"Oh, How I Love Your Law!" (Psalm 119:89-128) January 28-29
The Lamed stanza (verses 89-96), which begins the second half of the psalm, starts with a three-verse introduction to this half that teaches a general truth-that "God's sovereign and unchanging word governs and maintains all creation" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on verses 89-91). These verses strengthen the parallel between this psalm and Psalm 19. The Nelson Study Bible comments: "The stability of the universe, or the heaven, mirrors God's faithfulness, love, and care. But even more important, it reflects the permanence of God's laws and the fact that the universe serves Him" (note on 119:89-91).
The phrase "for all are Your servants" (verse 91) refers back to the things just mentioned. The NIV renders it as, "for all things serve you." The existence of heaven and earth, natural laws, the regularity of day and night, and the progression of the seasons are all things that serve the Lord. All creatures, including all thinking beings, in a sense serve God. Even those who are opposed to God's will today ultimately serve His purposes. For one, they too serve as a witness to the inexorable constancy of His laws-His spiritual laws of conduct. It is sometimes said that you can't really break God's spiritual laws, anymore than you can break his physical laws such as gravity. If you try to contravene such laws, they will instead break you. It is
essentially pointless to defy God. His purposes will still stand-forever. And in the end, all will be led to willingly conform to His ways or be removed from the picture.
The psalmist recognizes God's sovereignty and is happy to be part of the universe that serves His will, finding delight in God's law and knowing that if he did not, he would not have made it through to where he is now (verse 92). God's laws have preserved him (verse 93), and he asks for God to continue to preserve him. As the Lord's willing servant striving to obey, the poet utters another plea for deliverance from the enemies who want to destroy him (verses 94-95). Yet even in his trial and cry for help, the major focus is still on resolving to continue in God's ways.
He closes the stanza with this most remarkable statement in verse 96: "I have seen the consummation of all perfection
[probably referring back to the physical creation and its laws, as described in verses 89-91], but your commandment is exceedingly broad." That is, it is bigger than the universe, providing an inexhaustible source of wise counsel on how to live, a subject given further treatment in the stanza that follows.
Thus we should clearly see that even God's Old Testament law was to be understood and applied not merely in the letter, but in the fullness of its spirit and intent. Furthermore, we should consider that we could not run out of things to study and learn about God's Word and His laws in countless lifetimes.
In the Mem strophe (verses 97-104) the psalmist devotes the whole stanza to his love for God's law. Unlike all of the other stanzas following the second one, he makes no requests for help or lament over his treatment by his enemies. He pours out his feelings in a grand hymn of praise, declaring his love for God's law-that it is his constant meditation (verses 97, 99).
This is reminiscent of the description of the blessed righteous man at the very outset of the book of Psalms: "His delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night" (1:2). However, there the Hebrew word for "meditate" is one derived from the sound of musing, while the word used here (and in 119:15) more explicitly means reflection or contemplation-derived from a term that means uttering, in the sense of speaking to oneself. The point in both cases is that we are to constantly mull over God's law, being thankful for it and considering how to apply it as we go through every day.
The author recognizes that God's commandments make him wiser than his enemies (verse 98). They, with their cunning and craftiness and worldly success, may seem to have the upper hand at this time, but there is no question that the he has made the smarter life choice by following God's ways. Even at this time, the wicked do not experience the true happiness that comes from living right and absolute confidence in the future. And in that future, divine judgment and reward lie in store.
Indeed, studying and living by God's laws provides the best life education possible. The psalmist says he has more understanding than his teachers-perhaps teachers he had years ago-and more than "the ancients" (verses 99-100). Most translations consider this latter term to mean not those who lived long before but those who are aged-elders.
Parallel to verse 98, the writer seems to be declaring himself wiser than his teachers and elders. This would certainly make sense if he were raised in a time of apostasy. Jeremiah, for instance, was plotted against by those of his own priestly hometown-including those who would have been his teachers and elders.
However, it is possible that the psalmist simply means he has come to understand far more than what he received from his teachers and elders. He may have learned some valuable things from teachers, wise elders and others in his community. But this does not compare to what he has learned through directly studying God's law and living by it, developing a loving relationship with the Lawgiver. What the Lord Himself taught him (verse 102; compare verse 24)-through scriptural revelation, inspiration and life experiences-is far more than he learned, or ever could learn, from other people.
Verse 101 gives us the important principle of practicing self-control-exercising willpower to restrain ourselves from wrongdoing. Having access to spiritual power is not enough, for God will not force us to act in accordance with His commands. We must be willing to follow His commands and follow through. This comes from learning to really love God's ways-to desire them as we desire the pleasure of eating something that tastes good (compare verse 103)-and learning to hate evil (verses 104, 128). Humbly studying God's Word will help to shape our way of thinking in these regards.
In the Nun strophe (verses 105-112) the psalmist begins by stating that God's word is a "lamp" and a "light" to show him the right path (verse 105). It is a light in the sense that it provides understanding (see verse 130)-as in the English metaphorical terms enlightenment and illumination. Without the guidance God's law gives, we would have to grope blindly through a dark world on our own. Yet through God's revelation we can properly see. Many scriptural passages declare God Himself as well as His truth and ways to be light. All who are His people have been "called...out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). And we are to "walk in the light as He is in the light" (1 John 5:7). Light is also representative throughout Scripture of life and blessing.
