Psalm 119:89-92 Contextual Analysis


Psalm 119:89-92

[89] From eternity O LORD, your word has been firmly fixed in the heavens.

[90] Your faithfulness has stood firm through all generations.

You established the earth therefore it endures.

[91] By your decision all things endure today,

Surely all things are your servants.

[92] If your law had not been my delight,

Then I would have perished in my affliction.

(NOTE: this is a paper I did for my Hebrew Exegesis class – the fourth in a series of five)

Introduction

The goal of this paper is to explore the various contexts of Psalm 119:89-92 in order to better understand the passage and to give insight into its meaning, as well as to protect against error in exposition.

Psalm 119:89-92 in the Immediate Context

In order to better understand the passage that has been chosen, it is important to look at the immediate context. Because Psalm 119 is divided into strophes already, based on the Hebrew alphabet, we will keep with those divisions and work outward, starting from the strophe these verses are in, and expanding out to include the previous and following strophes, continuing until the whole chapter is contextualized. In the midst of these discussions, time will be taken to explain the exegetical significance of each contextual element.

The Lamed Strophe

Verses 89-92 find themselves in the Lamed strophe of Psalm 119. This section begins with a meditation on the Law of God as it is wholly set apart from the Psalmist – it is not finite as the psalmist is, but rather its origins are in eternity. The Law is firm because God himself is firm. It is a focused look at the character of God, on who God is and therefore the character of His Law. The Law of God is immovable, unchanging, just as the earth remains, so the Law of God remains, being the very reason, being the cause for the earths existence today. The Law of God maintains the world as it is today, and all things are subservient to it. These truths are then linked with the psalmist’s own survival in verse 92, for just as the earth remains only because of the Law of God, so the psalmist survives in the midst of trouble because of his love for the Law. The consolation is taken from the obvious sustaining power of the Law that the psalmist sees around him, and great hope is taken from the psalmist’s own survival, proof that he too is sustained by the Law. Because he has survived, his own love for the Law is proven to be true, and so the psalmist is given life by the Law. But it is important to understand that although the psalmist does love the Law of the LORD, his troubles are not taken away, verses 94-95 make this clear. The psalmist cries out to the LORD for salvation, and for continued sustaining in the midst of trial. The wicked still are moving against him, seeking to destroy him, and yet the psalmist’s perspective is guided by the truth stated in verses 89-91, for he is convinced that he will endure, for the LORD Himself will see to it.

The Kaph and Mem Strophe

To begin we will look at the Kaph strophe (81-88) of this Psalm, which immediately precedes the Lamed strophe where our passage is found. The Kaph strophe is the most desperate and depressing of the whole psalm, and while the various terms for the Law of God are used, they are at many times used within a complaint. The psalmist waits for the salvation of God, and grows weary in doing so, questioning when the LORD will deliver him. The psalmist is at the end of his rope, in the pit of despair seemingly with no hope. Though he continues to claim loyalty to God’s Law, he begins to wonder if help will ever come. He has been faithful, in contrast with those who oppose him, and threaten his life, and yet it seems his faithfulness is of no avail, for God has not come to his aid. There is a desperate tone in this strophe, the psalmist’s own life is at stake, and unless help comes, he will perish, he will be overcome by his foes. He contrasts his own understanding of the Law, affirming that it is true, and yet laments the fact that this knowledge has little effect in helping him, for those who oppose him persecute him with lies.

The Mem strophe is strikingly different than that of the Kaph. For it contains no lament, but rather is full of praise and exaltation of God’s Law. In this strophe, the psalmist shows his absolute delight in the Law of God, and rises above the trouble that is around him, choosing to focus rather on positive thoughts. The psalmist extols the wisdom that he has attained from the Law in verses 98-100, it has made him wiser than his enemies, in fact, so great is the wisdom that the Law imparts, that the psalmist is wiser than even his teachers, even wiser than those of old age! The Law also keeps the psalmist from committing evil – the Law is his pleasure, his joy. He hates evil, because he has gained divine understanding from the Law of God.

