“The Balance of Obedience” Psalm 119:121-128 (ע)
121 I have done justice and righteousness; Do not leave me to my oppressors. 122 Be surety for Your servant for good; Do not let the arrogant oppress me. 123 My eyes fail with longing for Your salvation And for Your righteous word. 124 Deal with Your servant according to Your lovingkindness And teach me Your statutes. 125 I am Your servant; give me understanding, That I may know Your testimonies. 126 It is time for the Lord to act, For they have broken Your law. 127 Therefore I love Your commandments Above gold, yes, above fine gold. 128 Therefore I esteem right all Your precepts concerning everything, I hate every false way.
The last few stanzas have placed much emphasis upon our psalmist’s devotion, commitment, and confidence in God’s Word. He has affirmed the Bible’s authority (vv. 89-96) and its sufficiency (vv. 97-104) and from that bedrock has begun to build a theology of active obedience (vv. 105-120). But is the Christian life really about just doing? Where does faith come into play? How does the sovereignty of God affect our obedience? How does our understanding of man’s complete inability to please God color our understanding of obedience? That is the focus of the stanza before us. It is in this Ayin (ע) stanza that our psalmist presents a perfect balance of obedience.
There are a few themes that run throughout this stanza. There is an emphasis on doing/acting/making. The Hebrew עשה (to do, or to make) is used three times (vv. 121, 124, & 126). There is also an emphasis on the psalmist as God’s servant (vv. 122, 124, & 125). As we examine this balance of obedience, we must do so knowing that it requires both our doing and God’s, yet all of this action is within the confines of our relationship with God. He is our master and we are His servants. This text presents itself in three reminders of the nature of obedience in the life of a believer.
Obedience is a balance between devotion and dependency (vv. 121-122)
121 I have done justice and righteousness; Do not leave me to my oppressors. 122 Be surety for Your servant for good; Do not let the arrogant oppress me.
Model of Obedience – Our psalmist begins with a bold assertion. He claims to be one who does justice and righteousness. He is not only one who supports these qualities, but he actually participates in them. Justice is the practice of fairness. He is one who practices fairness and equity. He gives preference to no man but is only concerned with what is objectively correct and right. Righteousness indicates action that is correct, accurate, and without fault or blemish. This is exactly what we would expect of a man who actually uses the Word of God to reveal his feet and expose his path (v. 105).
We have already said it, but it bears repeating; the claim is not a verbal or intellectual support or affirmation of justice and righteousness but a claim to practice these qualities. This line assumes that his life is in conformity to God’s Word and as such is an example to all those who watch from the outside. He does justice and he does righteousness.
Now would be a good time to pause and recognize that justice and righteousness are defined by God alone. These are attributes or perfections of Almighty God. He alone defines what is just and what is right by His own nature and character. So, if our psalmist is a doer, one who practices these divine perfections, how is he able to do so in of himself? While the emphasis is upon personal responsibility in this line, the balance of divine dependency is already hinted at.
Model of Assurance – The second line – Do not leave me to my oppressors – could be translated as a plea (as here) or even as a statement of fact – You will certainly not leave me to my oppressors. Either way, statement or request, the text betrays a strong confidence that God will not abandon. The verb here is the basis for the Hebrew word for rest. To be at rest is to be free of outside interference. If you are enjoying rest it means that others are leaving you well enough alone. Our psalmist is confident that God will most certainly not leave him alone, for to do that would be to abandon him to his oppressors.
Even this word choice for oppressors is significant. We’ve seen this psalmist describe his foes as the proud/arrogant, the wicked, his enemies, and more recently as double-minded. This new term indicates more than just an aggressor, but one who extorts or exploits. It describes those who misuse and abuse their position for personal gain. In other words, these practice the polar opposite of justice and righteousness.
The opening verse focuses primarily on the psalmist’s action, what he does and what he is confident that God will do. While there are hints of his dependence on God, we do not see God take center stage until the next verse.
Model of Dependency – This verse begins with a request for God to be surety for Your servant. This is a plea for God to act as a personal guarantor. This is the same term used by Judah when addressing his father, Isaac (Gen. 43:39). Judah swore that he would bear the guilt and act as human collateral to guarantee his brother Benjamin’s safety. This is what our psalmist is asking of God. Promise to be a personal guarantee for good.
Please refer back to the ט stanza (vv. 65-72) to remind yourself what good means. This is not a request for personal comfort, consideration, or gain. Again, God is the one who defines what is good, not us. This request assumes the biblical truth that God works all things for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28) – meaning that He is completing the work that He began within them (Rom. 8:29-31). Immediately after he affirms his active obedience, he clings to a full dependence upon His God to act as a guarantee for him. It should come as no surprise that another request follows, but this one for protection.
