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Psalms 119 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

This great “Psalm of the Law” is based upon the prophetic (Ezr 9:11) presentation of the Law in the Book of Deuteronomy, with the spirit and language of which its author’s mind was saturated. It represents the religious ideas of Deuteronomy developed in the communion of a devout soul with God. It is the fruit of that diligent study of the Law which is enjoined in Deu 6:1-9, a beginning of the fulfilment of the promise of an inward and spiritual knowledge of it which is proclaimed by Jeremiah (Jer 31:33 ff.). The Psalmist is one whose earnest desire and stedfast purpose it is to make God’s law the governing principle of his conduct, to surrender all self-willed thoughts and aims, to subordinate his whole life to the supremely perfect Will of God, with unquestioning faith in His all-embracing Providence and unfailing love.

The ‘Law of God,’ which the Psalmist describes in its manifold aspects as His law, word, promise, commandments, statutes, judgements, precepts, testimonies, ways, is not the law in the narrower sense of the Mosaic legislation or the Pentateuch. The Hebrew word tôrâh has a wider range of meaning, and here, as in Psalms 1, 19, it must be understood to mean all Divine revelation as the guide of life. This it is which kindles the Psalmist’s enthusiasm and demands his allegiance. It is no rigid code of commands and prohibitions, but a body of teaching, the full meaning of which can only be realised gradually and by the help of Divine instruction. It has been said that the Psalmist’s devotion to the Law contains the germ of Pharisaic legalism, but it may be questioned whether the observation is just. Nowhere does the Psalmist allow law to interfere between him and God; never is a formal observance of external rules substituted for the inward devotion of the heart. If sometimes his professions of obedience seem to savour of self-righteousness, his prayers for grace fully recognise that strength to obey must come from God. The Psalm is an acknowledgement of the blessing of a revelation, of the strength which the law gives to Israel in the midst of surrounding heathenism, and to the faithful Israelite in the presence of a prevailing laxity of faith and morals. In an age when the voice of prophecy was rarely heard, or perhaps was altogether silent, it begins to draw strength from meditation on the revelation made to past generations. It points no doubt towards the age of the Scribes, but it represents the best spirit of that age [78] . It is remarkable that a Psalm, emanating from the period in which the ritual law was codified and the Temple became the centre of Israel’s religion, should contain no reference whatever to ceremonial or sacrifice. Doubtless the Psalmist would have included the ceremonial law as a part of God’s commandments, but evidently he does not regard it as the principal part of them. The whole Psalm is animated by a profound inwardness and spirituality, as far removed as possible from the superstitious literalism of a later age. It shews no tendency to substitute mechanical observance of rules for the living application of principles. Such obedience, if it falls short of the full liberty of the Gospel, is at least a step towards it.

[78] Cp. Oehler’s O.T. Theology, §§ 84, 201.

The close personal relation of the Psalmist to God is one of the most striking features of the Psalms in general, and in few Psalms is it more marked than in this. In every verse but one (115) or at most two (but on 128 see note) after the first three introductory verses God is addressed; in all but some fourteen verses the Psalmist addresses God in the first person, or, which is the same thing, as His servant.

The Psalmist has arranged his meditations in an elaborate alphabetical form, adopted partly perhaps as an aid to memory. The Psalm consists of 22 stanzas, according to the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the 8 verses in a stanza begins with the same letter, and the letters are taken in their regular order. The arrangement of Lamentations 3 presents the nearest parallel, but there the stanzas consist of three verses only. (For other alphabetical Psalms see Introd. p. lxiv.) This artificiality of structure seems to have hindered many commentators from appreciating the variety of the contents of the Psalm, and many have denied that any real connexion or progress of thought is to be found in it. In a sense this may be true: the verses are not so much linked together by logical connexion as united by their direction to a common centre, but each stanza has, as a rule, some leading thought, which gives it a distinctive character. Those who by long devotional use have become intimately familiar with the Psalm have found a significant variety in the apparent monotony of its language. For them it is ‘the Psalm of the Saints’; ‘the Alphabet of Divine Love’; ‘the Christian’s golden ABC of the praise, love, power and use of the Word of God.’ St Augustine deferred the exposition of it until he had finished the rest of the Psalter, and finally approached it with reluctance and diffidence: “non tam propter eius notissimam longitudinem quam propter eius profunditatem paucis cognoscibilem … quanto enim videtur apertior, tanto mihi profundior videri solet” (Prooemium in Psalms 118). The cxix th Psalm, writes Dr Liddon, represents in the highest degree “the paradox of seeming simplicity overlying fathomless depth. It conveys at first an impression of tautology … it seems to reiterate with little attempt at variety the same aspirations, assurances, prayers, resolutions”; but a close and sympathetic study shews it to be “infinitely varied in its expressions, yet incessantly one in its direction; its variations are so delicate as to be almost imperceptible, its unity so emphatic as to be inexorably stamped upon its every line” ( The Priest in his Inner Life, p. 46).

