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It will, probably, never be known who wrote this psalm. There seems to be no historical basis for the supposition that Ezra was its author, though he may have edited it and given it to the world. He certainly, “a scribe learned in the law of the Lord,” devoted himself to copying, arranging, and explaining the word. He was the first true scribe; the founder of that order whom, in their decay, the Saviour denounced as taking away the key of knowledge, the exact reverse of the purpose of Ezra’s toilsome and faithful life. To edit this psalm would, to such a man, be a labour of love. Its true author must, like the authors of some other books of Scripture, have been a man whose name is nowhere discernible.
The structure of the psalm shows that when it was written the joyous freedom of natural poetry had been succeeded by careful attention to form. Here are as many divisions as there are letters in the Hebrew alphabet; and each of the eight verses in a division begins, in the Hebrew, with the letter naming the division. To true poetic taste there is no merit in this artifice of form, just as there is no merit in rhyme or metre. Yet these give a certain pleasure, and also aid our memory. So the form of this psalm pleased those for whom it was first written, and made its recollection easier. Through these divisions runs a faintly discernible logical connexion.
If other indications of date were wanting, its form would suggest that it was not written in the same times with the spontaneous, unlaboured poetry of David. It belongs to the days of more careful composition, such as marks the first psalm. In its days, the temple and its ordinances, the fasts and feasts, could not have existed, for it contains no allusion to them. It must have been written in a time of trouble of personal as well as national trouble for it contains many resolutions and exhortations to fortitude. It must have been the work of one who knew the condition of his countrymen, yet was himself in a degree of solitude, as we see here traces of long, unbroken meditation. All these demands are satisfied by dating the psalm somewhere in the times of the Babylonish captivity.
The first doctrinal teaching of this psalm is the superiority of the word to all ordinances. The great principles “settled in heaven,” called here by ten synonymes, are set forth as enduring for ever. The solemn judgments of God on human conduct, for all lands and ages, are here acknowledged and adored. This indicates a breadth of view such as was certainly one of the good fruits of the sore affliction of the captivity. It set thoughtful minds to discern what it was that could not be shaken, but was to remain. The second teaching of the psalm is the value of inward experience in support of outward sorrow and suffering. The triumph of solitary virtue, as in Daniel and Nehemiah, under sore trials, proved the strength of the heart in which the sayings of the Lord were hid. In dark times, they who had the word abiding in them had a light for their path. Only in affliction and trial can we take this psalm to ourselves. It is then not too long, and not at all monotonous. Each verse presents afresh the truths by which men live, and live when the sorrows of death take hold of them. There is a logical, a beautiful relation between this psalm and Ecclesiastes, which suggests that they may have been written near the same period. In Ecclesiastes a sad and thoughtful man seeks for solace and satisfaction in worldly good, and seeks in vain. From the highest plane that he reaches, “Fear God, and keep his commandments,” this psalm, like the patriarch’s ladder, rises heavenward, and reaches perfect rest and unfailing comfort. Thus the exercises of a single soul are recorded for the good of many souls. Here “they that wait and ponder” can renew their strength in the word that shows the way, the truth, and the life.
Israel was now entering upon the reign of law as distinct from the reign of ordinances. The sentiment of the nation was, for some centuries, in harmony with this psalm. Through wars, revolts, and oppressions, even when the daily sacrifice was taken away, and families scattered in many lands, it was the law, as here set forth, that upheld the Jewish character. It became the object of fond, earnest thought and study. Commentaries, lectures, and oral expositions were made upon it. After a long while such is human infirmity the law was confused and made void by the growth of interpretations. ONE then arose and restored its power by teaching it as one who had “authority, and not as the scribes.” But it may be said, that if the law had been steadily held in the simple reverence shown in this psalm, St. Paul, in Romans, would not have been compelled to show it as cramping his spirit and hindering his way to the higher forms of experience.
א , Aleph.
1-8. Blessed are the undefiled This, the first division, contains a general declaration of the blessing of faithfulness to the divine law. Here occur very many phrases, already familiar, and explained in the notes on previous psalms.
Oh that my ways The view given of their happiness who keep the law, excites this “hungering and thirsting after righteousness.”
Righteous judgments These mean, here, not so much retributions on bad men, as on Pharaoh, as it does the application of the broad principles of justice which constitute the divine economy.
ב , Beth.
9-16. After the general preliminary given in “Aleph,” the value of the divine word, as the guide of early life, is considered. The youthful lack of experience is compensated by its lessons, and the buoyancy of youthful spirits is sustained by its rich, joyous sympathies.
“Religion never was designed To make our pleasures less.”
Have I hid Meaning, not only I have learned it by heart, but I have hoarded it as my choice treasure. “One practises self-control,” says a Greek philosopher, “as long as he remembers thought-regulating words.” Such words are thy statutes.
I will delight myself Here is expressed the glad resolve of a young heart. The writer may have been no longer young, but he speaks from the standpoint of youth, and utters an early covenant.
