Psalm 119

[Read 119:1-8]

1 Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.
2 Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
3 They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.

4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.

5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.

7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.

8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.

Verse 12: 'Barukh atah Adonai Elohenu...' So begins the Jewish table grace: "Blessed art Thou O Lord our God," to which they add 'melekh ha'olam' "King of the universe," before proceeding with whatever they are thankful for, like, 'Hamotzie lekhem min ha'aretz' "Who causes bread to come out of the earth."

When I was much younger, I heard this -- I think it was meant as a joke, but it's so true -- "There are two kinds of people: Those who get their jollies out of altering the positions of the molecules on the face of the earth, and Those who get their jollies out of telling other people to alter the positions of the molecules on the face of the earth. The former have lots of fun, and the latter make lots of money." I'm definitely in the first category, and I often make people in the second category unspeakably angry at me -- the "unspeakable" part I mean quite literally, they are so angry that they are unable (or perhaps only unwilling) to tell me why they are so angry, which makes it rather difficult for me to repent of anything I might have done to cause it, but that's another story. I lost my job three times and got thrown out of church twice and lost good friends several times more because of this.

Anyway, thinking about this dichotomy in connection with Psalm 119 this month, I realized that there's a third category, which has nothing to do with altering the positions of the molecules on the face of the earth at all, it is People who get their jollies out of thinking about stuff. Maybe they will tell you what they are thinking, maybe not, because they don't really care what you think or do, they live in their own little world all by themselves. Such people are called mystics, (classical) poets and artists, philosophers and theologians -- but not preachers, who are definitely in the second category. I say "classical" poets and artists, because the modern stuff that gets called "poetry" and "art" is all about jerking people around, which is more in the second category.

I have known mystics in my life, but I'm definitely not one of them. I'm not criticizing them, God made them as well as me, but I'm not in that space.

Psalm 119 is written by and for mystics. So I cannot really do it justice.

What you are getting from me today is not mystical, because I'm a practical person. I'm into moving molecules around (in my case electrons ;-) and not just thinking about things. I must also think about things to do what I do, but my purpose is to "Make the world a better place," making changes that affect other people for Good and not for harm. If you are a mystic, I'll try not to get in your way, but I hope I can help you to be more accurate in your mysticism ;-)

Psalm 119 is a meditation on God's Word -- some say "written Word" because that's what we moderns have, but when this Psalm was composed, very few people had access to written Scriptures (writing was far too hard to do and expensive), and the words used here, none of them refer to "writing" --  hmm, I guess the root meaning of 'khuqqim' ('huqqim' below) is to carve, perhaps like what God did to the two tablets of stone, but almost all of the Biblical "writing" we know about from that time was ink on parchment, or temporary notes on pottery fragments. In particular, 'khuqqim' throughout the Bible seems to be something you do, not something you read.

Biblical Hebrew has a word 'kathav' for any kind of writing -- like when people are writing (or reading what was written in) the Law or the Chronicles (usually in a "book" = 'sepher') and also for personal letters -- it's also used for when God wrote on the tablets of stone. As a noun it's used in the first century and later to refer to the part of the Old Testament that is not "Law" or "Prophets". These three parts show up in Greek in Luke 24:27, and in the modern Jewish acronym for the Old Testament, "TeNaCh" = Torah + Nephilim + Khethuvim = Law + Prophets + Writings. The only form of 'kathav' used in Psalms that I could find is in 87:6.

Maybe -- perhaps probably, if he was King David or Ezra the post-exile priest -- the composer had access to Scripture, it certainly reads like he did. David did a lot of meditative Psalms, but Psalm 119 was composed by somebody familiar with writing Hebrew, because the stanzas are in alphabetical order. I had always supposed that David recited his Psalms out loud, and they were written down by the court scribe, but now that I look at it, I see the other three alphabetical ("acrostic") Psalms are all explicitly "of David", so this could be too, except verse 161 describes a form of persecution (from "princes") that David never experienced. We are not told who wrote it. I suspect literacy was much more widespread back then than is now generally supposed.

