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 (Manna 76: Commission)
Psalm 119—Ruminations on the Word of God
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Jachin Chong—Singapore

To “ruminate” denotes turning a matter over and over in the mind. It is also etymologically linked to chewing the cud; animals that chew the cud are known as ruminants. Sometimes, we use the expression “to chew the cud” as an allegory for meditating deeply on a certain matter for a period of time.

In the New King James Version of the Bible, the editors have given Psalm 119 the subtitle: “Meditations on the excellencies of the word of God.” This psalm is a lengthy rumination on God’s word.

The Book of Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, which reflects the primacy of praise and worship in our Christian lives. Furthermore, Psalm 119 is the longest psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible. Since it is a meditation on the word of God, this reveals the importance God places on His word.

Psalm 119 is not only special in its subject matter, but also its form. It is an abecedarian  poem, an ancient poetic structure that is arranged in alphabetical order to aid memorization, especially when literacy and access to the written word were limited.  In the original Hebrew, each section of eight lines  is assigned a letter of the alphabet. Each line of that section begins with the corresponding letter—so the first eight lines begin with Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, and the next eight, Beth, and so on. With twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and eight lines per section, there are 176 lines altogether.

Significantly, every line of Psalm 119 makes reference to the word of God, with about three to five lines doing so indirectly. This means the psalm explores almost every aspect of its subject.

MEDITATING ON GOD’S WORD

Firstly, the psalmist devotes himself to meditating on the word of God.

I will meditate on Your precepts,

And contemplate Your ways. (Ps 119:15)

My hands also I will lift up to Your commandments,

Which I love,

And I will meditate on Your statutes. (Ps 119:48)

Throughout the psalm, the psalmist continually resolves to meditate on God’s word (Ps 119:27, 78). In this world of instant gratification, we have become impatient. If we wish to learn something new, we want to do so quickly. Yet, Psalm 119 reveals that the word of God requires patience. One cannot expect to fully know the word of God in a matter of days or weeks; studying the Scriptures and meditating upon them is a lifelong task.

In fact, the psalmist reveals how much time and effort is required:

Oh, how I love Your law!

It is my meditation all the day. (Ps 119:97)

My eyes are awake through the night watches,

That I may meditate on Your word. (Ps 119:148)

God’s word is in his thoughts throughout each day, and not just during worship time or when he is reading the Scriptures. He also meditates at night, when others would be asleep.  For us today, some might stay up late to finish their work, play computer games or surf the Internet, but how many would meditate on God’s word? Why does the psalmist devote so much time and effort to this pastime?

TREASURING GOD’S WORD

The psalmist devotes himself to meditating on God’s word because he truly values it:

I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies,

As much as in all riches. (Ps 119:14)

On reading this verse, we may think that the psalmist should have written “much more than all riches.” But let us not forget that the psalmist was divinely inspired. It is meaningless to claim that one values the word of God above all else in the world without first testing the veracity of that statement. People will go to amazing lengths to seek something that might be worthless, just on the off-chance it might be gold. Are we not the same in our pursuit of physical wealth? Are we willing to put in the same effort to learn God’s word? This is why the psalmist writes that, firstly, he values the word of God as much as riches.

But the psalmist does not stop there: he progresses from valuing the word of God as much as “all riches,” to deeming it better “than thousands of coins of gold and silver” (Ps 119:72), to loving it more than “fine gold” (Ps 119:127). The psalmist does not remain stagnant in his faith—he continually improves himself as his love for the word grows. Has our relationship with God’s word similarly progressed, or has it regressed?

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Mt 13:44)

When we are first enlightened by God’s word, it is just as though we have discovered treasure in a field, like the man in this parable. But today, do we still find treasure when we search the word of God, or do we just find a barren field?

EXPLORING THE DEPTHS OF GOD’S WORD

The psalmist uses two methods to ensure his relationship with the word of God does not regress. Firstly, he prays to the Lord: “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law” (Ps 119:18). There is always treasure in the field of God’s word. It only depends on whether our spiritual eyes are open. As his eyes are continually opened by God, the psalmist’s love for His word develops.

Secondly, the psalmist’s meditation on the word of God is complete. We can see the many different terms he uses to describe the word of God. These illustrate how deep and broad his meditations are:

In verse 1, he uses the word “law,” which appears twenty-five times throughout the psalm. The word can refer to a single commandment, or to the Law of Moses, or to the entirety of the Scriptures, all of which reveal our duties towards God.

In verse 2, the psalmist uses “testimonies,” which means “to be witness.” This points to the Scriptures as a reliable testimony of God, and all His works recorded in it.

In verse 3, “ways” is used, referring to the characteristic manner in which God acts, which is contrary to the ways of man. Are we walking in the ways of God?