Relating these two strophes to the Lamed strophe where the passage of this paper is found, we immediately see a striking difference. Something caused a huge shift in the psalmist’s thinking, going from a most desperate situation, questioning the value of the Law, to full out joy and exaltation of God’s Law for its huge benefits. This shift anchors on the Lamed strophe. The thoughts contained in the Lamed strophe caused the psalmist’s perspective to change. In Kaph he was depressed and without hope, without strength and in despair, but through the meditation on the character of the Law and the character of God, by focusing on who God is, the psalmist was caused to re-align his perspective with heaven. The psalmist was in despair because he was focused on his own desperate situation, but by moving out of his situation, to meditate on the eternal nature of God, and his immutability, on the firm nature of the Law of God and its sustaining power over the universe – really meditating on the sovereignty of God, the psalmist found consolation, joy, and hope. This joy is expressed in the Mem strophe, where the psalmist almost forgets his problems, yes his enemies are still around, but he is strong, he is wiser than they, for he stands with the Law of God, which is immovable and unbeatable.

Relation to the Whole of Chapter 119

Moving outward in our study of the context of verses 89-92, we look at the chapter as a whole. As stated previously in the literary analysis of this passage, this psalm is an individual lament. And so, as such, viewing the lament as a whole and the argument contained therein will allow a deeper understanding of the verses which are the focus of this study.

Starting at the beginning of the psalm, we observe a foundation being formed for the whole psalm. The psalmist is going to base his argument for his lament on the Law and his own relationship to the Law, and so it is logical that he would spend some time first defining his relationship in the first two strophes of the psalm. The Law holds great promise and God demands that His Law be followed (1-4). Even though the psalmist knows his own failings, and knows that he is disposed to disobey, he asserts his desire to follow the Law, with an expectation that God will help him and be with him (5-16).

After the first two introductory strophes, the Gimel strophe introduces the initial prayer portion of the psalm which continues all the way to the Yod strophe. These strophes tend towards a repetition of promises, praises, petitions, complaints, and a relating of the psalmist’s confidence. And as the psalmist began the psalm with the ideal blessedness, the last verse of the Yod strophe, ends with a request that the LORD would grant perfection, so as to gain that blessing spoken of in the beginning of the psalm. He requests perfection for he has not yet attained that blessedness, but rather longs for it with all of his heart. This goes to show the unified nature of Psalm 119, and marks the first unit of the psalm (1-80).

The central section of the psalm has already been covered in this paper (verses 81-104), but as we are viewing the psalm as a whole, it is important to note that the Kaph-Mem strophes (81-124) form the central unit of the psalm with the Lamed strophe forming the center of the psalmist’s argument, following the central position of the Lamed in the Hebrew alphabet. This central portion moves the psalmist from the depths of despair to the joys of God and His eternal nature. Looking at the psalm as a whole only reiterates the central nature of the Lamed strophe as it changes the whole perspective of the psalmist as he prays into the Mem strophe.

But it must be made clear that the psalmist’s troubles are not over, and he returns to his own personal experience in the Nun strophe (105-112), beginning the second prayer portion of the psalm (105-168); but he never again goes deep into despair, continuing through the end of the psalm to rest on God and God’s power, fully trusting the LORD. Throughout this whole section, the psalmist hold a confident view of his situation, not despairing, for he trusts in God and has an eye to the promise of the LORD which he has a sure hope in.

The psalm concludes with the Taw strophe, as the psalmist laments and confesses his own inability to follow after the Law perfectly, understanding that he must be dependent of God and gives himself over to God – for his love for the Law is a true love, it does not result in pride, but rather in a full knowledge of his own sin. So he ends confessing his own inability, entreating God to come look for him, and rests again in the fact that he is sustained and still desires to obey the Law, therefore sees that as fruit of God’s working and God’s sustaining – a source a great hope.1

Psalm 119:89-92 in the Context of the Psalms

Because of the varied nature of the book of Psalms, it is inappropriate to draw major exegetical “gems” from how the passage of focus fits in to the context of the whole of the book of Psalms.2 But there are some major themes in the Psalms that can be pointed out that could prove helpful in correctly understanding Psalm 119:89-92.