Anyway, Psalm 119 is a meditation on God's Word, mostly prayers addressed to God (except v.115 is parenthetically addressed to "evildoers"). Meditation is good, the very first Psalm pronounces God's Blessing on people who "meditate" on God's Word "day and night." Psalm 119 gives particular examples of the kinds of blessings that come from meditating on God's Word. We'll look at some of them.

Actually there are eight words that might be considered to be synonyms for "Scripture" in this Psalm, (I got this from The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik, mostly quoting other commentators):

Law (torah, used 25 times in Psalm 119): "Its parent verb means  'teach' or 'direct'; therefore coming from God it means both 'law' and 'revelation.' It can be used of a single command or of a whole body of law." (Derek Kidner)

Word (dabar, used 24 times): The idea is of the spoken word, God's revealed word to man. "Proceeding from his mouth and revealed by him to us..." (Matthew Poole)

Judgments (mispatim, used 23 times): "...from shaphat, to judge, determine, regulate, order, and discern, because they judge concerning our words and works; show the rules by which they should be regulated; and cause us to discern what is right and wrong, and decide accordingly." (Adam Clarke)

Testimonies (edut/edot, used 23 times): This word is related to the word for witness. To obey His testimonies "...signifies loyalty to the terms of the covenant made between the Lord and Israel." (Willem VanGemeren)

Commandments (miswah/miswot, used 22 times): "This word emphasizes the straight authority of what is said...the right to give orders." (Derek Kidner)

Statutes (huqqim, used 21 times): The noun is derived from the root verb "engrave" or "inscribe"; the idea is the written word of God and the authority of His written word: "...declaring his authority and power of giving us laws." (Matthew Poole)

Precepts (piqqudim, used 21 times): "This is a word drawn from the sphere of an officer or overseer, a man who is responsible to look closely into a situation and take action.... So the word points to the particular instructions of the Lord, as of one who cares about detail." (Derek Kidner)

Word (imrah, used 19 times): Imrah is similar in meaning to dabar, yet a different term. "The 'word' may denote anything God has spoken, commanded, or promised." (Willem VanGemeren)

Not mentioned here, the Hebrew verb PQD (piqqudim is the plural participle) has a very wide range of meanings, most often translated "visit". "Pequod" (same Hebrew word) is also the name of the ship in Moby Dick. I think that's significant.

Psalm 119 is very long, at 176 verses the longest chapter in the whole Bible, in the longest book of the Bible. Somebody said you can read it in 15 minutes at one sitting -- we won't try to do that today, but you might do it some time, just for the fun of it.

Instead I will concentrate on structural information, the stuff you won't find anywhere else. Everybody tells you that it's 176 verses, 22 8-verse stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with every verse in that stanza starting with a word that begins with that letter. It's called an "acrostic." Three other Psalms are acrostics, but with one or more dropouts (missing letters, in two of them made up by duplications, but otherwise alphabetic). All of Lamentations and the Virtuous Woman in Proverbs 31 are also acrostics.

Like rhyming in 100+year-old poetry (modern "poets" are all too lazy to put that much work into it), beginning with a particular letter is extra work -- impossible in English with, for example, "X" -- so as a result there is not much linear flow of thought in these verses. We saw that same effect in Proverbs 31.

{OMIT.. In my "Daily Quiet Time" I used to read a chapter each day (it got me through the whole Bible in about three years), but after I switched to reading in Greek and Hebrew, it goes much slower, sometimes a quarter or third of a chapter. But I still do one Psalm each day, with 119 split up over the 31st day of the months that have 31 days. That gets me through Psalms and Proverbs twice each year. April 16 would be 30 times 3 (three previous months this year) =90 plus 16 = Psalm 76, every year on April 16 and October 16.}

When I was reading through Psalm 119 this month, I noticed a lot of repetition, similar thoughts expressed in different ways, but always affirming God's Word. So I made a list of maybe a couple dozen themes or ideas that I was seeing, then went through it again marking each phrase (typically two in each verse, the Hebrew poetic structure) with those expressed ideas. I added a few more categories when I hit another one I didn't previously think of.

