"Make Me Walk in the Path of Your Commandments" (Psalm 119:1-40) January 24-25
Psalm 119, a massive alphabetic acrostic poem, is the last of the apparent collection of psalms starting with two other acrostic psalms, 111 and 112-thus framing the Egyptian Hallel (113-118). Yet in a number of ways Psalm 119 is in a class unto itself. It is by far the longest of the psalms as well as the longest chapter in the Bible. More than a wisdom psalm providing instruction in how to live, it is an extensive love song to God about His law as well as a plea for deliverance from oppressors. The author, who is now unknown, repeatedly declares his passionate devotion to God's law as a wise and reliable guide for life-and speaks of finding delight and spiritual strength in it in the midst of distress. In general, the "law" or torah the psalmist extols refers to more than the first five books of the Bible classified as the Torah or Law. Rather, this word more broadly means "teaching" and includes all of God's revealed instruction in Old Testament Scripture-and we today can even more broadly apply the term to the whole of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, the entire written Word of God.
It should be obvious that the creation of this lengthy acrostic psalm was a major intellectual undertaking. While God specially inspired the authors of the psalms, as He did all the biblical writers, it is clear from the various styles within the psalms that He made use of their individual talents. And the author of Psalm 119 was no doubt a brilliant thinker. For each of the 22 consonants in the Hebrew language, the psalmist has composed an eight-verse paragraph (called a strophe or stanza in poetic structure). Each of the eight verses in a stanza begins with the same letter. Verses 1-8 begin with aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Verses 9-16 begin with beth, the second letter in the alphabet, and so on through the remainder of the alphabet. Given this construction, it is likely the poet intended his work to be memorized. Can you imagine memorizing all 176 verses of this psalm? The acrostic device appears in other psalms (25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 145), where it also serves as a memory aid.
Psalm 119 uses eight different words to designate God's revealed instruction to humankind:
torah "law" (also more broadly meaning instruction)
'edot "testimonies" (reiterations of God's standards)-rendered "statutes" in the IV
piqqudim "precepts" (injunctions or imposed rules)
huqqim "statutes" (inscribed, enacted laws) -"decrees" (NIV)
mitzvot "commandments" or "commands" (constitutional orders)
mishpatim "judgments" (judicial rulings for living)-"laws" and "ordinances" in the NIV
dabar "word" (sometimes here in the sense of law, sometimes of promise)
'imrah "word" (saying, sometimes here in the sense of law, but more often of promise)
These various terms the psalmist "distributes throughout the 22 stanzas (using all eight in He, Waw, Heth, Yodh, Kaph, Pe-never using less than six), employing a different order in each stanza" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 119). As another commentary points out regarding this psalm: "Students disagree on this, but it appears that every verse contains a direct mention of God's Word except seven: verses 3, 37, 84, 90, 121, 122, and 132. If you count 'ways' [from Hebrew derek] as a synonym for God's Word, then you can eliminate verses 3 and 37.... The writer may have been meditating on Psalm 19 where David listed six names for the Scriptures, five of which are found in 119-law, testimony, precept, commandment, and judgment. Some of the vocabulary of 19 is also found in 119, including perfect or blameless...pure...righteous and righteousness...and meditate or meditation.... Both compare the Word of God to gold ([19:]10/119:72; 127) and honey ([19:]10/119:103), and in both there is an emphasis on keeping or obeying God's Word" (Warren Wiersbe, Be Exultant: Psalms 90-150, introductory notes on Psalm 119).
This huge composition no doubt took a great deal of time, effort and care to create. The Zondervan NIV Study Bible puts it well: "The alphabetic acrostic form, especially one as elaborate as this, may appear arbitrary and artificial to a modern reader (as if the author merely selected a traditional form from the poet's workshop and then labored to fill it with pious sentences), but a sympathetic and reflective reading of this devotional will compel a more favorable judgment. The author had a theme that filled his soul, a theme as big as life, that ranged the length and breadth and height and depth of a person's walk with God. Nothing less than the use of the full power of language would suffice, and of that the alphabet was a most apt symbol" (note on Psalm 119).
