Microsoft Word Format:
By Stephen Green. (First Published in Christian Voice: March 2003)
Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem about the righteousness of God's law. Every group of eight verses begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, taking each of the 22 letters in turn. There is an impressive choral setting in harmony of all 176 verses, and before each group of eight, the choir sing the appropriate letter as an introduction: "Aleph", "Beth", "Gimel", "Daleth" and so on.
The words "commandments", judgments", "law", "precepts", "statutes" and "testimonies" appear in the Authorised or King James Version in almost equal measure 129 times in all, more than three times the occurrences in the rest of the book of Psalms.
Even more impressive, each of these English words is a translation of a different Hebrew word. The word for "law" is of course "torah," which also carries the meaning of instruction or teaching, giving a hint of an important purpose of the law. The word for "commandments" is "mitswah", which can also mean the terms of a contract, so it is more detailed than "torah". The word for "precepts" is "piqqud" which means an appointment or allocation. These three words appear in the Bible for the first time, and in the same verse, not at Mount Sinai, but applied to Abraham, in Gen 26:5.
The word for "judgments" is "mishpat", which also carries the idea of justice in the civil realm, whilst the word for statutes is "choq" from a root meaning "to cut" or "engrave" as on a slab of stone. The word for "testimonies" is "edah" meaning "something which testifies" as does a witness, but in this context it carries the meaning of permanence and unequivocal fact.
Another expression which crops up in Psalm 119 is "dherekh" which means "way" as in a walk or a path to be followed. "The way" was how the Christian faith was described in the book of Acts (Acts 9:2, 16:17, 18:25-26, 19:9,23, 22:4, 24:22) so there is a sense of not straying off the path. The prophet Isaiah uses the same word: And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left. (Isa. 30:21)
The Apostle John also equates walking in the way with keeping the commandments of God: And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, that, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it. (2 John 1:6)
One other expression appears in Psalm 119 more than any other, 35 times in all, and it is "thy word". It encapsulates the sense of God's law as immutable, and includes all the other expressions, law, precepts, and so on. A few of the more famous verses are these:
Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. (Ps. 119:9)
Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word. (Ps. 119:67)
My soul fainteth for thy salvation: but I hope in thy word. (Ps. 119:81)
For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven. (Ps. 119:89)
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. (Ps. 119:105)
A psalm which praises the unchanging commandments of God in almost every single one of its 176 verses obviously causes problems for anyone who believes that the law of God has changed with the New Testament. If it has changed, then why does God say in Psalm 119:152 that His testimonies are founded "for ever"? As the Psalm says:
I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. (Ps. 119:99)
Perhaps we are better not to try to fit Psalm 119 into a theology which denies the permanence of God's law-word, but change the theology to fit Psalm 119. When God says the same thing in a Bible passage two or three times, Bible teachers always tell us to take notice. They say, correctly, that God is trying to put something of great importance into our minds. How much more, then, is God trying to make an idea stick with us when He says it 176 times.
The Psalmist says that meditating on the holy precepts of Almighty God gives knowledge, understanding, wisdom, hope, cleansing, purity, delight, rejoicing, and indeed life and salvation:
The righteousness of thy testimonies is everlasting: give me understanding, and I shall live. (Ps. 119:144)
Salvation is far from the wicked: for they seek not thy statutes. (Ps. 119:155)
I have longed for thy salvation, O LORD; and thy law is my delight. (Ps. 119:174)
In an age when law depends on the whim of government and is judged by the reaction of a focus group, and when our ancient laws, based on the eternal laws of God, are constantly being eroded to reflect manipulated public opinion, Psalm 119 is a massive encouragement to those who dare to speak out and proclaim the truth and permanence of God's word to our rulers:
Princes also did sit and speak against me: but thy servant did meditate in thy statutes. (Ps. 119:23)
Princes have persecuted me without a cause: but my heart standeth in awe of thy word. (Ps. 119:161)
Those who are clever in their own sight may despise us, but God has pronounced judgement on them elsewhere in scripture:
There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness. (Pro. 30:12)
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! (Isa. 5:21)
May we ever be mindful of our obligation to keep the law of God, and to see its righteousness and beauty. May we pray to be like the psalmist, who could put his hand on his heart and say: "O how love I thy law!"