The Vocabulary of Ps. 119 and What it Teaches Us

The Vocabulary of Ps. 119 and What it Teaches Us

Intro

At Christ Reformed in DC we have been studying Psalm 119 together on Wednesday nights via Skype. It’s been beneficial to take a deep dive together on an often neglected song cycle. We’ve been listening to a series of chapel messages from Hywell Jones at Westminster Seminary California (my Alma Mater). As our church’s resident Hebraist I have also been reading the Psalm in Hebrew as we have gone through it. I also spent some time reflecting on the vocabulary of these 22 stanzas to produce a small reference for our members for the synonyms for legal words, as well as some others in Psalm 119. This extended time with the Psalm has caused me to see it in a new and better light after some reflection. This has inspired this post, which is a broader summary of the themes which are prevalent in the Psalm. 

One of the ways we can grow in our understanding of the Psalm is to look at semantic domains. A semantic domain is a way to group words which relate to one another. For example, a recliner, stool, and a barstool all belong in a broader domain of “single person seats.” That “single person seats” category is a domain with other words underneath it. They all share the commonality that they are words for single person seats, but they also have distinct attributes that make them differ for one another. One of the ways Hebrew poetry works is to use these domains to expand on the meaning of the poem and cause the reader or listener to meditate.

When we see the Psalm through these prevalent word domains we see that God’s word to us in Psalm 119 is bigger than we probably realize. The themes of Psalm 119 can be explored by looking at the words which occur and how they occur in the Psalm.

Word/Law

This is the first and perhaps most dominant set of words that define the poems of Psalm 119. This domain can negatively influence our perception of this poetic cycle. Our thoughts of Psalm 119 are often of an idealized life; or of someone who loves something that we find burdensome. I think our impression of these poems are often entirely law based. We think the message is only “do this and live.” And this conception has kept us from seeing the gospel in the Psalm. We find instead when we read the Psalm that the Word of God is not only law, but also gospel:

On two occasions, (vv. 18 & 27) we find the word niplāɂôt translated as “wondrous works” or “wondrous things.” In the first the wondrous things are in the Torah, the law as we often translate it. And in the latter it is parallel to the “precepts.” Now these wondrous works are things like the miraculous plagues on Egypt (Ex. 3:20) or to the exodus itself, (Judges 6:13, Micah 7:15, & Neh. 9:17). 

Now why would I mention these wondrous works? Well the first thing to note is that the Word of the Lord in Psalm 119 is not just a list of rules. But also recounting the miraculous deliverance that God makes for his people. The declaration and praise God’s word is not only praise of requirements. 

Another way we see this is the word ɂimrāh translated as “promise” or “word.” Half of the occurrences of this word are in Psalm 119. It is not the usual way to say “word.” It mostly refers to God’s word in the bible with only a handful of exceptions. In Psalm 119 it is always God’s word. 

We see it in three ways, in some verses it isn’t clear from context if requirement or promise is in view, and perhaps one can view these as just invoking revelation in general (vv. 11, 38, 123, 140, 148, & 162). In other places it is very clear that this word is “kept” by behaving correctly, (vv. 67, 133, 158, & 172). In these verses it is often translated “word” instead of “promise.” Lastly, there are the verses where one see that God’s word is the object of trust, or petition, (vv. 41, 50, 58, 76, 82, 116, 154, & 170). In these uses God’s word is a comfort, it gives life, it is something to which the Psalmist can cling; to which we can cling. 

These words about God’s revelation fit together in covenant. On the first level, a covenant with God, imposed by God and his messengers, is revelation of God. In the Mosaic covenant we see God’s standard revealed. We see the standard to which he holds all men in the Ten commandments.

But also, in this covenant the beginning and the end is God’s saving action. This parallels the history of Israel, God saves his people in the Exodus, and this is the people whom he brings to Sinai. He first reveals himself as their saving God, then he gives them another covenant, with requirements and sanctions (as a type of the covenant of works). And the works aspect of the covenant is not something his people can keep, so in that covenant he promises a second Exodus (cf. Deut. 30:1-10), 

If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Deut. 30:4-6

This is only an excerpt, but we see that the Exodus and the conquest form the pattern for future action of God to deliver his people again. 

Recently when teaching on the covenant of works, I used the metaphor of Adam and Israel’s story rhyming. Israel is given the land, not salvation itself but types of it, conditionally. A condition they can’t keep. This is why there is need for a second Exodus, because the covenant is breakable. You can think about Jeremiah 31, the difference in that passage between the New Covenant and the Old (Mosaic) covenant is conditionality. The Mosaic gift of the Land is conditioned on Israel’s obedience, the gift of Salvation in Christ is a free gift (Rom. 5) based on Christ keeping the conditions of the law (Gal. 4:4).   