Commentator Wiersbe remarks on this unknown psalmist: "Whoever the author was, he is a good example for us to follow, for he had an intense hunger for holiness and a passionate desire to understand God's Word in a deeper way. In all but fourteen verses, he addresses his words to the Lord
personally, so this psalm is basically a combination of worship, prayer, praise, and admonition. The writer must have been a high profile person because he mentioned the opposition of rulers (vv. 23, 161; 'princes' in KJV and NASB), a word that can refer to Gentile rulers or local Jewish tribal leaders (Neh. 3), and he also spoke to kings (v. 46). In the psalm, there are no references to a sanctuary, to sacrifices, or to a priestly ministry [perhaps indicating a time of apostasy or the period between the temple's destruction and reconstruction]. The cast of characters includes the Lord God, a remnant of godly people in the nation (vv. 63, 74, 79, 120, etc.), the psalmist, and the ungodly people who despised him (v. 141), persecuted him (vv. 84-85, 98, 107, 109, 115, 121-122, etc.), and wanted to destroy him (v. 95). The psalmist referred to them as 'the proud' or 'the arrogant' (vv. 21, 51, 69, 78, 85, 122). They were people who were born into the covenant but did not value the spiritual riches of that relationship. They disdained the law and openly disobeyed it. The writer was reproached by them (vv. 22-23, 39, 42) and suffered greatly from their false accusations (vv. 50-51, 61, 67, 69-71, 75, 78)" (introductory notes on Psalm 119). The same commentator goes on to explain his reasons for thinking the author may have been the prophet Jeremiah on the basis of the above criteria. Others have made the same identification, though David is more typically seen as the author.
Whoever wrote it, Psalm 119 remains a powerful witness to us today. As Wiersbe comments: "The basic theme of Psalm 119 is the practical use of the Word of God in the life of the believer. When you consider that the writer probably did not have a complete Old Testament, let alone a
complete Bible [and probably not a personal copy of every scriptural scroll], this emphasis is both remarkable and important. Christian believers today [personally] own complete Bibles, yet how many of them say that they love God's Word and get up at night or early in the morning to read it and meditate on it (vv. 55, 62, 147-148)? How many Christian believers ignore the Old Testament Scriptures or read the Old Testament in a careless and cursory manner? Yet here was a man who rejoiced in the Old Testament Scripture-which was the only Word of God he had-and considered God's Word his food (v. 103) and his greatest wealth! (vv. 14, 72, 127, 162). His love for the Word of God puts today's believers to shame. If the psalmist with his limited knowledge and resources could live a godly and victorious life feeding on the Old Testament, how much more ought Christians today live for the Lord. After all, we have the entire Bible before us and two millennia of church history behind us!" (same notes).
So true. And those professing Christians who argue that God's laws are obsolete, arbitrary and unnecessary would have a hard time convincing the writer of this psalm of their position-much less the great God who ultimately inspired this psalm to be written!
As to the psalm's setting of persecution by enemy oppressors, we should all be able to identify with this element. For even if we have no obvious adversaries on a human level, all of God's people are at constant war with the unseen demonic spirit rulers of this world (see Ephesians 6:12).
Concerning the arrangement of Psalm 119, "apart from the obvious formal structure dictated by the chosen acrostic form, little need (or can) be said. It must be noted, however, that the first three and the last three verses were designed as introduction and conclusion to the whole. The former sets the tone of instruction in godly wisdom; the latter succinctly restates and summarizes the main themes. It may also be observed that the middle of the psalm has been marked by a similar three-verse introduction to the second half.... For the rest, the thought meanders, turns back upon itself and repeats (with various nuances)" (Zondervan, note on Psalm 119).
As mentioned, the Aleph strophe or stanza (verses 1-8) begins with an introduction to the rest of the psalm that explains that the way for a person to be blessed, to experience true happiness in life, is to be "undefiled" or "blameless" (NIV) in the way he lives. To be blameless does not mean that one never sins. Rather, it means that one is beyond reproach. Nothing can be held against him. This comes from always repenting when one sins, never failing to return to God and His ways.
As is clear from the rest of the stanza (verses 4-8), the poet himself is by no means perfect. After stating his knowledge of God's requirements of us (verse 4), he expresses the wish that his own ways were naturally directed to meet them (verse 5), implying that they were not. If his natural inclination were to obey God, then he wouldn't be ashamed when he looked into God's Word (verse 6). Because the human heart is hostile toward God (Romans 8:7) and deceptively wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), the psalmist finds that God's law, like a mirror, reflects his inadequacies (James 1:24; Romans 3:20).
As he learns to better follow God's righteous way, he will be able to praise God from an upright heart (verse 7). The author understands that in keeping God's law, his heart will move away from its selfish orientation toward the righteousness of God: "But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-he will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:25, NIV).
The stanza closes with the psalmist's intention to strive to obey God, praying for God's forgiveness-that he will not be forsaken (Psalm 119:8), possibly hinting at his present suffering, as mentioned later. Indeed, repentance always includes a resolve to follow God's laws.
In the Beth strophe (verses 9-16), the writer asks, "How can a young man keep his way pure?" (verse 8, NIV). Or in a general sense: how can we honor the promise we made to keep God's law?
Some have thought "young man" to be a characterization of the author. This is possible, but others maintain that "more likely it indicates instruction addressed to the young after the manner of the wisdom teachers (see 34:11; Pr 1:4; Ecc 11:9; 12:1...)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 119:9). While specific younger disciples could have been the intended audience, it may simply be that the psalm was designed for memorization by all the young people of the nation as part of their education.
