Longing for His Rules: Words of Psalm 119

The “Mount Everest” of the psalter, a “rolling prairie without bound,” and a “continent of sacred thought”—are all ways Psalm 119 has been described. Through this three-part series, we are examining aspects of this Psalm that attest to its magnificent nature. Last week, we began by examining its poetic composition.

Another characteristic of Psalm 119 is its reoccurring use of words that hold different shades of meaning to describe Scripture. Dr. Peter Lillback teaches that you can tell what is important to a culture by the number of words it has to describe the same phenomenon; as an example, the Finnish culture has fifty words that essentially mean “snow.” The Psalmist here uses repetitive language to communicate significant truths about Scripture itself. They are “near synonyms” according to D.A. Carson that are carefully employed to convey nuance of meaning.

An Exquisite Collection of Words

Below are some of the words found in this Psalm, along with their meanings from the ESV Study Bible, D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God, Dr. Peter Lillback’s sermon, and Lawrence O. Richards’ The Bible Reader’s Companion. The Hebrew transliteration follows the English word in parentheses:

law (torah)
- instruction (ESV Study Bible, Carson)
- moral standards (Lillback)
- the whole body of Scripture’s teaching as found in Moses’ writings (Lawrence)

testimonies (‘edot)
- what God solemnly testifies to be his will (ESV Study Bible)
- God’s bold action of bearing “witness” or “testimony” to the truth and against all that is false (Carson)

precepts (piqqudim)
- what God has appointed to be done (ESV study Bible)
- connected with God’s superintending oversight, as of one who cares for the details of His charge (Carson)
- moral principles applied to life (Lillback)

statutes (khuqqim; khuqqot)
- what the divine Lawgiver has laid down (ESV Study Bible)
- the binding force of Scripture (Carson)
- legal positions (Lillback)

commandments (mitswot)
- what God has commanded (ESV Study Bible)
- clear, definite directives issued by God (Lawrence)
- predicated on God’s authority to tell His creatures what to do (Carson)
- obligations God places on man to obey (Lillback)

rules (mishpatim)
- what the divine Judge has ruled to be right (ESV Study Bible)
- the decisions of the supreme and all-wise Judge (Carson)

word (’imrah; dabar)
- what God has spoken (ESV Study Bible)
- a revelation, but also specifically the Ten Commandments God gave Israel through Moses (Lawrence)
- the most comprehensive term (Carson)
- God speaking (Lillback)

way (derek)
- a metaphor for the way of life believers are to live (Lawrence)
- what we are to walk in/ live out (Lillback) 

If you were to tell another person what the Bible is and why you read it, what would you say and what language would you use? Here, the Bible teaches us how to talk about the Bible—how to approach it, and how to understand it. According to Psalm 119, 

Scripture
is God’s spoken, revealed Word; 
is absolute truth based upon His authority;
places set, God-given obligations, laws, rules upon our lives that are binding and legal; 
is produced for us in accordance with God’s holy, moral will;
and is definitive and clear regarding how we are to walk.

For 22 stanzas, Scripture is spoken of as inerrant, absolute truth to know, believe, and obey. Is that what you and I find praiseworthy about the Scriptures? The Psalmist does—over and over. The Psalmist delights in the law, commandments, rules, etc. of the one true God.

In all the ways I do not yet delight in the law of God, I have some thinking and praying to do about why—and about what extra-biblical notions I have perhaps attached to my faith or, perhaps, what partial truths about Scripture I have used to overshadow this kind of language, thought, and praise.

Legal Nature of the Psalm and Salvation

Perhaps our society’s ethic can be described by the phrase, “anything goes as long as you don’t hurt someone else.” But God has absolute moral standards for His people that do not change with the times, as we see in this Psalm.

So, as believers, we have legal justification before God through faith in Christ who fulfills the law. We are saved not by our own works, but by His. As His people, we can see that the obligations of God so matter Him and sin so entirely unacceptable to Him that the death of His Son was required to justify us. Law-breakers are saved, making us lovers of the law-Giver for who He is. This includes loving all of His righteous and holy commands, rules, and ways.

Reading Psalm 119's descriptors of Scripture straightens me, sharpens me, and conforms me. They remind me of what Paul writes in Romans, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2). As Psalm 119 concludes in verse 176, we who believe sorrowfully do sin: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments.” By God’s grace, we who have been given the gift of faith don’t forget who God is to us through His Word—we don’t forget the price Jesus paid, and we don’t forget who He is because we have the Spirit is within us.

Through Christ I can recognize that the righteousness in my life is all owed to Him—without whom I would still be lost. I praise Him for His righteousness and for the Word as it is and as I so need—and because of Christ, want—it to be: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, emphasis mine).

How Can We Look Away?

Look at this valuable Word and consider the thoughtfulness the Psalmist took to describe it in exquisite, righteous, holy detail. Awakened to this invaluable Word of truth, how can we look away from it, from Him?

My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times.
Psalm 119:20

True truth is foreign to naturally double-minded, wicked-hearted man. Is it not magnificent to behold? Awe-inspiring? Worship-producing? It is unlike anything else we can hold and see in this world. God has spoken. In what He has spoken—our pure delight. 

Longing for his rules, Psalm 119. Image of the Grand Canyon.

Next week, we’ll discuss Psalm 119’s placement in the psalter.