Covenant put in proper perspective that God’s revelation comes to us as both Law and Gospel. Covenant theology also shows us how Law and Gospel relate. The law drives us to Christ, to God’s action to save us. We cannot save ourselves. The Psalmist recognizes this and finishes his cycle, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” v. 176. It is the action of the God who seeks that he hopes in, that God will seek out his servants according to his promise. 

At the same time the “good life” is firmly for the Psalmist the life of following God’s law. This aspect is what we will discuss in the next section. 

Path/way

The idea of law and rules have an associated metaphor; the idea of being on a road. That our behavior is a road on which we travel. Or even broader, that our lives have a direction and a path that we set them on by our choices. Another way to say this is that we are pilgrims, travelers. Jesus himself uses this imagery in Matthew 7,

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matt. 7:13-14

Psalm 119 reminds us that we are on a way. One way or the other. Every morning we wake up and out feet take us somewhere. Jesus reminds us that the path is difficult and small that leads in the direction of life. Psalm 119 reminds us that our path is illuminated by God’s word (v.105). The way of life, the way of following Jesus, is hard but we can see it clearly in God’s word. It points us to Jesus. 

There are three roads in Psalm 119, God’s (v. 3), the psalmist’s (v. 5), and false roads (v. 29). The psalmist reminds us that he is torn between the false way and the way of God (vv.37 & 101). Surely here is an image with which we can sympathize. We certainly feel the pull between mortification and vivification, between the way of the flesh and that of the Spirit. We may be uncomfortable with the language of the law being “the way.” After all isn’t Jesus the way? My old Seminary professor J. V. Fesko might be able to square this circle for us, 

The law in its normative use is not the actual road upon which we travel, but the guardrails on either side of the road. The road on which we travel is Christ. Like guardrails, the law shows us where the path of righteousness lies and keeps us traveling on it.

J. V. Fesko, Galatians, Lectio Continua Commentary Series, on Gal. 3:19-22.  

Christians know that ultimately the “word” which is a lamp is Christ. Christ who is the way in which we walk. Christ is the one who gives us his righteousness as a new creation, a new man (Col. 3; 2 Cor. 5:16-21). One of the ways we see Christ in the Psalm is that he is the Word, he is the sinless savior who perfectly loved and kept God’s law for us. The law shows us what it looks like to conform to Christ. The “guardrails” of the law show us the edges of the way which is Christ, who perfectly kept the law. 

When we see the way of God in Psalm 119 we know that we are seeing Christ concealed in the Old Testament. He kept the law, he did not stray like the Psalmist. In another manner when the Psalmist struggles or desires to follow one path and not the other we are seeing the fight between the dying old man and the life of the new man in Christ. 

Lament and Persecution

Perhaps most surprising to those of us who have an idealized picture of Psalm 119 is to see the language of lament and persecution in Psalm 119. We can remove the humanity from the Psalmist if we think that the Psalm is solely, only, a praise of God’s Law. We disconnect it from our human experience. We will be surprised to find that often the Psalmist praises and petitions God from the standpoint of affliction and persecution. Often for the Psalmist’s love for God’s word, he is persecuted.

The Psalmist loves God’s word in the midst of affliction. In fact it is the promises and word of God that is a comfort to the Psalmist. Think about vv. 114-116,

You are my hiding place and my shield;
I hope in your word.

Depart from me, you evildoers,
that I may keep the commandments of my God.

Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live,
and let me not be put to shame in my hope!

Ps. 119:114-116

Evildoers are around the Psalmist and he hopes in God’s word, God’s words of promise and comfort. The Psalmist finds God’s word a hiding place, and fortress protecting him from evildoers. He finds the promise of God as a shield that protects him from assaults of the world. That is why he loves God’s word, it comforts him in the midst of the turbulence of life. In a world that seems to not work as it should, in a broken world the Psalmist understands that a promise from God is firm. That he can bank his whole well being on the foundation of God’s word. 

Or consider these verses from Psalm 119,

The wicked ones set a snare for me
And from your precepts I have not strayed.

I inherited your testimonies forever
for they are joy for my heart—(translation mine)

Ps. 119:110-111

We see that the Psalmist is being hunted, they’ve set a snare. They are luring him into danger. But he sees clearly the path he should take, he doesn’t stray. The way is hard, persecution is making it harder, but he knows the way to go. 

These verses remind me of the story of Daniel. Daniel was trapped by other officials. They exploited his convictions against idolatry. They set a snare by making Daniel choose between faithfulness to his God and to the country he served. Ultimately Daniel is sentenced to the lions den for not committing idolatry. God preserves Daniel in this story. Ultimately, we know that even if God does not shut the mouth of the lions in this world, the fangs of death have been removed by Christ (Isa. 25, 1 Cor. 15). 

