Psalms Week 11

God’s Law: Burden or Delight?: Psalm 119

By Frank Spina, Ph.D.

Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 119


Jan Van Eyck, detail, Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1434)
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This untitled psalm is arguably the most unusual one in the Psalter. Its length (176 verses) dwarfs the other psalms; no other psalm comes close. Equally, its style is unique. It is an alphabetic acrostic psalm, which in itself is not odd (see Psalms 9–10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 145). But this acrostic has each eight-line stanza begin with the same letter of the twenty-two letter Hebrew alphabet (8 times 22 equals 176). Finally, no other psalm deals with torah (or Law) in such an extensive and comprehensive manner.

Unfortunately, Christians might have an immediate negative reaction to Psalm 119. This is because, for many Christians, law has a negative connotation. Based on a misreading of Pauline thought, some Christians view law as in opposition to grace. Indeed, law is supposedly something from which we are freed by grace.

But in Scripture — whether the Old Testament or New Testament — law is never a means of currying divine favor. It is, rather, a response to divine favor freely and graciously offered. That is, grace always precedes law. This is why the legal corpus found in the Torah/Pentateuch begins with an assertion of God’s gracious act in behalf of God’s people (Exodus 20:1–2). The law, then, describes how the people are to respond to this grace. The New Testament’s book of James was written to ensure that we get this order right.

Christians also have too narrow a conception of the meaning of law, or torah. Of course, at one level torah refers simply to the first five books of the Old Testament, which is sometimes called the Pentateuch. But at another level it is important to keep in mind that torah means teaching or instruction. Because this teaching or instruction comes from God, torah is virtually synonymous with God’s will. In addition, based on the actual content of the Torah, clearly law in and of itself does not do the Torah justice. The Torah recounts a foundational story, presents a way of life for the elect people of God, and offers a formal and informal liturgical structure according to which the people are to conduct their communal lives. Thus, Torah is ultimately a story, a way of life, and a liturgy.

Christians have typically insisted that the moral aspect of torah remains relevant — for example, the Ten Commandments — but not the ceremonial, legal, or ritualistic aspect. But it is necessary to keep in mind that this material is Scripture — Christian Scripture. Throughout its long history, the Church has taught that the meaning of Scripture is never exhausted by a literal or historical reading.

This is why figuration, symbolic readings, typology, and the like have been used productively in biblical interpretation. As a matter of fact, both the synagogue and the church have appropriated the legal and liturgical, or ritualistic, features of the Torah by the use of figuration, symbolic readings, and typology. Failure to engage the material in this way has the unfortunate result of impoverishing us by in effect de-canonizing this significant portion of Scripture. For this reason, we should rejoice that Psalm 119 is found in the Psalter.

Beyond its length and style, one of the first things to notice in Psalm 119 is the richness of its vocabulary. The psalm contains an array of words that describe God’s law and God’s will.

  • As one would expect, the word torah (law) is found throughout the psalm (119:1, 18, 29, 34, 44, 51, 53, 55, 61, 70, 72, 77, 85, 92, 97, 109, 113, 126, 136, 142, 153, 150, 163, 165, 174).
  • Another similar word is testimony (RSV), or decrees (119:2, 14, 22, 24, 31, 36, 46, 59, 79, 95, 99, 111, 119, 125, 129, 138, 144, 146, 167, 168).
  • The term way or ways — meaning the religious, ethical, or moral path one takes in fulfilling God’s will — is also found throughout (119:1, 3, 5, 9, 14, 15, 26, 27, 29, 30, 32, 33, 59, 37, 101, 104, 128, 168).
  • A number of times the word precept is used, referring to the content of divine teaching (119:4, 15, 27, 40, 45, 56, 63, 69, 78, 87, 93, 94, 100, 104, 110, 128, 134, 141, 159, 168, 173).
  • Sometimes statute is found (119:5, 8, 12, 23, 26, 33, 48, 64, 71, 80, 83, 112, 117, 118, 124, 135, 145, 155, 171).
  • Naturally, the term commandment — perhaps the first word that comes to mind when considering torah — is common in the psalm (119:6, 10, 19, 21, 32, 35, 47, 48, 60, 66, 73, 86, 96, 98, 115, 127, 131, 143, 151, 166, 172, 176).
  • As well, the word ordinance is represented (119:7, 13, 20, 30, 39, 43, 52, 62, 102, 106, 108, 160, 164, 175).
  • In Verses 75 and 120 the word judgments appears.
  • Two different terms for utterance — word (dabar) and promise (imrah) — are found throughout the psalm (dabar: 119:9, 16, 17, 25, 28, 42, 43, 49, 57, 65, 74, 81, 89, 101, 105, 107, 114, 130, 139, 147, 160, 161, 169; imrah: 38, 41, 50, 58, 67, 76, 82, 103, 116, 123, 133, 140, 148, 154, 158, 162, 170, 172).

