?

But, we shouldn’t misread the Psalmist’s motives here. He is not claiming to be inherently wiser or better than others. He simply wants to say that the wisdom he gets from the word of God is the best kind of wisdom there is. It’s the wisdom that really matters. The nature of true wisdom is intensely practical. It is not abstract knowledge or philosophical ideas. It is not even about having smart business sense or clever people management skills. True wisdom has a moral dimension. The wise love righteousness and hate evil:

104 I gain understanding from your precepts;
therefore I hate every wrong path.

The truly wise therefore move beyond simply knowing what is true and what is false to knowing what is right and what is wrong. They go further; they move from knowing what is right to loving what is right. It’s not just our opinions that need changing, it is our desires.

I’ll save the concept of “hating” every wrong path for a future post, as that is another phrase in this section that could easily be taken the wrong way.

Lamedh–I am yours

The verse I want to pick out from this portion of Ps 119 is one that came to my attention after watching the movie “Luther”. In Ps 119:94, the Psalmist says “I am yours, save me”. There is a powerful moment in the film where Johan von Stauptiz urges Martin Luther, who was despairing of finding a gracious God at the time, to use it as a prayer, lifting his eyes from himself and looking to Christ:

“Martin, what is it you seek?”
“A merciful God! A God that I can love! A God who loves me…”
“Then look to Christ…bind yourself to Christ, and you will know God’s love. Say to him, “I am Yours – save me!”

Saved from what?

But has this half-verse been snatched away from its context and made to mean something alien to the original text? What was the Psalmist praying to be saved from? Verse 95 might suggest that it is not God’s judgement he wants to be saved from, but the harm that wicked people want to do to him:

95 The wicked are waiting to destroy me,
   but I will ponder your statutes.

However, verses 92-93 paint a slightly different picture, one in which the Psalmist links his own personal safety with his loyalty to God’s word. In other words, he recognises that there is a graver danger than falling into the hands of the wicked, and that is falling in line with the wicked and sharing their fate:

92 If your law had not been my delight,
   I would have perished in my affliction.
93 I will never forget your precepts,
   for by them you have preserved my life.

So we could say the Psalmist has “holistic salvation” in mind – salvation from harm in this life and salvation from damnation in the next; salvation from the schemes of the wicked and salvation from the judgment of God.

Saved on what basis?

But what is the basis of that salvation? The ESV rendering of verse 94 could be interpreted as presenting a legalistic understanding – he expects to be saved because of his obedience to God’s precepts:

94 I am yours; save me,
for I have sought your precepts.

The NIV however phrases the verse quite differently, suggesting that the Psalmist’s hope of salvation rests on the simple fact that he belongs to God:

94 Save me, for I am yours;
   I have sought out your precepts.

Theologically, I prefer the NIV here. My confidence that I will be saved is not based on my obedience to God’s precepts, but on the knowledge that I belong to him, that I have been bought by the blood of Christ.

In any case, a careful reading of the ESV reveals that it is not “obedience” that is put forward as the basis for salvation. He says he has “sought” God’s precepts, which, for the Psalmist, is pretty much the same thing as saying he has sought God. Probably if the ESV is right, the sense is that seeking after God is the hallmark of belonging to him. Those who belong to God desire to please him with a life of obedience and therefore “seek his precepts.” In that sense it is no different from the Jesus’ teaching that those who abide in him will bear fruit.

Saviour and Lord

But perhaps the most attractive thing about the phrase “I am yours, save me” is the indissoluble link between having Jesus as your Saviour, and belonging to him. We cannot say to Jesus, “I want salvation, but I don’t want you”. You cannot have him as your saviour without also coming into a new relationship with God as your Father, and Jesus as your Lord. When we are saved we don’t just receive benefits from Christ, we find ourselves, to use Paul’s language, “in Christ”. We enter into a new life in which Jesus is right at the centre.

So I think Staupitz was right to point Luther to a God of grace using this verse. He’s not a God who will save us only if we impress him enough with our commandment-keeping. He’s a God who delights to save all who call upon him, all who lift their eyes off themselves and look to Christ alone for salvation.

Kaph–Waiting in Hope

This section of Psalm 119 is all about waiting. The Psalmist is longing for God to break in and bring him comfort and justice. The rather obscure phrase “I am like a wineskin in the smoke” seems to imply that he feels dried up and burned out.

81 My soul faints with longing for your salvation,
   but I have put my hope in your word.
82 My eyes fail, looking for your promise;
   I say, “When will you comfort me?”
83 Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke,
   I do not forget your decrees.
84 How long must your servant wait?
   When will you punish my persecutors?