Returning to the Psalmist, his love for God’s word isn’t conditioned by blessing but refined by trials and persecutions. He isn’t living in some unreal world where he gets everything he wants because of his love for God’s word. Instead, he lives in a dangerous world, with the world, the flesh, and the devil trying to lead him down the path that ends in destruction. This is the real world, our world, and in this world we too have the joy of the testimonies, the word of God’s salvation. 

These testimonies, refer to the stipulations of a covenant. The psalmist inherits an eternal relationship with his creator. This document, these provisions, though they may seem distant, are a joy to the Psalmist. These testimonies are written down and they are the Psalmist joy in the midst of trials. We too can point to God’s work in Christ, to the new covenant and our place in it in Christ as our source of comfort and joy, and this new covenant has testimonies written for us in a New Testament (or another translation, a new covenant). 

Priesthood/ritual

One of the things we discussed a bit in our study of Psalm 119, was the lack of any priestly language. Instead of seeing the psalmist write about keeping the temple, in his Psalm the laws and word of God are kept. Instead of bringing offerings of rams and sheep, there are freewill offerings of words:

Please accept the freewill offerings of my mouth, O Yahweh
and your judgements, teach me.—(translation mine)

Ps. 119:108

The offerings that the Psalmist offers God are words. In response to the sure words of God the Psalmist offers his words. A freewill offering is something you offer as thankful praise, after freely fulfilling an obligation like a vow. It is gratefulness to the Lord for his care and provision. Out of the thankfulness of the Psalmist’s heart words overflow in praise. 

Another time we see such praises is in the final stanza, 

My lips will gush Psalms 
for you teach me your statutes

My tongue will sing your word
for all your commandments are right.—(translation mine)

Ps. 119:171-172

Ultimately the Psalmist’s thankfulness overflows with singing and declaring God’s word. Because the Lord taught him, for the Lord taught him commandment which are right.

Some translations obscure the force of these verses, in 171 the word is the same as the title for the “Psalms.” And in 172, the tongue sings God’s word. There is no indication that the Psalmist is singing “about” God’s word, or “of” God’s word. These Psalms where made to be used in the Old Covenant people of God and they continue to have their home in the worship of God’s new covenant people. These Psalms are our words of prayer, praise, lament, confession words that we, like the Psalmist, can sing back to God. 

Instead of the sacrificial system, the psalm is focused on the word. Surely God’s word contains instructions for the temple and sacrificial system; the sacrifices are a crucial part of the teaching of that word. But, it is not the focus here, the Psalmist is appealing directly to God to keep him from straying, the Psalmist understands that the temple, and the sacrifices pointed him to his relationship with the God of Israel. 

This song cycle of Psalm 119 is placed between two collections that are focused on sacrifice and temple. Before Psalm 119 there are the Hallel Psalms (113-118), associated with Passover. After Psalm 119 begin the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). Passover features the sacrifice of a Lamb, and a meal remembering God’s salvation in the Exodus. The Psalms of ascent are pilgrimage Psalms for approaching the temple. 

Yet, Psalm 119 at very best has allusions to these realities. One possibility is that this Psalm was written when the types were taken away, the temple destroyed, and Judah was exiled. There is great comfort in a record, a contract, with the true God. How much more would someone exiled cling to the word, when the types were taken away. In fact from history we know that synagogues developed as places for study of the Hebrew Scriptures. The word was a great comfort and source of identity for the Psalmist. As it should be to us, we have the much fuller word in Christ. We should cling to the pages in which Christ speaks to us, and speaks “Do not be afraid.” 

Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism once commented on Q&A 1,

The design is, that we may be led to the attainment of sure and solid comfort, both in life and death. On this account, all divine truth has been revealed by God, and is especially to be studied by us.

Ursinus, Zacharius, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Lord’s Day 1, Question 1.

Conclusion

This word of comfort is plentifully contained in Psalm 119, we see it revealed to us in the Word. We see the path our savior walked, the narrow way, in the words of the law. We see that in the midst of persecution, we can lament this persecution but also trust in the promise of God to deliver us in Christ. This promise is a great comfort in the midst of our own broken lives, full of lament. God is always near to us in his word, even as we live as “elect exiles” in this world (1 Peter 1:1). On our pilgrim journeys to a better country we can trust that Christ is near to us in his word, and that it testifies to us no one loves us more than he (Belgic Confession 26). Nothing else could motivate us towards clinging to this word and following Christ but gratefulness for such a great savior. 

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