At the very least, this vocabulary range speaks to the depth, complexity, and intricacy of the idea of God’s torah. This is not a simple concept; it is incredibly profound.

This cluster of vocabulary undercuts the idea that the psalm is calling for reluctant observance of arbitrary rules in some legalistic fashion. Rather, torah and its related terms involve a deep and total commitment to a comprehensive and beneficial religious lifestyle. Walking according to torah is tantamount to blamelessness (119:1). This is about seeking God with one’s whole heart (119:2, 10, 145) and being consumed with a longing to please God (119:20, 139). The psalmist has chosen this faithful way and cleaves to the Lord’s testimonies (119:30–31, 173); indeed, there is a longing for God’s precepts (119:40, 131).

Carl Schleicher, Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud (19th century).
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Far from their being a burden, the psalmist reveres God’s commandments (119:48, 113, 119, 159, 161, 163, 167). According to the psalmist, God’s law is nothing short of a delight (119:70, 92, 111, 129, 143, 174). Thus, there is no hesitation or delay — obedience is perforce a natural act (119:60). Nothing is more valuable to the psalmist than this torah, which comes from God’s own mouth (119:72, 127). This commitment to obeying God’s commands is likewise rooted in a solemn oath (119:106). There is not the slightest hint that obeying God’s commands is a dreary or mechanical activity. Instead, it is vibrant, life-enhancing, and blessed.

Another motif that reinforces the stress on a deep commitment to obeying God’s torah is that such a religious posture is internal. Psalm 119 depicts a transformed moral actor who lives and breathes God’s law at all times. The psalmist has internalized God’s word as a disincentive to sin (119:11, 105). Part of this spiritual discipline is declaring with the lips divine ordinances (119:13). Meditating on divine precepts — equated with fixing one’s eyes on God’s ways — is requisite as well (119:15, 78, 97, 148). Equally, it is appropriate to ask God to incline us toward divine testimonies and avert our eyes from distractions (119:36–37). In fact, these commands are something about which to sing (119:54). This psalm is about a profoundly spiritual, soulful response of obedience to a divine law that has been deeply internalized.

According to this psalm, one of the benefits of attending to and obeying God’s torah in all its dimensions is the acquiring of wisdom. In this context, wisdom is a practical knowledge gained by paying close attention to the world in which we live. The world operates according to certain customs, mores, habits, and social interactions. A wise person will take his or her place in this world by exercising care, being insightful and thoughtful, avoiding foolishness of all kinds, acting in accordance with the highest of standards, and generally comporting herself in winsome, compelling, and ingratiating ways. This goes hand in hand with obeying torah, since, after all, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, whereas fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

According to Psalm 119, the Lord’s testimonies act as a counselor; this is a wisdom concept (119:24). The psalmist asks for understanding — also an important wisdom idea — so as to be able to keep the law (119:34, 73, 125, 130, 144, 169). Hand in hand with taking God’s commandments seriously, the psalmist asks for divine instruction in good judgment and knowledge; these are pillars of living according to wisdom (119:66). God’s commandments actually make the psalmist wiser than those normally thought of as sage (119:98–100). This combination of wisdom and torah has an exemplar in the ideal Solomon, who is depicted in 1 Kings 1–11 (see especially 3:3–15).

Another crucial perspective provided by Psalm 119 is that the psalmist’s obedience is not a matter of attempting to manipulate or influence God. That is, the psalmist does not demand a life of ease and prosperity in exchange for obedience. The obedience is good in and of itself; it is truly moral. In fact, throughout the psalm the psalmist insists on obeying God in spite of various sorts of distresses (e.g., 119:143).