In verse 4, “precepts” is used, which refers to God’s mandate, and connotes man’s responsibility in paying close attention to God’s instructions.

In verse 5, “statutes” is used, encapsulating the permanence of God’s word, as though set in stone. 

In verse 6, “commandments” is used, which signifies the authority of God.

In verse 7, “judgments” is used, which points to the righteous and just nature of the Lord.

From the synonyms found in these few verses alone, we can see how comprehensively the psalmist thinks about the word of God. A common pitfall is that we take an extreme or limited view of God’s word. Jesus highlighted one example of this:

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (Lk 11:42)

The Pharisees stuck closely to the minor details of the law, and carefully tithed all they had, but they glossed over the more important matters of justice and love. They neglected to wholly follow the way of the Lord. Since the word of God is complete, they should have observed the details, while being faithful to the rest.

Another example is when David attempted to transport the ark of God on a wooden cart (1 Chr 13). When the oxen stumbled, Uzza put out his hand to support the ark, and was struck down by God. David had wanted to bring the ark to Jerusalem out of a sincere love for God, so why did this joyous occasion end in tragedy? It was because David had glossed over the details and failed to follow God’s commands (1 Chr 15:13). According to the law, the Levites were to carry the ark on their shoulders, using the poles (Num 4:5, 15; Ex 25:14; Josh 3:3).

The writer of Psalm 119, on the other hand, thinks about every aspect of the word of God. When we are faced with an issue or situation, we usually react immediately. Our initial thoughts are often impulsive, ill-considered and immature. If another person is involved, we will perhaps think, Why is he doing this? or, That’s crazy. Instead, we should slow down and consider the matter holistically.

This also applies to the way we approach the word of God. What does the law of God say about this matter? What are His testimonies? How do I direct my way to walk in His way? What are the details of God’s precepts? Does God command me to do otherwise? What would God’s judgment be in this particular situation? If we are able to think about the word of God deeply and holistically, and consider every aspect of the word of God and its application in our lives, then we will be able to remain as faithful as the psalmist.

DIRECTED BY GOD’S WORD

The reason the psalmist meditates so deeply on God’s word is so that he can be put it into action:

Oh, that my ways were directed

To keep Your statutes!

Then I would not be ashamed,

When I look into all Your commandments. (Ps 119:5–6)

The psalmist does not study the Scriptures for the sake of knowledge, or to admire them as literature. He is a doer of the word, and fulfils it so that his conscience will be clear whenever he reads it. Moreover, he is determined to keep the law of God—emphatically stating that he will keep it “forever and ever” (Ps 119:44).

I made haste, and did not delay

To keep Your commandments. (Ps 119:60)

At times, we do not immediately do God’s word, thinking that we will have time to act in the future. The psalmist, however, does not delay. He is fully committed to keeping the word of God, and has sworn to do so (Ps 119:106). We may think it unwise for the psalmist to make such a vow—what if he falls short and fails to fulfil it?

During Old Testament times, when the Israelites made a covenant with God, they said: “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient” (Ex 24:7). This was confirmed by the sprinkling of blood. Later, they would have sung Psalm 119, and affirmed the words “I will keep Your righteous judgments” (v. 106). The psalmist’s vow is merely a reiteration of the one that was made when they entered into the covenant with God, and therefore, a resolution to follow it through.

Today, as Christians, we have also entered into a covenantal relationship with God, which was confirmed by the blood of Jesus during baptism. This is our declaration that we will follow Jesus to the end. It is our duty, therefore, to uphold the teachings of the Bible. Are we as committed as the psalmist to fulfil the terms of our covenant with God?

CONCLUSION: THE LIMITS OF LOGIC

I have seen the consummation of all perfection,

But Your commandment is exceedingly broad. (Ps 119:96)

This verse can be interpreted in two ways. The New International Version translates it as “To all perfection I see a limit, but your commands are boundless.”  In other words, there is a limit to everything in this life; even the most wonderful things come to an end. But the word of God is limitless.

The second interpretation is that the psalmist has seen the ultimate fulfilment of perfection in the word of God itself, for it has no end. This is why he devotes himself so diligently to its study. Both interpretations point to the boundless nature of Gods word, and the joy that can be gained from meditating upon it. This psalm reveals a taste of this joy, though it is but a drop in the ocean.

What is most evident is the psalmist’s relationship with the word: from his meditations and observations of the wondrous things in God’s law, to his resolution to keep and act on God’s word, we see how fully the word of God occupies the psalmist’s life. His entire world revolves around it, and is enriched by it. If we are able to treasure the word of God, meditating on it day and night, examining it widely, deeply and from different angles, then we can be like the psalmist. We will be able to follow God’s way with devotion and an ever-increasing faithfulness as our love for His word grows day by day.

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Author: Jachin Chong
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