The most common theme (83 times, almost half of the verses, more than the next two themes put together) is the Psalmist reminding God of how carefully he kept God's Word before him.

As I said, much (but not all) of Psalm 119 is individual prayers to God, and a little less than half of the verses are asking God to grant some benefit, about half them with explicit reference to God's Word, the other half no mention of the Word. Another quarter of the verses make no request, but declare some fact or virtue of God, mostly praising His Word.

Less than a quarter of the verses mention other people, over half of them to criticize them for wrongful behavior (ev.115 speaks to "evildoers" directly). Mostly this is "You and me, God." Sort of like the songs they sing in church, except the songs in church don't spend so much time telling God how hard we are trying to Get It Right.

Good Calvinist theology, the first principle of the "TULIP" acronym is "Total depravity," the idea that we are so sinful (which is true) that we cannot escape it in this life (of which Scripture is less than supportive). We all have heard sermons on Psalm 51 (after David violated Bathsheba), but they always stop after verse 9 or 10. David gets much more positive after accepting God's forgiveness. So I did a careful count of the number of Psalms that declare "I am sinful" vs the number that declare "I am righteous" [See "Bible 1, Calvinism 0" four years ago], a dozen "Goodies" (righteous) and only eleven "Baddies" (sinful). {I grew up in a denomination that was "5-point Calvinist," but the more I read God's Word, the more I back away from that. First I told people "I'm 2.5-point," but now it's something below 1 point. They get it from Scripture, but not "ALL Scripture [weather] is God-breathed and profitable..."}

God wants us to be Righteous, and He has given His Holy Spirit in our heart, not merely to whitewash and cover over an ineradicably sinful heart, but to make us be Good. Psalm 119 is about being Good. Yes, we haven't fully arrived yet, but focus on the Good. "Repent" means "stop sinning." There is no heart transplant at the Pearly Gates, the only heart transplant in Scripture is when God washes away our sins, when we accept Jesus as LORD. That means HE tells us what to do. Focus on the Good that God is doing. Psalm 119 does that. Only two verses in the whole Psalm even admit to anything Bad we might have done.

{I was in grad school, and all the other students were sweating over their upcoming orals -- that's a Big Thing in grad school -- but I didn't worry about it. I told them the faculty doesn't want you to fail (that makes *them* look bad) they want you to succeed. So yes, do your preparation, then go in confident that you will succeed. I'm no PollyAnna, I work hard to succeed, but in the end God is in charge, and God wants me to succeed -- at His agenda, not mine.}

Selected Verses

For the rest of this hour we will look at some selected verses in Psalm 119 in more depth, starting with its opening lines, the "Aleph" stanza...
1 Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.
2 Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
3 They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.
These three verses (and v.115, which is parenthetically addressed to "evildoers") in Psalm 119 are not addressed to God, but speak of Him in the third person. In the rest of the Psalm, only v.121 has no second-person pronouns at all (in English) but the verb there is inflected as second-person singular, still a prayer to God Who alone can do what is asked.

The first two verses here pronounce God's Blessing on people who stay connected to God. Elsewhere in Scripture we learn that God alone makes us able to do that, but it doesn't say that here. Here the focus is on what we humans are trying to do to stay connected to God. This would not be here at all if it were not possible, as summarized in verse 3: "They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways." This is not a lie. God cannot lie, so it is possible to have these blessings. But you have to want to. The Psalmist later invites God to help him achieve this goodness. God is Good, He will enable us to be good. That's what this Psalm is all about.

4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.
Here is the first of 161 individual prayers to God. This one makes no request of God, it only acknowledges that God is the Boss, God tells us what to do, and we must do it. We can do it, because God is not a harsh taskmaster.
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.
I only found two verses in the whole chapter where the Psalmist is less than positive about his success at obeying God's Word, here in verse 5, then again in the last verse. And what a weak and wimpy confession it is (in both cases), nothing like David's abject lament in Psalm 51! There's a time for both. A little bit, so we don't get the illusion he has achieved sinless perfection, but basically the Psalmist is positive, and we can be positive too. "Then" he says, we "will not be put to shame."