Do not let the arrogant oppress me. Our psalmist has his eyes securely fixed on the promises and proclamations of God, yet he still resides in a world that is full of evil men. Even though he trusts God to stand as surety for his good, he is not afraid to ask for protection. These first two verses provide a snapshot of a balanced obedience. The rest of the stanza will flesh out the two sides of this blessed coin.
Obedience is dependent upon God’s Grace (vv. 123-125)
123 My eyes fail with longing for Your salvation And for Your righteous word. 124 Deal with Your servant according to Your lovingkindness And teach me Your statutes. 125 I am Your servant; give me understanding, That I may know Your testimonies.
Anticipating God’s Promise – This section begins with very similar wording as vv. 81&82. The same כלה (languish, fail, finish) drives all three of these verses. In fact, v. 82 also describes the psalmist’s eyes as failing/languishing. In v. 82 his eyes fail as they look for God’s word (or promise – אמרה) and here (as in v. 81) his eyes fail while looking for God’s salvation. Yet in the very next line God’s salvation is equated to His promise (אמרה again). It is as if this verse combines the longing and languishing already mentioned in vv. 81&82.
The picture is that of a watchman scanning the horizon for promised help and salvation. The longer he searches and waits, the more strained his eyes become. This verse is not calling into question the absence of God’s salvation or the lack of fulfillment of His promise. The force is upon our psalmist’s certain anticipation that God’s promise will most certainly come to pass, even if not currently on the horizon.
The salvation referred to here is not what we as NT believers might recognize as the immediate and permanent salvation from sin and hell upon conversion but the totality and completeness of salvation that would include rescue from evil worldly forces. Even our salvation is lacking an element of completeness. Not that there is an element missing in order that we can be accepted by God. Christ certainly paid it all and fully accomplished our redemption. But we long for the full implications of God’s recreation to be realized: glorified bodies, a world without sin and death, and the judgment of the wicked. These things we too look for and long for. Even if our eyes languish as we scan the horizon, we anticipate them.
Acknowledging God’s Character – We see another imperative, or request, beginning in v. 124. What the NASB translates as deal is the same verb (עשה) that began v. 121. He is asking God to do/make/act with him as God’s servant and in accordance with God’s own lovingkindness.
It is impossible to mine the depths of the implications here. The psalmist refers to himself as a subject or servant of God; one who is owned by God purely through God’s choice. His request is contingent upon God’s own lovingkindness or hesed (חסד). As with God’s justice and righteousness, His lovingkindness is a perfection that defines and is defined by God’s person, nature, and character. In short: as one who belongs to God, his request is for God to act toward him as would be consistent with God’s own character. We might ask, what would that action look like? He provides the answer – teach me Your statutes.
This request is as bold as it is humble. It is bold because he assumes that if God deals with him as a perfect, holy, righteous, and just God that God will not strike him dead where he stands. It is a humble request because he is coming before God in full acknowledgment that he is God’s servant, possession, and property. Therefore, he leans on God’s grace and mercy (or lovingkindness). That lovingkindness will be manifest in the role of teacher and student. Both of these ideas only become more acute in the next verse.
Affirming God’s Ability – The statement I am Your servant is emphatic and drives the rest of the verse. It is also something of a hinge in this stanza. Immediately before it is a request for God to teach him. Immediately after comes a request for God to make him understand or to give him discernment.
The phrase make me understand is a single word in the Hebrew. The root meaning is that of discernment, the ability to make the best choice of a variety of options. But the verb stem is causative by nature – i.e. cause me to understand/make me discern. God’s servant is completely dependent upon God to not only teach him the words of His rules and regulations but is also dependent upon God to enable him to understand them. The result of God’s ability and action is found in the final line of v. 125 – That I may know Your testimonies.
To know someone or something goes well beyond intellect. The idea is similar to our knowledge of people. When someone asks, “How well do you know them?” what are they getting at? Do you know their likes and dislikes? Do you know what they enjoy? Do you know if they are trustworthy, selfish, short-tempered, kind, or generous? Are they a good employee? Do they parent their children well? If you’re able to answer these questions with any degree of accuracy, then you know them well. That is what our psalmist desires of God’s Word: to know it factually, intellectually, and experientially.
If we are going to devote our lives to obeying God through His Word, then we must believe it so resolutely to anticipate its fulfillment, acknowledge God’s character and our relationship to Him, and affirm His and only His ability to teach, lead, and guide us.
