“A Trajectory of Purity” – Psalm 119:9-16 (בּ)
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You. Blessed are You, O Lord; Teach me Your statutes. With my lips I have told of All the ordinances of Your mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, As much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways.
I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.”
This second stanza picks up where the last stanza left off. George Zemek, one of the few men to publish a detailed exegetical commentary on this psalm, sees these first two stanzas functioning somewhat like a prologue to the rest of the psalm (George Zemek, The Word of God in the Child of God, 2005, p. 37).
The Aleph (א) stanza, vv. 1-8, observes the connection between those who are blessed and those who obey God’s Word. That connection is intentional because it was for this very reason that God gave His Word (v. 4). But this connection is not designed to lead to the blessing as a chief objective, but to lead mankind to God Himself (v. 2). This reveals something of a problem for the psalmist who recognizes his own life is inadequate and in need of divine support (v. 5). Then and only then will he be able to look upon the Word of God and not be ashamed (v. 6). The stanza as a whole tells the child of God that blessing only comes from those who seek God and that He can only be found in His Word.
In the few churches that still preach and teach God’s Word, this truth is readily affirmed and practiced. We understand that the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to humanity. We know that there is only one name under heaven, the name of Jesus Christ, by which man can be saved (Acts 4:12). We affirm that the only way salvation will be granted wretched sinners is if men are sent to preach this Holy Word (Romans 10:9-17). We acknowledge that as believers, we are called to not only hear the words of Scripture, but to obey the Word made more sure (James 1:22; 2 Peter 1:19). But how should we go about it?
The Aleph stanza tells us the “what.” The Beth (בּ) stanza gives us the “how.” This second stanza begins with a question. Asking good questions is a skill set that we all need to develop. Sometimes the reason that we come to the wrong conclusions is because we’ve been asking the wrong questions. This stanza begins with right question.
Understanding The Right Question (v. 9)
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.”
There are several things to note about this verse. First, we must understand that the psalmist is not asking for a checklist. The question is not, “What things must I do to keep my way pure?” The question is more in the line of means or method. “How should I go about keeping my way pure?” This is a big picture question that looks at the trajectory of purity rather than a line item checklist.
Second, the verb “keep pure” is causal, not stative. It does not mean, “to make pure” so much as “to maintain purity/keep it pure.” The complete sense of the question is now that of ability: “How can a young man maintain a life of purity?”
Third, the mention of the young man does not necessarily indicate that the author is himself a younger individual. A young man is the most vulnerable member of society. He is no longer under the guidance and protection of his parents and he lacks the sense and experience that comes with age. If anyone needs to know that answer to this question, it is the young men of our society. But if it applies to them, then it applies to us all.
Fourth, the psalmist answers the question in the broadest of terms: by keeping it [his way/life/behavior] according to Your word. This term word reflects the Hebrew דָּבָר. It indicates something that is spoken (a word). It is used countless times in the Old Testament to describe direct verbal revelation from God.
This is a very general answer; a young man can maintain the purity of his life and behavior by keeping it in conformity to Scripture. But it is not a very complete answer. The next seven verses will build on this general answer and provide the reader a fuller understanding of how to maintain a trajectory of purity. But the intention is not to give a line item list. This stanza is not a day planner that categorizes our day into 5-minute blocks. The point is not stressing what to do so much as how to do it. This stanza reveals the right method to maintain a trajectory of purity.
Understanding The Right Method (vv. 10-16)
I may be repeating myself needlessly, but I think that it needs to be completely understood that this stanza does not give a set checklist to follow. What follows are principles not procedures. The first principle in this method speaks to the priority of the Word of God in the life of a believer.
“With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”
These two verses get to the heart of the matter (I love puns and I will not apologize for it). The first line of v. 10 should remind us of those who are blessed in v. 2; “How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, who seek Him with all their heart.” The psalmist is making a claim to be one of those who are indeed blessed, one who is a direct recipient of God’s divine favor, because he is one who seeks God with all his heart.
