Psalm 119: Samech

The King James Version for Psalm 119:113 reads: “I hate vain thoughts: but thy law do I love.”  I have two items for today’s post on Psalms.

1.  What the Psalmist hates in that verse are called say-aphim, in the Hebrew.  What are say-aphim?  The word could mean “thoughts,” for a similar word (only beginning with a sin rather than a samech) appears to mean “thoughts” in Job 4:13 and Job 20:2.  But a similar word beginning with samech, se-iphim, is in I Kings 18:21, and I will embolden where the KJV translates se-iphim: “And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.”  Another consideration is that the root samech-ayin-peh relates to a cleft in Judges 15:8, 11 and Isaiah 2:21 and 57:5, and to lopping off a branch in Isaiah 10:33.  On account of I Kings 18:21, and the association of the root with words pertaining to division, there are many scholars who believe that Psalm 119:113 is condemning double-mindedness.  Bob MacDonald in his book about Psalms translates the term as “Schismatics.”

So who were these double-minded people?  Some commentaries that I read interpreted them as people who doubted the Torah, or compromised in terms of their obedience to it. W.O.E. Oesterley said they were Hellenistic Jews, “those upon whom the precepts of the Law sat lightly, and who were broken off from the body of the orthodox.”

I like some things that the Midrash on the Psalms says about this verse: “I hate them that are of two minds, the children of men who come to be mindful of the fear of God not through love, but through affliction…David said: I have kept Thy precepts not because of duress nor because of fear but out of love, as is said Thy Law do I love.

I am a person who has plenty of intellectual doubts about religion, so I tend to recoil from the interpretations of Psalm 119:113 that hold that God condemns doubt.  Such an interpretation, in my opinion, promotes a blind fundamentalism, which (in my opinion) calls upon people to turn off their minds.  And yet, I like what I just quoted from the Midrash on the Psalms: that being double-minded is when people give heed to God because God can deliver them, not because they  see the beauty and value in God and God’s law.  Such a commitment could easily vanish once the peril is gone.  I want for my spirituality to be more than mercenary, and to reflect a genuine love for what is good.

Two things come to my mind.  First, I saw a movie recently, The Genesis Code.  One of the plot-lines in that movie is that a young man’s mother is in a coma, and he and some friends pray to God to heal her.  There were Christian critics of the movie who did not care for the young man’s prayer, since the young man did not repent or explicitly accept forgiveness that is based on Christ’s shed blood.  Personally, I liked the young man’s prayer, for he was saying that he didn’t just want to follow God just so God would heal his mother.  I’m not against asking God for deliverance.  I do so myself, as does the Psalmist throughout Psalm 119, and in other Psalms.  God’s deliverance can convince a person that God is truly good, thereby inspiring that person to follow God for the rest of his or her life.  But, in my opinion, spirituality should go beyond being mercenary—-it should not just be about receiving things.

Second, at my church’s Bible study, on the DVD that we were watching, Michael Card criticizes the paralyzed man whom Jesus healed in John 5.  Michael Card said that the man made excuses and did not truly want to be healed, and that the man didn’t even thank Jesus or bother to learn Jesus’ name after his healing.  I’m not sure if the man was as bad as Michael Card was saying, but Michael Card’s point does highlight to me the importance of being in a relationship with God, which goes beyond just receiving things from God.

2.  The Septuagint understands the say-aphim in Psalm 119:113 to be transgressors.  So the Psalmist hates transgressors, according to the LXX for Psalm 119:113.  I was curious about how St. Augustine addresses this verse, since, as a Christian, he does not believe in hating people.  Augustine states (see here): “He says not, I hate the wicked, and love the righteous; or, I hate iniquity, and love Your law; but, after saying, ‘I have hated the unrighteous,’ he explains why, by adding,’and Your law have I loved;’ to show, that he did not hate human nature in unrighteous men, but their unrighteousness whereby they are foes to the law, which he loves.”

Augustine essentially contends that the verse is saying that the Psalmist hates the sin, not the sinner.  I agree with Augustine that the Psalmist’s love for righteousness is behind his hatred, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Psalmist hated the transgressors themselves, not just their transgressions.  Transgression, after all, does not exist in the abstract, but it is performed through the volition of transgressors, who wreak havoc through their actions.  (They are schismatics, to go back to Bob MacDonald’s translation of say-aphim.)  The Psalmist may believe that there are cases in which transgressors need to be removed for peace to exist, and that’s what he wants God to do with the transgressors who are afflicting him.  The Psalmist’s hatred is understandable, and (on some level) it is necessary not to divorce the transgressor from the transgression: that’s why our legal system punishes transgressors.  At the same time, I also believe that such things as humility, a recognition of one’s own faults, and an acknowledgement of the humanity of even the unjust are important values within the Bible.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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