Of course, the psalmist was also preaching to himself. In his prayer to God, He was committing himself to God's way. In this
stanza he declares a number of things he will do to keep his life clean, giving us principles to apply in our own lives.
The author states that a person determined to live a pure, obedient life will take heed (verse 9) and be mindful and aware of the context of life. God is the Author of life, and His Word is an instruction book for how life works (as well as how it doesn't). A wise individual will be conscious of and utilizing such a priceless resource so readily available.
Such a person will also seek God with
enthusiasm-wholeheartedly (verse 10)-spending time in study, prayer, meditation. He will delight in God's Word and let it capture his thoughts (verses 11, 15-16). Verse 11 shows that God's Word must be more to us than something that we read. It must be written on our hearts and minds (see Jeremiah 31:33) -hidden, protected, within us as valuable treasure (see Psalm 119:14).
Furthermore a committed person will willingly learn from God by approaching his studies with a teachable attitude. And he will discuss with others what he has learned from the law (verse 13).
Yet the psalmist does not fail to acknowledge that his success ultimately depends not on his own efforts, but on what God will do. In addition to the things an individual must do in living a righteous life, the writer states here two things that God must do.
First, God must motivate and empower him to keep him on track. "Do not let me stray from your commands" (verse 10, NIV). God will not take away an individual's free will and responsibility to choose to obey, but He will undertake loving surveillance and shepherding, helping his servant to perceive and aspire to the right way and follow it: "You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.... You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.... Where shall I go from your Spirit.... Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me" (Psalm 139:2-10).
Second, God must teach him (verse 12). The author affirms the importance of God opening his understanding. He wanted to learn by studying God's Word and putting it into practice. This does not preclude learning from other teachers, but God would be his primary Instructor. Because God thoroughly knows each individual, He tailors the timing, the presentation, the "aha" experiences for all of His children-the pattern He established for parents in every age (see Deuteronomy 6:6-7). And realize again that rather than giving us minute direction in every action of our life, God gives us widely applicable principles through which we learn the how and why of living His way. By analogy, a wise teacher leads his students to understanding the lesson, not to merely reciting what they hear. Such understanding helps us to think and reason more clearly about our choices.
We must always remember that we cannot succeed in living God's way on our own. We desperately need His intervening spiritual
power and continuing instruction.
In the Gimel strophe (verses 17-24) the psalmist continues the thought of God teaching him and first explicitly mentions his present trial. He needs God to open his mind to revelation from God's Word (verse 18). He needs God's help to live and to live
by that Word (verse 17). Commentator George Knight remarks on verse 17 that the key word in Psalm 119 "is the word live.... For the Torah, God is the Living God. This Living God offers his children his life, and that is not mere biological life. It is life in the Spirit, to which physical death has nothing to say. The five books of the Pentateuch culminate at Deut. 30:15, 19 with God's 'Word': 'See I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.' The passage then goes on to declare that 'life' is bound up with love and with obedience to God's revealed commandments, statutes, and ordinances" (The Daily Study Bible Series: Psalms, Vol. 2, note on Psalm 119:17-24).
The poet declares that he is a "stranger on earth" (verse 19, NIV; compare verse 54). The Israelites were considered to be
strangers and sojourners-following laws and customs not of this world and looking forward to God's messianic Kingdom (see Leviticus 25:23; 1 Chronicles 19:15). Sadly the Israelites often conformed to the idolatrous world around them, leaving only a faithful remnant who continued as God's special people-foreign to this world and its ways. In the New Testament, Christians are referred to as strangers and pilgrims who look for a better country-that of God's coming Kingdom (see Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). The writer faced the dilemma of dual citizenship-living under wayward human dominion while yearning for God's righteous administration (verse 20). Jesus foresaw the difficulties His disciples would confront as they lived in the world while not of it. He prayed that God would protect them from evil and set them apart by His word of truth (John 17:14-17). Similarly, the psalmist asks God to make His commandments (His truth) clearly evident (Psalm 119:19).
In the final verses of this stanza, the psalmist desires relief from those who are arrogant, scornful and contemptuous (verses 21-22). They stray from God's commands and earn for themselves an inevitable outcome. As already mentioned, the author was evidently an individual of some importance, possibly in the government-perhaps an advisor or prophet-because he was slandered by rulers (verse 23). If the writer was a prophet and brought a corrective message from God, it follows that evil rulers might conspire to kill him (compare verses 85, 95, 110). Whether or not the prophet Jeremiah was the author of the psalm, he provides a perfect example of this, for his life was repeatedly threatened because he faithfully brought warning messages to the kingdom of Judah and its leadership. As he said, "They have dug a pit to take me, and hidden snares for my feet. Yet, LORD, You know all their counsel which is against me, to slay me" (Jeremiah 18:22-23).
