22 Oct 2020

Psalm 119: God’s Promise, My Promise

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Discipleship, Exegesis, Faith, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Journey, Precision Obedience, Psalms

Psalm 119 is an exilic Psalm. This being the case, the author and the community of faith have lost everything.

The Davidic king is gone.
The Temple is gone.
We are captives in a far land.
The likelihood is many family members having lost their lives.
A large portion of people have lost faith in Yahweh.

This community has experienced the shattering Lamentations bears witness (Lamentations is the product of those who still believe). Some scholars have made the insightful suggestion that Ps 119 originated in the Festival of Tabernacles this community held during the exile.

The Zayin and Heth sections of Psalm 119 are among my favorite (vv 49-64). The speaker (whom I believe represents the entire community personified), who is fully aware of his/her fallenness and failure to keep God’s word (cf. “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” v.176), appeals to the grace of God. In particular the word of God’s Promise. There is no delusion of salvation by “precision obedience” anywhere in the Hebrew Bible but these verses annihilate it.

Psalm 119 is the stellar refutation of the false, but rampant, belief that “law” is simply a series of legal commands. First and foremost, for the Psalmist, the torah is story of God’s amazing Hesed and Promise. (For more on what “torah” means see my article, Sweeter than Honey: Torah’s God’s Love Story).

Remember your word to your servant,
in which you have made me hope.
This is my comfort in my distress,
that your promise gives me life
(vv. 49-50)

The Promise is the basis of hope in the land of hopelessness. The Promise is the means of comfort and in fact is the source of life.

Two things require understanding. Who is the servant and what is the Promise?

Surely the psalmist imagines him/herself to be a servant, but that is not what is meant. In the biblical tradition that the Psalms major in, the Promise is made to the Patriarchs and the servant is Israel. One of the clearest examples where this Promise is the means of salvation is Moses’s own appeal to it during the equally dark day in Israel’s life, the Golden Calf. So Moses prays (in words that the psalmist nearly echoes)

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and ISRAEL,
your servants, how you swore to them by your own self …
I will multiply your descendants
…” (Ex 32.13-14)

We expect Moses to say “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But frequently in the Hebrew Bible “Jacob” means the nation and not the individual patriarch. Moses plays on the double meaning of the word and says “Israel.” God made a promise to the man but the man is the people! Many other texts can be cited like Deuteronomy 9.27 (which recalls the Golden Calf)

Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness, and their sin …”

Abraham, Isaac and Israel received the astonishing promise and are God’s servants and Israel is God is “servant.” Note the word that is also addressed to an exilic community.

Is it to light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel

(Isaiah 49.6).

The community has faith and hope, even in the land of death (exile), on the basis of God’s Promise which the torah narrates. The torah is the Story of God’s Faithfulness to his Promise to a faithless and rebellious people from the moment God saw them (Deut. 9.24, NRSV)

So the community prays, like Moses did at the Golden Calf,


This Promise, and the promise alone, is the basis of hope and life. We did not perish because of God’s gracious promise. We will not die because God promised we shall be like the stars in the heavens.

As the next verses show, many Israelites had rejected these promises. They had lost faith. They “deride” the psalmist and “turn away from the torah.” They forsake the torah (vv. 51, 53). In the ashes of exile, faith and hope were far from them.

The psalmist, the community of faith, however, respond with a promise to God’s promise (vv. 57-64). The stunning words,

Yahweh is my portion” (v.52)

This reminds us of Lamentations itself. In the horror that was the destruction of Jerusalem, the “Strongman” in Lamentations 3, declares that God’s Promise made at the Golden Calf is not done. God’s steadfast love is new every morning, God’s faithfulness is infinite,

the Lord is my portion,
says my soul,
therefore I will hope in him

(Lam 3.21-24).

We have no King.
We have no Temple.
We have no Land.
We seemingly have “nothing.”
But Yahweh is my inheritance.

These are stunning words both in Lamentations and in Psalm 119. If we have Yahweh, even in an alien land, then we have everything.

Because Yahweh is “my portion,” the community responds to God’s Promise with a promise,

I promise to keep your words” (v.57)

This leads to the plea for mercy.

I implore your favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me

It is possible, I suppose to legalistically obey some rule. But it is impossible to do that with a promise. You either believe or do not believe a promise. Promise requires faith in the Promise Giver. The community believes the Promise given as the very basis of life. We respond in faith, in trust, in hope in God’s Promise. The Promise is the motivation and basis for our promise. God’s Promise elicits our promise of faithfulness to God.

The psalmist ends this section with the equally astonishing confession that Yahweh’s Hesed (the basis of the promise and declaration in Exodus 34.6) fills the entire earth. Remember the community is in exile! Babylonian exile! The land of death. Everything we have known is gone. And yet the Psalmist, the community personified, praises God with the words,

The earth, O Yahweh,
is full of your HESED;
teach me your statutes.
” (v.64)

The Story is not over. We will not die in exile. We will be raised from the dead (to use a metaphor). Why? Because Yahweh’s hesed is deeper than the ocean and wider than the sea and is the basis of his astonishing Promise to his servant.

God’s Hesed Promised. Therefore I promise … Now God I need you to teach me!

I am holding on to the Promise … it is also the basis of our hope in the New Testament.


P. S. See Happy Are the Blameless, Pt 4 (On Ps 119)

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