The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > From the study: to great lengths for God’s word

From the study: to great lengths for God's word

By: KAYA WEAVER

As Glorify Dance Theatre prepares to perform Casefile: Euangelion, a ballet about the great value of having access to God’s word, the company is reading contemplatively through Psalm 119. In the ballet, characters who are faithful to God go to great lengths to ensure that others can read and meditate on God’s word. This psalm, through lengthy poetic reflection, likewise expresses deep commitment to God’s word, and through God’s word to relationship with God that forms us in wisdom and goodness.

At 176 verses, Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, and its subject matter is the word of God. Throughout this extensive poem, the psalmist repeatedly uses at least eight different Hebrew words to refer to God’s word. Some of these words are nearly synonymous, and others stand out as adding definition to the psalmist’s sense of what God’s word is and what it is for. The stanza that comprises verses 153-160 uses a handful of these words.

Psalm 119:153 See my affliction and free me, for I haven’t forgotten your instruction.

154 Argue my case and redeem me; revive me according to your promise.

155 Deliverance is far away from the wicked, for they haven’t pursued your statutes.

156 Your mercies are great, Yahweh; revive me according to your justice.

157 Many are my pursuers and my enemies; I have not swerved from your charges.

158 I’ve seen traitors and felt loathing because they haven’t kept your commands.

159 See that I love your precepts; Yahweh, revive me according to your loyal-love.

160 The chief of your words is truth, and all your righteous judgments are forever.

By examining how different labels for God’s word are used in each line of this stanza, we can learn more about why God’s word is important enough for the psalmist to meditate on it through 176 verses of poetry.

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153 See my affliction and free me, for I haven’t forgotten your instruction.

The psalmist opens this stanza asking Yahweh to acknowledge them and act on their behalf. The psalmist’s rationale for requesting Yahweh’s attention is the psalmist’s own attention to Yahweh’s instruction, or torah. Yahweh’s instruction is an instrument in the reciprocity of the psalmist’s relationship with Yahweh. Yahweh gives instruction to convey the terms of relationship, and the psalmist chooses to engage that relationship on Yahweh’s terms.

154 Argue my case and redeem me; revive me according to your promise.

The psalmist continues to implore Yahweh for aid, but they identify God’s word differently to clarify the relationship between their obedience to Yahweh’s word and their hope in Yahweh’s action. Yahweh’s word consists not only of instruction for how humanity relates to God, but also of promise (imrah), concerning how Yahweh relates to humanity. Because the psalmist has chosen to relate to Yahweh on Yahweh’s terms, they can also hope that Yahweh will honor those terms by giving freedom and life.

155 Deliverance is far away from the wicked, for they haven’t pursued your statutes.

As a counterpoint, the psalmist points out how others might also need life and freedom but lack access to these promises of Yahweh. The reason is that the wicked relate differently to God’s word. As in verse 153, God’s word is described as laws to be obeyed. However, while the psalmist always remembers Yahweh’s “instruction,” the wicked are those who do not pursue Yahweh’s statutes (khuqah). While the psalmist, who relates to Yahweh according to Yahweh’s instruction, can expect Yahweh to respond in accordance with God’s promises, the wicked distance themselves from Yahweh’s promises by walking away from God’s word and from relationship on Yahweh’s terms.

156 Your mercies are great, Yahweh; revive me according to your justice.

Continuing to call on Yahweh for action, the psalmist describes God’s word of instruction and promise as justice, or mishpat. The Hebrew word mishpat can refer to the decision of a judge (“judgment”) or describe an attribute of the judge and their decisions as being right (“justice”) (Brown, Driver & Briggs, p. 1048). By calling on Yahweh’s “justice,” the psalmist expresses trust that God will render right decisions. The parallelism between this and previous verses poetically suggests that this trust comes from how the psalmist interprets God’s words: words of instruction, words of promise, and words that set things right.

157 Many are my pursuers and my enemies; I have not swerved from your charges.

Next, the psalmist considers some of their interpersonal relationships. Earlier the psalmist described “wicked” ones who set themselves against Yahweh’s instruction. Here they identify “pursuers” and “enemies,” people set against the psalmist. Even through the stress of being chased down, the psalmist’s path is defined by Yahweh’s charges, or divine testimonies (edot) as to what is right. The juxtaposition of images in this line–the pursuit of enemies and the psalmist’s unwavering faithfulness–suggests that the psalmist seeks to self-differentiate in terms of their faithfulness to God’s word.

158 I’ve seen traitors and felt loathing because they haven’t kept your commands.

Elaborating on the psalmist’s relationship to their enemies, the psalmist expresses intensely negative feelings towards those who disregard Yahweh’s commands (imrah). Taken together with the previous, parallel line, this clarifies the contrast between the psalmist and their enemies. While the psalmist remains faithful to God’s word even under duress, those who are against the psalmist are at odds with God’s word. Those who flout Yahweh’s commands are pursuing dramatically different ends than those who choose to relate to Yahweh on Yahweh’s terms; hence they are characterized as “traitors.”

159 See that I love your precepts; Yahweh, revive me according to your loyal-love.

The focus shifts back to the psalmist’s part in relationship with Yahweh. The psalmist feels deep affinity for Yahweh’s precepts, or the things Yahweh has appointed (piqud). In reciprocity, the psalmist asks to receive Yahweh’s faithful love and gift of life.

160 The chief of your words is truth, and all your righteous judgments are forever.

The psalmist completes this stanza by extolling the reliability of God’s word. Above all else, Yahweh’s words (devar) convey truth; the psalmist can count on God’s word to accurately reflect reality and not to give false hope or lead them astray.

Yahweh’s judgments (mishpat) last forever; the psalmist trusts Yahweh not to change capriciously but to provide a secure foundation through God’s word on which to base their choices.

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Within this stanza of Psalm 119, the psalmist expresses their relationship to Yahweh through God’s word. The psalmist also contrasts their own relationship to Yahweh with the ways others choose not to relate to Yahweh by distancing themselves from God’s word.

Scholars Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. comment that in Psalm 119, 

“Torah obedience is a full existence of trust in and loyalty to a covenant partner, trust and loyalty that are embodied in obedience to instruction but that bespeak an interpersonal, interactive communion and not simply compliance with a set of rules” (p. 520). 

The verses discussed here exemplify Brueggemann and Bellinger’s point by leaning on references to God’s “instruction” or “precepts” as illustrations of the psalmist’s love and faithfulness toward Yahweh. The psalmist weaves these illustrations together with expressions of hope in Yahweh’s promises. Through experiencing affliction and being pursued by enemies, the psalmist continues in faithful relationship to Yahweh and trusts in Yahweh’s faithful response of deliverance.

The variety of words the psalmist uses to identify God’s word clarify that it is instructive and is a source of hope. The word of God helps mediate humanity’s relationship with God. God’s word communicates promises of love and life for humanity, as well as wisdom that shows us how to conduct our lives in accordance with these good things.

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Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation.

Secondary references:

Brown, S. Driver, & C. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Hendrickson Publishers, 2012).

Walter Brueggemann & William H. Bellinger, Jr. Psalms: New Cambridge BIble Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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