To be sure, the psalmist would like God to remove the scorn and contempt of the insolent (119:21–22, 122), but will continue to meditate on God’s statutes even in the face of official plots (119:23, 161). The psalmist trusts in God’s word even when taunted (119:42). Not even affliction will deter the psalmist from believing that God’s promises are life-giving (119:50, 67, 71, 107, 153). Notwithstanding the derision and other despicable tactics of the godless, the psalmist does not turn away from God’s law (119:51, 53, 61, 69, 78, 83, 84–87, 95, 110, 157). As much as anything, the psalmist wants deliverance from the wicked, so as to be able to keep God’s commandments (119:115, 134). Obedience is the psalmist’s way of life. That is a given, stress or no stress, affliction or no affliction, oppression or no oppression.

The will of God as expressed in God’s law is also an eternal law. The psalmist says pointedly that the Lord’s word is firmly fixed in the heavens (119:89). Equally, God’s faithfulness endures for all generations; this is as certain as God’s establishment of the created order (119:90). God’s righteousness is an eternal righteousness; this is parallel to the truth of God’s law (119:142). Likewise, God’s testimonies are righteous for ever (119:144, 152). Also, God’s righteous ordinances have no end (119:160). God’s law and the obedient response to that law are not passing dispensations. They are part of the moral structure of the universe. Our obedience is to be as eternal as God’s law is.

It is also instructive to take note of the prayers offered throughout this psalm. These prayers indicate that the psalmist has a relationship with God. That is, the psalmist is not merely following some code out of a sense of obligation or duty. God and God’s law are the focus of the psalmist. The prayers underscore this relationship.

  • God is asked to teach the psalmist the divine statutes (119:26, 29, 33, 66, 108, 135).
  • The psalmist prays that God deal with “your servant” bountifully (119:17).
  • There is a petition for eyes to be opened so that the wondrous things derivative of the divine law might be seen (119:18).
  • The psalmist asks for relief from various tormentors (119:22).
  • The psalmist wants to be made to understand the way of God’s precepts (119:27, 34, 73) and to be strengthened according to God’s word (119:28, 116).
  • God is asked to put false ways out of the psalmist’s reach (119:29) and not to let the psalmist be put to shame (119:31).
  • The psalmist asks for God’s leading (119:35).
  • There is a petition that God would incline the psalmist to God’s testimonies and distract from vanities (119:36–37).
  • There is a supplication for confirming God’s promise (119:38) and turning away dreaded reproaches (119:39).
  • The psalmist even asks for something as basic as the Lord’s steadfast love and mercy (119:41, 76, 77, 124, 132).
  • This prayerful aspect is summarized with these words: “I implore your favor with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise” (119:58; see 119:145, 149, 169, 170).
  • The psalmist asks for salvation (119:94, 117, 146, 156, 175). The psalmist would like God to accept offered praises (119:108) and become surety for “your servant’s well-being” (119:122).
  • There is a prayer for “steady steps” according to God’s promise (119:133) and redemption from oppression (119:134, 153, 154, 173).
  • In a heartfelt prayer, the psalmist asks for God’s shining face to appear (119:135).

All these prayers demonstrate a psalmist whose devotion to God knows no bounds and who is at ease with one prayer after another. The psalmist not only prays to the Lord; the psalmist knows the Lord. Keeping God’s law is not something one does instead of relating intimately with one’s God. Keeping God’s law is something one does because one is so closely related to God.

Psalm 119 should go a long way to cure Christians of an almost visceral negative response to law. We need to keep in mind that the Apostle Paul, to whom appeal is often made for dismissing the law as legalism, says, “as to righteousness under the law [I was] blameless” (Philippians 3:6). Let us give thanks for Psalm 119.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Dr. Spina notes that some Christians have an “immediate negative reaction to Psalm 119.” What has been your experience with this psalm, and what stood out to you as you read for this week’s Lectio?
  2. What are some reasons Christians might give for negative attitudes about the law? How does Psalm 119 challenge these perspectives?
  3. Psalm 119 uses a wide vocabulary to talk about God’s law. Why do you think this is? Which word most connects with you? Which leaves you with questions? (For help, check-out the list that Dr. Spina includes.)
  4. A theme throughout Psalm 119 is the internalization of God’s Word in order to grow in obedience to God. What do you think it means to internalize God’s Word?  What are ways that we can follow in the psalmist’s example—as individuals or as the church?

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