The book of Psalms can be considered a “manifest of the oppressed people of Israel”,3 for many of the psalms contain cries of pain, descriptions of persecution, death, and sorrow. The psalms also connect the psalmist’s present state of oppression with the former days of Israel, calling into remembrance the covenant that God made with them. There are confessions of sin, expressions of remorse, contrasts between the sinful with the holiness of God, longings to be with God, and humble dependence and trust proclaimed to be solely found in Him. There is lamentation, and rejoicing, praise and thanksgiving, a recognition of the theocratic nature of Israel, the righteousness of God, and a Messianic hope.4

Really, the book of Psalms could be viewed as a book of practical theology, or the outworking of theology in prayer. There is the clear message of dependency on God for all things, and no room left for pride or arrogance. It is a book of hope, of hope in God for salvation, for through the various psalmists’ observations of their experience, they acknowledge there is no hope without God.5

These observations help confirm and cement the theme of Psalm 119, as well as the selected verses, for the psalm centers around God, and a hope solely in God for salvation, with full knowledge of the psalmist’s own sin and inability.

Psalm 119:89-92 in the Context of the Old Testament

Moving outward yet again in the discussion of the context of Psalm 119:89-92, we observe that throughout the Old Testament the dependence of man on God for salvation is shown countless times. In creation, for man does not exist apart from God, in Noah, God’s provision and choice to save, Abraham, God’s choice to promise blessing and ultimate salvation through Isaac, Jacob and on – again and again it is seen that men fail and God is faithful, never failing, always keeping His promises. Though there be intense desire on the part of men, they will always fail, and must, therefore, fully rely on God for mercy and grace in salvation. Even in the Law given by Moses there is seen provision for man’s failings in the sacrificial system. God was not required to make provision for sin, and yet, in His great mercy He did, pointing again to the reality that men do not match up to the holiness of God. Men must seek to obey God in humility, and come before Him as lowly, for truly all men sin, and therefore perfection, and the blessings tied therein, are out of reach – apart from God’s grace.

This being observed, we see that Psalm 119 follows with the theme of the Old Testament, in a cry for salvation from the only source of salvation, the LORD Himself. The psalmist observes the world around him and confirms what he read in the Law, there is no hope apart from God. Therefore he entreats God, he begs God to seek him and save him from the wicked, yes, but also from his own wayward heart.

Psalm 119:89-92 in the Context of the New Testament

As will be stated later in this paper, Psalm 119:89-92 is never quoted in the New Testament. But while never directly quoted, the theme of God’s sovereignty and His sustaining power over the believer is one that is most definitely found in the New Testament. All have sinned and therefore are spiritually dead, separated from God and at enmity with Him. We will fail, apart from God sustaining our faith, for it is by his power, through the means of faith that we are kept secure (Romans 5:10; Ephesians 2:1, 15; 1 Peter 1:5). Apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5), and he is fully able to keep us from falling (Jude 24).

New Testament Usage

There is no mention of Psalm 119:89-92 in the New Testament.6

The Date and Author of Psalm 119

Because there are no references to any of the world’s historical events, dating the psalm is difficult, as well as not very exegetically significant, for it would be based purely on speculation, rather than on fact. But because so many seem to be dogmatic about their speculations, it is important to look into the matter. Tied in with dating Psalm 119 is authorship, for if a person can come to a position on who wrote Psalm 119, then the date would therefore follow suit.