Just another reminder that heart never indicates emotion in the Bible. The dichotomy between the heart (emotion/desire) and the brain (reason/logic) is a false one with thoroughly pagan roots. Our western understanding of the heart is not at all in sync with the biblical understanding.
The heart expresses the center of man, that which controls him and from which decisions are made. To seek God with his whole heart indicates volition, not emotion. He has made it his ambition and practice to seek, search, and pursue God with all of his attention. But before we accuse this psalmist of boasting notice the very next thought.
Do not let me wander from Your commandments
This is a request, a plea really. He is asking God to not allow him to wander off, to keep him from straying away from His commandments. This is a very honest individual who understands the problem with the human heart.
As the prophet said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). This psalmist knows that the only way he will be able to continue to seek after God is if God Himself keeps him from wandering away from the imperatives He has laid down.
On this verse, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The man of God exerts himself, but does not trust himself. His heart is in the walking with God; but he knows that even his whole strength is not enough to keep him right unless his King shall be his keeper, and he who made the commands shall make him constant in obeying them.”
The heart must be bent on pursuing God. But it must also be entrusted to and kept by God. The next verse builds on this idea.
“Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”
Once again he mentions his heart (seat of volition, will, decision). The English does not reflect it, but this is a different term (word) than was used in v. 9. Here we have the Hebrew term אִמְרָה. This is also a term that indicates verbal revelation (something spoken/a word), but is regularly used in the context of something very specific that was mentioned or promised. Often it is used to describe what God has said was/is going to happen. Generally speaking, I think it’s best to translate this term as promise throughout this psalm.
The psalmist has treasured/stored up the promises of God in his heart. The idea is that he is abundantly familiar with what God has said. But rather than keeping them like dusty books on the basement bookshelf, he keeps them stored in his heart, his control center. Why? That I may not sin against You. This line expresses the result of the first line. If the psalmist treasures up/stores up/keeps the promises of God in abundant supply and readily accessible in his heart/seat of decision; then he will not (lit. never) sin against God.
The reality is very simple. The reason Christians sin is because we fail to keep God’s promises before us continually. We may know what God has said. We may understand that there is no longer any condemnation (Romans 8:1) or that we have been freed and washed and sanctified from the power of sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) or that we are now no longer slaves of sin but slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:15-19). But we keep these promises on the back shelf. We store them somewhere out of sight and out of mind.
The reprobate sins because it is in his nature. The redeemed sin when they have the lies of Satan (you too can be like God) treasured in their hearts instead of the promises of God (From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die). The only way to keep from sinning against a holy God is to keep His promises ever before us.
The first principle that will set a young man’s life on a trajectory of purity is to internalize and apply the Word of God. He must fix his will upon a lifelong pursuit of God and fill his control panel with God’s promises. All the while submitting to the fact that it is God who keeps and preserves him. The Word of God and the God of the Word must be prioritized. The second principle speaks to humility.
“Blessed are You, O Lord; Teach me Your statutes.”
Just like v. 4 in the Aleph stanza, this verse turns our attention directly to the source, to Yhwh Himself. This term blessed is an altogether different term than the words in vv. 1 and 2. Rather than calling God a recipient of divine blessing, this term is used to recognize the source of blessing. It is a term that an inferior expresses praise to a superior. Normally what we see in Scripture is a reason for praise that would follow this pronouncement. But instead we see a request.
Teach me Your statutes.
In two short lines, the psalmist expresses much. First, he presents God as the supreme teacher par excellence. Secondly, he presents himself as a humble pupil eager and ready to be instructed.
This principle of humility cannot be overstated. The strand of humility must extend even and especially into our Bible study. Every day (I pray it is every day) when we sit down with an open Bible it is to come and sit at the feet of the one who wrote it. And yet it is audacious pride that many of us come to the holy text of Scripture. It is only to find out what is in it for me. Rather than humbly submitting to our teacher, we attempt to be both student and instructor.