Yet even in this rather bleak portion of the Psalm, the writer’s unshakeable confidence in God’s word shines through. God’s word is what gives him “hope” (Ps 119:81). Though his eyes fail waiting for God’s “promise” (Ps 119:82) to come to fulfilment, he doesn’t become cynical and doubt that it will ever come to pass. Instead, he is confident that God’s word is completely “trustworthy” (Ps 119:86).

But I think the key to how he keeps going despite God’s seeming inactivity on his behalf is in the final verse. His confidence in God’s word has convinced him of the Lord’s unfailing love for him.

88 In your unfailing love preserve my life,
   that I may obey the statutes of your mouth.

It’s the same idea that Paul runs with in Rom 8:31-39. If we have become convinced that God’s love for us is unfailing, then we can face suffering with hope. In fact, this is the most important type of “understanding” that the Spirit gives us as we read the Bible – the understanding that God is our Father, and he truly loves us.

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Yodh–Created to Learn

The verse that stands out for me in the ‘Yodh’ section of Psalm 119 (verses 73-80) is the first one:

73 Your hands made me and formed me;
   give me understanding to learn your commands.

Maybe I’m a bit of a nerd but I find learning to be one of the most fulfilling things in life. Readers of this site will know my passion for studying theology, particularly reading commentaries. I am also in the fortunate position where my day job, programming, is something I also enjoy doing as a hobby. I love learning about new programming technologies and trying them out. Just because school was boring sometimes doesn’t mean that learning needs to be. In fact, my philosophy of education is that school should be about teaching you how to learn, and inspiring you to love learning, rather than trying to cram your head full of facts.

We are born knowing nothing at all. This is not a result of the fall. It is the way God designed us. We’re created to be learners. It’s not surprising that learning can be so fulfilling – it is what we were made to do.

But the Psalmist here prioritises one type of learning above all others. And that is learning about God, through his word. As is his habit throughout this Psalm, the author makes little distinction between God and his word. We get to know God as we know his word better. Yes, it is possible to become an expert in the Scriptures without knowing God (the Pharisees demonstrated that pretty effectively); but don’t expect to grow in your knowledge of God if you are not willing to spend time meditating on his word.

The phrase “give me understanding” should not be overlooked. It is not learning Greek and Hebrew or reading commentaries that is the secret to discovering what God has to say in his word (though those things are undoubtedly very helpful). Ultimately, we need the Spirit to open our eyes and give us understanding. It’s the same observation the Psalmist has already made earlier:

18 Open my eyes that I may see
   wonderful things in your law.

Teth–God’s Purposes in Affliction

This section of Ps 119 (subtitled ‘Teth’ – Ps 119:65-72) contains one of the most theologically controversial verses in this Psalm. We get a hint of what is coming in verse 67:

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
   but now I obey your word.

The psalmist seems to be describing a period in his life when he was far from God, but some kind of suffering brought him to a place of obedience to God’s word. We don’t get the details we would like – was the ‘affliction’ a direct consequence of his sin that brought him to his senses, or was it some other type of trouble? Now comes the bit that can provoke quite a debate amongst some Christians:

71 It was good for me to be afflicted
   so that I might learn your decrees.

The psalmist now views the suffering he went through (an possibly is still facing) as “good”. It is good not because suffering is good, but because God used it for good. But if God can use our suffering to fulfil his good purposes, does that mean he sometimes causes our suffering? It’s a question this Psalm doesn’t answer. Instead, he affirms that despite it all, he is convinced of the goodness of God, and that God’s purposes for him are intended for good:

68 You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees.

Like many Psalms, the exact nature of the ‘affliction’ is kept hidden from us. This is part of the appeal of the Psalms – they contain an abundance of comfort for people going through all kinds of difficult situations. We also don’t get to find out if this particular ‘affliction’ has come to an end. We’ve already seen that the Psalmist faces considerable mocking and slander (see Ps 119:69 for yet another example), so that may be the nature of it. I wonder whether it also contains a financial dimension:

72 The law from your mouth is more precious to me
   than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

My tentative reconstruction then is this. The psalmist was far from God, popular and wealthy. But something happened, that poisoned people against him, and resulted in him losing friends, position, and money. With no where left to go, he returned to God and found himself more content than ever. This gave him new perspective on his (ongoing) affliction – it was a good thing, because through it he had been rescued from the emptiness of life without God.