ג , Gimel.
17-24. Here is found a phase of experience under persecution. After a prayer for fulness of strength, comes this special petition. He wishes so large and rapturous vision of the law, that his soul may be utterly preoccupied with it. So Stephen, at his death, was entranced with the view of his glorified Lord, and forgot his sufferings.
Thy testimonies… are my… counsellors In this impressive court scene the prisoner’s soul was sustained by the unseen Word, as if a living advocate were encouraging him.
ד , Daleth.
25-32. My soul cleaveth unto the dust Now is presented a soul in deep affliction, as if the trial in the previous division had gone against him; as if he had suffered the loss of all things, and worse was yet to follow.
The way of lying In trouble one is strongly drawn to hold untruthful views of providence, of his persecutors, and of his own merits. This can but aggravate his case. Sentiments of truth and justice are then peculiarly salutary. They help one to “rise o’er fear, and doubt, and care.”
ה , He.
33-40. Teach me… thy statutes The trouble has passed, and entrance upon active and responsible life is contemplated. The writer sees the form of knowledge and of truth in the law. He earnestly desires to grasp it.
Within his heart arises covetousness, and this internal temptation he wishes to overcome. His external peril is from vanity the showy forms of worldly good, and the applause of men the loss of which is the reproach that he fears. In all this he can be successful, according to his largest desire, if he may have more life and fuller, to quicken him in righteousness.
ו , Vau.
41 -48. I trust in thy word In this section the prevailing element is a prayer for courage, equal to a frank, open confession. It is what Daniel might have uttered in Babylon, and many a martyr since. If the word dwells richly in the heart, the tongue is free and glad. Psalms 119:46 is the motto of the famous Augsburg Confession, the statement of Protestant doctrine prepared by Luther and read before the hostile emperor of Germany, June 25, 1530. In the midst of perils the Reformer and his friends walked at liberty with glad and fearless hearts, and delighted themselves in the doctrines which they loved.
ז , Zain.
49-56. The word… upon which thou hast caused me to hope In a time of derision and apostasy the psalmist finds strength and delight in the word. Times of persecution and contempt are always times of apostasy. “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” Then, the weak fall away, but the strong, though horrified at the desertion, find in Jehovah their strength and their song. Their earthly life, though they be like Paul and Silas in prison, is enlivened and sweetened with song and praise, and “the listening ear of night” catches the accents of their joy.
ח , Cheth.
57-64. Thou art my portion Having found in the statutes of the Lord the joy and solace mentioned in the last division, the writer now earnestly prays that, as the highest good, he may have a stronger hold upon it.
Self-examination reveals his inward need of being thoroughly possessed by it. Bands, here, does not mean companies, but cords, constraints, and the sense is, The constraints of the wicked hampered me. Many a devout Israelite must have had that to say during the captivity.
Righteous judgments Not acts of judgment, but precepts of judgment and law doctrines.
Thy precepts God’s holy requirements.
שׂ , Teth.
65-72. Thou hast dealt well This declaration clearly refers to deliverance; and this goodness, which the insensible proud, with hearts as fat as grease, never appreciate, leads the grateful mind to long for ability to render a more intelligent service.
Before I was afflicted Providential afflictions are ofttimes “blessings in disguise,” leading the straying ones to the “Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.” Night is a great teacher, and shows us things invisible by day: so affliction also teaches that some plausible doctrines are lies, and the hopes forged from them are vain, but it brings out the priceless worth of the law of thy mouth. It is not good for a rebel like Pharaoh to be afflicted. The blessing is for those who mourn “after a godly sort,” with humble, self-abasing temper.
י , Jod.
73-80. I may learn thy commandments The psalmist considers the value of broad and truthful experiences in the word as related to his influence upon others. He implores strength and exemption from affliction for this purpose. He feels that he has something to say that he has learned in his previous troubles; and, if his heart be but kept sound in God’s statutes, he believes that he will see candid men turning and listening with advantage. “My soul is full of sermons; I long to recover so as to utter them.” Many a sick preacher has repeated the groanful prayer.
כ , Caph.
81-88. My soul fainteth Affliction and trial are again upon him. “The clouds return after the rain.” The exact point of the grief is expressed in Psalms 119:83.
A bottle in the smoke One hung up on the tent poles clear of the heads of the inmates, and, of course, where the smoke finds its way toward the hole in the peak of the tent. It means useless, unemployed, idle. Possibly the writer was in prison, as Paul afterward languished at Rome.
Very bitter, worse than death, to a free, generous soul, is such enforced idleness. The crown of those who suffer should be brighter than that of those who are active. It is in these trying days that the psalmist wishes to rest his fainting soul on the testimony of God’s mouth.
ל , Lamed.
89-96. Thy word is settled in heaven This lofty declaration of the character of the word, gives the reason why it may be trusted. “Its seat is the bosom of God; its voice is the harmony of the worlds.”