Perhaps this is what keeps us from reading and studying our whole Bible. We have no desire to learn what God has said so much as we are interested in what we feel applies to us in our current circumstances or what scratches our itches. This prideful attitude must be expunged if we seek to maintain a trajectory of purity because it lacks the humility of a student. I’ve never heard of a class where the students pick the syllabus. If there is to be purity, then humility must reign.
The third principle in this method of pure and holy living is found in the last four verses. The psalmist moves from the priority of the Word to humility under the Word and the Word’s source to the authenticity of the Word alive and active within the believer.
“With my lips I have told of All the ordinances of Your mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, As much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways.
I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.”
There is an obvious movement of the Word of God from the heart of the psalmist to his lips. It is not enough to know it and keep it ever before him, but he speaks it forth and proclaims it. Notice the connection between his lips and God’s mouth. The idea is that whatever God’s proclaims, the psalmist repeats. He is a spokesman for God.
The word ordinances here in the NASB is really the judgments of v. 7. Whatever God has declared to be true, right, holy, unholy, vile, or wretched, the psalmist affirms and repeats. Yet he is not an emotionless robot. These truths are a source of joy. The psalmist uses a simile to bring out the full picture of this joy.
I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, As much as in all riches.
As I have said, this is not a comparison but a simile. In the same way we might rejoice and give thanks for abundant wealth and riches, the psalmist carries the same attitude and authentic joy for testimonies, the witness statements, of Almighty God.
It is from this authentic response to the Word that is living and active within him that the psalmist turns and makes two statements of conviction.
I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways.
I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word
We should note that both of these verses have links back to v. 9 and the question that began this whole discussion. The word ways here is different than the term used in v. 14 or even all the way back to vv. 1&5. The term there was דֶּרֶךְ, but in v. 9 and here it is אֹרַח. While there’s no real lexical difference between the two, this observation simply proves that the psalmist is returning to his original point in the question regarding a young man’s way/life/behavior. Verse 15 reveals his conviction for personal contemplation and personal commitment.
This term meditate has a wide range of meaning that can include everything from jubilation to lamentation. The root idea lays in the internal and mental obsession over something from which springs forth an external response. The weeping of lamentation comes from the meditation of adversity. Likewise the shouts of jubilation come from careful reflection of blessing. The word itself (meditation) simply focuses on that careful and thorough contemplation.
The psalmist expresses his conviction to carefully and thoroughly contemplate God’s step-by-step instructions and then regard (look favorably upon/take seriously) His ways. Is this not the answer to the question? How can a young man keep his behavior pure? By taking seriously and carefully contemplating God’s behavior.
The theme of joy and delight returns in v. 16. The psalmist states that it is his compulsion to take delight in the rules and regulations of God. Why shouldn’t he? Are they not for his good and God’s glory? The last line is a truly loaded statement.
I shall not forget Your word
This does not refer to the ability to remember. This is not a promise to not forget that God is holy, or that he has prohibited murder, or that Jesus is King. This is a promise, a statement of volition, to live consistently with his profession.
This same term is used 13x in the book of Deuteronomy alone. “So watch yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the LORD your God has commanded you” (4:23).
It’s one thing to know, and another to do. Ancient Israel never forgot that Yhwh was God or that He led them from Egypt into the land of promise or that He had made a covenant with them. They just didn’t care. To forget God’s Word is the same as failing to keep His promises stored in our hearts. The term here returns to the general word (thing spoken) of v. 9. One commentator put it this way, “This involves not only one’s memory but also a deliberate act of the will. In the OT to forget God means much more than an inability to remember; it can be described as a guilty forgetfulness, or as being false to his covenant, and as turning to other gods.” Simply put, this is a pledge to remain faithful.
The question posed in v. 9 is a good question. I pray that it is the question that every believer asks. How can I maintain a trajectory of purity in my life? The psalmist has given three basic principles in answer.
1) Prioritize and internalize the Word of God
2) Submit to the Teacher and His Word as a humble student
3) Put what you learn into authentic practice
If the heart is full of the Word of God, is chasing after the God of the Word, is resting in God’s ability to preserve, and humbly submitting to God’s teaching; then his ways will be God’s ways. And God’s ways are always pure.