Because this psalm has no author identified, it is impossible to dogmatically state who the author was. But some have decided that the author was either a Davidic King or King David himself. They come to this conclusion based on a few clues in the text. But when these clues are weighed, it is hard to come away with anything solid one way or the other. As Scroggie states, “the older commentators are at fault in assuming that this psalm is Davidic.”7 It is true that the author of the psalm has a very close relationship to the torah which might indicate that he was a king. This assumptions is based on the instructions in Deuteronomy for the king to make a personal copy of the law in order to read it all the days of his life in order to learn to fear the LORD and to obey the law (Deut. 17:18-19). But just because the author loved the law of the LORD, and was familiar with it, does not mean that the author was a king, for there are many who loved the law of the LORD who were not kings. Being a king did not give one a special love for God, in fact, many of the kings of Israel did not follow the LORD, but rather did much evil in his sight.

Another aspect of the psalm that could be used to prove its royal nature is that of the enemies mentioned in the psalm. There are two references that refer to the enemies of the psalmist as “princes.” This could lead one to believe that the psalmist himself was of royalty, but again, this is not bullet proof, for it is totally plausible that the psalmist was a commoner and was lamenting the wicked state of the current monarchy, calling the princes his enemies.

One of the best conjectures of authorship is actually that of Daniel. For many of the internal evidences in the Psalm match up with his life.8 But in the end, Barnes has some words of wisdom to be heeded: “All these are mere conjectures, and it is now impossible to ascertain the occasion on which the psalm was composed, or to determine who was its author. Nor is it necessary. The psalm is so applicable to the people of God at all times…It is sufficient to know that it was composed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”9

Ancient Near Eastern Parallels

In order to help with the exegetical understanding of the text, it is important to observe some of the parallels between this psalm and ancient Near Eastern culture. There are some parallels that prove helpful in giving insight into the text, especially in regard to the ancient Near Eastern understanding of heaven and the phrase “all things.”

Ancient Near Eastern Understanding of Heaven

The ancient Near Eastern understanding of the heavens was not one of a technical nature, but rather one where the worshiper was assured that the gods had “made the heavens unshakably fast.”10 The ancient world portrayed the sky pictorially as a bird whose wings spread out to protect the earth, or sometimes as a woman whose body was uplifted and stretched above the earth.11 Kings were viewed as representing the sun god, and many times this was confirmed by the portrayal of the king’s palace. In the psalms, this idea is used, as the king is the representation of LORD on earth, and is to maintain the laws and decrees of the LORD on earth. But, the LORD is also at times present heaven as well as in his temple, on his throne.12

There are also some similarities between the ancient Near Eastern beliefs and the Psalms in regards to God’s interaction with his creation. The creative activity of God is one of “fashioning,” “shaping,” and “creating.” God is portrayed as a potter (Job 33:6b), sculpture (Ps. 144:12b), builder (Ps. 24:2), weaver (Ps. 139:15) along with many other craftsman related terms.13 All of these underscore the reliability of creation, being that God himself has made them and established them and so they will not fail.

Ancient Near East Understanding of “all things”

Also, when the psalmist refers to “all things” in verse 91 in this passage, it is notable that the ancient Sumerians were known to attempt to list all that they saw on the earth as well as in the sky. Egyptians were also known to do this, although not at the length that the Sumerians did. Exegetically, this is helpful, for it confirms the idea that the phrase “all things” should be taken literally as meaning everything in existence, for that is what the psalmist would have had in mind when he penned it.14

Conclusion

While in many ways the amount of information regarding context is overwhelming, and really unending, this short study has proven to be valuable in fermenting the theme in Psalm 119:89-92 of God’s Sovereignty and the Law’s sustaining power on the believer. Understanding the context will be of tremendous aid in preaching this text, for it will allow for multiple illustrations to be drawn from the whole of Scripture, as well as help draw the mind of the listener and the preacher towards God, in a God-centered sermon.