The writer had sworn ("taken an oath," NIV) and reaffirmed often, "I will keep Your righteous judgments" (verse 106). The
taking of an oath was a serious matter, for "an oath is really a conditional curse which a man calls down upon himself from God, in the case of his not speaking the truth or not keeping a promise" (Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, "Oaths"). The law addressed this subject: "If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth" (Numbers 30:2). The author had personally covenanted with God to serve Him, and he remained committed to this promise.
He again mentions his present affliction, praying to be revived (verse 107). Yet even as he does, he asks that God would accept the "freewill offerings" of his mouth-referring to praise, thanks and statements of commitment-and continue to instruct him (verse 108).
He says that he constantly takes his life in his hands (verse 109). If he were a prophet of God bearing an unpopular message or a counselor of government officials who hated him, the performance of his duties would indeed require him to "lay his life on the line." Yet even despite this and the plotting of his enemies (verse 110), he has not turned away from God's way-and will not.
He closes by referring to God's testimonies as his "heritage" (verse 111)-recalling his earlier statements that the Lord was his "portion" (verse 57), his inheritance-a wonderful gift that he will rejoice in forever.
In the strong>Samek strophe (verses 113-120) the psalmist declares his stand with God against those who won't obey God's laws. His statement, "I hate double-minded men" (verse 113, NIV), should be understood in the sense of rejecting them as God does. Note his address to evildoers to get away from him (verse 115) and his recognition that God rejects the wicked (verses 118-119). The point is that the poet wants nothing to do with them, looking on them as his enemies because they are God's enemies (compare 26:5; 31:6; 139:21-22). Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of such people repenting-and it does not negate our responsibility to pray that they do. Jesus gave us the instruction of praying for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44), and the best thing we could pray for them is that they repent-though this could require correction from God.
We should understand that a double-minded man, as mentioned in Psalm 119:113, is undecided, uncommitted, inconsistent, wishy-washy, much as were the people to whom Elijah spoke on Mount Carmel: "How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). "A double-minded man [is] unstable in all his ways" (James 1:8). This is unacceptable when it comes to God. He will accept nothing less than full commitment.
It is not clear if the writer is referring to specific people here or if he is just providing a general contrast with his own, fully committed attitude of loving God's law (Psalm 119:113). It may be that there were some at the time who could not make up their minds on whether to support him in his righteous cause-or perhaps they would offer support and then not follow through. Perhaps there were compromisers among supposed friends who wanted him to comply with some of the demands of his enemies-thus making these friends enemies themselves.
Hoping and trusting in God's promises of protection (verse 114), the psalmist prays to be sustained through his present dilemma, determined to continue in obedience to God (verses 116-118). He trusts that God will deal with the wicked, realizing that they will be "put away...like dross" (verses 118-119)-that is, like the scum cleared off the top of molten metal (compare Ezekiel 22:18-19).
In light of God's righteous judgments against evil that are sure to come, the author trembles in awe (verse 120)-soberly respectful and appropriately fearful of the consequences of disobeying the Almighty Judge.
In the Ayin strophe (verses 121-128) the psalmist emphasizes that he is the Lord's servant (verses 122, 124-125), who has acted faithfully, and he pleads for the Lord to now act to save him from his oppressors.
As a servant looking to his master (compare 123:2), the writer asks God to be his "surety...for good" (119:122). "A person became surety when he or she pledged to pay another person's debt or fulfill a promise [if need be]" (Wiersbe, Be Exultant, note on verses 121-128). Job also asked for God to be surety for him (Job 17:3). So did Hezekiah, praying to God, "Stand surety for me" (Isaiah 38:14, NEB, REB). The book of Genesis gives us the example of Judah standing as surety for his brother Benjamin (Genesis 44:32)-willing to become an Egyptian slave in his stead so that Benjamin could return free to their father Jacob (see 43:1-10; 44:18-34).
The author is essentially asking God to put Himself on the line as the guarantee for His servant's deliverance. We can view this beyond the immediate circumstances of the psalm's composition. In its note on Psalm 119:122, John Gill's Exposition on the Whole Bible points out that what the psalmist "prays to God to be for him, that [is what] Christ is for all his people, [see] Heb 7:22. He drew nigh to God, struck hands [in agreement] with him, gave his word and bond to pay the debts of his people; put himself in their legal place and stead, and became responsible to law and justice for them; engaged [in work] to make satisfaction for their sins, to bring in everlasting righteousness for their justification, and to preserve and keep them, and bring them safe to eternal glory and happiness; and this was being a surety for them for good."
The poet's eyes have failed, from exhaustion and probably tears, in looking for God's salvation (verse 123; compare verse 136). He asks for God to deal with him according to His hesed-His covenant love (verse 124). On that basis, the psalmist declares that it is time for God to act, to at last intervene, to stop the oppressors from the blasphemy they have been perpetrating-that of pronouncing God's law void through their ability to so mistreat His servant with impunity (verse 126).
In all this, the writer is still keen to better understand God's laws, and he declares his great love for God's commands and the tremendous value he places on them (verse 127, compare verses 14, 72, 162). He knows that God's way is right, and, as in verse 104, he hates every false way (verse 163).