I put these two verses together, because verse 6 clearly is contingent on the success of his wish in verse 5. There are at least ten pairs like this that go together; everything else is stand-alone prayers.

The Hebrew word 'akhlay' that begins verse 5 occurs only four times in the Bible: here and 2K.5:3, both places where it means "I wish" and as a proper name twice in 2Chron, 2:31 "Sheshan was the father of Ahlai" and 11:41 among the people who came to David in Ziklag, "Uriah the Hittite, Zabad son of Ahlai." The Hebrew slave of Naaman the Leper's wife expressed the wish that Naaman could go see the prophet in Israel, who could cure him. Maybe the two people with that name, their parents were thinking "I wish we had a different kid," or something like that. There's a Greek word that means about the same thing, which is the name of the State we live in, 'oregon' = "longing," but the Greek Bible uses a different word, with more of a sense of failure, to translate this Hebrew word.

7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.
Ever the optimist, the Psalmist is still learning God's "judgments" (my NIV "righteous laws") but he promises to be "thankful" (NIV "praise") as it happens.
8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.
Sometimes it is necessary for God to not be there when we think we need Him -- did that ever happen to you? -- but God is not into throwing people away who want to be connected to God. That's the sense of this verse, it's not permanent. Like Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who knew that God could save them from Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace, "But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods nor bow down to the image of gold." We can do that.


43 Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws.
This one is interesting, because "the word of truth [in] my mouth" means I am speaking (repeating, not creating) God's Word, and that's A Good Thing, which like the Psalmist, we do not want to lose.

I thought it particularly noteworthy the reason he gives for continuing to speak (what we have read in) God's Word, is that it's the basis for our hope. We read in the Bible of our Eternal Hope in Heaven, and because that's important to us, we like to talk about it.

People talk about what's important to them. Is God's Word important to you? Do you like to talk about it?

46 I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame,
47 for I delight in your commands because I love them.
This pair says basically the same thing, more as a promise than a request. I like Prov.22:29, "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings..." When we delight in God's Word and make it central to what we do, we will be that kind of "skilled" and we will be invited to high places, where we get the opportunity to give glory to God. Kind of cool.
44 I will always obey your law, for ever and ever.
Predictions about the future are known only by God (and possibly an occasional demon), and (elsewhere in the Bible, not here) God makes it clear we should not promise what we cannot deliver, for "God has no pleasure in fools." [Ecc.5:3] See also Matt.5:33,37 and James 4:15. So I think I would say rather "I intend always to obey God's law," and I certainly hope circumstances do not befall me where I'm stuck between the proverbial "rock and a hard place" when it's difficult or impossible to Do The Right Thing, but Bad Things Happen. God controls that, not I. My late sister once told me that she greatly feared losing her mind so she would be unable to "love Jesus" (both our parents suffered dementia the last years of their lives). God honored her request and took her quickly. That's not A Bad Thing.


61 Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law.
Several places in Psalm 119 you see an odd word like "ropes" that doesn't exactly belong. What do ropes have to do with loving the Bible? I think the Psalmist was casting about, looking for words he could use that began with the right letter. Can you imagine trying to do that in English? What would you do when you came to the letter "X"?

"Rope" here (Hebrew 'khebel') begins with the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is therefore the first word of this verse. The fact that the Psalmist had to put some effort into making these verses fit the poetic form, in no way does that detract from God's inspiration, nor from its authority over our lives. God can do that.