Heth–True Repentance

The verses I want to pick out from the “Heth” section of Ps 119 (verses 57-64), highlight the nature of true repentance, which is another theme that crops up in a few places throughout this Psalm.

“I have considered my ways” (v59)

The psalmist has a very God-centred approach to Scripture. He primarily reads to learn about God’s ways and character. But this does not mean that he doesn’t evaluate his own life in the light of Scripture. As he reads the word of God he is not just seeking information, but transformation – he expects the light of God’s word to reveal areas in his life that still need to be conformed to the will of God.

James 1:22-25 compares God’s word to a mirror. It not only shows us what God is like, it shows us what we are like. And the reason we need to know is because we need to change.

In Ps 119:26, the psalmist says “I recounted my ways and you answered me”. I think he is saying that he makes a practice of talking openly and honestly with God about his life, his hopes and fears, his ambitions. He knows nothing is hidden from God, so he prays without any pretence, admitting to what he is really like and asking for God’s help.

“I have turned my steps towards your statutes” (v59)

However, he doesn’t stop at simply confessing his faults and failings. As he reads God’s word he makes a deliberate choice to turn. This is the essence of repentance – a change of mind that results in a change of behaviour. Being ‘convicted’ by God’s word is pointless if it doesn’t result in change. In fact, if we don’t, we end up becoming hard-hearted and less capable of hearing the voice of the Spirit in the future.

“I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands” (v60)

Often the moment at which we respond to God’s word is not the same as the moment that we need to put it into action. We may be reading our Bible alone and realise we need to put things right with another person. Or we hear God’s word preached in church, and realise we need to change our behaviour in the workplace. It means that it is all too easy for us to be convicted as we hear the word of God and make a ‘commitment’ to respond in some concrete way, but never get round to putting it into practice.

The psalmist’s practice is to put obedience to God’s word as his highest priority, with no excuses and no procrastination. If it is the right thing to do, then now is the right time to do it. We need to be proactive about doing what God has told us to. Jesus emphasised this regularly in his teaching (e.g. Matt 5:23-25). God’s word is not simply good advice that you might want to consider following when you have a bit of spare time, or when you feel like it. The only appropriate response is immediate obedience. If God tells you to do something, get on with it!

Zayin- Comfort through Remembering

In the “Zayin” section of Psalm 119 the Psalmist explains how it is possible that he keeps going in the face of suffering and opposition. He is determined to stay loyal to God’s law despite the constant mocking he is subjected to:

51 The arrogant mock me unmercifully,
   but I do not turn from your law.


He mentions two things in particular that bring him comfort in his suffering. The first is that he finds comfort in the promises of God:

50 My comfort in my suffering is this:
Your promise preserves my life.

In other words, it is his confidence in the absolute trustworthiness of God’s word that enables him to keep going and refuse to cave in to the pressure he is facing. His second source of comfort is a little more surprising: he finds comfort in the laws of God:

52 I remember, LORD, your ancient laws,
   and I find comfort in them.

Finding comfort in God’s promises is something we can identify with, but finding comfort in his laws? That doesn’t seem logical. But the psalmist finds comfort in God’s laws because as he meditates on them, he knows that the path he has chosen to follow in life is the right one. Despite the opposition and mocking he faces, he takes comfort in knowing that he is pleasing God and will ultimately be vindicated:

56 This has been my practice:
   I obey your precepts.


The reason the psalmist is able to derive so much comfort in suffering from God’s promises and laws is that he is deliberate about “remembering” them. He regularly recalls them to his mind. As well as remembering the promises and laws found in God’s word, he remembers God’s “name”. God’s name stands for his character and in particular his utter reliability.

55 In the night, LORD, I remember your name,
   that I may keep your law.

He has another interesting means of remembering the Lord, and that is through singing. Singing is not something to be reserved for church meetings, but should be a regular feature of our private devotion to the Lord. Singing lifts our minds off our own circumstances and onto the goodness and greatness of God. Singing is also a very effective means of memorising God’s word.

54 Your decrees are the theme of my song
   wherever I lodge.

It is as we remember the Lord, through singing and meditating on his word, that we find comfort and hope in the midst of suffering, because we know that the Lord will not forget to keep his promises:

49 Remember your word to your servant,
   for you have given me hope.

Waw–Unashamed of God’s Word

One of the themes that keeps cropping up throughout Psalm 119 is that the author seems to be the subject of mocking and slander, particularly from people in positions of authority and influence. For example, Ps 119:22-23 speaks of the scorn, contempt and opposition he faces:

22Take away from me scorn and contempt,
for I have kept your testimonies.
23Even though princes sit plotting against me,
   your servant will meditate on your statutes.

