For my weekly quiet time this week, I will post Psalm 119: Chet in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on select verses.
57 CHETH. Thou art my portion, O LORD: I have said that I would keep thy words.
Leslie Allen says: “An old levitical formula of dependence upon Yahweh for material support rather than upon levitical land (cf. Num 18:20) is used in complaints as an expression of trust: cf. [Psalms] 16:5; 142:6(5).” That could be what’s going on here. People trusted in their land for provision and for wealth. But the Levites did not have an inheritance of land within Israel, and so they had to trust God, and the Israelites to obey God by supporting the Levites with tithes and offerings. The Psalmist could be saying that he trusts in God the same way that many people trust in their portion of land.
I’d prefer to think, however, that the Psalmist is saying that, in some sense, God belongs to him (which is not to say that God belongs only to him), as a portion of land belongs to its owner, and the owner can reap the benefits of that land. The Psalmist can partake of God’s love, goodness, strength, and wisdom because he has God himself. God is the Psalmist’s precious treasure, in short. I think of the praise-and-worship song “You are my all in all”, which I loved singing back when I was in Intervarsity in college.
The thing is, a number of evangelicals focus on God being our portion in the sense that God is our friend and is unconditionally loving. Psalm 119:57, however, associates God being our portion with us resolving to keep God’s words. When God is our portion, who God is—-including God’s moral character—-accompanies that, and that should lead to transformation on our part. Does that mean that God being our portion is conditional on us keeping God’s commandments? Well, I’d have serious issues with that, due to my own shortcomings and my need for a God of unconditional love, whose love remains firm even when I am at my worst. Perhaps the Psalmist in v 57 is saying that he resolves to keep God’s commandments because he is grateful that God is his portion: God’s love for him and for others motivates him to want to walk in God’s way. Moreover, a common saying is that we get out of things what we put into them. There are things that we can do to get good out of our relationship with God, things that entail us becoming more receptive to God’s voice. As a farmer must cultivate his portion of land to get benefits from it, so should I cultivate my relationship with God.
58 I intreated thy favour with my whole heart: be merciful unto me according to thy word.
Why does the Psalmist have to entreat God’s favor and mercy? Does he not already have these things? Perhaps. I can assume that God loves me. Still, there are things that please God, and that displease God. I should want to do the things that please God. And when I do wrong and need my conscience to be cleansed so that I can start anew, I can draw on God’s mercy. I can’t argue against the notion that the Psalmist is seeking God’s favor and God’s mercy because he does not believe that he has them already—-that he is not entirely secure in his relationship with God. I’m hesitant to read into the Bible the idea that God is unconditionally loving, for I don’t want to project modern ideas or trends onto the Bible. And yet, perhaps one can say that God is unconditionally loving, while still asking God for favor and mercy. Sure, I can say that I’m already forgiven, but it helps me when I can confess that I have done wrong and can remind myself of God’s mercy.
59 I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.
Different Christians offer different spiritual advice. Some say that we should be really introspective: that we should look at ourselves, identify what we are doing wrong, and then try to stop what we are doing wrong and do what’s right instead. Others criticize introspection, saying that we should not look at ourselves but at Christ—-Christ’s love for us, the imputed righteousness that we have in him, etc.
I do tend to despair when I am introspective, especially within a Christian context, for I see how far I fall short of righteousness, and I lack confidence in ever being able to measure up. Christian introspection, for me, can easily lead to an unhealthy perfectionism. But I do believe that I should look at myself at least sometimes—-to see where I’m less than loving, and to identify where I need to change and what exactly I can change.
60 I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments.
This could be an insecure Psalmist trying to appease God, like an employee really gets on-the-ball when his boss is around. But, again, whenever I can, I’d like to see the Bible through the prism of God’s unconditional love, even though I’m not always sure if that produces accurate exegesis. Could the Psalmist be saying that he is genuinely excited to obey God’s commandments—-that, again, God’s love inspires him?
61 The bands of the wicked have robbed me: but I have not forgotten thy law.
Being robbed must be horrible—-for what is yours to be taken away from you. But maybe the Psalmist is saying here that nobody can take God’s law away from him—-that he has an eye on what is truly important. People may take from us. Or perhaps we may be in situations where we do not feel that we are getting what we truly deserve. In those situations, one approach may be to hold fast to what is good: to think on what is positive, to contemplate God’s values.
62 At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments.
I talked some about the significance of the night-time in my post on Psalm 119: Zayin. Interestingly, John Chrysostom said some of the same things that I did about night: how it is a time of quiet, when we are especially receptive to God. It doesn’t always work out that way for me, since my mind tends to keep on going, even when I’m trying to sleep. But there are times when my mind quiets down. Perhaps I should take some time when I am in bed to give thanks to God.
63 I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and of them that keep thy precepts.
Matthew Henry says that David loved those who feared God—-not so much because of any friendship that he had with him—-but rather on account of their devotion to God. Henry also noted that David worshiped with the poor, for the worship of God brought together people from various classes. I thought of this when I was reading my notes on II Samuel 6, where I mentioned Gregory the Great’s statement that David in dancing before the LORD mingled with the common people.
Some of this resonates with me. For one, I can somewhat identify with basing my companionship with others, not on whether or not I like them or they like me, but rather on their moral character—-to have a purpose for associations rather than merely to hang out. I don’t like a lot of people, due to a variety of reasons (i.e., my hyper-sensitivity, maybe their hyper-sensitivity). But I do admire traits in different people. Second, I do respect Christianity as a force that brings a diversity of people together. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen, for some churches are not particularly diverse, due to where they are located. And there are some Christians who prefer to associate with people who are like them. But I do respect that Christianity in the past has brought people together—-as tired as I get of people marketing their churches or small groups by emphasizing how diverse they are.
But am I a companion of those who fear God? Overall, I find this difficult. There are people who fear God who aren’t particularly tolerant of other ways of thinking or living, or who are self-righteous. I myself have a hard time being around those kinds of people. But I also have a hard time associating with the liberal spiritual types because I don’t feel accepted by them, since my impression is that they don’t think I’m deep or profound enough. Or I find that they, too, are pretty dogmatic and intolerant, only for different reasons than the conservative God-fearers are. To be honest, I’m not sure how I can build religious bridges with other people. I remember Tim Keller giving a sermon in which he said that we should focus on God, and then we can build bridges with others who are focused on God. That hasn’t worked for me, to tell you the truth. Perhaps what I should do is recognize that others on a spiritual path have wisdom that can inspire, guide, and benefit me, and to be open to that. But I shouldn’t just be a taker: when I can, I should offer others support, showing that I care about them when they are in tough situations.
(UPDATE: I was thinking primarily about my online experiences in writing this, but, as I reflect some more, I realize that I do associate with people at my church. The people there are nice people.)
64 The earth, O LORD, is full of thy mercy: teach me thy statutes.
Throughout this post, I’ve been wrestling with whether or not the Psalmist regarded God as unconditionally loving. I’ll probably wrestle with this question—-as it pertains to the Bible in general—-for a very long time. But this verse does say that the earth is full of God’s mercy, as if God is not sparing of his mercy, and God’s benevolence is wide-ranging, even for people who are outside of a particular group. When God is unconditionally loving, can that motivate me to want guidance from him as to how I should live, so that I can be good, like God?