67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
I was telling somebody the other day, "You only learn from your mistakes." Actually, it's not making the mistake that provides the learning experience, but seeing the bad outcome. "Before I was afflicted I went astray," the Psalmist tells us. "Going astray" isn't one little "oops" event, it's wandering all over the place, the wrong places. We keep on making the same mistake when there are no consequences. We need those consequences to get our act together.
68 You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees.
So, when God brings on those consequences, it's not that God is bad -- we earned those consequences -- but God is Good, and the outcome ("now I obey your word") is good. Everything God does is Good, even if we do not see that Good right now, God is Good. Later on, we will understand.


98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me.
Assuming they are my enemies because they (and not I) have departed from God's Word, I am wiser than they are. It is the "fool" (opposite of wise) who convinces himself that there is no God, that the Bible is a human invention to be ignored.

As a practical matter, God is Creator of the universe, He knows how everything works, and He cannot lie, so everything God tells us in His word is True (conforms with the Real World) so as we follow God's Word, we have a better understanding of the Real World than those who don't. That's why modern science was invented by Christians, and by nobody else ever. The atheists can copy the methodology, but they cannot understand how it works, because they do not know the Creator. And, as we become ever more "post-Christian" nationally, we will lose our front-rank standing -- indeed, we already are: last I heard, among 19 industrial nations, the USA ranked dead last in science and technology among high school students. It's not that science requires "religious" knowledge, but rather that God teaches us how to think in relationship with the universe.

103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I was in high school at the time, and I heard this guy in church describe the phases of appreciating God's Word. At first, he said, "it's like castor oil, nasty but good for you. Then it becomes more like" -- I think he said breakfast cereal, but I don't remember his exact words -- "dry, but nutritious. Finally it's like peaches and cream." From my perspective, I'm not sure all of God's Word is "like peaches and cream" or as the Psalmist put it, "sweeter than honey," but I do not regret reading it. It gives me a perspective on how the world works that you just cannot get anywhere else. I mean you can, but who's to know if it's any good? With the Bible you have the authority of Jesus Christ to tell us it is reliable in everything it teaches. Like it tells us about Bad People who tell lies, and it accurately reports those lies, but we are not expected to believe the lies themselves.


113 I hate double-minded men, but I love your law.
That's me. The Hebrew word 'se`aphim' that the NIV translates as "double-minded men," the root word means to split like a branch in a tree, so of a person it's somebody who can't decide which way to go. Don't you hate trying to work with somebody like that? You never know which way is up. God's Law is not like that. The Mormons, everything is changeable to them, so they need an "Apostle" in Salt Lake City to tell them what is true today. The Catholics have a Pope for the same purpose. We don't need that, because God's Word does not change.


126 It is time for you to act, O Lord; your law is being broken.
I may think that way from time to time, but who am I to tell God what time it is? Yet there it is, a prayer from the heart of the Psalmist, given as an example of how we also might should pray. When God's Law is being broken is a good time for God to act. Or at least for us to think so. God knows better the times and seasons, but at least we can be angry at what makes God angry. Within reason. Sometimes we (by God's grace) need to just endure it. Their time is coming, but God is not willing that any should perish. The Muslims "kill the infidels," but we do not, because God is giving them every opportunity to be saved. And yes, it is the nature of sin that innocent people get hurt, but it's a small price to pay, and God is nobody's debtor: Remember Job? (Do the math) He got paid back double for everything he lost. Everything.


152 Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.
I don't know when I figured that out, but I'm pretty sure it was at least a decade ago.

Think about it: God's Moral Law (not the ceremonial stuff that got nailed to the Cross), the moral absolutes like not lying or murder or stealing, those Laws will still be active in Heaven -- otherwise it wouldn't be Heaven for us, would it? The Apostle Paul tells us that these laws are all subsumed in the Golden Rule, because when we perfectly do the Golden Rule, we are obeying every one of the Moral Laws. The Law is a "schoolmaster" (not a prison warden) whose job is to teach young kids how to behave in polite society (and also some basic skills, Reading, Writing, and Rithmetic), and after we know how to behave, his job is done. The rules don't change, our behavior changes to conform to God's "forever" Law (it gets written on our heart), so that when He lets us into Heaven, we don't spoil it for everybody else.

Tom Pittman
2023 April 15