Here in the “Waw” section (Ps 119:41-48), he returns to this theme. He is being taunted (presumably by people who don’t consider him a fool for trusting God’s word):

42then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me,
   for I trust in your word.

He also seems to find himself being hauled up in front of kings to give account of himself in some way. Maybe his determination to obey God’s law is causing offence. But he is determined not to be intimidated into keeping silent about God’s word. He will speak out the truth without feeling ashamed, and is confident that ultimately he will be vindicated by God.

46I will also speak of your testimonies before kings
   and shall not be put to shame,

I think this has growing relevance for Christians in a society where there are increasingly vocal critics of the Bible. To say you believe in God’s word is likely to result either in laughter or condemnation. The temptation is to keep quiet as a result, staying under the radar. The reason we do this is that we have a tendency to crave the approval of people rather than God. But the Psalmist knows where his loyalty lies. He would rather have God’s approval and man’s rejection than the other way round.

For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Mark 8:38

He – Idolatry and the Word of God

The verses that stand out for me in the ‘He’ section (Ps 119:33-40) are the middle two:

36 Turn my heart toward your statutes
   and not toward selfish gain.
37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
   preserve my life according to your word.

Despite it being clear that the Psalmist has a deep passion for both God and his word, here he recognises that he has a tendency to let other things get in the way. In particular, he shares the common human tendency towards “selfish gain” – living simply for my own benefit, and is easily distracted by “worthless things” – those things which may not be ‘sinful’ per se, but idle amusements or trivial preoccupations which can so easily dominate our lives.

Meditating on God’s word reorientates our value system and puts things into proper perspective. It lets us see selfish gain for what it is – selfish; and worthless things for what they are – worthless. Meditating on God’s word will rearrange our priorities, causing us to seek first the kingdom of God. Activities such as worship, serving others, giving, and witness, will become central to our life’s ambition rather than inconvenient interruptions to what we would rather be doing.

When Jesus was asked, “what is the greatest commandment” in Matt 22:34-40, he answered immediately. This was not because he was a really quick thinker.  It was because this was a question he already knew the answer to, and he knew it because his mind had been shaped by a lifetime of meditating on the Scriptures:

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Meditating on the word of God then is a vital weapon in the fight against idolatry. Have you let your gaze turn towards selfish gain? Are your thoughts dominated by worthless things? Then turn to God’s word and get a fresh vision of the beauty of the Lord. Be captivated by something that is worth living for.

Daleth – Depression, Grace and Freedom


In Ps 119:25 the Psalmist says “I am laid low in the dust”, and then in verse 28 “My soul is weary with sorrow” (one commentator paraphrases “I have collapsed with intense sorrow”). These days we’d probably diagnose him with depression and pack him off to the doctors to get some happy pills. But for the writer of this Psalm, there is no question where he will turn first for comfort and strength – the Word of God.

25 I am laid low in the dust;
   preserve my life according to your word.

28 My soul is weary with sorrow;
   strengthen me according to your word.

Of course, I in no way want to trivialise the very real issue of depression, or glibly claim that a few hours of Bible reading will automatically fix it, but it does raise the issue of where we do we turn in times of sorrow. Part of the battle with depression is the battle for the mind (see Matt Hosier’s excellent prayer for depression), and to fight that battle effectively we must fill our minds with truth.

Grace and Truth

The reason the Psalmist turns to the Word of God when he is feeling low is that he knows that it is a source of grace and truth:

29 Keep me from deceitful ways;
   be gracious to me through your law.
30 I have chosen the way of truth;
   I have set my heart on your laws.

This is an interesting combination of terms since in John 1:17 it says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John is not denying that the law contains grace and truth, but is claiming that the fullest expression of God’s grace and truth is found in Jesus. This is why a christological approach to Scripture is so important. The Bible leads us into grace and truth as we let it point us to Christ.


The final verse in Psalm 119:25-32 (“the Daleth strophe”) is perhaps favourite in the whole Psalm, although it would appear that the translators can’t quite agree on how the second phrase should be translated. I like the NIV 1984’s “you have set my heart free” and think it fits well with the metaphor of running:

I run in the path of your commands,
   for you have set my heart free.

It is often assumed that a life of following commands must be one of drudgery, but for the Psalmist, the opposite is true. For him, it is when he is “running” in the path of God’s commands that he is free from anxiety and fear. Running in God’s way is both liberating and refreshing. I think the Psalmist would agree with the sentiment of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire when he says, “when I run I feel His pleasure”.