“The 119th Psalm,” says Mr Ruskin, quoted by Archbp. Alexander, Witness of the Psalms, p. 302, “has become of all the most precious to me in its overflowing and glorious passion of love for the law of God.”

Who the author of the Psalm was it is idle to speculate, but we may gather from it some idea of the circumstances among which he lived. He was sorely tried, but in his trials he recognised God’s loving discipline for his good ( Psa 119:50 ; Psa 119:67 ; Psa 119:71 ; Psa 119:75 ; Psa 119:107 ; Psa 119:153). He had to suffer contempt (22, 39, 42) and even ill-treatment (121, 134) for his adherence to the law. The authorities of the community despised and persecuted him (23, 161); men of position and power, whom he designates as ‘the proud’ or ‘the wicked,’ mocked him, calumniated him, endeavoured to oppress and injure him (51, 61, 69, 78, 84, 85, 86, 95, 122, 150, 157). He was even in danger of his life (87, 109). His persecutors were not heathen, but faithless Israelites, for he describes them as forsaking God’s law (53), wandering from His commandments (21), forgetting His words (139). They were selfish, self-satisfied men of the world, incapable of appreciating true religion (70). Their indifference to the law sometimes aroused his burning indignation (53); sometimes excited his profound sorrow (136). He was confronted by laxity if not actual apostasy (113, 158, 126): evil example might have tempted him to disown his faith and cast in his lot with evil-doers (29, 37, 115), but he has successfully resisted the temptation, for he knows God’s estimate of their character (118, 119), and their certain destiny (155). Under these circumstances, however, it is no easy task for him to maintain his constancy. Repeatedly and earnestly he prays for fuller knowledge of the law and for strength to keep it, for relief from persecution, for protection and preservation.

We can thus form a tolerable idea of the circumstances of the Psalmist, or of the class which he represents, for it is probable that he speaks on behalf of others as well as himself, and interweaves their experiences with his own. This representative character of the Psalm explains some phrases which seem to go beyond individual experience, though it is clear on the whole that an individual and not the community is the speaker. At what time he lived it is impossible to say precisely. That it was in the post-exilic period is certain from the tone and language of the Psalm, but in what part of it is doubtful. The beginning at any rate of the conditions described above is to be found in the evils which Ezra and Nehemiah endeavoured to remedy, and against which Malachi protested. (See e.g. Nehemiah 5, 6, 13; Mal 3:13-15.) There are not a few points of contact in thought and language between their writings and the Psalm. It may have been written about the middle of the fifth century b.c., possibly not till considerably later, but certainly not so late as the Maccabaean age. There are no traces of the struggles of the time when the possession of a copy of the law and the observance of the characteristic rites of Judaism were punishable with death.

Delitzsch infers from Psa 119:9 ff., Psa 119:99-100; Psa 119:141, that the Psalmist was a young man; Ewald from Psa 119:84-87 that he was advanced in years. Neither inference seems to be justified. More probably he was a man of mature years, who had learned much by experience, but felt that he had still much more to learn.

Hitzig conjectures that he was a prisoner who beguiled the tedium of his imprisonment by the composition of the Psalm, and Delitzsch is inclined to adopt the suggestion. But there is no sufficient ground for such a hypothesis.

It is not likely that the Psalm was deliberately composed “as a vade mecum for Israelite young men.” Doubtless it was well adapted for a compendium of instruction, but it attests itself to be the utterance of heartfelt devotion. Nor again is it a ‘national’ Psalm, in the sense that the Psalmist merges his own personality in that of the community and speaks in its name. Doubtless he speaks for others as well as himself; it is of the essence of inspired poetry to be representative and to possess a catholicity of thought; and often he appropriates the national experience, for to the Israelite membership in the covenant nation was a profound reality; but the Psalm breathes throughout the spirit of the most intense personal conviction, of the most intimate but deeply reverent communion with God.

It will be most convenient to consider once for all the various words for ‘the Law’ which recur so frequently in this Psalm [79] , and to note some of its most characteristic phrases.

[79] According to the Massoretic note on Psa 119:122 one of the ten expressions, pointing to the ‘ten words’ of the Decalogue, ‘saying,’ ‘word,’ ‘testimony,’ ‘way,’ ‘judgement,’ ‘precept,’ ‘commandment,’ ‘law,’ ‘statute,’ ‘faithfulness’ (according to another reading ‘righteousness’) occurs in every verse except Psa 119:122 (to which Psa 119:132 should be added). ‘Faithfulness’ however is an attribute of the law, not a synonym for it: and the word ‘judgements’ does not always mean ‘ordinances.’

Consult other comments:

Psalms 119:0 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Psalms 119:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Psalms 119:0 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Psalms 119:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Psalms 119:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Psalms 119:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Psalms 119:0 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Psalms 119:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Psalms 119:0 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges