Victor Lyons, pastor
Second Memorial Baptist Church, Perry
C.S. Lewis speaks of the moral beauty of Psalm 119, this great musical ode to God’s Revealed Law (Reflections on the Psalms). This roadmap of God’s instruction sets the foundation and boundaries for those who aspire to moral excellence using eight terms. These spring forth from God’s Word as it is revealed in various legal, economic, and interpersonal settings in Israel.
These terms include law/instruction (Torah), testimonies/decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word, and promise (Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, 413-414; DeClaisse-Walford, Jacobson, & Tanner, The Book of Psalms, 2014, 871). Like the peeling of an onion, this great Hebrew alphabetical hymn with its 176 lines representing the 22 Hebrew letters can only be understood as one meditates on each eight-line stanza.
While tedious and redundant at times, Psalms 119 is at times a powerful volcano erupting against the true nature of evil and the wicked who delight in it and at other times a refreshing rain showering moral truths and blessings into an environment of spiritual confusion and moral decay. Both the passion of God’s love and His steadfast providence are felt.
Joy comes from obeying God’s Word – Psalm 119:1-3
Verses 1-3 paint the picture of the ideal life, the good life under God. Like Psalm 1, it begins declaring the blessed state of those who “walk in the way of the Lord” (Deut. 5:33; 8:6). Using this same metaphor, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and early Christians were called those who “belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2 ESV).
This ideal life brings joy to its possessor. It is a signpost for others to follow. Located between the psalms read at Passover (Psalms 113-118) and the psalms sang as pilgrims traveled to the temple of Jerusalem (Psalms 120-134), Psalm 119 took its place as a reading at Pentecost when the giving of the Law to Moses was celebrated (DeClaisse-Walford, Jacobson, & Tanner, 870).
The first word ‘ashre frequently translated blessed has a secular ancestry meaning “luck” or “fortune” and can be rightly translated “Happy!” or “How joyful!” or “How fortunate!” Here, as in Psalm 1, it is used instead of the more religious term for blessed, barukh. While the term barukh is more frequently used (398 times as compared to 45 times for ‘ashre) and begins earlier in Jewish history (Gen. 1:28), the Psalmist wishes to express success in the broadest sense of the word and thus uses the term ‘ashre.
Three translations project a full scope of ‘ashre. The first is “Happy” (Jewish Publication Society) or “How happy” (HCSB). The Psalmist highlights an attainable and joyful life. A second translation from the Medieval Rabbi Rashi captures the commendation aspect of ‘ashre. Rashi writes “Praiseworthy are those who are blameless.”
These moral giants should be placed alongside or even above the winners of the Olympics, the theatrical awards, or conquering kings. The example of these Praiseworthy ones are meant to provoke the right insight and the right decision (Erhard Gerstenberger, Psalms 1: with an Intro. to Cultic Poetry, 42).
Finally, a third translation recreates the challenge. Eugene Peterson writes “You’re blessed when you stay on course walking steadily on the road revealed by God” (The Message).
Indeed, the aspirations of the common woman or man can be fulfilled by following the way of the Lord but it requires the whole heart, a humble and receptive attitude, and an intentional focus on the Word of God. It also demands the rejection of all that is wrong, that opposed to God’s path.
God commands us to obey His Word – Psalm 119:4-6
In verse 4 the word “diligently” leaps out. Charles Spurgeon, the great English pastor, wrote of the need of “careful obedience: there is no keeping them by accident. Some give to God a careless service, a sort of hit or miss obedience, but the Lord has not commanded such service, nor will he accept it” (Psalms, Vol. 2, 178). We should imitate the “Praiseworthy” because our God has commanded it.
Verses 5-6 bring out a more personal note, a wish if you please: “Oh that” or “if only.” The personal pronouns now shift from third person (he, they) to first person (my, I). This is no shift to the “I” list of the self-righteous Pharisee of Luke’s parable of the Pharisee and Publican (18:11-12) in which the Pharisee recalls his own virtues. But a shift to that of the humble tax collector who “was standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13 ESV)
Many make wishes, but few turn them into prayers as does the Psalmist. He admits his moral poverty and feels the shame that it has brought upon himself and no doubt his family.
Lean on God’s presence to obey His Word – Psalm 119:7-8
Continuing his heartfelt cry, the Psalmist knows he must acquire the riches of God’s Word (v. 7) and apply them (v.8). In the midst of his struggle, the Psalmist praises God. Praise includes giving thanks to God and giving testimony about God to others.
Alone, the Psalmist knows he will fail, and so he asks God to not abandon him in his struggle. For the Christian, God’s presence is experienced through the indwelling Holy Spirit which guides and strengthens (Romans 8:1-11).
Live it Out
Reading God’s Word will help you know Christ more fully.
Joining a Bible study group will bless your life and be a place where you can invite others to study God’s Word.
Applying God’s Word to every aspect of your life will impact society.