“The word that rolls the stars around, Speaks all the promises.”
What the “word” is in the frame of nature, upholding all things so far that mortal vision does not reach to its boundary, such the writer finds it in his heart; it has supported and has quickened him.
מ , Mem.
97-104. Thy law… is my meditation A view is now given of the practical wisdom given by the word. A childlike mind, illuminated by the pure truth, sees of itself an error. Its feelings and intuitions are better than logical arguments, and this pure, direct perception is more reliable than the experience of the “ancients,” who had not the living word. To a free, clean mind, the divine truth is better than honey to the mouth or music to the ear.
נ , Nun.
105-112. Thy word is a lamp The writer comes to an experience like that of a traveller by night on a dangerous road. He enters upon it with a firm resolve a hold upon the divine law as a guiding clew; while, as with the other hand, he carries the lamp of the word.
Freewill offerings Voluntary confessions of the divine goodness, and utterances of praise.
ס , Samek.
113-120. My hiding place and my shield The psalmist’s experience of perils has increased his confidence and strength. He now declares how little he is influenced by the example of evil doers. His heart is fixed. He knows in whom he has believed. Yet when he thinks of the power that puts away, “like rubbish in the void,” the wicked, be they ever so mighty, he trembles, even in his safety. The Jews of the captivity had seen great nations go down as into a chasm before the divine wrath.
ע , Ayin.
121-128. Leave me not to mine oppressors Let “him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.” Such is the line of thought in this division. In the pressure of evil the strongest has feelings of weakness. When the rod of the wicked rests heavily on the lot of the righteous, the latter is tempted to put forth his hand to iniquity. Hope and confidence need to be sustained by prayer. When men make void nullify the law, it still remains law, and the giver will know how to magnify and make it honourable. Therefore the psalmist loves and abides by it, even when he sees it broken.
פ , Pe.
129-136. Let not any iniquity have dominion over me A sense of his own peril leads the writer to a still deeper, intenser longing for perfected holiness within himself. As he feels the growing strength of his own heart, so he the more grieves over those who, departing from the law, depart from the joys of grace. The experience here given of the law is, in our day, found in Christ, who gives to his servants “grace for grace;” that is, grace enjoyed in proportion to grace employed.
צ , Tsade.
137-144. Thy law is the truth This division, more than any other, tells us of a heart to which the eternal God was a living power. Young, weak, small, the writer feels himself enlivened by ideas and affections originating beyond himself. Such temper Jesus showed when he put on authority and cleansed the temple. Such temper our psalmist may have seen in Nehemiah while putting forth his efforts to restore Jerusalem. It is still the secret explanation of every mystery of toil and sacrifice for the faith. By this temper morality is heightened into religion, the essence of which is loyal, admiring devotion to a higher power.
ק , Koph.
145-152. I cried with my whole heart Here we see the spirit of Samuel among them that called upon God. That peculiar, long-continued cry with which Samuel spent the night before the Lord is here heard, preventing, anticipating, the late hours of the night, and even the dawn of morning. It is a clinging, importunate cry day and night unto Him, of “His own elect,” which prayer will be surely heard. The last verse suggests the long confidence that prays and trusts “though he bear long with them.”
ר , Resh.
153-160. Plead my cause The prayer is here as if the honour of God were involved in the deliverance of those who put their trust in him. The pleading is, for that very reason, the more earnest. Very touching and trustful is the appeal in Psalms 119:159. Luther sums up Psalms 119:160, “Thy word is nothing but truth.”
שׁ , Shin.
161-168. Princes have persecuted me Persecutions still return, yet “the joy of the Lord” is his strength. Princes who sat and spake against him now persecute him without cause, yet the fear of God kills out the fear of man. The result of the struggle is like the spoil after a victory. Seven times is the same as many times, the use of “seven” for an indefinite number being very ancient. The division ends with an humble, but confident, appeal to the Searcher of hearts that he has steadily kept his testimonies, an appeal which only the purest conscience can venture to make.
ת , Tav.
169-176. Let thine hand help me Finally, the two great wants of man, strength of soul to live righteously and deliverance from outward evils, are rehearsed. The writer is persecuted for his faith. He wishes to keep the faith. He prays also for rest from persecution. The last verse should probably be, “If I go astray like a lost sheep, seek thy servant.” Not that he means to stray, but he knows his own weakness. With this humble cry the long meditation ends. In such form as this the law presented itself to a religious mind in the age of Ezra and Nehemiah. Under this view of it, Israel was revived and men were raised up who contended earnestly for the faith until the Messiah came and the grace of the gospel was proclaimed!
In the condensed foregoing notes, the leading object has been to show that the long text is not a repetition of synonymes, but, like Ecclesiastes, moves forward, not indeed in a direct line, but with shifts and changes, presenting, under a large variety of experiences, the one source of strength and comfort the divine law.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 119". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent