Psalm 119:1-8

a 1. Blessed are they who are upright, 1 in their way, walking in the law of Jehovah. a 2. Blessed are they who, keeping his testimonies, seek him with all their heart. a 3. Surely they do not work iniquity, who walk in his ways. a 4. Thou hast commanded that thy statutes should be observed carefully. 2a 5. I wish that my ways may be directed to the observing of thy statutes! a 6. Then I shall not be ashamed, when I have respect to all thy precepts. a 7. I will praise thee in the uprightness of my heart, when I shall have learned the judgments of thy righteousness. a 8. I will observe thy statutes: do not forsake me very far.3


Some call this the octonary psalm, because that, through every successive eight verses, the initial words of each line begin with the same letter in alphabetical order. That this was done to aid the memory, may be gathered from each part containing a doctrine, which ought to form a theme of constant meditation among the children of God. For the purpose, therefore, of rendering it less irksome to the reader, the prophet has distinguished every successive eight verses by their beginning each with the corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and thus all excuses, on the score of ignorance, are removed, even from the callous and slothful. This help does not extend to those who read it in other languages; but the principle must not be overlooked, that the doctrine exhibited in this psalm should be carefully studied by all the children of God, and treasured up in their hearts, to render them the more conversant with it. Touching the author, I assert nothing, because it cannot be ascertained, even by probable conjecture, who he was; and expositors are agreed that no satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at in the matter. As David surpassed all others in point of poetical and devotional talent, I will not scruple occasionally to insert his name.4

It may be proper to take notice of certain terms which frequently occur in the psalm. Of the term hrwt, torah, I say nothing, which, having its derivation from a word which signifies to instruct, is yet uniformly taken for law. Some of the Rabbis affirm that Myqwx, chukim, signifies statutes, or divinely appointed rites, the, reason of which is very obvious. They say that Mydqp, phikudim, denotes those precepts which relate to natural justice. It is certain that Myjpsm, mishpatim, signifies commandments, because this is proved by the etymology of the word. As to twde, edoth, the Hebrews understand it of the doctrine of the law, but with the certain indication, pointing out to us that it is comprehensive of the manner in which God enters into covenant with his people. The precepts of the law are denominated judgments and righteousness, to inform us that God enjoins nothing except what is right and just, and that mankind ought to seek for no other rule for the perfecting of holiness, but what consists in regulating their life by rendering obedience to the law. The meaning is almost synonymous when they are called the ways of the Lord, intimating that those who do not depart from the direction of the law, may safely conclude that they are in no danger of going astray. The ordinances of God, and the edicts offerings, have the term Myqwx, chukim, applied to them indiscriminately, and, Mydwqp, phikudim, refers to different kinds of justice, as is manifest from many parts of Scripture which demonstrates that there is no foundation for the subtle distinction and difference formerly noticed. And in this psalm almost all these terms are synonym as the context will show.5 To procure greater respect for the law, the prophet adorns it with a variety of titles, taking care constantly to enjoin upon us the same doctrine. I now proceed to the consideration of the contents of the psalm.

1. Blessed are they who are upright. In these words the prophet sets forth the same paradox which we met with at the commencement of the Book of Psalms. All men naturally aspire after happiness, but instead of searching for it in the right path, they designedly prefer wandering up and down through endless by-paths, to their ruin and destruction. The Holy Spirit deservedly condemns this apathy and blindness. And but for man's cupidity, which, with brutish impetuosity, hurries him in the opposite direction, the meaning of the words would appear quite plain to him. And the further a man wanders from God, the happier does he imagine himself to be; and hence all treat, as a fable, what the Holy Spirit declares about true piety and the service of God. This is a doctrine which scarcely one among a hundred receives.

The term way, is here put for the manner, or course and way of life: and hence he calls those upright in their way, whose sincere and uniform desire it is to practice righteousness, and to devote their life to this purpose. In the next clause of the verse, he specifics more clearly, that a godly and righteous life consists in walking in the law of God. If a person follow his own humor and caprice, he is certain to go astray; and even should he enjoy the applause of the whole world, he will only weary himself with very vanity. But it may be asked, whether the prophet excludes from the hope of happiness all who do not worship God perfectly? Were this his meaning, it would follow that none except angels alone would be happy, seeing that the perfect observance of the law is to be found in no part, of the earth. The answer is easy: When uprightness is demanded of the children of God, they do not lose the gracious remission of their sins, in which their salvation alone consists. While, then, the servants of God are happy, they still need to take refuge in his mercy, because their uprightness is not complete. In this manner are they who faithfully observe the law of God said to be truly happy; and thus is fulfilled that which is declared in Psalm 32:2, "Blessed are they to whom God imputeth not sins." In the second verse, the same doctrine is confirmed more fully, by pronouncing blessed, not. such as are wise in their own conceit, or assume a sort of fantastical holiness, but those who dedicate themselves to the covenant of God, and yield obedience to the dictates of hits law. Farther, by these words, he tells us that God is by no means satisfied with mere external service, for he demands the sincere and honest affection of the heart. And assuredly, if God be the sole judge and disposer of our life:, the truth must occupy the principal place in our heart, because it is not sufficient to have our hands and feet only enlisted in his service.

3. Surely they do not work iniquity. The statement, that they who follow God as their guide do not work iniquity, may seem to be a mere common-place, and universally admitted truth. The prophet has two reasons for making it; first, to teach us that our life must be entirely under the direction of God; and, secondly, that we may more diligently and carefully attend to his doctrine. It is acknowledged by every one, that those who render obedience to God are in no danger of going astray, and yet every one is found turning aside to his own ways. Does not such licentiousness or presumption palpably demonstrate that they have a greater regard for their own devices than for the unerring law of God? And after all, as often as a man happens to fall, is not the plea of inadvertence instantly alleged, as if none ever sinned knowingly and voluntarily; or as if the law of God, which is an antidote to all delinquencies, because it keeps all our vicious propensities in check, did not furnish us with sufficient wisdom to put us upon our guard? The prophet, therefore, very justly declares, that those who are instructed in the law of God, cannot set up the plea of ignorance when they fall into sin, seeing they are willfully blind. Were they to attend carefully to God's voice, they would be well fortified against all the snares of Satan. To strike them with terror, he informs them in the fourth verse, that God demands a rigid observance of the law; from which it may be gathered, that he will not suffer the contemners of it to escape with impunity. Besides, by speaking to God in the second person, he places him before our eyes as a Judge.

5. I wish that my ways may be directed. The original word Nwk, kun, is sometimes rendered to establish, and, accordingly, it may seem as if the prophet were soliciting for himself the virtue of perseverance. I am rather inclined to understand it as signifying to direct; for, although God's plainly instructing us in his law, the obtuseness of our understanding, and the perversity of our hearts, constantly need the direction of his Spirit. Our main desire, therefore, ought to be for an understanding wisely regulated by the law of God, and also for a docile and obedient heart. Next, he adds, if a man carefully observe the law of God, he need be under no apprehension that he will ever regret what he has done or undertaken to do. The word respect intimates, that we must not be influenced by our own designs, nor decide, according to Carnal reason, what we are to do, but must at once come to the determination, that they who turn not aside, either to the right hand or the left, from the observance of God's commandments, are indeed in the right path. They who reverently respect his law, may not escape the censure of the great bulk of mankind, yet the prophet declares, that They shall not be ashamed, because they have a good conscience in the presence of God and the angels, and, with the approval of this celestial assembly, they are well satisfied and contented; for if they depended upon the opinion of the world, their courage would presently fail. He says, all thy precepts, intimating, that among the snares of Satan, amid such thick darkness and so great insensibility as ours, the utmost vigilance and caution are necessary, if we would aim at being entirely exempted from blame. Wherefore, in all that we do, we must endeavor to have the law before us, to keep us from falling.

7. I will praise thee. He affirms it to be a singular instance of the loving-kindness of God, if a person has made considerable proficiency in his law. As a token and testimony of this, he here puts the giving of thanks to God; as if he should say, Lord, thou wilt confer upon me an inestimable blessing, if thou instruct me in thy law. It follows, therefore, that nothing in this life is more to be desired than this; and my fervent prayer is, that we may be fairly and fully convinced of the truth of it. For while searching carefully after such things as we deem advantageous to us, we do not overlook any earthly convenience, and yet we neglect that which is of most importance. The phrase, the judgments of thy righteousness, is the same with the commandments, in which perfect righteousness is comprehended; and thus the prophet commends God's law on account of the thorough perfection of the doctrine contained in it. From this verse we learn, that none will praise God unfeignedly and cordially but he who has made such proficiency in his school as to mold his life into subjection to him. It is vain to make a pretense of praising God with the mouth and the tongue if we dishonor him by our life. Hence the prophet very justly here makes the fruit of genuine piety to consist in celebrating the praises of God without hypocrisy.

8. I will observe thy statutes. In these words he avers it to be his intention to observe the law of God, but, conscious of his own weakness, he utters a prayer that God would not deprive him of his grace. The term forsake is susceptible of two interpretations, either that God withdraws his Spirit, or that he permits his people to be brought low by adversity, as if he had forsaken them. The latter interpretation agrees best with the context, and is most in accordance with the phrase immediately subjoined, very far. The prophet is not altogether averse to the trial of his faith, only he is apprehensive lest it might fail were the trial to be too long protracted, and therefore he desires to be treated with tenderness in his infirmity.,' O God! thou sees my frame of mind, and, as I am but a man, do not conceal too long from me the tokens of thy favor, or defer helping me longer than is proper for me, lest, imagining myself to be forsaken of thee, I turn aside from the direct pursuit of godliness."

1 "Vel, perfecti." -- Lat. marg. "Or, perfect."

2 dam, meod, superlatively, -- to the uttermost.

3 Hammond reads, "O forsake me not to any great degree;" and adds, "The Hebrew damade, ad meod, here, and in verse 43, is literally unto very much. So the LXX. render it, e[wv sfo>dra, i.e., to any high degree, the Chaldee, 'unto all at once,' but the Syriac, for ever, both referring it to the time, whereas the Hebrew seems rather to the degree, from the noun that signifies multitude, plenty, abundance."

4 Some consider this psalm, as well as all the other alphabetic psalms, to be much more modern compositions than the time of David, and refer it to the time of the captivity in Babylon. But many others, as Venema, Michaelis, etc., ascribe it to David, and suppose it to have been written before his elevation to the throne. Its contents, certainly, favor this latter opinion, seeming to accord so well with the long and harassing persecution to which he was subjected by the malice and revenge of Saul. If David was its author, it is the most artificial and operose in its composition of all his psalms, and he has exhibited in the treatment of his subject -- which is the celebration of the perfection of God's law, and the happiness of those who obey it -- an extraordinary fecundity of expression, as if one of his intentions had been to show in how many various shapes, and with what copiousness of words, he could enunciate and illustrate a few and the same topics. The aspirations for instruction, consolation, and protection, with which almost every portion of this psalm is mingled, have a soothing and delightful effect, whilst the language throughout is rendered impressive by its peculiar strength and concinnity. It may, however, be doubtful, whether it be just to elevate it, as has been done by some, above all the other psalms. Dr Adam Clarke justly remarks, "Like all other portions of divine revelation, it is elegant, important, and useful; and while I admire the fecundity of the Psalmist's genius, the unabating flow of his poetic vein, his numerous synonymes, and his copia verborum, by which he is enabled to expound, diversify, and illustrate the same idea: presenting it to his reader in all possible points of view, so as to render it pleasing, instructive, and impressive; I cannot rob the rest of the book of its just praise by setting this, as many have done, above all the pieces it contains. It is by far the longest, the most artificial, and most diversified, yet, in proportion to its length, it contains the fewest ideas of any in the book."

5 Others deny that these and other similar terms, which frequently occur in this psalm, are mere synonymes; and they have endeavoured to show from etymological investigation, that, although all of them designate the law, yet they present it under a different aspect. Jebb has attempted, at some length, to point out the specific differences between these words. The following is an abstract of his remarks: -- "The next peculiarity to be observed in this psalm is, the regular recurrence of nine characteristic words, at least one or other of which is found in each distich, with one solitary exception, the second distich of the 12th division. These words are law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments, word, saying; and a word which only twice occurs as a characteristic, -- way.

"These are, doubtless, all designations of the Divine Law; but it were doing a deep injury to the cause of revealed truth to affirm that they are mere synonyms; in other words, that the sentiments of this compendium of heavenly wisdom are little better than a string of tautologies. The fact is, as some critics, both Jewish and Christian, have observed, that each of these terms designates the same law of God, but each under a different aspect, signifying the different modes of its promulgation, and of its reception. Each of these words will now be examined in order, and an attempt will be made to discriminate them.

"1. Law. This word is formed from a verb which means to direct, to guide, to aim, to shoot forwards. Its etymological meaning, then, would be a rule of conduct, a kanw>n safh<v. It means God's law in general, whether it be that universal rule called the law of nature, or that which was revealed to his Church by Moses, and perfected by Christ. In strictness, the law means a plain rule of conduct, rather placed clearly in man's sight, than enforced by any command; that is to say, this word does not necessarily include its sanctions.

"2. Testimonies are derived from a word which signifies to bear witness, to testify. The ark of the tabernacle is so called, as are the two tables of stone, and the tabernacle: the earnests and witnesses of God's inhabitation among his people. Testimonies are more particularly God's revealed law: the witnesses and confirmation of his promises made to his people, and earnests of his future salvation.

"3. Precepts, from a word which means to place in trust, mean something intrusted to man, 'that which is committed to thee:' appointments of God, which consequently have to do with the conscience, for which man is responsible, as an intelligent being.

"4. Statutes. The verb from which this word is formed means to engrave or inscribe. The word means a definite prescribed written law. The term is applied to Joseph's law about the portion of the priests in Egypt, to the law about the Passover, etc. But in this psalm it has a more internal meaning; -- that moral law of God, which is engraved on the fleshy tables of the heart; the inmost and spiritual apprehension of his will: not so obvious as the law and testimonies, and a matter of more direct spiritual communication than his precepts: the latter being more elaborated by the efforts of the mind itself, divinely guided indeed, but perhaps more instrumentally, and less passively, employed.

"5. Commandments, derived from a verb signifying to command or ordain. Such was God's command to Adam about the tree; to Noah about constructing the ark.

"6. Judgments, derived from a word signifying to govern, to judge or determine, mean judicial ordinances and decisions: legal sanctions.

"7. Word. There are two terms, quite distinct in the Hebrew, but both rendered word, in each of our authorized versions. The latter of these is rendered saying in the former volume of this work. They are closely connected; since out of twenty-two passages in which word occurs, in fourteen it is parallel to, or in connection with, saying. From this very circumstance it is evident they are not synonymous.

"The term here rendered word means the Lo>gov, or Word of God, in its most divine sense; the announcement of God's revealed will; his command; his oracle; at times, the special communication to the prophets. The ten commandments are called by this term in Exodus: and rybd is the oracle in the temple. In this psalm it may be considered as, -- 1. God's revealed commandments in general. 2. As a revealed promise of certain blessings to the righteous. 3. As a thing committed to him as the minister of God. 4. As a rule of conduct; a channel of illumination.

"8. As to the remaining word way, that occurs but twice as a characteristic word, and the places in which it occurs must rather be considered as exceptions to the general rule: so that I am not disposed to consider it as intended to be a cognate expression with the above. At all events, its meaning is so direct and simple as to require no explanation: a plain rule of conduct; in its higher sense, the assisting grace of God through Christ our Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life." -- Jebb's Literal Translation of the book of Psalms, with Dissertations, volume 2, pages 279-293.


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