General Outline of the book of Psalms

  1. Book One (1–41)

  2. Book Two (42–72)

  3. Book Three (73–89)

  4. Book Four (90–106)

  5. Book Five (107–150)

Specific Outline of the book of Psalms

 

  1. Book One (1–41)

  2. Book Two (42–72)

  3. Book Three (73–89)

  4. Book Four (90–106)

  5. Book Five (107–150)

    1. Psalms of Praise (107-118)

    2. Lament of a Lover of the Law (119)

      1. Prologue (119:1-16)

      2. Initial Prayer (119:17-48)

      3. Retrospective Prayer (119:49-80)

      4. Central Cosmic Prospective (119:81-120)

        1. Intense Complaint (119:81-88)

        2. Consolation (119:89-96)

      5. Renewed Complaint (119:105-112)

      6. Confessions of Loyalty (119:113-120)

    3. Repetition of Complaints and Praise (119:121-144)

    4. Conclusion (119:145-176)

    5. Various Psalms (120-150)

 

1Will Soll, Psalm 119: Matrix, Form, and Setting (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1991), 87-111.

 

2Johann Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960) 9:16.

 

3Ibid. 17.

 

4Ibid. 17-18.

 

5Konrad Schaefer, Psalms (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2001) xxv-xxxii.

 

6Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini et al., The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005), 896.

 

7W. Graham Scroggie, The Psalms: Psalms I to CL (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1965).

 

8George J Zemek, The Word of God in the Child of God: Exegetical, Theological and Homiletical Reflections from the 119th Psalm (Mango, FL: s.n, 1998) 12-15.

 

9Albert Barnes, Psalms, in Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950) 3:177.

 

10Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1997) 26.

 

11Ibid.

 

12Ibid. 26-27.

 

13Ibid. 204.

 

14Ibid. 56-58.

Bibliography
Aland, Kurt, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini et al., The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition.Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005.
Barnes, Albert. Notes on the Old Testament; Explanatory and Practical. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1955.
Bowling, Andrew. “לוּלֵא.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 470. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.
Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew.Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1998.
Elliger, Karl, and W. Rudolph, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 5th ed. New York: American Bible Society, 1997.
Garrett, Duane A. A Modern Grammar for Classical Hebrew. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2002.
Holladay, William L. A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
Keel, Othmar. The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997.
Kevin Cawley. “Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid.” University of Notre Dame Archives, http://archives.nd.edu/latgramm.htm [accessed on September 21, 2007]
Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, M.E.J Richardson and Johann Jakob Stamm. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Electronic ed. Leiden : E.J. Brill, 1999, c1994-1996.
Lange, Johann Peter. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960.
Long, Gary A. Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew: Learning Biblical Hebrew Grammatical Concepts through English Grammar. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.
New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update . LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
Oswalt, N. John. “כָלַל.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 441. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.
Payne, J. Barton. “הָוָה.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 210. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.
Putnam, Frederic Clarke. Hebrew Bible Insert : A Student’s Guide to the Syntax of Biblical Hebrew., PA: Stylus Publishing, 2002
Sandy, and Giese. Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 1995.
Schaefer, Konrad. Psalms. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2001.
Scott, William R. A Simplified Guide to BHS: Critical Apparatus, Masora, Accents, Unusual Letters & Other Markings. N. Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1995.
Scroggie, W. Graham. The Psalms: Psalms I to CL. Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1965.
Soll, Will. Psalm 119: Matrix, Form, and Setting. Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1991.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). Electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
Weber, Carl Philip. “וָ.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 227. Electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980.
Zemek, George J. The Word of God in the Child of God: Exegetical, Theological and Homiletical Reflections from the 119th Psalm. Mango, FL: 1998.

2 Responses to Psalm 119:89-92 Contextual Analysis

  1. drew says:

    Hello, I enjoy reading your thesis on plsams 119. I also am doing a senior paper on this lamed section and I would like to include it in my bilb. If you have the authors name, please email it to me, I very much want to give credit where it is do. Thanks again!

  2. nathanwells says:

    Hi Drew,

    I’m glad it was of some help. My name is Nathan Wells – and hopefully the sources I cited in my paper will be of use to you as well.

    Merry Christmas!

    -Nathan

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