Psalm 119 — LeGrand Baker — Ritual Combat
Psalm 119 is the longest, and certainly one of the most of the moving of all the psalms. It is a silique that rivals Hamlet in its intensity and power. I have no doubt that my critics will argue that the psalms were never intended to be performed with all the intensity of a Shakespearian tragedy. My response would be that they are arguing from post-exilic evidence. My rationale is simply this: the words of the psalms lend themselves to a dramatic interpretation. The ancient Israelites certainly were as sensitive of their emotions as we are (Song of Solomon is sufficient evidence of that); there are other psalms that carry this same kind of intense impact (we will read some in a few pages). Finally, we have sure evidence that within a few hundred years the Greeks were performing fully developed, intensely dramatic plays—so why not the pre-exilic Israelites. But in the end, our discussion would be stalemate. My critics would have no more solid evidence that my interpretation is wrong, than I do that it is right.
For brevity sake, I can give only excerpts here. My intent that these portions will help define its context and give a taste of its magnificent language. The whole psalm is a prayer to God—spoken in the heat of battle. The psalm was spoken or sung by the prince or young king who is about to die in battle. We can know that he is not a seasoned monarch, but rather he is still in the vigor and purity of his youth. He asks,
9 Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?
by taking heed thereto according to thy word.
10 With my whole heart have I sought thee:
O let me not wander from thy commandments
That the speaker is a prince and commander is this battle, there can be no question. The way he identifies his enemies and his social status make that quite clear:
23 Princes also did sit and speak against me:
but thy servant did meditate in thy statutes.
161 Princes have persecuted me without a cause:
but my heart standeth in awe of thy word.
46 I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings,
and will not be ashamed.
In words that are reminiscent of Paul, he reminds God that he is learned in the Law, and that he has assess to greater sources of knowledge—for he has understood the commandments “of old” since they were sustained by him when he was a member of the Council in Heaven footnote
72 The law of thy mouth is better unto me
than thousands of gold and silver
99 I have more understanding than all my teachers:
for thy testimonies are my meditation.
100 I understand more than the ancients,
because I keep thy precepts
152 Concerning thy testimonies,
I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever.
The greatest portion of the psalm is a series of reminders to God—and no doubt to himself as he engages in this struggle—of his piety and of his devotion to God. Here is a brief example:
26 I have declared my ways,
and thou heardest me: teach me thy statutes.
27 Make me to understand the way of thy precepts:
so shall I talk of thy wondrous works.
71 It is good for me that I have been afflicted;
that I might learn thy statutes.
Yet, these expressions of devotion are sometimes intertwined with desperate pleas for assistance. Only once is his thought pattern interrupted, and he addresses an adversary, perhaps during an intense skirmish:
115 Depart from me, ye evildoers:
for I will keep the commandments of my God.
The prayer continues amidst whatever action occurs on the stage. His world is coming down all around him, and while he does not cower before the enemy, he is determined to stay alive.
75 I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right,
and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.
76 Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort,
according to thy word unto thy servant.
77 Let thy tender mercies come unto me,
that I may live: for thy law is my delight.
94 I am thine, save me;
for I have sought thy precepts.
95 The wicked have waited for me to destroy me:
but I will consider thy testimonies.
110 The wicked have laid a snare for me:
yet I erred not from thy precepts.
116 Uphold me according unto thy word,
that I may live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope.
126 It is time for thee,
Lord, to work: for they have made void thy law.
145 I cried with my whole heart; hear me,
O Lord: I will keep thy statutes.
146 I cried unto thee; save me,
and I shall keep thy testimonies.
Toward the end of the psalm he apparently begins to become surrounded by his enemy, but he does not give in. Rather he assures himself that they are still his inferiors because they do not keep the Law.
150 They draw nigh that follow after mischief:
they are far from thy law.
Then it is all over. His body is at the gates of death, but his spirit is still alive, and his faith in Jehovah is not weakened. In the last stanzas of this scene, he prays that his soul will live on—so that, even in death, he may continue to praise the Lord.
173 Let thine hand help me;
for I have chosen thy precepts.
174 I have longed for thy salvation,
O Lord; and thy law is my delight.
175 Let my soul live, and it shall praise thee;
and let thy judgments help me.
176 I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.
Those last words strike the final cord of his time on the earth, and express the hope that will be the ultimate triumph of the entire festival drama: In his final appeal to Jehovah, as his soul approaches the darkness of death and hell, he pleads: “seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.” That is both his testimony of who Jehovah is, of his knowledge of Jehovah’s ultimate authority, and of his anticipation of the saving power of the atonement. It is also an introduction to the next scenes of the drama which will celebrate the life, death, redeeming powers, and resurrection of the Saviour.