Psalm 119 - Part 1
Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic psalm (as 111, 112), consisting of twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each. The acrostic manner in which the psalmist develops the theme of the law required a sacrifice in structural development. The net effect is what A.A. Anderson terms “a monotonous repetition, which is, nevertheless, impressive even in its repetitiveness” (2:806). Allen calls it “a randomness or more precisely a kaleidoscopic patterning of a certain number of motifs”
Schaefer concludes, “The monotonous structure is intended to help the reader ruminate and thus enable him or her to fully appreciate the tôrâh and apply it to daily life. The tireless incantation fosters a contemplative climate which softens the heart and opens it to wisdom.” By this process of meditation,231 the one who appropriates Psalm 119 internalizes the message of the psalm and comes to exclaim with it, “How I love your instruction! It is my meditation all day long” (v. 97).
Rather than developing a logical argument, Psalm 119 is more like an impressionistic painting.
This is a psalm, not only of law, but of love, not only of statute, but of spiritual strength, not only of devotion to precept, but of loyalty to the way of the Lord. The beauty in this psalm resounds from the relationship of the psalmist and his God.
This psalm contains a reference to God’s Word in almost every verse (except verses 84, 121 and 122).
1. “Law” (tôrāh) occurs twenty-five times. The word “law” has both a broad and a narrow meaning. In the broad sense it refers to any “instruction” flowing from the revelation of God as the basis for life and action. In the narrow sense it denotes the Torah of Moses, whether the Pentateuch, the priestly law, or the Deuteronomic law
2. “Word” (dāḇār) occurs twenty-four times. Any word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is dāḇār whether it pertains to the Decalogue (Deut 4:13), the law of Moses (Deut 4:2, 10), or the word revealed through the prophets. It is a most general designation for divine revelation, whether of expectation or promise.
3. “Laws” (mišpāṭîm) occurs twenty-three times. The “laws” denote cases or legal decisions pertaining to particular legal issues. The “laws” of God are those “case laws” that form the basis for Israel’s legal system. In Psalm 119 the word “laws” often denotes the revelation given by the supreme Judge, God himself.
4. “Statute(s)” (ʿēḏûṯ/ʿēḏôṯ) occurs twenty-three times, only once in the singular. The word ʿēḏûṯ is derived from ʿ-w-d (“witness,” “testify”) and occurs in the idiomatic usage: “the two tablets of the Testimony” (Exod 31:18) and “the ark of the Testimony” (Exod 25:22). The “tablets” and the “ark” were symbols of the covenant relationship, and hence “testimony” is often synonymous with “covenant” (cf. 25:10; 132:12).
5. “Command(s)” (miṣwāh/miṣwôṯ) occurs twenty-two times. The word “command” is a frequent designation for anything that the Lord, the covenant God, has ordered. It is a synonym of “law” as well as of “decrees” and “laws.”
6. “Decrees” (ḥuqqîm) occurs twenty-one times. The noun is derived from the root ḥ-q-q (“engrave,” “inscribe”). God, being the Author of his decrees, reveals his royal sovereignty by establishing his divine will in nature (148:6) and in the covenant community (50:16; 105:10; cf. Deut 4:1).
7. “Precepts” (piqqûḏîm) occurs twenty-one times. The word occurs only in the Book of Psalms and appears to be synonymous with “covenant” (103:18) and with the revelation of God (111:7).
8. “Word” or “promise” (ʾimrāh) occurs nineteen times. The “word” (derived from ʾ-m-r, “say”) may denote anything God has spoken, commanded, or promised (cf. v. 140).
The psalmist further prays that no “shame” or ultimate disgrace may overtake him (v. 6). “Shame” in OT usage connotes a state of being abandoned by the Lord and condemned to utter ruin, such as becomes the enemies of God (cf. vv. 31, 46, 80; 6:10; 25:2; 83:17). In this prayer he intimates that he lives with adversity while walking in the way of the Lord. His lament is like a sobbing, as he prays that the Lord will have mercy on his servant. In this spirit we must also understand the prayer “do not utterly forsake me” (v. 8).
The act of “hiding” God’s word is not to be limited to the memorization of individual texts or even whole passages but extends to a holistic living in devotion to the Lord (cf. Deut 6:4–9; 30:14; Jer 31:33). The inner devotion to the Lord also finds expression in a teachable spirit (v. 12) and in contentment (vv. 14, 16).
21–24 God’s blessing rests on those who submit themselves to the law of God (vv. 1–3), whereas his curse comes on all those who “stray” (š-g-h, v. 21; cf. v. 10) deliberately from the revealed will of God (cf. v. 118). The “arrogant” (zēḏîm; cf. vv. 51, 69, 78, 85, 122; cf. 10:2–11; Prov 21:24; Mal 3:15; 4:1) despise God and godliness with their “scorn and contempt” (v. 22; cf. 71:13; 79:12; 89:50). Over against “the arrogant” is “the servant” (v. 23, cf. v. 17) who shows his loyalty to God’s “statutes” (ʿēḏôṯ, v. 22) by observing (n-ṣ-r, “keep”; cf. vv. 33–34, 69, 115, 145) them and by “meditating” (ś-y-ḥ, v. 23; see v. 15) on his “decrees” (ḥuqqîm).
25 The circumstances of the psalmist forces him even closer to the Lord. He experiences his earthiness and mortality as he is “laid low in the dust” (cf. vv. 28, 50, 67, 71, 75, 83, 92, 107, 143, 153; cf. 7:5; 22:15, 29; 44:25). Only the Lord can deliver him and thus give him a new lease on “life” (cf. v. 17; 71:20; 80:18; 85:6; 138:7; 143:11). The anticipation of renewal is based on the “word” (dāḇār) of God
28–29 The word of God has the power to comfort (“strengthen”) those overwhelmed with sorrow (“my soul is weary with sorrow,” v. 28; see Allen: “I have collapsed with intense sorrow,” p. 127). The “sorrow” (tûg̱āh) is not a casual tear but the sense of grief and vexation (cf. Prov 10:1; 14:13; 17:21).
33–37 This strophe contains a series of petitions united by the use of the Hiphil imperative: “Teach me.… Give me.… Direct me.… Turn my heart.… Turn my eyes.… Fulfill.… Take away” (vv. 33–39). In these petitions a tone of humility and dependence comes through. It is, after all, the LORD who must interpret his own revelation (“teach,” v. 33; see v. 26; cf. 25:4, 9; 27:11; 86:11; Isa 48:17; “give me understanding,” v. 34; see v. 27). It is also the Lord who can provide the spiritual direction and motivation to direct man’s steps (v. 36; cf. Prov 4:11–19) and incline his “heart” (cf. 141:4) to do his will. It is also the Lord who keeps man from evil, by dimming the luster of this world (“Turn my eyes away from worthless things [šāwʾ],” v. 37, i.e., “valueless” [Allen, p. 128]) and by keeping him from greed (“selfish gain,” v. 36; cf. Isa 33:15).