The psalmist turns his present crisis over to God and takes comfort in serving Him. Rather than taking vengeance or being unduly distressed by slanderers, he takes comfort in God's laws as his "counselors" (Psalm 119:24). This may be a hint that the religious hierarchy in the land was corrupt and unreliable-so that the author in this environment had to look to God's words alone as his teachers and spiritual advisers. Of course, even when there are faithful teachers to learn from, their teachings must be confirmed through the direct counsel of Scripture (see Acts 17:11; 20:27).
In the Daleth stanza (verses 25-32) the poet laments over his circumstances, being "weary with sorrow" (verse 28, NIV). He "clings to the dust" (verse 25a)-being oppressively crushed down (compare 44:24-25). He asks God to revive him (119:25b)-conveying the sense of saving from death. The Hebrew word means to restore or renew-to breathe new life into something. Thus, the psalmist turns to God for renewal at a time of terrible despondency.
The writer has opened up to God, declaring His ways (verse 26)-that is, His circumstances and how he has been responding to them-and knows that God has answered him, helping him to remain properly focused. He asks that God would further teach him (same verse) and increase his understanding (verse 27) of how to apply God's laws at this time. We may generally understand God's laws but often will need more direct instruction and encouragement in difficult circumstances.
The plea "Remove from me the way of lying" (verse 29) or "Keep me from deceitful ways" (NIV) could refer either to being personally kept away from this wrong way or to be protected from others who are slandering. The psalmist himself is committed to remaining truthful and faithful-and to looking to God's judgments to govern his life (verse 30).
The end of verse 29, "Grant me Your law graciously," runs counter to those who claim that law and grace do not go together. As commentator Wiersbe remarks: "'Law and grace are in opposition!' many declare, but the psalmist testified that law and grace worked together in his life (vv. 29 and 58). God used Moses to liberate the people from Egypt, but then God gave Moses the law to give to Israel at Sinai. The German philosopher Goethe wrote, 'Whatever liberates our spirit without giving us self-control is disastrous.' Law and grace are not enemies, for law sets the standard and grace enables us to meet it (Rom. 8:1-3)" (introductory notes on Psalm 119).
Having been forced to, as we saw, cling to the dust (verse 25), the poet resolves that inwardly he will cling to God's laws as he prays that God will not let him fall into shame and dishonor (verse 31).
He concludes this stanza with the metaphor of running the course of God's commandments with an enlarged heart (verse 32). Some see the enlarged heart as signifying increased joy or understanding-and it may, as an increased heart or mind could signify greater depth of understanding (compare 1 Corinthians 2:10-14). But in connection with running a course, the imagery more likely seems to concern spiritual power. In a physical sense, we can perhaps imagine a person running so hard that his heart gives out. Yet here God gives a new heart-a bigger, stronger, more powerful heart (a spiritual heart empowered by God's Holy Spirit)-to enable the runner to run the course of God's way of life and not faint (compare Ezekiel 18:31; Isaiah 40:31).
In the He strophe (verses 33-40) the psalmist states his position in relationship to God. He is, he tells God, "Your servant, who is devoted to fearing You" (verse 38). His responsibility as the Lord's servant is to properly revere God and wholeheartedly observe and keep God's law until the end of his life (verses 33-34). Yet, as in other verses, he understands his need for divine help to do God's will.
Jesus Christ explained to His disciples that they would need to abide in Him and let His words abide in them if they were to bear much fruit: "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me" (John 15:4).
The writer knows that while he must personally strive to do what God says, he must depend on God's help to succeed or his labor will be in vain (compare Psalm 127:1-2). Therefore he makes several requests of God. Two are knowledge-based: "teach me...the way" (verse 33) and "give me understanding" (verse 34). The author can read the law, but he needs God to teach him the way-to guide him in how to live the law every day, how to apply it, how to think and make decisions the way God thinks. He asks for understanding so that the law will be more than a legalistic code. He wants to live a principle-centered life based on knowing the spiritual intent of God's law.
Three of his requests are more in the realm of empowerment and motivation. He needs God's power to do what is right: "make me walk" (verse 35), "incline my heart" (verse 36), "turn my eyes away" (verse 37). Not that God would force upon the psalmist a course of action, but that He would motivate and strengthen the writer's will in the sense that the apostle Paul describes: "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).
The psalmist is particularly attuned to the danger of covetousness-of letting wrong attraction to worldly things of no ultimate spiritual value detract him from God's way (verses 36-37)-and so must we be. Covetousness is forbidden in the last of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Interestingly, this command regulates thoughts in the mind-showing the spiritual nature of God's law even in Old Testament times. Jesus also warns us, "Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" (Luke 12:15). We must instead focus on what we really need-God's spiritual blessings.
The poet sums up with his longing for God's laws and a prayer that God will enable him to live by them-revitalizing him to walk in the right way (verse 40).