Psalm 119:137-144, each verse beginning with the Hebrew letter tsade, revolves around familiar themes for those who read Psalm 119: the Law of God is right, the psalmist is committed to observing the Law of God, his enemies are a nuisance, and he pleads with God to understand the Law. In part because the letter is tsade, the psalmist focuses this section on God being right (tsadiq) and therefore his Word being right.
Inherent to the psalmist is not so much a theory of inspiration or inerrancy but of the utter truthfulness, righteousness and faithfulness of God. If God is right or righteous, then God’s laws (mishpatim) are right or righteous. This is the theme I want to explore today: Because God is right, his laws are right.
Inherent to that connection is the conviction that the Torah comes from God; Moses may be responsible for his part, but the Torah comes from God. We don’t know how the psalmist thought God “gave” the Torah — except the belief that God spoke to Moses on the mount and Moses then passed on what God had told him to Israel (see Exod 19-20).
Inherent to the entire psalm, to the entire Psalter, and to the entire history of Israel is a conviction: that Torah, Prophets, and Writings are from God.
And because God is righteous, God’s laws (mishpatim) are right — or run straight and true. Implications follow — and we will draw some of them out this week — from the conviction that because God is altogether righteous his laws are right and straight.
Not only are the mishpatim — commands, rulings, judgments — of God right, but also the adot — statutes — are righteous. God is right — he is a righteous God. Therefore, what God says is right — what God commands and the rulings God lays down: they, too, are right. Implication?
God’s statutes are “fully trustworthy.” They are emunah meod — full, completely, true and trustworthy.
Inherent to Christian Bible reading is a conviction that God is righteous, that God has spoken in his Word and commands, that God still speaks to his people through that Word, and that we are called to listen. We will interpret, we will apply, we will “hermeneut” — but we will only do this if we listen.
The Christian listens, learns and then walks in the path of Jesus in light of what he or she has learned. And we can do this with confidence that the God who is righteous has spoken rightly to us in the Torah. We can live in light of that righteous word as a guide to the righteous God.
We can trust. Trust implies walking new paths guided by old words.
The psalmist believes God is righteous and has spoken words in Torah that are right and that can guide God’s people. But those two convictions are at odds with others: they evidently don’t believe either of his convictions. How does he respond? Here are his words:
139 My zeal wears me out,
for my enemies ignore your words.
140 Your promises have been thoroughly tested,
and your servant loves them.
141 Though I am lowly and despised,
I do not forget your precepts.
143 Trouble and distress have come upon me,
but your commands give me delight.
His utter zeal — undeterred commitment — wears him down, annihilates him because his enemies ignore God’s words. He is grieved by the ignorance of others.
In spite of his enemies’ approach to the words of God, the psalmist tests the promises of the Torah and loves them. He tests the words of God.
Tested as he might be, he will not forget the precepts. He will not forget.
Distress leads him back to the righteous God and he finds God’s commands utter delight — delight in delight, delightful delight, or delightful delightfulness. He delights in God’s right laws.
A God who is right prompts in the psalmist a love for the right things — the right people, the right laws, the right God, and to a grief over what is not right.
142 Your righteousness is everlasting
and your law is true.
Since God is right, God’s righteousness is “everlasting” (l’olam). If God’s righteousness — his utter faithfulness to his own character of love — is everlasting, then his law is true.
And if true about an everlastingly righteous God, then there is hope in listening to and observing that righteousness made manifest in the Torah of God.
Inherent to a Christian approach to Scripture is not only a listening and learning mentality, but a hopeful one as well: the Christian listens and learns, and then hopes in the God who makes himself manifest and his ways known in these very words. If God’s righteousness is everlasting and God’s laws — coming as they do from God — are right, then living in light of them is a life of hope.
Somedays we don’t feel like listening to them; somedays we don’t want to learn; somedays we don’t want to observe. But the challenge is to listen, learn, and hope anyway. Why? Because of our hope in God — that these words will guide us when the days seem dreary and the path unclear.
What we read, what we listen to, what we watch — what fills our mind — makes us who we are. We become what fills our mind. So also the psalmist:
“Your statutes are always righteous;
give me understanding that I may live” (119:144).
Literally — “righteous are your statutes forever.” What God calls us to do partakes in God’s very being — the perichoretic relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit shapes the commands. They are designed to draw us into that relationship and to guide us in that very motion. If the perichoresis is God’s eternally self-emptying love of Father into Son and Son in Spirit and Spirit into Son and Son into Father, then the commands of God are designed to lead us into that kind of self-emptying.
Because whatever God does is perfect, his laws lead us into that perfection.
Therefore, the psalmist prays, “give us understanding so we can live.” Perhaps in the sense of surviving the assaults of his enemies, and perhaps in the sense of “really living”. In Joy, in the Presence of God, in the Glory of being in God.
The statutes give “discernment.” As they did for the anointed one (Isa 11:2) and Solomon (Prov. 1:2).
The one who listens and learns and observes the statutes finds words of life — words that give life, words that are life, and words of life.