Psalm 119:17 is both a little request and a world of insight. “Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word.” That first verb, “Do good,” brings one element of the verb gml to the surface: it can mean “to deal kindly” or even to “deal bountifully.” What seems to be a little request — “God, do good to me” — covers up a world of intention.
My favorite commentary on all things Psalms? John Goldingay, Psalm 101-150
The psalmist asks God, after the psalmist realizes that he has spent time learning Torah, to be good to him so he can spend plenty of days “keeping the word (dbr).” Like the student who has spent years of studying to get degrees, like the apprentice who has spent hours toiling under a master, like a minor league baseball player who has spent the dog days of summer grinding out his game, like parents who have spent decades nurturing children — and who each want to see the reward of their efforts — like teaching for decades, or working wood on one’s own, or playing in the big leagues, or seeing kids come of age with wisdom and righteousness.
That’s the longing of the psalmist: he has dedicated himself to the Torah and got it down, and he now simply asks God to have a long life of praxis. That request, by the way, is a serious one: this psalmist is being hunted down.
Humans, the psalmist seems to assume, have veiled eyes. To see, the veil must be lifted. “Open (galah) my eyes, that I may perceive…”. Here the words of Balaam in Numbers 22:31: “Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.”
The same theme, that of removing a veil, is found in 2 Cor 3:14-18 — and there the idea is that “in Christ” and “through the Spirit,” the veil is lifted so we can experience God “face to face.” That encounter reveals, heals, transforms, and empowers.
There can be an issue here: some contend that we cannot “understand,” as in “apprehend the meaning of,” the Bible without the Spirit. Or, to use the psalmist’s word, without divine opening of the eyes. Others say we read the Bible with our minds, but the heart is opened only through surrender to God’s Spirit and presence and faith in God to speak to us.
Here is a prayer from The Book of Common Prayer that is so appropriate to Psalm 119
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.Amen.
The psalmist, in 119:19, tells us this: “I am only a sojourner in the land.” At first blush, this would mean he is a Gentile (ger ‘anoki) dwelling for awhile in the Land of Israel. On top of this, he says “do not hide your commandments from me.” What to say?
If taken to be a social descriptor, the psalmist is a Gentile who, in spite of his Gentile status, wants to learn and hear the commandments. But, my sources don’t show anyone who thinks this.
That means, since the contextual flow of the whole of Psalm 119 suggests a Jewish author, that “sojourner” is a metaphor for our sojourn on earth. Which, so it seems to me, fits with 119:17: he wants to live long enough to enjoy observing the Torah (after his effort to learn it). And, this also means that the “do not hide” is about the same as “deal kindly” in 119:17. That’s the process I went through to come to the meaning of the text: in our time on earth we are summoned to join the psalmist of learning Torah and observing Torah. Hence, every weekday we spend time on this blog pondering a passage in the Bible.
To be honest, most of us part ways from the psalmist. How often do I so long to hear from God, how often do I so long to commune with God, that I sense that my being is falling into pieces because of that desire?
The psalmist’s longing to know God through the study and observance of Torah is not without opposition. He is aware of those who are “insolent” (119:21) and stray from the commandments. Even more, he experiences “taunt and abuse” (v. 22) and the “princes meet and speak against me” (v. 23).
It is not clear who this prince is: could be military, could be priestly, could be other royals. We don’t know; they are a pain to the psalmist. Nor are we certain who wrote this psalm. What we do know is what the text says: the psalmist is opposed in his commitment to do the Torah.
In spite of that, the psalmist makes one thing clear: “your servant studies your laws.” The word “studies” (siyach) means to germinate and to meditate; or, even better, to mutter to oneself through or to ponder and think upon and through.
The daily hours, the habit of pausing at set times in the day, permits us to hear the Word throughout the day and to give to us something to ponder and meditate on. The daily habit of reading the Bible does the same. The habit of memorizing permits the same. However you and I do it, the point is to get these words into the mind so we can chew on them, let them germinate, ponder, and meditate.
Those who for a variety of reasons — most of them highly uninformed — oppose the practice of meditation are opposing something explicitly taught in the Bible.
The psalmist declares his friends: “your decrees (edah) are my delight (shashua), my intimate companions (enosh etsah) — my friends who counsel me” (119:24). Again, the psalmist speaks from experience: his friends are the words of God; they are the ones who accompany him everywhere he goes; they are the ones who are whispering in his ears about what to do; they are the ones to whom he listens. Doesn’t take much imagination here: if you know someone well, you know how they think and what they would say in each experience in life. That, for the psalmist, is what God’s decrees/God’s words are like: they are his best friends, his most loyal counselors, his steady companions.
When his opponents sought counsel with one another, he sought counsel with the decrees of God.
If you’ve ever heard Fernando Ortega’s song about traveling the roads of New Mexico, he speaks of his friends as the columbine and the streams and the stars. Always with him. They lead him home. Don’t know the name of the song; but I like it.