Obedience comes from devotion to God through His Word (vv. 126-128)
126 It is time for the Lord to act, For they have broken Your law. 127 Therefore I love Your commandments Above gold, yes, above fine gold. 128 Therefore I esteem right all Your precepts concerning everything, I hate every false way.
Devotion to act immediately – There is a question regarding the translation of v. 126. Below is a presentation of the Hebrew text with a wooden English translation below it (remember that Hebrew is read right to left). The third row shows the parts of speech for any grammar nerd out there.
The root of the infinitive is the same root (עשה) as deal in v. 125 and done in v. 121. Someone is doing something to/for someone else. But who is doing what to whom? Every modern translation takes Yhwh as the one who is the actor (subject) – It is time for Yhwh to act. But this translation is very unlikely. A more natural translation that pays attention to word order and syntax would read – It is time to act for Yhwh. But wait, there’s more.
This kind of construction (a preposition with the infinitive followed by a proper noun governed by a preposition) is not very common in the Bible with only 78 occurrences. Of those 78, 53 of them occur with Yhwh as the proper noun. In every single one of these constructions the proper noun is the object of the verbal idea contained within the infinitive and never the subject. In other words, there is no conceivable reason to translate this line with God as the actor.
Please forgive me as I know that this sort of discussion causes many eyes to roll back into their sockets, but we must take seriously the task of studying and interpreting what God has said. If we are going to cut against the grain, then we must be certain. I am quite certain that our psalmist intended to say that it is now time for him (and all who are servants of Yhwh) to act for Yhwh.
The second line reveals the context of this affirmation – They have broken Your law. Who does he mean by they? Likely he is speaking about the arrogant, wicked, enemies, double-minded, and oppressors. If so, then we are forced to reckon with the very real possibility that this is not a generic statement that the world has rejected God’s law. Just a few verses ago (v. 113) we saw that the double-minded were those who vacillate between two opinions. That is not a description of the pagan world but those who claim to be God’s servants yet do not serve Him.
The term for break is a colorful word (shatter/destroy/make useless) but not a widely used one (only 47 times). Over half of its uses are within the context of covenant infidelity. In other words, we’re very likely dealing with people who were somehow associated with God (through national identity or confession) and have torn to pieces the very law (Torah/instruction) that God had set over them. It is in this light that our psalmist determines the time to act is now!
Devotion to love superiorly – Both vv. 127&128 begin with therefore. Both of these verses are drawing a connection to v. 126. In light of the fact that the time to act is now, I therefore love God’s commandments. To love is more than emotion but is objective and measurable devotion. This devotion exceeds the devotion to wealth (gold), even the greatest of wealth (refined/pure gold).
Here we have another smelting term. If you recall from v. 119, the wicked were likened to dross – the slag that is discarded as worthless when refining metal. The NASB says fine gold to translate פזז, a term that describes the pure metal that remains after the smelting process. The love and devotion for God’s Word exceeds the best and choicest of earthly pleasures and desires.
Devotion to follow exclusively – We’ve said many times that love and devotion is not about lip service. True love can be demonstrated and observed. This last verse is also difficult to translate. Not because the meaning is obscure, but because our psalmist has backed so many specific terms into it that it becomes difficult to accurately represent it all in English.
A slavishly wooden translation might read something like this: Therefore, all precepts all I make straight. The idea is somewhat easier to explain than translate. One commentator says this, “Consequently, the text as it stands would suggest that it is best to conclude that the verb puts more emphasis upon the psalmist’s attitude than upon his actions, i.e. the disciple reckons all the stipulations of God’s Word to be right about everything” (Zemek, George. The Word of God in the Child of God. 2005, p. 285). Every single one of God’s step-by-step instructions are accurate and correct and will be followed to the letter. Why? Because he hates every false way.
We keep coming back to this tension between love and hate. Call it what you will – a child of God, a believer, a Christian, one of God’s servants – God’s people hate what God hates and love what God loves. Many who associate with God’s people are actually breakers of God’s instruction. The time to act in favor of Yhwh is NOW!
Christianity is not a works-based religion like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, or Roman Catholicism. There is none who seek after God and none who fear Him. We come to Christ on His terms and only by His grace. Even as converted believers we rely on His grace alone. But for the first time in our lives, He has given us the ability to match the obligation. There is a balance to obedience with our own responsibility on one end and God’s enabling and sustaining grace on the other. When we obey, God gets the glory because we obey by His grace alone. When we fail to obey, we are to blame because God has given us His grace. We act because He first acted. When we act, it is by His grace. But the time to act is now. Soli Deo Gloria!